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I sometimes have a difficult time pinpointing the exact moment I became a baseball fan. Some people have a distinct memory of the first game they attended. Some can remember a season, a player. I guess my path is more like that, but it’s hazy on when the game really grabbed me.
I grew up in western Kansas, and the Royals, about five hours away, were the closest Major League Baseball around. The Rockies didn’t exist yet; the Rangers were even farther away. The internet as we know it was just a dream.
That’s not to say that I was shielded from every bit of baseball. There was radio. There were newscasts and newspaper stories. In 1985, I recall that my parents had the World Series on and I thought it was very cool that they kept saying “Kansas” (and at five years old, I didn’t get the distinction between Kansas City and my home state. As I remember it, a graphic appeared showing the score as the broadcast went to commercial and I asked my dad “What does the ‘R H E’ mean?” And he explained runs and hits and errors.
I don’t remember the Orta play as it happened. I don’t remember the Saberhagen masterpiece the next day. I just remember the score chyron flashing on the screen. And that was my introduction to baseball.
“I’ll trade you my George Brett for a Jose Canseco and two other rookies.”
This was a first grade conversation. I had a small collection of baseball cards, but didn’t know a lot about the players. I knew George Brett because I think it required to be a boy in the Midwest and know George Brett. I knew Canseco because he was a megastar at the time. I knew Kevin Seitzer because of the highlight when he tried to blow a rolling ground ball into foul territory.
But I knew I had a Jose Canseco card somewhere and managed to find a couple of guys who seemed to be rookies and took them to school. The deal went down on the blacktop, my collection handed over to a kid named Todd in my class. He handed me a creased, battered, dinged-up 1986 Topps George Brett.
I have Brett’s rookie card*. I have a card commemorating his 3000th hit. I have signed photos and other memorabilia. That card – that crushed, wrinkled, fuzzy-cornered card – is probably still my favorite item.
*There’s an ongoing dispute between my mom and I about a time when I was in second grade and had saved up some money from a bowling alley score-keeping gig. I had saved the money originally with a skateboard and a copy of Super Mario Brothers 2 in mind until one day we were at the local card shop and they had a mint Brett rookie available. My mom says that she encouraged me to get the card and I protested because the money had been saved for the board and the video game. I say that I wanted the card and she insisted I needed to use the money for the intended goal. It was later on my freshman year of college when I ended up buying a card off ebay.
For me, 1989 was the big year for me when baseball interest became full-blown fandom. I checked out nearly every baseball book from the school library. I read through a couple of kids almanacs that my parents had bought me. It was the year of Bret Saberhagen‘s second Cy Young Award, and it was the season of Bo Jackson.
It was that year when Bo was chosen to start the All-Star Game. He led off the bottom of the first with a home run that went about 900 feet and left Ronald Reagan in awe. He stole a base and made a nice catch in center and was named the MVP of the game. I recorded that game and watched the VHS over and over and over. This was also the first year that I recall finding games on TV. Paul Splittorff and Denny Trease had the call, but they only broadcast road games for some reason. When they were at home, I’d listen to Denny Matthews and Fred White on the radio and many hours were spent following the Royals on their path to 92 wins.
That win amount would be the second best in the American League. But they missed the playoffs because Oakland won 99 games and the Western Division. With no wild card, the Royals had a long winter.
In the offseason, they signed Mark Davis, 1989’s Cy Young Award winner from the National League, and returned Brett, Bo, Saberhagen. I had two newstand magazines that thought the Royals would not only dethrone the A’s but would go all the way to win the World Series.
They only won 75 games. Saberhagen missed half the year. Bo played only 111 games. Mark Davis had a 5.11 ERA. It was the first time I was disappointed by a season of sports. But I thought they had a good team and would be able to get there next year.
They didn’t. Bo Jackson hurt his hip playing football and was released before 1991. Brett had a bad year in 1991 and fought a knee injury all season. Mark Gubicza was hit hard. By 1992, they’d traded away Saberhagen (another crushing moment in my baseball fan life) and were creeping towards mediocrity (not that I knew it at the time).
The Royals tried to hold it off. They signed David Cone for the 1993 season. Kevin Appier had emerged as one of the best pitchers in the league. But in August, Ewing Kauffman passed away and the next month, George Brett announced he’d be retiring. I was faced with a crisis of a sort as the team I’d become obsessed with would be in transition without its venerable owner and its iconic superstar.
In 1994, David Cone won the Cy Young Award. Bob Hamelin won the Rookie of the Year Award, the Royals won 14 in a row in late July and early August to get within range of a playoff spot and then on August 12, the players went on strike.
When the strike ended in April 1995, the Royals were ran by a board, headed by David Glass. They were losing money and facing the prospect of poor revenues. They traded Brian McRae to Chicago and David Cone to Toronto just before the season started. In August 1995, they brought up prospect Johnny Damon from Double A and traded or released many other veterans.
The Royals, for the first time in my life as a fan, were going for a full rebuild.
The following years were a mix of hopeful promise and eventual disappointment. The teams led by Mike Sweeney, Jermaine Dye, and Damon in the late 90s scored runs — but gave them up as well.
The best thing, in a way, about those years as I got through high school and moved on into college, was that there was a sort of consistent resignation. At least the Royals never really let you down, because I stopped having expectations.
There were moments when they almost broke through and became relevant. In April 2000 the Royals won four games in a row via walkoff, prompting a “WHAT is going on?” from Denny. They had one of the best young outfield combos in a while in Dye, Damon, and Beltran. But just as soon as the Royals seemed to figure it out, they had to trade away guys who weren’t going to sign. So in 2003, only Beltran remained in the outfield and Mike Sweeney was at first base with a contract that required the Royals to go .500 for him to stay in town. Improbably, they did, and that summer was the most exciting Royals season of the era.
Of course, it didn’t last.
“Don’t ever say it can’t get worse,” Buddy Bell said. Of course, it got worse.
You likely remember those years. Those miserable years of 100 losses. Of Ken Harvey and the tarp. The years when the Royals signed Angel Berroa to an extension, only to learn that he was a couple years older than anyone had believed before. The years when the MLB Draft was more of a nuisance than an opportunity to stock the system.
I used to frequent Royalboard.com back in the mid-2000s, but mostly lurked. There, the legends of Calvin Pickering and Justin Huber and Shane Costa and Craig Brazell were born. Fans longed for Kevin Mench, Hank Blalock, Adam Dunn.
These were dark days and losses continued to pile up. The Royals weren’t just bad. They were awful. They were that term sportscasters usually reserved for the most pathetic – hapless.
I still paid attention but I didn’t hope like I’d used to. In 2004, I ran home on lunch break to catch the Royals on Opening Day on TV for a bit. I got there just in time to see the second of three Dimitri Young homers. Any excitement for the new season was snuffed out quickly and dramatically.
I followed the Royals draft picks and a co-worker and I got very excited when the Royals drafted Alex Gordon in 2005, but after being burnt by Jeff Granger, Colt Griffin, Chris Lubanski and others, what was the point in getting fired up by a draft pick? It really didn’t feel like the Royals were going to turn it around. But with Gordon, at least he was college player of the year and later won the Minor League Player of the Year award in 2006.
This was when the Royals brought in Dayton Moore, and I was cautiously optimistic. I remember nobody really believing that ownership would loosen the purse strings, despite good reviews of the hire. Cynicism is tough to shake. By that point, the Royals had been rebuilding for over 20 years.
During this period, the internet was a much bigger part of baseball coverage, too. Blogs were popping up. Prospect sites were more prominent. I also started to check out the books at the Borders I worked at and would end up getting a new baseball book every so often. I snagged a copy of “Baseball Between the Numbers” by the Baseball Prospectus staff and started to view things in a different way.
Mostly, after years of diminished interest, I was seeking to be more informed.
This is the same period when the Royals World Series team started to slowly take shape. Alex Gordon debuted on opening day. He was received as a savior – the can’t-miss superstar. Mike Moustakas, Danny Duffy, and Greg Holland were among Royals draftees that year. Luke Hochevar, technically *wink* not drafted *wink wink* under Dayton Moore *wink*, debuted that September. I remember a day at the end of April when a co-worker excitedly told me that Billy Butler was getting called up (no, Butler wasn’t on this year’s team, but he’s a big part of the redemption story). We felt like 2009 was the year to watch.
When 2009 rolled around, the Royals still weren’t contenders, but Zack Greinke gave us a good reason to watch, even though his biggest contribution to the Royals didn’t turn out to be on the mound. After the 2010 season, he asked for a trade, citing that he didn’t think the rebuilding effort was going quickly enough. Some fans felt betrayed by Greinke’s comments.
But he wasn’t wrong. By 2010, Dayton Moore had been at the helm for four and a half years and the Royals had averaged 93 losses from 2007 to 2010. None of their vaunted prospects had been close to a debut yet (though then-unheralded Greg Holland debuted in 2010). Greinke said what many fans were thinking but not admitting: the Royals still weren’t that close.
But the Greinke trade turned into a huge moment in the rebuild, as it brought Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar to the organization. Each player would win an ALCS MVP Award.
When 2011 started, the Roayls farm system was touted by most everyone as the best in the game and some wondered if it was the best ever. The day the Royals announced that Eric Hosmer was being called up was almost like a holiday. It was the afternoon following a day game. I was at work and saw the update on Twitter. Hosmer was my favorite prospect of the bunch, and his arrival felt like an announcement: we’re coming.
Duffy arrived shortly after. Moustakas came around after a couple more weeks. By August, a combination of injury and circumstance led to the debut of Salvador Perez and in his debut, he drove in a run, and picked off two runners in Tampa.
Along with the excitement of a new wave of prospects, Alex Gordon reinvented himself and became the star everyone expected. It’s odd to think of it this way, but Gordon was drafted only two years before Moustakas, yet his career arc had already been eventful before Moustakas even reached the majors. He’d been the franchise savior who received a standing ovation in his first major league at bat, then, after a couple of frustrating and injury-riddled seasons, he looked like a bust. When he spent most of 2010 in Triple A, I wondered if he would ever do much of anything. He was being converted to outfield, which felt a little desperate.
Go figure. It worked.
That season was encouraging, but 2012 was much more trying. Perez missed half the year with knee surgery, Duffy tore his UCL, Lorenzo Cain strained his groin, and Hosmer slumped. Each of those problems followed a ten-game losing streak that opened the home schedule, kicked off properly by Luke Hochevar allowing seven runs in the first inning before most fans had even reached their seats.
Amid those struggles, the Royals hosted the All-Star Game, and while the team wasn’t great on the field, the city came alive for baseball. Fountains throughout the city turned blue, a preview of what we’d see during the playoffs. Kansas City sold out the Futures Game, which usually doesn’t happen, and they booed Robinson Cano, a display that drew admonishment by some media, but showed the baseball world that we still cared. Fans chanted for Billy Butler in the All-Star Game, and it showed what this city could be with a strong baseball team.
After the season, the Royals traded Wil Myers and others for James Shields, and the fanbase was divided by those who wished for the Royals to hold on to prospects and keep the future wave of prospects rolling, and those who felt like the Royals had to go for it then. I was solidly on the side that wanted to keep the prospects and have the Royals go to free agency to find a frontline starter. Despite being a big fan of Shields, I thought the group of Myers, Mike Montgomery, and Jake Odorizzi was too much, and when Wade Davis (who came along with Shields) was a miserable starter and the Royals missed the playoffs, it felt like trading top minor leaguers for a mere winning record.
And a winning record was great, especially after years of terrible seasons, but it felt like the Royals should have made the playoffs. The consolation was that Shields was returning in 2014, and we got to see what it was like to have a sold out Kauffman Stadium in September.
A few years ago, I was talking with a Yankees fan and I asked him what it was like having a team that was always in playoff contention. He told me that it was simultaneously the most agonizing and exciting experience you could imagine.
“It’s great because every game means so much during the season,” he said. “It’s the worst because every game means so much during the season.”
In 2014, I learned what he meant by that. The Royals were below .500 as late as July 22, but went on a tear into August that put them in first place in the AL Central, and from there, every night was a grand event of obsessing over every detail during the Royals game, while frantically checking the score in the Tigers game. Any losing streak felt like imminent doom. Any winning streak was tempered by the thought that, while these guys were winning, they were still the Royals.
In late September, the Royals were in position to clinch a playoff spot. It was a time that didn’t seem real. When you’re following a team that never gets there, their actually getting there feels out of character.
Last year, I wrote this about the playoff clincher for Pine Tar Press:
After enduring [multiple hardships] and eight years of a Process that’s gone longer than most expected, watching the ball fall towards Sal’s mitt was special, and upon catching it, bottles of champagne popped and sprayed all over inside the bar. It stung my eyes and induced tears. I thought there might be tears of relief and joy at that last out but in the moment, I just had my arms up, taking it all in. Hugs were exchanged. People who, nine innings earlier, were strangers were now jumping for joy together, giving high fives.
The 2014 Wild Card was the most disappointing game I’ve ever been to until it was the most incredible game I’ve ever seen. After an early deficit, the crowd began to stir and began to believe, so when Eric Hosmer tripled and scored, and a pitchout fell out of Derek Norris‘s glove to allow Christian Colon to reach second, Kauffman Stadium was ready to explode. I had a seat right by the aisle leading to a Hyvee Level concourse. When Salvador Perez singled down the third base line, I lept from my seat and over the two steps, standing there in the concourse entrance watching the team storm the field. Fans cheered again and again as replays continued to play. As we filed out down the spiral, a chant of “Beat LA” bellowed in the air. It was a win worth of 29 years of waiting.
It all could have ended there and most of us would have been satisfied. Just getting there was a blast. Then the Royals beat LA. Then they swept Baltimore with great defense, fun rallies, drama, and lockdown relief pitching. The Royals, improbably, were in the World Series. And if not for Madison Bumgarner, they’d have won – and came pretty close anyway.
The Royals won the 2015 World Series.
I guess that’s burying the lede, but you knew it happened anyway.
In the time since the Royals finished off the Mets, I’ve thought about every season of frustration, indifference, hope, and disappointment that led to this season.
This season was tense. Last year felt like a fun romp, especially after the Wild Card game. The way the Royals ran through 2014’s postseason had a lot to do with it. There weren’t expectations. The Royals were a good story. And after the Wild Card game, it was like a second life with nothing to lose.
Things started great, but by July, Alex Gordon was hurt and the Twins wouldn’t go away. Part of me couldn’t help but imagine an epic collapse and the subsequent pain. I think it limited my ability to enjoy it all. But when Gordon went down, Paulo Orlando and Jarrod Dyson filled in admirably and the Royals kept winning. Then, they got Johnny Cueto. Then, they got Ben Zobrist.
For the first time in my lifetime, in midseason, the Royals were going for it.
The night the Royals clinched the American League Central was a blast. The Royals took a lead over Seattle, and Twitter started counting the outs. If I’ve learned nothing else about following a successful baseball team, it’s this: counting down outs towards a clinch is a lot of fun. You get that anticipation of imagining what the celebration will be like before it happens, and then you get to pay it off with the actual prize. Denny Matthews’ call of Game 7 of the 1985 World Series always stands out to me because he’s counting down the outs with everyone else. It’s Christmas morning, after breakfast, but before the gifts.
The Royals opened the year labeled as a fluke, then they won the division. When the playoffs started, tension was high. One game can swing everything in the postseason, and the Royals were behind in nearly every game, so it felt like walking the tightrope on a nightly basis. Any slip-up was doom.
So they just never allowed themselves to fall off. After the seventh inning of Game 4 against Houston, I was walking back to my desk after a work meeting. All I knew was that it was 6-2 going to the 8th. My boss told me “I’m sorry man. It sucks when your team loses.” I felt disappointed mostly, but at least grateful that the season was a fun one.
And then the Royals came back and won it and later advanced. Then, they trailed David Price. And came back and won. Despite constant worry about Cueto and a the Astros home run hitters and the Blue Jays instant offense, the Royals scratched and clawed and tapdanced through the minefield and came out American League Champions. Again. What a world.
The comebacks made for exhilarating baseball. Every game was an Event. People made plans to go to a bar, or they were at the games in Kansas City. Everyone was watching every pitch. Fans from everywhere – New Mexico, Chicago, Washington D.C., Colorado, Texas – were all watching their Royals. Some may have had a similar introduction to fandom as I did and had lived through the dark days of the Baird Era. Some may have only taken notice in 2013 when the Royals were close to the Wild Card. Some may have only jumped on after Sal Perez shot a base hit past Josh Donaldson. It didn’t matter. It was community.
Nearly everyone stayed at Kauffman through all 14 innings in Game 1 against the Mets. After Game 2, there was a bit of relaxation as the Royals took a 2-0 series lead. You could almost feel the title. Counting outs.
The Royals lost Game 3, and it was pretty ugly. They looked unlike themselves. Ned Yost made bad decisions. The media, always up for the horse race, started pitching it as a momentum swing, even though the Mets still trailed.
For Game 3, I ended up at this place called The Ship in the West Bottoms. It was Halloween. There were two TVs in the whole place and between innings they played New Orleans jazz and had a free nacho bar set up on a table in the back. It was probably the last place I expected to watch a World Series game, and when the Royals flipped the switch on their comeback, it became a party. When the Roayls took the lead, they cut the TV sound and played “Knock With Me, Roll With Me” by the Lil’ Rascals Brass Band through the remainder of the game. Wade Davis closed it out. We counted more outs.
Game 5 was eight innings of frustration, one inning of disbelief, and a few innings of anxious waiting.
I thought I’d end up in Kansas City to watch Game 5. Kelly’s had been the scene of many other momentous Royals games – the playoff clincher of 2013, Game 1 against Baltimore in the 2014 ALCS, Game 7 of last year’s World Series. We were upstairs at Kelly’s but heard the reaction to the Alex Gordon “triple” from across the street, as their broadcast was a second faster than ours. For Game 5, I was at Jefferson’s in Lawrence. They closed at 10, but the game had gone into extras. So we watched with the wait staff and the kitchen crew and a couple of other patrons. We watched a number of scoreless innings until Sal Perez hit a sand wedge just inside the first base line. Jarrod Dyson stole second. He made it to third and Christian Colon drove him in.
Murphy committed another error. Escobar doubled. The Royals only needed one run. They would get five.
And we were back to counting outs.
I barely remember the bottom of the 12th inning other than the final strike to Wilmer Flores. It wasn’t until a few days later that I realized Wade Davis struck out a batter for each out. Part of me was caught up thinking about how I was going to react when the final out happened.
I high-fived everyone in the restaurant. I went out on Mass Street and a herd of people were coming down the sidewalk dressed in blue and cheering. At one point, the restraint lifted and they spilled out into the street. I ended up at the Red Lyon and the bartender gave me a shot while I watched the trophy presentations. All I could do through it all was shake my head. It was still difficult to believe.
I walked back to my car. And that’s when I lost it. Once I’d detached from the images of the moment, everything came to mind. 1985. The Brett rookie. Mark freaking Davis. The Saberhagen trade. Brett’s retirement.
I thought of how I listened to Johnny Damon’s MLB debut while mowing the lawn. I thought about the trips to KC with my family. The time my dad missed his exit and we missed Picture Day. The time I ended up with a foam finger when my dad thought I’d said “I wonder if they have those hands here” when I was asking about hammers for Bob Hamelin. The game I went to with my sisters when rain delayed the game three different times, but we stayed to see Joakim Soria close it out after midnight.
I thought about my mom texting me “Why is Bruce Chen still pitching?” after a particularly rough start. I thought of the nearly 4,000 baseball games (here or there) that just didnt’ matter until the Royals got good again. I thought about beat up George Brett cards, “Bo Jackson says hello,” the Cone signing and trade, enduring Neifi Perez and Roberto Hernandez. Yuniesky Betancourt – twice.
And I thought about this team and the struggles they’ve overcome in the season and in their careers leading up to this season.
The team’s flaws made them more interesting. They don’t walk; they don’t hit a lot of homers. They didn’t have dominant starting pitching. They got by on the grit and moxie and the intangible stuff stat guys can’t really account for and a lot of guys playing well at the same time. The Royals employ a large analytics department, but the Royals World Series win was a disjointed happy chaos of line drives and bloops and cracked bats and hustle and succeeding through boldness rather than following a program. If the Royals had just analyzed the heck out of the Mets, it wouldn’t have been as satisfying of a victory.
After 2014, I never thought the Royals could top the fun of the first playoff run.
And yet, they surpassed it in 2015. For all the talk of theatrics in 2014, and the Bad Boys label to open 2015, what was at the root of it all was a team of guys who came up in the minors together, who won in the minors together, and who learned to be big leaguers together. Add some veteran help, some lucky breaks, and the right guy in charge to allow them to enjoy the game, and they became a sensation that re-ignited a city’s love of baseball.
And in the process, they paid off the loyal fans who’d been dreaming of a championship all along.
In 1991, at the conclusion of the World Series, CBS ran the credits with a partial narration of “Green Fields of the Mind,” an essay by Bart Giamatti, brief Commissioner of baseball. It’s best known for the opening lines:
It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.
I think Joe Posnanski once said “baseball is never as great as when you’re ten years old.” Well, I was eleven, but I think his point made sense. After watching what was arguably the best World Series ever, 11-year-old me bawled hearing that narration. It was exactly how I felt at the time. Baseball – this wondrous, timeless game – was done (for a few months, at least).
At some point, I started reading that essay at the end of every World Series, a ritual to come to grips with the impending twilight of winter. It reminds me that no matter how frustrating it might be to see Jason Kendall batting second, or Gil Meche being sent out too long, or Roberto Hernandez dying on the vine in the 9th, that this game means something deeply to me, and that a season of bad Royals baseball is still better than none. And in the moments when there was hope, such as after 2011, I read it with an eye towards future success. And it was an especially poignant read after Salvador Perez’s popup settled in Pablo Sandoval‘s glove in 2014.
I hadn’t read the essay this year because, obviously, the Royals won the World Series. “Green Fields of the Mind” recounts the last inning of the last game for the Red Sox in 1977, an inning that started with them down 8-5. After a base hit and home run, they pull within one and get another aboard with a single. The comeback ends, however, and the reality of the end of the year sets in.
It breaks your heart because you’re invested. You can’t have heartbreak if you don’t care.
Also, I like winning over heartbreak.