I can’t quite remember exactly when he said it.
It may have been before the first pitch, after the players were introduced and before the National Anthem, twenty-nine years of anticipation coming to a frighteningly near climax. It may have been at some point in the 5th inning, when the lead was secured and James Shields seemingly had things under control and the crowd buzzed with each strike. It could have been in the immediate aftermath of Luke Gregorson’s wild pitch in the 8th inning, plating Eric Hosmer and shuffling the tying run to third base. It was, if I was to put on it, most likely in the top of the 10th, after the Royals had thumbed their noses at their 4.4% probability of winning and come back to tie the game, the stadium ablaze with constant noise and desire. Hell, it may have even been in the incredulous insanity which followed Salvador Perez’s ground ball down the third base line in the 12th, scoring Christian Colon and, somehow, sending the Kansas City Royals, my Kansas City Royals, to the ALDS.
But at some point on that magical, idyllic Tuesday night at Kauffman Stadium my dad turned to me and espoused the hidden truth of true, unabashed, fervent fandom:
“Some people just don’t get it”
I’ve loved the Kansas City Royals forever, began following them on a nightly basis in 2004 or 2005, as I began to move around the country. With each move I was forced to let go of all of my friends, all of my routines, all of my connections to the world, but the Kansas City Royals always existed in the background. I woke up on a June morning in Irvine, California in 2005, opened the newspaper and found out the Royals won 5-2 the night before, finishing off a sweep of the New York Yankees. The next year, on my 15th birthday, I spent a couple of hours writing a blog post on the Royals’ under-the-radar acquisition of Jorge De La Rosa for Tony Graffanino, picking up a live arm with potential for a mediocre veteran.
For every year of my Royals fandom, the future was more promising than the present. Next year’s grass always seemed greener, mostly because today’s grass was littered with splotches of brown, dead sod. Being a Royals fan, by definition, was hoping for success 2, 3, 4 years down the road. Tonight’s game mattered, sure, but whether or not Emil Brown drove in that run on 3rd base in the 8th inning of a one-run ballgame only had short term effects. Win or lose, the result only mattered in the moment. The more meaningful box scores frequently were composed in Omaha, Springdale or Wilmington.
Every night spent listening to a MiLB.com audio feed of a Northwest Arkansas Naturals game, every summer afternoon spent following a Royals-Twins contest, every hour spent discussing the team on Royals Review; it all was digested with an eye towards the future. I didn’t love the Royals merely for the potential future payoff, of course, but that was the light at the end of the tunnel. That was the goal.
I knew the Kansas City Royals only as failures. Failures with flair at times, failures with a host of young guys and promise at others. But, no matter the composition of the team, the team inevitably lost more games than they won. That was Royals baseball. That’s the culture a generation of fans grew up in, myself included, and one that has been hard to shake.
As the Royals caught fire in the dying embers of July this season, around the same time of year the infamous 2005 outfit began their interminable 19-game losing streak, and continued ablaze into August I refused to fully believe. I watched wide-eyed every night, amazed at the continued impressive play of those men with the script Royals scrawled across their jerseys. It was so much fun and so hard to believe and, inevitably, was a due to collapse at any moment. Or at least, that’s what I had been conditioned to believe.
The Royals didn’t continue playing at a .700 clip, of course, but they played well enough to clinch a playoff spot. That Friday night, driving home from work, I called my dad and reminisced. The Royals had spent a decade, more-or-less the entire history of my baseball fandom, averaging (averaging!) 96 losses a season. We had watched Emil Brown lead the team in RBIs, Scott Elarton and Runelvys Hernandez and Jose Lima start on Opening Day. The franchise who was always playing for the future, even if they weren’t always building a terribly bright one, was suddenly good in the moment. Their organizational potential had been actualized in one glorious, dramatic, off-the-rails unusual season.
They still couldn’t hit for much power. They still never drew walks, drawing the ire of the significantly sabermetric-friendly fanbase. They rode the back of the league’s best defense and above average pitching, combining into one of baseball’s best run prevention units, to 89 regular season wins and the seemingly mythical playoff berth. Even at its best, the Royals couldn’t dominate. Even this season, when seemingly everything went right, Kansas City gave off the vibe of a plucky, underdog outfit who scrapped and clawed for everything they received.
It was never a matter of if my dad and I were going to attend the playoff games. The details merely needed to be sorted out, and the convoluted nature of the Royals’ playoff entrance, with the division still at play and the home team in the Wild Card game still to be decided, delayed travel plans to Sunday night. But Sunday night scans of Southwest.com led to Monday morning flights and, eventually, basking in the inimitable glow of Postseason baseball on Tuesday evening.
The last time I had stepped through the gates at Kauffman Stadium I was fourteen years old, the year was 2006 and the result was a 6-5 defeat. Ambiorix Burgos threw a pair of wild pitches in the 8th inning, the first of which allowed the tying run to score and the second of which plated the go-ahead run. The loss dropped Kansas City to 27-54, a whopping 28 games behind the division leading Chicago White Sox.
This night, though, was a dream decades in the making coming true. It was finally, at long last, the fruit of the labor. It’s hard to understand what, exactly, it meant without living through all of those lean years. The night had been a long, long time coming and I had to be there to see the demons exorcised in person.
Some people just wouldn’t get it. Some people, whether by luck or choice, have never experience interminable losing; never experienced the unescapable feeling that, deep inside, you know there’s no real tangible reason for hope for the upcoming season. They don’t get what it’s like to have been a Royals fan all of these years.
Over the years, however, they didn’t just become the Kansas City Royals. They became my Royals. I have spent essentially every day of my fandom outside of the confines of Kansas City, away from any semblance of like-minded folk anywhere except the internet. Everywhere I’ve lived I have been the lone Kansas City Royals fan. Tuesday night, as the Royals turned the odds on their head and the baseball gods shined on Kansas City and, somehow, the Royals turned a 7-3 deficit into a 7-6 one and then a tie game and then, when the Athletics took the lead yet again, tied it up and won the whole damn thing all in the boom of the 12th, the texts began pouring in. People I hadn’t talked to in years sent me emails, texts, direct messages on Twitter. For all of those years, I had been their indirect connection to this largely irrelevant franchise, the lone person stridently supporting such a worthless cause night in and night out, season after season.
Tuesday night was the greatest night of my life. Some people didn’t get why I spent so much money making the trek to Kauffman. Some people, basically every people, can’t understand the wave of emotion I, along with thousands of like-minded fans, experience that September evening.
It was validation. It was purpose. It was beautiful. It was the ultimate nirvana of fandom.
The ride since then has been the proverbial icing on the cake. The win that Tuesday night was so affirming, so surreal and, above all, so antithetical to my experience as a fan of the Kansas City Royals, that it, in-and-of-itself, was enough.
I don’t quite remember exactly when my dad uttered the quote mentioned in the lede, but I will forever remember the moment, in the middle of the 12th, when I looked at him and told him that everything, every moment spent following this downtrodden franchise of baseballers, had been vindicated by this night. Win or lose, I meant that. He agreed.
And so, when Eric Hosmer pounded that ball off the tip top of the left-center wall and found himself on third and when Christian Colon hit that groundball that refused to come back down and, especially, when Salvador Perez lined the ball past a diving Josh Donaldson by literally centimeters, it was hard to comprehend. The sweep of the Los Angeles Angels in the ALDS was surreal, yes, but partially because my feet still hadn’t landed from that Tuesday night. They still haven’t.
The American League Championship Series begins tonight and somehow the Kansas City Royals are involved. The goal of any professional organization is, ultimately, about championships. That’s the whole point of playing the game, or so they say. I very, very much want them to win tonight and tomorrow and, if I can even type this, enough games to win the World Series. That would be awesome, to put it mildly.
But the goal of any fan isn’t necessarily to win a championship. Fandom is about so much more. It’s about belonging to a community, becoming a part of something greater than yourself. It’s about creating a common ground with those you love most, about sharing an experience you will, truly, never forget. It’s about putting in hours upon hours upon hours of love and desire, of hoping for the best and cheering your heart (and lungs) out when lucky enough to be present for their games.
Ultimately, what it means to be a fan is impossible to define within the limitations of the English language. You just should have been there that glorious Tuesday night at Kauffman Stadium, should have witnessed the simultaneous release of forty-thousand people who all had hoped and dreamed for this day, some for a full 29 years, others for every cognizant second of their lives, should have basked in the unending noise and the incredulous celebration.
And if that’s not enough, well, some people just don’t get it.