It’s been awhile since I’ve been to a game at Kauffman Stadium. More than seven years, to be exact, since I witnessed an improbably accurate representation of an entire era of Royals baseball in a neat, solitary nine-inning package. The date was July 3rd, 2006, the starting pitcher (neigh, ace) was Scott Elarton and the cleanup hitter (neigh, bastion of power) was Emil Brown. I was in town visiting a friend from my days living in Kansas City and I only cajoled a group into going to the game due to the fireworks display which was to follow the game, which was admittedly spectacular.
Despite the opposition being the Minnesota Twins, who before 2013 hadn’t lost a game against the Royals in a decade*, and despite an actual, real-life ace in Johan Santana taking the mound, Buddy Bell’s troops had actually finagled a 5-3 lead off of a bases clearing double by none other than Angel Berroa**.
* I made this stat up, obviously, but it seems legit.
** You literally can’t make this shit up.
Alas, the Royals being the Royals, a disastrous 8th inning culminating in Ambiorix Burgos throwing a wild pitch to allow the tying run to score then another wild pitch to allow the go-ahead run to cross the plate led to a 6-5 defeat. It was awful to watch, truly, and yet by the time the first combustible piece of pyrotechnic was shot into the night sky the vast majority of the 28,000 people in attendance* didn’t seem to care an iota. The game was secondary to the display to follow and to a large extent it was difficult to blame them. The loss dropped the Royals to a pathetic 27-54, worst in the major leagues, with no discernible hope for the future beyond the General Manager who had been hired a month prior. The day before Mark Redman had been named the Royals’ obligatory All Star representative, despite the fact he was sporting an ERA in the 5’s and was having one of the worst seasons of his pedestrian career. It was a decrepit franchise with floundering ownership and a cadre of players who simply didn’t belong at the major league level.
And it was the best team in three years.
* A number assuredly so high only because of the fireworks show, granted.
When I was 11 years old my family moved from Kansas City to Lexington, Kentucky. It was only nine hours away but it felt like a million and left me with a desperate need to remain connected to Kansas City, the place I will always consider my hometown. The avenue I found most suitable was sports, doubling up on my loyalty to the Royals and Chiefs. While the Nosotros Creemos team was an incredible amount of fun, the flicker of unsustainable, fluky success only heightened the disappointment in the following years. By the time Dayton Moore took over and I found myself in the stands of Kauffman Stadium on that aforementioned sweltering summer night I had grown far too accustomed to the losing, oftentimes in the most embarrassing fashion possible.
This isn’t to say I didn’t care anymore. I would still follow along on MLB Gameday, obsessing over Esteban German’s lack of playing time (look at that OBP!) and praying Jimmy Gobble would figure it out and become a fixture in the rotation. But the goal was always the future, the sights set on a pennant chase not months away but years away.
As Moore’s tenure progressed the future continued to grow brighter and brighter, largely due to his undeniably impressive drafting record and a handful of superb international signings. And yet, despite his best efforts to “win now” (Mike Jacobs LOL) and glimpses of promise (18-11 need I say more) the Royals continued to, more or less, suck. They continued to be a laughingstock. The years passed and I moved from Lexington to California then to Cincinnati for college and every time, almost without fail, I told someone that I was a Royals fan it was met with a mixture of laughter and amazement, shortly followed by something along the lines of “why the hell would you do that to yourself?!?” I’d always give a spiel along the lines of the paragraph following the asterisks, claiming to have born into fandom and subsequently using said fandom as a way of connecting back to my roots. People tend to nod at this explanation, deeming it worthy enough I suppose, but the implication of hopelessness assuredly remains in the back of their minds.
The Wil Myers-James Shields trade was a travesty. It was one of many moves Dayton Moore has made that range from unfortunate to downright abhorrent, shooting-oneself-in-the-foot-deals that a franchise behind the 8-ball like the Royals can ill-afford. Sacrificing six-and-a-half years of cost-controlled, excellence for two years of good-not-great starting pitching is never a good decision, particularly when accompanied by a trio of semi-interesting prospects*. Jeremy Guthrie’s contract will likely be an albatross in the last year of his deal and it took until halfway through August of 2013 before Dayton Moore finally replaced Mark Grudzielanek in an acceptable manner, and that was only a stopgap solution. Grudzielanek left the Royals following the 2008 season.
* Yeah, I know we got Wade Davis. Eff Wade Davis, that’s what I say.
And yet here we stand, on September 4th, a mere 4.5 games out of the wild card. Last night, thanks to Salvador Perez’s heroics and another unexpectedly great start by Bruce Chen (with an assist to arguably the finest closer in the game Greg Holland) the Royals won their 72nd game. Last year they finished the year with only 72 wins; they’ve won more than 72 twice in the past dozen seasons. This season has been a success, albeit a qualified one. There are two factions of Royals fandom, it seems: one of whom demands true success, represented by playoff appearances and such, and another who is enjoying not being the dregs of the league and exclaiming a .500 mark to be an achievement worth celebrating*. Granted I’m copping out but I find myself pretty well situated in the middle of the two. The ultimate goal is not only the playoffs, obviously, but a championship; this tends to go without saying. “YOU PLAY TO WIN THE GAME” yadda yadda yadda. But at the same time the Royals have sucked for a long time. Long, long time. I’ve really only known shitty Royals baseball.
* If one were to be stereotypical we would classify them as bloggers and real-fans-who-actually-watch-the-game, respectively
As I write this the Kansas City Royals have the fifth-best run differential in the American League. This is insane. This isn’t 2003, where Kansas City allowed more runs than they scored and flukily limped to an 83-79 record. They are legitimately good at baseball. The best defense in baseball despite what fielding percentage will tell you. A very good pitching staff, aided by said best defense in baseball, including one of the top bullpens in baseball punctuated by a legitimate contender for best closer in the game. An offense which, while fickle and inconsistent, is moderately deep when healthy and includes an on-fire Eric Hosmer, finally coming through on all of that promise.
The Royals almost definitely won’t make the playoffs. The folks at Baseball Prospectus currently give them a 1.2% chance; ESPN’s slightly more generous and affords them a 7% likelihood. But if you squint just hard enough, and instill just enough nonsensical belief in that brain of yours, you can concoct a scenario in which they do. It’s within reach, if only barely. And that, truly and honestly, is a first for me in my dozen-years-or-so of devoutly following the team. It’s a crazy feeling, living and dying with every pitch in September. Of lambasting Ned Yost for hitting Chris Getz second not because he is stealing at-bats from unknown properties like Johnny Giavotella but because we need to win this damn game. It’s weird looking at the standings and seeing a bigger number in the W column than the L column. Looking at the wild card standings and seeing a single digit number.
No matter the missteps the Royals took to get here it’s been a delightful season. They will remain a punchline until they do something truly worth celebrating, definitely. But now there is tangible reason to hope. Beyond Best Farm System in Baseball talk and beyond the promise of tomorrow, the Royals succeeded in the here and now. It takes a lot of hope, sure, but there’s still something to hope for.
And it sure as hell ain’t fireworks.