A Royals Toast

In the afterglow, I find myself trying to remember the low moment, the moment that summed up all of what it meant being a Kansas City Royals fan the last 20 years or so. I think of the time Tim Belcher was named the Kansas City Royals pitcher of the year despite the somewhat limiting fact that he had a 5.02 ERA and had pitched no better than the numbers. He sat on stage glumly, accepted the award with a sheepish speech about how he didn’t deserve this award (in this case, he really didn’t) and sat down no doubt thinking he couldn’t wait to get out of Kansas City (which he did a year later).

The Royals, those Royals, are going to the playoffs.

I think of the time an energetic New York attorney named Miles Prentice, who had roughly the same net worth as your next door neighbor, was picked to buy the Royals. Prentice used to hop around town wearing suits and a Royals baseball cap, and he supposedly went into the manager’s office and told him to stop letting his hitters swing on the first pitch and into the radio booth to tell the announcers to use an egg timer, the way Red Barber did, to alert them when it was time to remind listeners of the score.

The Royals, those Royals, are going to the playoffs.

I think of a time when a genial man named Herk Robinson, as general manager, wanted to hire an artist to paint the Royals players in action in order to help the scouts. When told that the scouts already had something called video, which rather precisely transferred reality to a television screen, Robinson said yes, but art, true art, can transcend reality.

The Royals, those Royals, are going to the playoffs.

The drought wasn’t the thing. Yes, it had been 29 years since the Royals last reached the postseason — and baseball has completely turned upside down in those 29 years. The game has made the divisions smaller, added wildcards, rearranged the schedule, made it all but impossible for a team to NOT go to the postseason at least every now and again. The Royals would not go. But the drought wasn’t the thing — it was the hopelessness surrounding the drought. The Royals did not come close to the postseason. The Royals did things so mind boggling that the postseason seemed as far away as flying cars and trips to another galaxy.

I think of a time when a manager named Tony Muser decided to change his image. Muser was and is a good baseball man but he had this Charlie Brown cloud hovering over him, so that no matter what fiasco befell the Royals, you sensed the Muser was still looking up at the sky certain that a piano was about to fall on his head. In his final spring training, he announced that he was going to be more positive, a Happy Tony Muser, and the players created a calendar where they would put a smiley face sticker on days when Muser actually smiled.

The Royals, those Royals, are going to the playoffs.

I think a player named Ken Harvey, a 6-foot-2, 240 pound bopper from Beverly Hills (via the University of Nebraska) who went to high school, at least briefly, with Angelina Jolie. Harvey had this odd batting style where he would slide his right hand over his left during the swing and then employ a massive upper cut, but he hit well enough one year to be the Royals lone All Star representative. Still, it was his penchant for being in the wrong place at the wrong time that marked his career. He was hit in the back with an outfield throw. He threw the ball into a pitcher’s face from point-blank range. He got tangled up in the tarp trying to do something or other. Harvey was not a comic figure, though, he was a proud young man who just kept having bad things happen to him, not unlike Royals fans themselves.

The Royals, those Royals, are going to the playoffs.

I think of a time when the Royals decided to buy Johnny Damon a house in order, I suppose, to instill loyalty and make him want to stay in Kansas City when he became too expensive. Damon ran kicking and screaming from Kansas City at first opportunity anyway, probably when he realized that for a few million dollars extra he could buy his own house.

The Royals, those Royals, are going to the playoffs.

Nothing was easy about this season. These Royals are not a great team. They are often not a good team. They will not hit even 100 home runs this season — the first American League team in 20 years to fail to reach triple digits. They are ninth in the league in runs scored, just thirty or so runs ahead of last place. The calling card is pitching but they don’t have one starter who you could yet call a great pitcher.

But, dammit, that team never stopped plodding, never stopped toiling — run scoring for them is like manual labor, but they dribbled their singles and yanked their doubles and stole some bases and found a way to dig enough runs out of the dirt. Their starters, young and old, pitched to contact and relied on a frisky defense and somehow managed to give the bullpen enough leads. And that bullpen, that amazing three-man bullpen of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland, shut the games down.

No, the Royals are not a great team — but they understood each other and they saw their line to victory the same way a great golfer can see the line of a putt into the hole. Chemistry is an overused word in sports. Belief is an overused word in sports. Narrative is an overused word in sports. The Royals still used those themes, and now, for the first time since 1985, they are going to the playoffs.

I think of a Royals player falling off first base like a cut down tree, and I think of another climbing the centerfield wall only to see the ball bounce off the warning track in front of him, and I think of two Royals players jogging to the dugout, each thinking the other would catch the ball which landed softly and happily in the grassy area they had left behind. I think of a player not wearing sunglasses, losing a ball in the sun and having it hit him in the face — he wore sunglasses on the plane right home to cover the shiner. I think of a pitcher so frustrated that he complained to the press that he can’t even get no-decisions.

The Royals, those Royals, are going to the playoffs.

I think of Joe McGuff, my friend, who was instrumental in bringing the Royals to town. He suffered from ALS at the end of his life, and once when I went to see him the hospital he could barely speak, but he still managed to ask me what I thought of the Royals future. Those were bleak days, and I told him that they sure needed another George Brett. I saw recognition in those eyes — one year, when Brett suffered from hemorrhoids during the World Series, he was asked if he found the timing cruel. “Sure, I do,” Brett said. "I ask, ‘Why me? Why not Joe McGuff.” Joe wanted to talk some more about the team, what could be done, but he could not speak the words, and he began to cry.

The Royals, those Royals, are going to the playoffs.

I think of Buck O’Neil, my friend, who believed in the power of baseball to fix anything. In the most desolate of days, he was asked if the Royals had any chance against the money and might of the New York Yankees, and he raged, “OF COURSE they can beat the Yankees. The Yankees can have all the money in the world, but they can only put nine players on the field, just like our Royals.” When the Royals would win a game, even toward the end of one of their many lost seasons, Buck would take it in and then say, “It’s turning around."

The Royals, those Royals, are going to the playoffs.

Every team with a long run of losing has stories, of course. Every team with a long run of losing has believers too, who refuse to stop caring even when there seems nothing left to care about. I think of a blind man in Kansas who would have his wife read to him the Royals account every morning at breakfast, and he would then ask her to go over the box score hitter by hitter. I think of a farmer in the Northern part of Missouri who would record the west coast games off the radio and listen to them in the morning when he worked the farm. I think of a friend in Overland Park who kept trying to give the Royals up, and kept finding himself drifting back when Opening Day arrived. I think of a restaurant owner in Kansas City who framed the Royals World Series tickets he got last year, not as a joke but as a harbinger of good things.

There’s no telling how much of a reward this season will be. The Royals still have a chance to win the division, and they still have a chance to fall to the second wildcard, so this postseason could be a full-fledged baseball series in Kansas City or it could be one game in Oakland … or it could be a magical run that rivals the crazy and wildly unlikely 1985 World Series march.

I think of Dayton Moore, the Royals general manager. He has made some missteps, no question. He has turned down some dark alleys, no doubt. But when he arrived in Kansas City eight years ago, he promised to build a respectable baseball team. He worked day after day to make it happen, not only on the field, but throughout the organization. One day, we were in the Plaza — that shopping district in the heart of Kansas City — and he said: “This would be such an amazing place for a parade."

There might not be a parade. But there might be. And that’s the toast for the Royals on this day many thought might never come. Raise a glass. The Royals, those Royals, are going to the playoffs.