The Royal Streak
Before getting to the streak, I did want to remind you that there is only one week left in the Rainy Day Books preorder offer. If you preorder from Rainy Day by Sept. 1, I will sign and inscribe the book with anything you like, within reason. I’m told that the hundreds and hundreds of inscription requests that have come in so far include some real doozies.
I realize now that I have not actually written the word “doozies” since … ever?
Anyway, we’re down to the wire in this offer. I realize that it’s weird to buy a book that won’t even be published for more than a month, but, hey, you can get some Christmas shopping done early! I can’t tell you that The Baseball 100 will be the best book you buy this year, but I’m pretty sure it will be the heaviest, so that’s something! Almost three pounds! That will be a substantial-looking gift under the tree! You can also put it on Loki’s chest to keep him down on the Bifrost Bridge!*
*Marvel references are always big with the kids!
One more time, the preorder offer is at this link.
The Baltimore Orioles have lost 19 games in a row, which is an impressive achievement, as far as that goes. No team has lost 19 games in a row since 2005. That was the Kansas City Royals. I was a columnist for The Kansas City Star then. I was held hostage by that team.
Well, not at first. When the Royals lost the first game of that epic streak — a 10-5 drubbing at Tampa Bay — I was at Kansas City Chiefs training camp in beautiful River Falls, Wisc. There was a very clear rhythm to my life then: I would write continuously about the Royals for as long as they were relevant, a time span which often lasted all the way until early May. Then I would keep writing about the Royals long after most people cared and until editors told me to knock it off and start writing about the Chiefs already.
On the day that the Royals lost to the Rays — with Kyle Snyder giving up nine runs in five torturous innings — I was writing about how new linebacker Kendrell Bell would help the Chiefs defense with his pass-rushing prowess. (He really didn’t.)
The Royals lost their next three in Tampa Bay by four runs, five runs and four runs, but that was Hall of Fame weekend so I wrote about steroids. Then the Royals went to Boston and got swept, but that was what you expected every time the Royals went to Boston. They limped home with a modest seven-game losing streak and got ready to face Oakland. I decided to go check out just how bad they were.
And, on command, they lost a one-run game to the A’s (blowing a three-run lead in the process). That Royals team was astonishing at losing one-run games. As I wrote that day, the Royals’ one-run record from 1999 to that moment in 2005 was 98-169, and it is almost impossible to be that bad for that long a time in one-run games. The Royals’ one-run record over that stretch was NINETEEN GAMES worse than the next team. One-run games are pretty much crapshoots; as Bill James taught me, bad teams almost always win more of their one-run games than you would expect and good teams almost always lose more of their one-run games than you would expect.
Those Royals defied gravity.
But, OK, an eight-game losing streak was hardly news in Kansas City in those days. I skipped the next game to write about Buck O’Neil, which was always the right thing to do, and the Royals got crushed 16-1 behind the combined pitching effort of Jose Lima and Jimmy Gobble. They lost their 10th in a row the next day, this time falling to Oakland 11-0 when the estimable Runelvys Hernandez couldn’t get an out in the second inning.
That makes a 10-game losing streak, and I told my editor, “OK, you know what? I’m going to keep going out to Royals games until they win.”
And what I saw next torments my dreams until this very day.
On Aug. 9, 2005, I went out to Kaufman Stadium to see the Royals play Cleveland. A guy named Mike Wood started for Kansas City — I always liked Mike Wood. He was one of the players who had come over to Kansas City in the Carlos Beltran deal, and in my memory, he threw his fastball about 28 mph. But the guy battled. Over the years, my appreciation for the greatest players is almost matched by my appreciation for those players who have to use every trick, every gambit, every bit of sleight of hand just to get by. Mike Wood was one of those guys. He pitched five innings, gave up a bunch of hits but managed to hold the future Guardians to just one run.
Meanwhile, the Royals — quite improbably — beat up on Cliff Lee, scoring five runs in the first three innings, the bulk of them on Mike Sweeney’s three-run homer in the second. Oh, Mike Sweeney, one of my all-time favorite players and people. Anyway, Kansas City made it 6-1 in the fifth, and then, when Cleveland scored a run in the eighth to cut the margin to four, Kansas City’s Angel Berroa (oh, how each name brings back tragic memories) homered to make it 7-2 going into the ninth inning.
And then, what came next, it was gorier than the new Suicide Squad movie.
Mike MacDougal came into the game to close it out. They called him Mac the Ninth for a little while. He had made the All-Star Game as a rookie, and he actually was a rare bright spot for that 2005 team — Mac had saved 14 games in a row. At first, you kind of wondered why Royals manager Buddy Bell even used him here in a non-save situation. But the answer to that was simple: He just wanted to win, whatever it took.
Mac didn’t have it. He gave up a hard double to Casey Blake, then another hard double to Grady Sizemore, then a line drive single to Coco Crisp, and that cut the margin to three runs. But after a strikeout of Jhonny Peralta, all still seemed to be fine.
Then, a crushed double by Travis Hafner and a ground ball single by Victor Martinez — that was a good Cleveland lineup, I have to say — and then MacDougal got Ronnie Belliard to hit a soft fly ball behind second base … which Berroa promptly dropped. He did have the presence of mind to pick up the ball and get the force out at second base, but another run scored, making it 7-6.
Still, it seemed like Kansas City would get to land on the moon. The next batter in the game was supposed to be Big Ben Broussard, but he must have been hurt (or Cleveland manager Eric Wedge felt pity in his soul) because Jeff Liefer came in to pinch-hit. Liefer had a .521 OPS in a part-time role. Mac the Ninth threw a fastball that Liefer skied to left-field, a routine fly ball, and the game was over.
Except, of course, you already know … the game was not over.
They lost the moon.
“There’s a fly ball to Chip Ambres in left field,” Royals radio announcer Denny Matthews told the dozens of fans who were still listening. “And … he dropped it. Yes, he did.”
Yes, he did. Chip Ambres played only 53 games in Kansas City, but no true Royals fan will ever forget him because he was involved in two remarkable plays. This was the first. The second happened in September after the losing streak had ended. It was Sept. 13 if you care about exactness, and it was the fourth inning of a game against the Chicago White Sox. Even though it was the fourth inning, it was already late because the start of the game had been delayed by rain. Juan Uribe was the hitter, and he lifted a fly ball to left-center. Ambres was playing center. Veteran Terrance Long was playing left.
The two men converged on the ball. When they got there, they looked at each other, nodded in approval, and then began jogging in toward the dugout.
And the ball just plopped on the ground behind them. A.J. Pierzynski, who was on first base, ran around and scored what turned out to be the decisive run.
That remains the single funniest thing I have ever seen on a baseball field.*
*Next month — and this blows my mind — I am going to receive the Tony Kubek Media Award from the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame in Troy, Mich. As it turns out, A.J. Pierzynski is going to be inducted into the Hall at the same time, and it occurs to me that even though I’ve written about that Ambres-Long play a million times, I’ve never asked A.J. about it. I must remember to ask him.
Anyway, Ambres dropped the ball. Cleveland ended up scoring 11 runs, setting various records, and one of them scored after Emil Brown tried to kick the ball.
There wasn’t anything to say.
“I don’t know what to say,” Buddy Bell said.
This was how I started my column the next day:
“The Royals are not going to win another baseball game this season. That’s clear now. They are going to lose the last 50 games this year. They are going to lose all 162 games next year. After that, it’s hard to tell. Maybe they will win a game in May 2007.”
And the next day, I began my column with this: “Notes from a columnist held hostage: Game 12.”
There wasn’t much to that 12th loss in a row — the Royals lost to Cleveland 6-1, Bell got tossed out for arguing balls and strikes, etc.
Their 13th loss — the one that set the team record — again featured slugger Jeff Liefer, who hit one of the two grand slams of his career. The other also came against Kansas City. Cleveland won the game 4-2.
The Royals got a couple of well-deserved days off then because of rain and that set up a doubleheader against the pretty bad Detroit Tigers. two things from that day stay with me. One, the Royals lost the first game 8-7 when Ambiorix Burgos, a guy who would turn out to be one of the worst people to ever play Major League Baseball (he would later be charged with kidnapping and trying to poison his ex-wife, among other crimes) gave up the game-winning run in the ninth.
Two, Jose Lima pitched the second game, and he pitched his best game of the season, going nine innings and allowed just one run on five hits. It was a worthy performance. And he knew it. As he walked off the mound, Lima tipped his cap and raised his arms to the crowd, and generally acted — as I wrote at the time — as if he had just conquered Europe.
This would have been fine except the Royals were losing 1-0 at the time because they had hit into four double plays. And, they lost 1-0, their 15th straight defeat.
I announced in the paper that I would not be going to Seattle with the team … I’d had enough. Calls poured in. People were furious. But I thought there were more important things … I went to Chicago for the funeral of Negro Leagues legend Double Duty Radcliffe. The Royals lost all three in Seattle, one of them when future Royals great Yuniesky Betancourt grounded a single in the bottom of the eighth that scored the winning run.
When I got back to Kansas City I was ordered to Oakland to pick up the Royals’ still-in-progress 18-game losing streak. And I made it in time for their 19th loss in a row, 4-0 to the Athletics, they just couldn’t touch Rich Harden and four relievers.
At this point, I heard from a Kansas City guy named Eric Moeller, who said he was to blame for the losing streak. See, when the Royals played Game 7 of the World Series in 1985, Moeller was mowing his lawn, he looked up to the heavens, and he prayed, “God, if you just let the Royals win today, I don’t care if they ever win again.”
God, he decided, took him seriously.
The Royals did try to lose No. 20. But at some point, you just can’t keep losing — it takes too much strength — and finally they held on for a 2-1 victory.
I don’t know what lessons you take away from a losing streak like that. It was right around that time that Buddy Bell uttered his legendary quote, “I never say that things can’t get worse.” Wise words. And I must admit, watching this Orioles team play, I think this Baltimore 19-game losing streak actually IS worse.