Thursday, October 16, 2014

Live That Fantasy: The Magnificent Tale of That Time the Kansas City Royals Won the American League

It would figure that in the game that came to clinch their trip to the World Series, the Royals scored their only runs in the first inning. Between the more-than-effective starting rotation, the nearly-unhittable bullpen and the otherworldly defense, Kansas City has utilized every run to their advantage. In eight games, they have only trailed for seven innings- four such frames alone came in the Wild Card game against Oakland. The Royals' run to the American League Pennant has been nothing short of shocking and strange, but the last year has been something worthy of Hollywood fiction.

On October 1st, 2013, Kansas City general manager Dayton Moore, upon signing a contract extension, made the statement, " a small way, I feel like we've won the World Series." His team had just finished third in the American League Central Division and fourth in the Wild Card standings. They could be farther from the World Series, but not by much. The long-suffering Kansas City faithful did not need a remark like that, especially following the twenty-ninth consecutive season without making the postseason. There was even a t-shirt made to celebrate the "championship" that Moore had proclaimed. The following day, the Billboard "Hot 100" chart was released for the week. Notably, a song titled "Royals" by New Zealand singer Lorde made the jump from third to the top spot. The song had no ties to the baseball team of the same name, or so everyone thought. As it turns out, the song was inspired by a photo of a young George Brett she saw in an old National Geographic magazine. It was an odd moment of cultural relevance for a club so used to the footnotes of sports pages. Too bad for them, the baseball season was over for the underachieving Royals. Their risky trade with the Tampa Bay Rays had seemed a catastrophic failure. A long offseason awaited the mediocre ball club.

Perhaps there is some otherworldly peace to never contending. Aside from a few years here and there, I can surely relate to the supreme serenity that comes with following a bad team. Anytime the Cubs have made the playoffs, especially in the past fifteen years, I tense up and stress out over every pitch. While I eagerly anticipate the probably rise of my favorite club, I understand the pressure and agony that comes with winning. For the Royals, the time spent since they won it all in 1985 has been nothing shy of lackadaisical. It seemed as if they were content with riding out every season somewhere between third and fifth in their division. The Royals had become an afterthought. A filler team, meant only to aid in filling out a schedule for the teams that matter. Long gone were the days when Kansas City was actually a rival to the New York Yankees. As long as I have been watching baseball, the Royals have been something worse than just plain bad- they've been irrelevant.

As time goes on, the game has its own mysterious way of fixing things. Despite parting with meteoric talents such as Carlos Beltran and Zack Grienke, the Royals were able to reload in the draft year after year. Bottom feeding can have its benefits, as the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays so aptly proved. Kansas City stocked their ranks full of young, cheap talent in the last half decade. To the non-obsessive baseball fan, their roster is about as recognizable as the nearest minor league squad. Yet in their last eight games, the ragtag group of prospects and inexpensive specialty players has grabbed national attention by doing one thing well- winning. Sure, the signing of Jason Vargas is probably an atypical move, and maybe the veiled Wil Myers for James Shields trade was perhaps the boldest move in franchise history. But in baseball, as it is in many situations, the ends might justify the means.

On April 2nd, 2014, the Royals dropped their second straight game to Detroit. Both losses ended in walk-off fashion. They had 162 games to reconcile this rut, but they would actually sink lower. Two months later, Kansas City woke to the grim reality they had come to know. With their team in last place, riding a four game losing streak, the season looked to be out of hand already. The Tigers were already established as a World Series threat, with Cleveland and Chicago surely causing a roadblock to the top as well. Attendance dwindled here and there, as often does with a mediocre, small-market team. The season was to play out, the team would surely lose James Shields to free agency, and in keeping with tradition, the Royals would retain their status as a team more purposed for the minor leagues.

Then something odd happened. The Royals started winning. Two. Four. Eight. Ten straight wins beginning on June 7th. Almost as quickly as their October aspirations had faded, they returned in technicolor. When the win streak began, Kansas City was in fourth place. By the time it ended on June 19th, they were a half game in first. Baseball is a game of streaks, after all. And so with it came a four game losing streak and a trip back into second place. While a bit of magic had dwindled, the Royals would not see another day below that position in the division. Through 100 games, Kansas City was an even fifty wins, fifty losses. It would be the last time they would come close to a losing season. The next sixty-two games would determine if this was in fact the year they would end their near-three-decade postseason drought. Then in early August, another phenomenon from the other side of the globe arrived, inspired by the Royals. But this time, it wasn't the pop charts that were conquered, it was the baseball world.

Enter SungWoo Lee, a South Korean Kansas City Royals superfan. According to an interview, Lee used American sports broadcasts as a means to work on his English. He became a fan of the Royals in the early 1990's, and quickly his fondness grew to outright devotion. Eventually, he became a well-known figure in Royals fan networks and message boards. After twenty-plus years of fanhood, SungWoo Lee never came close to Kauffman Stadium. Not by a long shot. So the groundswell of social networking began to draw national attention to the cause of bringing Lee to Kansas City. How appropriate that when he arrived on American soil, draped in Royals attire, the team was about to win their second consecutive game. They would end their road trip with a fourth consecutive win. When the team returned to Kansas City, their biggest fan was waiting. He was given treatment similar to a foreign dignitary. He threw out a first pitch, did multiple television and radio interviews, and even met Royals icon George Brett. At every moment, Lee was nothing short of grateful. He showed a giddiness that from time to time we can recognize in ourselves when we remember why we love this game.

And so the Royals won. Again and again, climbing ten games over a five-hundred record. SungWoo Lee had become an icon in himself. The Midwestern city in northern Missouri had embraced him as one of their own. On the night of their eighth consecutive win, Lee was given the privilege of placing a large "W" onto the Kaufmann Stadium wall, signifying the victory. The win had moved Kansas City back into first place. The Royals were for real, and they had the heartwarming story to go along with their solid play. As with any dalliance, all things must come to an end, and SungWoo Lee's ten-day vacation in the American heartland came to a close, but his passion began to echo throughout the fan base.

The Royals either held or shared the lead in the American League Central Division from August 11th through September 10th, before finally relinquishing it for good. There would be no division title for Kansas City, but more surprises would be in store.

On September 26th, they clinch their first playoff spot since that magical summer of 1985. Fans from across the baseball world congratulated the faithful of a team so accustomed to thinking of October as the second month of the Chiefs' season. The next day, the Royals lost, all but sealing their fate as Wild Card game hosts. I was at that game in Chicago. They haven not lost since. The team won its eighty-ninth game the following afternoon on the final day of the regular season. It was the most games the Royals had won since baseball went to three divisions in each league in 1994.

After outlasting Oakland in one of the greatest games I've seen, then sweeping the AL-best Los Angeles Angels to force an unconventional showdown with the Baltimore Orioles, the Royals made an even stronger statement. In four games, the Royals scored the minimum required to win. Four games. Four wins. Each decided by one run. What cannot go unnoticed is the Baltimore effort. Each game was edge-of-your-seat cinema, often climaxing with a pinch-run bunt, bloop single, or some Oscar-worthy pitching performance.

On the night of October 16th, 2014, the Royals clinched the American League pennant. Some things are stranger than fiction. I can nearly guarantee that there is not a soul who believed with confidence that back in March, the Royals would go on to play for the World Series title. I say nearly, because a lunatic might look back and see Lorde's George Brett photograph-inspired song as an omen. A lifelong fan from the opposite side of the globe, who followed his team long before the days of broadband internet, might have faith in his team beyond understanding. No matter the possiblity, no matter the improbability of what has happened, the they are in the World Series. They are no longer draft day darlings of yesteryear. They are a team built on unreal speed and stellar defense. The Kansas City Royals now sit atop the league that ravaged them for nearly three decades.

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