A few weeks ago, I received an email from a friend I had not heard from in some time, a well-known national sportswriter - many of you would recognize his name, though you might not be aware he's a Royals fan. With his permission, I'd like to share it with you on the eve of Opening Day.
So it's like this...
The night the Royals won the World Series, I was in XXXXX, attending graduate school at XXXXX, and working on a group project with three brilliant, delightful, non-sports-loving women who were utterly ignorant of the epic significance of the moment, and completely indifferent to the fact that I was having my Arsenal-Finally-Wins-the-League-Fever-Pitch redemption moment in utterly alien surroundings. I'm hard pressed to come up with an analog, but the 65-year-old golfer who finally makes a hole-in-one on a day he's playing a round alone might come close.
Anyway, once I got the women out of my apartment, I was able to make numerous calls to my friends back in KC, many of whom were driving through Westport, going batsh*t along with most of the rest of the city. It was good hearing all the honking, but I deeply missed being there.
Long before Bill Simmons ever came up with a five-year rule, I reveled in the Royals championship for a good half-decade. As you well know, they used up all the honeymoon goodwill that they had accrued. I suffered through the summer swoons and the fall fades. And was even on hand when it got truly ugly. I was there on April 14, 1992, when we finally rose up from our 0-7 start (and immediately thereafter, of course, proceeded to go on another nine-game-losing skid), scratching out a 3-1 win over the A's. My buddy Rob and I had come up for the opening series, and had the will to live pretty steadily whipped out of us by that team. I saw a lot of Royals games in the early '90s, and talked a lot of Chiefs football while doing so.
Then came Hal McRae going middle-school on poor John Doolittle (and Alan Eskew taking the collateral damage), and the Royals finally getting it together and going on a run in August of '94 and then... the goddam strike, from which I still haven't fully recovered (and for which I still haven't forgiven baseball). From '95 on, watching the Royals has felt like bringing a knife to a gunfight. Even in 2003, I never believed, and my skepticism was so all-encompassing I couldn't
fully enjoy it. I felt like we were doing it with smoke, mirrors and blind faith. And, of course, I was right. I got tired of trying to root for over-age, underpowered has-been white first basemen who were supposed to make us more competitive. And I got tired of watching as the Royals struggled to decide on the shrewdest way to get rid of their best player on an annual basis.
In short, I went through a long period of disaffection similar to what Bill James suffered, only I didn't have a Red Sox job waiting for me on the other side. After 2005, I said Eff This and quit watching full stop. I didn't merely stop watching the Royals, I stopped watching baseball altogether. Didn't attend a game in '06 or in '07. Didn't watch any baseball on TV. Paid only enough attention to remain competitive in my geek baseball league, and in truth got very little joy out of that.
But, well, you know... what are you going to do? It's a long off-season for football and mock drafts from Mel Kiper only get a soul so far. Watching from a distance, I've seen little glints of things in this baseball team, facets to be heartened by and qualities to like in the team that I had completely forsaken and given up hope on. I find there's still something about seeing that big scoreboard from the highway when I roll into town (not at all diminished by the scoreboard being under construction). And it was nice to see Gil Meche work out, and to find out that Brian Bannister could be at once so young and so crafty, and to see Alex Gordon sort of come around (although the Brett comparisons just make me retch) and Billy Butler seems like he could be fun to watch and on and on.
So much against my better instincts, I have found myself giving a sh*t about my baseball team again. And only a month or so after I decided that it was okay to root for the Royals because I think I actually LIKE the team, and think the new manager has a chance to be good, I got your email announcing your blog. And you are now bookmarked and a daily read. Your optimism is both transparent and infectious (not dissimilar from how I feel about a certain football team), and your posts are both edifying and illuminating. I'm back on board. And should some time in the next 10 or 20 years they play a game that matters in October, I intend to be there."
He was still on the fence, as you can see. But this morning I received this followup note:
"I have two baseball caps. One is a Chiefs cap that's about 10 years old and hopeless frayed. The other is a US Soccer cap, maybe six years old, and in reasonable shape.
On Monday, I'm in Kansas City on business, and if one of those silly Sports Nutz type outfits has something in 7 3/8, I'm going to take the plunge. It's not a Greinke jersey, but at this point, it will have to do."
I don't know what's in the air this spring, but it feels...different this year. Yes, Hope Springs Eternal and every team has a chance on Opening Day and all that. But for the last decade, we all knew that the only time the Royals would have a chance was on Opening Day. This year, for the first spring in a long, long time (if you don't count the Fool's Gold spring of 2004), the Royals have given us genuine reason for optimism. It's an optimism that not only says they might have a chance to make things interesting this year, but an optimism that says that even if they don't make things interesting this year, they're going to be worth watching to see if they can make things interesting next year, or the year after that.
Dayton Moore and friends may not have put together a contender yet. But they've put together a team we can be proud of. They've put together a team that has begun to lure back at least one intelligent hard-core fan who sensibly stopped paying attention to them during their darkest years. For that, I thank them. But we still have miles to go before we sleep.