So much of being a sports fan is the chance to be a part of shared memories. Non-sports fans might share in a cultural experience every now and then – Who Shot J.R.?, the Seinfeld finale, the Red Wedding – but to be a fan of a sports team means to share in their most important moments, good or bad, with thousands of strangers who have as much invested in that moment as you. And those memories can resonate years or even decades later. Red Sox fans will always remember where they were when Dave Roberts stole second base. Cubs fans can never forget where they were when Mark Prior got tired in the eighth inning and Alex Gonzalez flubbed a routine double play grounder. If you root for a sports team, you share memories with everyone else who does too.
Except for Royals fans. We don’t have any real shared memories because we haven’t seen our team play a truly meaningful game in a generation.
We have surrogate memories, of games and moments which were ultimately meaningless but at least gave us an emotional rush in the moment. Last time I mentioned Bob Hamelin’s walk-off homer in the 12th inning on July 25th, 1994, the third game in what turned out to be a 14-game winning streak that brought the Royals to within a game of the AL Central lead. Except it happened in July, in a season that was cut short by a strike on August 11th. There was Carlos Beltran’s walkoff homer in the 10th inning on July 20th, 2003, that gave the Royals a 6.5 game lead in the AL Central – except it happened in July, in a season that ended with the Royals in third place, seven games out.
More recently, there was Justin Maxwell’s walk-off grand slam in the 10th inning last year, a memory that still gets Royals fans buzzing. That moment, at least, occurred on September 22nd, just one week before the end of the season. Not to be a buzzkill, but all that win did was keep the Royals in seventh place in the AL, 3.5 games behind the Indians for the final Wild Card spot with seven games left to play. It kept the Royals mathematically alive, but only barely.
Good or bad, shared memories are what make being a sports fan worth it. To have a connection with people you’ve never met, to say the words “Dane Iorg” like some sort of super-secret password within a select community, is worth a thousand meaningless 5-3 losses in mid-May.
But ever since Dane Iorg, the Royals have had only the meaningless losses, not the meaningful memories.
Four years ago, Alex Gordon hit the first walk-off home run of his career, and from the Kauffman Stadium press box, I called it on Twitter. It was a fun moment; this was the pre-renaissance Gordon who was still lost at the plate, and he’d had a terrible game, and as he batted with two outs and two on in the ninth, I decided that, having already predicted his failures in his previous at-bats, that I’d have a little fun and be optimistic this one time. I tweeted this. Gordon hit a blast to right. The Royals beat the Orioles, and some of you joined me in having a fun time rehashing it on Twitter.
But it wasn’t a meaningful memory. The Royals won that game, but they only won 66 other games that year. The biggest legacy of Gordon’s swing that night was that it gave the Orioles a higher draft pick than the Royals, which is why Baltimore ended up with Dylan Bundy and the Royals ended up with Bubba Starling.
Tonight, Alex Gordon hit the second walk-off home run of his career. And with any luck, this one will be remembered by Royals fans years from now, maybe decades from now. The Royals had been shut out all night, and had scored two runs in their previous 28 innings. They were three outs away from squandering another great outing from Danny Duffy, from losing their third game in a row, from letting the Tigers move to within a half-game of first place. Gordon faced Glen Perkins, the rare left-handed closer, who had given up just two homers all year, who has had an ERA under 2.60 for four straight seasons. He was down in the count 0-1. He got a breaking ball that caught too much of the plate and lofted it to right field.
And 28 years of Royals fan experience led me to believe that the ball would be caught, first at the warning track, then at the wall, and then with a leaping grab over the wall. It didn’t look like it had quite enough, and losing a game on a fly ball that was a few inches shy of leaving the yard seemed like a quintessentially Royals thing to do. Only it turned out this ball had just barely enough, or it was being pushed by a tailwind, or the breath of angels. It cleared the wall, Gordon was – for this one night – MVP, the offensive doldrums of the last few days were forgotten, and the Royals were back on a winning streak.
Maybe this home run will survive only as a wistful memory the way Hamelin’s and Beltran’s and Maxwell’s home runs do, a nice moment in an ultimately meaningless season. But it already feels like the biggest moment for the Royals in 29 years.
And it feels like just the first of many big moments – moments that we’ll all remember, and we’ll still be talking about when we’re sitting in rocking chairs many years hence – to come. Win or lose, I’m looking forward to sharing as many of those moments with you as possible.
- While we can no longer claim Alex Gordon to be massively underrated, there is one member of the Royals who still manages to fly under the radar despite having an enormous impact on their success this season and last. I’m speaking of Head Athletic Trainer Nick Kenney. (And as always, “Nick Kenney” is just shorthand for “Kenney, and Assistant Trainer Kyle Turner, and the rest of the Royals’ training staff.”)
One hidden indicator for a team’s success in any given season is this simple question: how many starts did they have to give to pitchers who were not supposed to be in their rotation? Generally speaking, teams whose five primary starting pitchers make 150 or more starts in a season are contending teams. That’s true even if not all five pitchers are elite starters; think of the Reds the last couple of years, who had Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos, yes, but also Mike Leake and Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang. Never having to send a clay pigeon onto the mound is almost as valuable as having #1 starters in your rotation.
This year, the Royals’ Opening Day rotation included James Shields, Jason Vargas, Yordano Ventura, Jeremy Guthrie, and Bruce Chen. Chen was re-signed largely for his ability to move to the bullpen if and when Danny Duffy was ready, and that’s exactly what happened when Chen hurt his back and Duffy was put in the rotation in early May. Chen returned to the rotation for a couple of starts when Vargas had an appendectomy, but otherwise has stayed in the bullpen.
Shields, Vargas, Ventura, Guthrie, and Duffy have started all but eight of the Royals’ games this year, and Chen has started seven of the other eight. We knew this at the beginning of the season: the Royals clearly had six guys in the organization capable of starting in the majors this year, but they just as clearly did not have seven. While their overall record is a surprise, it would be much less of a surprise if we had known before the season that on August 26th, those six guys would have started 129 of the Royals’ 130 games.
The 130th game was Aaron Brooks’ notorious start in Toronto, when he allowed seven runs and was knocked out of the game in the first inning. That just reinforces the importance of having starters who take the ball every fifth day, and it reinforces the importance of a training staff that can keep pitchers healthy. Let’s not forget the bumps in the road – the reason Brooks made a start was that Ventura walked off a mound on May 26th holding his elbow. While you and I were scheduling his Tommy John surgery, the Royals waved it off from the beginning, and they were proven right when Ventura only missed one start. Better still, he has stayed healthy since returning to the rotation; while his strikeout rate has dropped, his velocity has stayed steady.
The game is designed to break pitchers. For all the advances that baseball teams have made in playing a better game, the code of keeping pitchers healthy has been an incredibly difficult one to crack. Pedigree helps; Shields has been incredibly durable throughout his career, and Guthrie has cheerfully given his team six innings and three runs allowed for the better part of eight seasons. But Vargas missed half of last year with a blood clot in his armpit, a potentially serious issue that sometimes is a harbinger of Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. Ventura’s a rookie, a 5’11” rookie who throws 100 mph. Duffy just returned from Tommy John surgery last August. It was unrealistic to assume the Royals would get to mid-August with all five guys still in their rotation.
But they are, and the Royals are winning. That’s not a coincidence, and that’s not simply luck. The Royals have been one of the healthiest teams in baseball ever since Kenney and Turner were hired after the 2009 season; they won the Dick Martin Award presented to the best training staff in the majors after the 2011 season. And it goes beyond the rotation, obviously; aside from Luke Hochevar blowing out his elbow in spring training, and aside from Eric Hosmer’s broken hand, the Royals haven’t suffered a significant injury all year. Ok, Bruce Chen’s bulging disc counts, but Scott Downs’s sore neck doesn’t. They’ve barely used the DL. And they might have been even healthier last year.
I mean, look around the majors. Remember that point about starts from your projected Opening Day rotation? The Texas Rangers, widely expected to be World Series conteders before the season, had so many injuries to their projected rotation before and during spring training that they opened the year with a rotation of Tanner Scheppers (making his first career start on Opening Day!), Martin Perez, Robbie Ross, Joe Saunders, and Nick Martinez. They have the worst record in baseball. The Tigers have a rotation that includes the 2013 AL Cy Young winner (Max Scherzer), the 2012 AL Cy Young winner (David Price), and the 2011 AL Cy Young and MVP winner (Justin Verlander). But Verlander hasn’t been right all season – maybe he’s not hurt in the traditional sense, but he’s clearly not 100% - and now Anibal Sanchez is on the DL, and the Tigers’ rotation includes the likes of Robbie Ray, Buck Farmer (who was in the Midwest League in July), and now Kyle Lobstein is supposed to get a spot start.
No one in the Royals’ rotation is at the level of a Price or a Scherzer, at least not consistently. But every single game the Royals put a guy on the mound who can be at least adequate (Guthrie), and generally better than that. It’s a testament to the front office finally figuring out this pitching thing, but it’s also a testament to a training staff that, by keeping their charges healthy, have made the job of the front office that much easier.
The Royals have announced that Ventura will miss tomorrow night’s start with a sore back, so for only the second time all season, someone other than the six guys the Royals went to war with back in March will get a start. This time, at least, it’s Liam Hendricks, who looked like a throw-in in the massive Danny Valencia/Erik Kratz trade back in July, but was having a phenomenal season in Triple-A at the time. For the season, Hendricks had 13 walks and 126 Ks in Triple-A in 143 innings. He’s been pretty terrible in the major leagues – 6.06 ERA in 169 innings – but if his control has gone from pretty good to phenomenal, he might yet turn into something. There’s a non-zero chance he’s the next Bob Tewksbury. In any case, I’d rather see him on the mound than Aaron Brooks, and it says something that the Royals are turning to him instead of Chen.
But the sooner the Royals go back to their best-case rotation, the better, and it seems like the Royals are skipping Ventura’s start out of an abundance of caution. In Kenney and Turner’s fifth season on the job, they’ve earned the benefit of the doubt from me that they know what they’re doing.
I know some of my criticisms of the Royals’ organization may ring hollow in retrospect, and there are things I’ve said that I wish I could take back. But I’ll stand by those words I wrote five years ago. Not to beat a dead horse or to pick on someone years after the fact, but hiring a new training staff is one of the best things that Dayton Moore has done as general manager. I hope Kenney and Turner are awarded full playoff shares by the team. Because if the Royals get there, they will have done as much as anyone to make it possible.