Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Promised Land.

“You know, it’s very strange – I have been in the revenge business so long, now that it’s over, I don’t know what to do with the rest of my life.” – Inigo Montoya’s final line in The Princess Bride

Playoff Odds: 100%

I’ve waited for tonight for twenty-nine years. My entire adult life and nearly half my childhood, I’ve been waiting for the day that the Royals clinched a playoff spot.

And from the moment last year when the 2014 schedule was released and it was revealed that the Royals, for the second straight season, would finish the season in Chicago, I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to watch them clinch a playoff spot in person. Waiting skeptically, perhaps, but waiting nonetheless.

At some point in the last month, that possibility went from abstract to very, very real. At some point in the last week, it started to feel like an inevitability. The Royals were going to clinch a playoff spot. It was going to happen here in Chicago. And damned if I wasn’t going to watch it in person.

Seattle’s victory on Thursday ended the possibility of clinching that night, and when the Royals were down 3-1 after four innings the doubt started creeping in like an alien creature in a B-movie. James Shields never looked comfortable on the mound, the Royals stranded a leadoff double in the fourth without moving the runner, and after Salvador Perez led off the fifth with a triple, Omar Infante and Mike Moustakas both struck out.

But then Alcides Escobar singled him home with two outs. Then Eric Hosmer homered to tie the game in the sixth. And then Shields turned the ball over to Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis and Greg Holland. And then Billy Butler hit a tailor-made double play ball to shortstop with men on first and third and one out in the eighth, only Alexei Ramirez’s relay throw to first bounced, and Jose Abreu couldn’t come up with it, and the Royals had the lead. And then Terrance Gore pinch-ran for Butler and created a run with his speed, and then in the ninth Jarrod Dyson walked with two outs and created a run with his speed.

The Royals won, 6-3, and their magic number dropped to one, and not only did they all but make themselves a playoff team Thursday night, you could see the outline of a team that deserves to be a playoff team – good starting pitching, a dominant bullpen, a lineup that puts the ball in play and runs with abandon.

And we had a blast. I attended Thursday night’s game alone, but some of you dropped by early on and took advantage of the White Sox’s gracious hospitality – empty seats all over the place behind the first base dugout – to sit down and enjoy the game with me. We slapped hands after every run scored and every scoreless inning from HDH; we yelled ourselves half-hoarse chanting “LET’S GO ROYALS” for the last three innings. I’ve never seen U.S. Cellular Field with so many Royals fans, and we congregated near their dugout, and the shared communal experience of hundreds of long-suffering fans in sight of the promised land huddled together in a hostile ballpark made the game somehow more and less meaningful at the same time. More meaningful because we all knew what a win would mean to all of us, and yet less meaningful because sharing in the experience together, win or lose, is what makes being a fan so fulfilling in the first place.

Now take that experience, jack it up a degree or ten, and you had tonight.

My brother Roukan came with me tonight; he was nearly as rabid a Royals fan as I was from the late 1980s to the mid 1990s, but at some point the losing broke him, and he’s only now finding his way back. We again sat in the box seats behind the Royals dugout, in the 31st row. By gametime I saw and greeted half a dozen fellow Royals fans from the night before like old buddies. We moved up to the 23rd row before the first pitch. And tonight the Royals took the drama away early, scoring two runs in the game’s first six pitches and three runs before the top of the first was over.

They would sprinkle a little drama back in as the game progressed, as they were unable to put Hector Noesi away. They had two on in the second and Aoki – who continues to channel Peak Ichiro – hit a hard line drive that was flagged down by the left fielder. In the third, Gordon hit a bomb to right field that was betrayed by the cool temps and a breeze that went still, and died at the wall. Between Infante’s single in the fourth and Butler’s single in the ninth, 14 straight Royals failed to reach base.

And it didn’t matter, because Jeremy Guthrie reminded us that the strength of this team is that there are so many guys who can contribute in so many ways. He was fantastic tonight; the White Sox will be seeing his curveball in their sleep before awaking in a cold sweat. By the fifth inning we were counting outs, like Denny Matthews on an October night so many years ago.

By the time Wade Davis came in for the eighth, we had moved down to Row 15; Davis got scratched for a run, yielding the most tense moment of the game, when he faced Jose Abreu representing the tying run. But Davis struck out Abreu swinging, and then Conor Gillaspie swinging, and complete strangers were exchanging knowing nods and thumbs up and high fives. Even with a much larger Friday night crowd that wanted to acknowledge the retiring Paul Konerko, the “LET’S GO ROYALS” chant broke out so many times that White Sox fans had no choice but to respond, leading to what sounded like “LET’S GO ROYSOX” reverberating throughout the stadium.

And then Greg Holland came out for the ninth, and we spotted some vacated seats in Row 5, and we moved down as Royals fans from all over the stadium started streaming into the section. Konerko tried to give the other fans something to cheer for, but his line drive was snagged by Gordon. Jordan Danks struck out swinging. We stepped out of the row and down the steps as far as we could go; my brother snuck around an usher and leaned on the dugout itself.

And we all had a fantastic view when Michael Taylor stepped in, and skied the first pitch straight up, a perfect white sphere on a perfect black background, and Perez stared up into the sky and positioned himself under it, and then we all heard the ball land in Perez’s glove with a cathartic thud, and then we all lost it.

I don’t know that I’ll remember everything that happened afterwards, but what I do remember will probably remain a memory for a long, long time. We screamed. We gave high fives until our palms tingled. We continued yelling “LET’S GO ROYALS!” at the top of our lungs while the team congregated on the infield. We introduced ourselves to each other, the Royals fans who like me happened to live in Chicago, the fans who had driven up from Kansas City or from Nebraska or who flew in from Cleveland or Minnesota or elsewhere, all with the singular intention to be there for that moment. I found Curt Nelson, the Director of the Royals’ Hall of Fame, who had driven up from Kansas City early in the morning to be at this game, and Dave Webster, a.k.a. KayCee, who drove up as well after his flight was cancelled by the fire at O’Hare this morning and made it just in time for the first pitch. He was in full work attire, with his 1880s baseball uniform and his big blue “W” in tow.

The players disappeared into the dugout and didn’t emerge for a while; I imagine you all saw them celebrating in the clubhouse. But we didn’t go anywhere. Friday night is Fireworks Night, and we watched the fireworks and assumed they were for us, and who’s to say they weren’t? And then the fireworks ended and we waited, and screamed, and chanted some more.

And then Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer came out first, goggles on the top of their heads like flip-down sunglasses, huge goofy grins on their faces, and they started spraying champagne into the crowd. Then Raul Ibanez popped his head out. “RA-OOOOL!” The rest of the team soon emerged, turning to the crowd and cheering us on. The players came around the dugout to high five the fans; I slapped hands with Tim Collins and Wade Davis. Alex Gordon emerged from the dugout carrying his child, and he was as emotional as I’ve ever seen him – he was smiling – and we started chanting, “AL-EX GOR-DON! AL-EX GOR-DON!” until he smiled even more.

Camera crews came by and stared interviewing the fans in the front lines, stopping only when one of them was asked how he was feeling and he replied with questionable sobriety, “I’M F***ING GREAT!” (You’ll have to tell me whether they were broadcasting live or not. I kind of hope they were.)

And then Perez looked into the crowd and started pointing at someone, and telling them to come closer. I figured that maybe his girlfriend had made the trip or something, until I realized that he was pointing at Webster, and insisting that he come down on the field. So KayCee climbed up on top of the dugout, and then Perez helped him down, and KayCee held up the big blue “W” for everyone to see, and we all screamed at the top of our lungs again.

And then someone yelled out “NORI!” to a contingent of Japanese reporters that had surrounded a player, and Aoki beamed, and we started chanting “NORI! NORI! NORI!”, and he came over with his hands raised exultantly, and he threw his cap in the crowd. Johnny Giavotella threw a shirt into the crowd and was greeted with roars. If you were a Royal, we loved you. I caught a glimpse of a beaming Ned Yost before he trotted into the dugout and screamed out "NED!" like he was Terry Francona and Joe Maddon wrapped into one. I’m pretty sure in that moment I would have kissed Aaron Crow.

And before we were done the fans insisted on giving one player what might be his last hurrah, chanting “BILL-Y BUT-LER! BILL-Y BUT-LER!” until he separated from a pack of reporters and acknowledged his adoring fans. Tonight wasn’t just about this season, but about an entire generation of fandom that came before it, and we weren’t going to simply ignore one of the best Royals hitters of that generation just because he was having a tough year.

And then the players slowly drifted back into the dugout, and we said our goodbyes, and we slowly headed to the exits, losers no more.

There will be time to analyze soon enough, to talk about these last few games (Hosmer’s heating up!), and the games to come (should Guthrie bump Vargas from the playoff rotation? Is Yost really serious about starting Shields on short rest on Monday?). There may even be a long apology posted that I need to start writing. But right now, I just want to enjoy the moment. I want to enjoy this moment. The moment I’ve been waiting for since I was ten years old.

There’s still so much uncertainty left in the regular season. With just two days left, it’s still possible that the Royals could have to fly to Oakland for the Wild Card game Tuesday night; it’s possible that the Royals will host the A’s (or the Mariners) at Kauffman Stadium that night; it’s possible that they’ll play in Detroit on Monday for the AL Central tiebreaker, and then play again in Kansas City the next day if they lose; it’s even possible that they could win the AL Central outright and enjoy a three-day rest before opening the ALDS in Baltimore on Thursday.

But one thing is certain. The Royals are a playoff team again. The longest postseason drought in North American sports is over.

I have been in the business of waiting for the Royals to make the playoffs for so long that, like Inigo Montoya, I need a little time to process the news that the quest is over, and it’s time to find a new quest.

But only a little time. Because clinching a playoff spot isn’t the end of a quest; it’s simply the beginning of one. The Royals disguised this for decades, but making the playoffs is the easy part. Ten out of thirty teams (33.3%) make the playoffs, but just one of those ten (10%) wins a championship.

Tonight, the Royals took the first step towards winning a championship. They’ve still got four steps to go. I don’t need to think about what I’m going to do now that the six-fingered man is dead: I’m just going to keep rooting for the Royals to take the next step. And I’m going to enjoy this ride as long as it lasts, all the more so because I get to enjoy it with all of you.


Unknown said...

Five day weekend!!! Celebrations through Tuesday! This is what to do, I think... I'll celebrate just in case!!!

Anonymous said...

Congratulations to Rany and Royals fans everywhere.

Hope to meet you in the World Series!

Michael S. said...

I laughed and cried when reading this!!!

Its been a long time coming. I could care less if someone agrees with how we got here, I'm just freaking thrilled we made it! I can now forgive Dayton Moore for Jose Guillen, Yuniesky Betancourt (twice), and Willie Bloomquist, etc. It took longer than we initially hoped, but we have made it back to the postseason! The Hunt for Blue October has been slain!

Unknown said...

As a Phillies fan, I remember the euphoria of that first playoff trip in 2007 like it was yesterday. Soak it up. Enjoy it like a kid with no reservations and the best kind of delusion. Success without the weight of expectation is a beautiful and fleeting thing. So many of us are jumping on with you this week. Now go win the whole damn thing!

Steve N said...

I grew up a Phillies fan, sigh. I am, slightly, too young to remember the 1950 pennant. I do remember the horror of the 1964 collapse. But....I was there on October 21, 1980 watching Tug, Mike, and Steve win the first ever Philly World Series. I know the long waiting thrill. (Okay, they beat the Royals, but don't hold it against me.)

vandalia said...

What is interesting is how "Royal-esque" this team actually is.

This current team is built on pitching, defense, and speed. That was pretty much the formula that won in 1985, and the many years before that. In the Royals "heydays", they were great at developing pitching, but absolutely horrible at developing position players. If I remember correctly, the farm system went close to a decade between Willie Wilson and the next home-grown position player to even see the field for the Royals. So a pitching and defense focused team is very much consistent with the Royal's long term identity.

The other critical point is that the Royals did not destroy their farm system to reach this point. Of course they traded Myers, Odorizzi, and a few other prospects, but they should also end up with a solid player in free agent compensation for Shields.

My concern was that they would greatly overpay to pick up a few veteran players this summer that would only marginally benefit this team. The critical factor is that teams and fans focus on hope, not past results. Even if the Royals win the World Series, come spring training everyone will think "Wow, that was great. Now what do we have to look forward to?" A World Series would be great, but if the price was looking at another long stretch of futility, that World Series buzz would wear off very quickly.

Michael S. said...

4/5 of the starting rotation will be back. The entire infield is under team control. As is our three top outfielders. We have the option of keeping all 3 of the death hydra, but that would be expensive.

We do lose Shields, most likely, and Aoki as well. We may end up trading away Holland or Davis to save some money. Hochevar is a free agent, but coming off the injury maybe we bring him back on a lesser deal to replace them.

Overall, most of this team will be here next year. With a savvy move here and there maybe we can do this again sooner than 29 years!

Unknown said...

Come on... let's not start with the talk of a long stretch of futility already. I'm giddy this morning, don't ruin it

Unknown said...

In 1985 I thought more championships were on the immediate horizon. Memories such as those created last night need to be cherished and preserved. Thanks for memorializing Friday's events in your post Rany.

George Blowfish said...

Loved the read. Congrats Rany. BTW: it was the Sox 2nd baseman that bounced the throw on Butler's DP ball. But we get the idea.

Unknown said...

Awesome. Came here this morning in hopes of reading something exactly like this. Glad your long, miserable wait is over.

Unknown said...

You'd make a great Dread-Pirate Roberts.

Sarah said...

I've been enjoying your articles after every game so much, and this one topped them all. FINALLY, what a wonderful time to be a Royals fan!

Mark said...

Rany, you've probably written about more bad baseball than any writer in the history of the game.

Congratulations on your deliverance!

Unknown said...

You never disappoint Rany. I found this blog when reading a Bill Simmons article years ago suggesting several "must-reads" on the internet. All the other must-reads have come and gone for me, except your blog. I haven't always agreed with your analysis of the Royals, but I always respected the class in which you have delivered those arguments. Even if this journey lasts a game, it was worth it. I'm 31 years old and have listened to Royals games on the radio here in Tulsa, OK all these years, but never a playoff game on TV (obviously). It will be nice to see a Royals uniform out there come PLAYOFF Tuesday. Thank you and let's enjoy what's ahead

gsmith601 said...

Great read Rany. Really going to miss your writing going forward.

Unknown said...

Ryan Balsiger, hate to burst your bubble, but I doubt that Rany reads any comments to his blog. He never responds to most, if not all, comments.

Rany said...

You're right that I don't have time to respond to most of them, but I certainly try to read them all.

Unknown said...

Haha. Somebody tried to be a know it all and burst somebody's bubble and then Rany bursted his bubble. Smack!

Roy in Omaha said...

Rany, I hate to burst your and everyone else's balloon, but, Tuesday night's game with the A's is not a playoff game.

This game counts in the regular season standings, as do all the stats from the game, and, Major League Baseball, itself, goes out of way to say it isn't, and officially refers to the Wild Card games as "Tiebreakers".

Further, all teams involved have their entire roster eligible for the game. Meaning, every player that was on the roster on September 1st is available for duty Tuesday night, something that will not be the case if the Royals happen to advance from that point.

I am glad that you will finally get to see the Royals in the post season. I have already had the pleasure, having attended every Royals home post season playoff and World Series game that they have ever played besides the entirety of the 1985 World Series. I hope you enjoy the first experience as much as I did in 1976---until Chambliss hit that home run.

KHAZAD said...

Roy in Omaha - You are misinformed. Tuesday's game IS a playoff game. The statistics do NOT count as regular season statistics, and the Royals must pick a 25 man roster for the game.

The game baseball refers to as a "tiebreaker game" would be the Monday game we would have played against the Tigers if we had tied for the division, or a game to determine a wild card participant in case of a wild card tie, which happened last year when the Rays & Rangers tied for the second wild card spot. The rules for those games are as you said.

The Wildcard game is a legitimate playoff game, and is treated as such by MLB.

Drew Milner said...

So wrong Roy. Read Khazad's comment

Unknown said...

Mick Unsell, no problem, I just wanted to share my story like many have on this blog, because it has been a great place to get away from day-to-day life at times. I believe Rany has posted several comments over the years (which I see he has here as well), but it wasn't an expectation anyway. As a Royals fan who lives away from KC, it's not always easy to connect with other about the team, but I found this blog was a connection for me, even if I was just reading what one Royals fan was going through in his mind (mostly intelligent posts I might add). Yes, it is weird to connect over the internet usually, but it doesn't have to be a cynical place, it is what we make it. Enjoy the game tomorrow everybody, whether attending, watching, listening, blogging, tweeting, following online or getting updates, doesn't matter we are all fans!

Unknown said...

Chills when Rany says "...cathartic thud." It is so good to "be royal"!

Unknown said...

To Ryan Balsiger (and Rany): my apologies for being so cynical. Rany's response to my comment was perfect. Go Royals!

Anonymous said...

By any meaningful measure - BaseRuns, player projections, even good, old-fashioned run differential - the Royals are a .500 team that luckboxed its way into (half) a playoff spot. I'm happy for you, and for Royals fans, I really am. But why are you apologizing? You were wrong about nothing.

Unknown said...

Onenewyorkthing took the words right out of my mouth. I hesitated to post because I didn't want to be a party pooper, but he's right. One of the things that I realized in making the playoffs is how NOT HARD it is. Don't get me wrong, it's not easy. But, you don't have to be the '27 Yankees to make it either. 8+ years, selling out to make this the year, and we are probably the lowest odds in the playoffs. And probably are here on luck. And look like the least likely to return next year. Thanks, Dayton, for making us not horrible anymore, but I am ready for someone else.

Unknown said...

No worries Mick, let's stick together for at least 1 more game and see what happens. I counted 12 wild card teams that have one at least 1 series in the playoffs. 5 won the world series, another 5 made it to the series. I know the Royals don't stack up historically with some of these teams, but I think it's fair to say, once you're in, you've got a chance. Shields and the Royals, let's do this. Great to have this playoffs-eve feeling, I've got to get some sleep and stop checking for an update!

Unknown said...

After the Chiefs' spanking of NE tonight, I just hope the Mojo spreads across the parking lot for tomorrow night. This could be 2 of the best nights in KC sports history!

Otis said...

To paraphrase the rest of that Princess Bride interchange: "Have you considered the Pirates?"

Zach said...

Rany - I've known of you and followed you on Grantland for a while but just found out tonight you live in Chicago. I was at Friday's game & got to experience everything you wrote about (I even had the thrill of Salvy pouring champagne into my mouth). I'm so bummed I didn't get to meet you there...I'm sure we bumped into each other at some point.

There's so much going on in the past week and so much I had to say that I wrote my first blog today. Check it out if you have a chance: it's at

And if you're not going to be in Anaheim tomorrow & are watching the game from a bar in Chicago, let me know!