“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.