So when I said that I’d fire up the blog again if and when the Royals made the postseason, I neglected to state the obvious corollary: that if the Royals actually won the World Series, I’d spend the entire off-season blogging about their World Championship. Well, a deal’s a deal. They won. Look for me to write about the 2015 Royals on this here blog from now until I’m either out of things to say or Opening Day, whichever comes first.
They won. The Royals are World Champions. I’m still in shock. I’m still in awe. I wasn’t sure I’d ever see this day. I was ten years old in 1985, but living overseas, with only the most tenuous connection to the Royals – while we had friends back home in Wichita mail the games on VHS to me to watch a few months after the fact, I have no memory of the exact moment I found out that the Royals won the World Series that year. I thought it was quite possible that I might go an entire lifetime without experiencing that moment at all.
I experienced that moment at 12:34 AM local time at Citi Field in New York City on November 2nd, in the midst of a scrum of maybe 2,000 Royals fans that had all huddled around the visitor’s dugout on the third base side in anticipation of what had, about 15 minutes earlier, become a preordained moment. After three innings of extreme tension, following eight-and-a-half innings of resignation that the series would move back to Kansas City for Game 6, after Christian Colon had become a hero once again, an extremely tight game had suddenly turned into a laugher when Lorenzo Cain cleared the bases with a double in the top of the 12th, allowing the Royals to entrust a five-run lead with three outs to go to a pitcher in the midst of one of the great reliever peaks in the history of baseball.
I was blessed to be at the park, sitting with Connor Schell, Executive Producer for ESPN’s 30 For 30 documentary series and a big-time Royals fan. As the Royals closed out their Game 4 win the night before, I decided to peek at how much plane tickets from Chicago to New York might cost the following morning – and was surprised to learn I could fly for about $300 round-trip, and be back in Chicago first thing Monday morning, in time to get to my office to see patients. Connor had an extra ticket, and suddenly what seemed like a quixotic adventure (with the death of Grantland) looked completely feasible.
I had long ago blocked off Tuesday and Wednesday from my schedule in the event that the Royals hosted Games 6 and 7, but – perhaps belatedly – I finally got what this Royals team was about before Game 5. This wasn’t a team that was going to let up in Game 5, knowing they’d have two chances to win in front of their home fans. They had already played a Game 6 and a Game 7 at home. What they hadn’t done was win a championship, and on the road to get one, they weren’t going to take their foot off the accelerator until they had reached their destination. So I bought my ticket, and I am so happy that I did. A year after I left Kauffman Stadium with 40,000 other distraught fans, thinking this might be the closest I’d ever get to seeing the Royals win a championship, I got to see them win a championship.
The last three outs were surreal – a Citi Field crowd that had already started filing out headed for the exits en masse after Cain’s double, while the third-base side swelled with Royals fans filing in from everywhere else in the park. In the middle of the 12th, Connor and I noticed this dynamic and made the quick decision to head down from the box level to join the mob. (It’s a testament to the security of a five-run lead and Wade Davis that, against the same team that came back in the 10th inning of Game 6 in 1986, there was no concern whatsoever about precipitating an epic comeback.)
Before Game 7 last year, I asked Chris Kamler (a.k.a. The Fake Ned), who attended Game 7 of the 1985 World Series as a 13-year-old, what it was like. He said, “it was basically a non-stop party for two hours.” This game was a non-stop party for about 10 minutes, but it was a party, a giddy coronation. We ran into and hugged Josh Swade, the director of the #BringBackSungWoo documentary for ESPN. We slapped hands and took selfies with a half-dozen Royals fans – while the inning was still in progress. And then there were two outs, and Davis got two strikes on Wilmer Flores, and 2,000 smartphones were all simultaneously pointed towards home plate.
And before Flores was called out looking, I noticed that, on the other side of the field, down the first-base line, the stands were two-thirds empty, which is a hell of a sight for the final out of the World Series. And it struck me that what I was seeing was the mirror image in so many ways of that night in Chicago last September, when this postseason ride officially began, and my brother and I were with maybe 500 Royals fans packed around the Royals’ dugout on the first-base side, in a road stadium that was two-thirds empty. All of the Royals’ other celebrations had occurred at home – the Wild Card game, the ALCS and ALDS victories last year as well as this year. But this amazing journey ended like it started, late at night in unfamiliar territory, with a hardy band of Royals fans on hand to celebrate that was just the vanguard of the wild party that was waiting back home.
Somehow, I was there for both the beginning and the end. When the Royals clinched in Chicago I said at the time that Royals fans celebrated like we had won the World Series. And now…we had actually won the World Series. I’m still in disbelief that it happened at all, let alone that it happened like this. I am so immensely grateful.
That’s the sentiment that I want to hold onto most of all: gratitude. I never really thought this would happen. When the Royals were losing 100 games four times in five years, when they were making inexplicable and embarrassing moves as a matter of course, I wasn’t dreaming of a world championship, or back-to-back pennants. I just wanted to experience a clinching moment or two, that moment when you qualify for the playoffs. Maybe experience what it’s like to win a playoff game or two. Maybe even winning a playoff series.
But to win five of them in two seasons – six if you count the Wild Card game? (Which you should.) To win 22 playoff games – more in the last 14 months than the Royals had won (18) in their entire 45-year history? Nah. I didn’t expect this. No one should expect this.
Think of it like this: mathematically speaking, in order to win two pennants and one world championship, it should take an average of eight appearances in the LDS round. The Royals needed only two playoff appearances – and in one of those had to go through the Wild Card game! – to bag that much hardware. From 1976 to 1985, when the Royals made the playoffs seven times in ten years, they underachieved pretty significantly in the postseason, as you can tell from their 18-25 record. They should have won 3.25 pennants (the 0.25 is for their wacky 1981 ALDS appearance in that bizarre split-season strike year, when they became the only team ever to make the playoffs with a losing record). They actually won only two. But their success these last two postseasons has made them overachievers in the playoffs: they now have a lifetime 40-34 record in the postseason, and have won four pennants and two World Series against an expectation of 3.625 and 1.8125, respectively.
As Royals fans, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that making the playoffs is harder than succeeding in the playoffs – after all, it took 28 years to reach October, but just one try to win a pennant and two tries to win a championship. Don’t fall into that trap. The odds of making it to the LDS round (26.7%) are higher than the odds that an LDS team will make it to the World Series (25.0%), let alone win it.
The Royals have done it two years in a row. That’s not normal, folks. It’s so abnormal that my immense gratitude is tinged with a sentiment I never could have imagined feeling 14 months ago: guilt. Well, maybe not guilt exactly, but whatever the word you would use to describe how you feel when you’ve been blessed with an immense fortune that you’re not quite certain you earned.
What’s that, you’re saying? How could Royals fans have not earned this success after 28 years of nothing? Put aside for a moment the fact that two pennants and one world championship in the last 30 years is exactly what you would expect, statistically speaking – and that’s starting your count from 1986, immediately after the Royals had won their last world championship. Let me put this into perspective this way:
The Royals began play as an expansion team in 1969. Three other teams started play that season: the Milwaukee Brewers (they were the Seattle Pilots for one year), the San Diego Padres, and the Montreal Expos, now the Washington Nationals.
The Expos/Nationals have never won a pennant. They have never been to the World Series.
The Milwaukee Brewers have won a single pennant, in 1982. They lost the World Series.
The San Diego Padres won pennants in 1984 and 1998. They lost both World Series.
The Royals just accomplished something that their three expansion brethren have never experienced, in a combined 141 years of baseball. Counting a championship as worth twice as much as a pennant (which is probably conservative), the Royals have experienced as much success in the last 14 months as the Nationals, Brewers, and Padres have experienced in their entire history combined.
Let’s expand this to look at every expansion team. The Toronto Blue Jays have won two World Series, but they are the only pennants they have ever won. Their 1977 expansion brethren, the Seattle Mariners, have never been to a World Series.
The Florida Marlins, like the Blue Jays, have won two World Series but no other pennants. Their 1993 compatriots, the Colorado Rockies, have one pennant and no championships. The same is true for the Tampa Bay Rays, who started play in 1998 along with the Arizona Diamondbacks, who won the World Series in their only trip there.
Let’s go back to the 1961-62 expansion teams. The Angels won the World Series in 2002 – it’s the only trip to the World Series in their history. The Texas Rangers (who started play as the second iteration of the Washington Senators) have been to two World Series, but lost them both. The Houston Astros have been to only one World Series, and lost it.
The Royals have two pennants in the last two years – only one other expansion team has won more than two pennants ever. That team, which you would never guess because their fans and the media act like they’re this incredibly woebegotten, cursed franchise even though they once won a world championship after being down to their final strike, down two runs with no one on base, is the team the Royals just defeated to win the World Series: the New York Mets, who have won five pennants (1969, 1973, 1986, 2000, 2015) and two championships, in 1969 and 1986.
Of course, the Royals had won two pennants and a world championship before last year. The Royals have won four pennants and two championships in their history; by that gauge of success, they have once again re-established themselves as one of the most successful expansion franchises ever. But just think: even if they had never been to the World Series in their entire history before 2014: today they would still claim more success than 10 of the 13 other expansion teams.
Let me put this in chart form to make it more clear:
Team Pennants Championships
New York Mets 5 2
Kansas City Royals 4 2
Miami Marlins 2 2
Toronto Blue Jays 2 2
Kansas City Royals (2014-15) 2 1
San Diego Padres 2 0
Texas Rangers 2 0
Arizona Diamondbacks 1 1
Los Angeles Angels 1 1
Colorado Rockies 1 0
Houston Astros 1 0
Milwaukee Brewers 1 0
Tampa Bay Rays 1 0
Seattle Mariners 0 0
Washington Nationals 0 0
Expand this further by looking at how some other teams have fared since the Royals entered the major leagues in 1969:
The Chicago Cubs: zero pennants.
The Chicago White Sox: one pennant, one championship.
The Cleveland Indians: two pennants, zero championships.
That’s how rare, and how precious, the 2014-15 Royals are. Fourteen months ago we were the most hapless fans in American sports. Now we are the envy – the rightful envy – of nearly half the teams in the major leagues.
Next time: more on how they pulled it off.