Friday, January 8, 2016

Top Moments of the 2014-2015 Kansas City Royals: Introduction.

“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.”

All this time I’ve been a Royals fan – all this time I’ve been writing about the Royals – I was never really in it for a championship. I mean, that was the ultimate goal, but the laughable lack of success by the franchise from pretty much the time I devoted myself to Royals fandom full-time in the late 1980s made the ultimate goal seem utterly unattainable. Before you propose a moon shot, you have to learn how to get off the ground. I wasn’t in it for a championship. I was in it for a moment.

Any moment, really, that mattered. I’ve gone over this many times before, but prior to September of 2014, the Royals hadn’t simply gone nearly 29 years without a postseason appearance – they had gone nearly 29 years without a meaningful moment. That quote above comes from this column, which I wrote that August. They had never been mathematically alive with even five regular season games left. They had never been more than the longest of long shots after about September 15th. You can’t have a meaningful moment when your season is dead before the season’s final weekend, and when last rites have been pronounced two weeks before the end. For two decades, my favorite moment as a Royals fan was Bob Hamelin’s 11th-inning walkoff homer to win this game, which 1) was played on July 25th, 2) only put the Royals 6 games out of the wild card spot (but was the third win in what turned into a 14-game winning streak), and 3) occurred in a season which was wiped out by a strike barely two weeks later.

Not every team wins a championship. But every team – literally every team in all four major sports other than the Royals – had had a moment. They had some shared memory that their fan base could remember and reminisce about, that bonded them to each other and to the franchise. The Royals, alone among the 122 sports franchises in the last quarter-century, lacked even that.

That’s all I wanted. And holy effing crap did I get it.

The lack of that moment is what made 2014 special even before the playoffs started. Clinching a wild-card spot in Chicago on the final Friday of the regular season remains one of the most poignant memories I have of this whole wild ride, because it was a moment that was magnified beyond anything it deserved because of the context of the franchise, and what its fans had been through. It will probably be a long time before a team – or its fans, in a road ballpark – celebrates as much upon clinching a wild-card spot as the Royals did that night.

And the lack of those moments is what made the Wild Card Game – capitalized out of respect, now and forever – even more of an amazingly apeshit game than it obviously was. If the Royals had been swept by the Angels in the ALDS, that game by itself would have given me enough moments to last for a few years. Every link in the chain of the 8th inning rally, and the 9th inning rally, and the 12th inning rally would have reverberated in my head for ages. Even today, even after all the other playoff games (30!) that have come since, I can recount the play-by-play of those three innings by heart.

But as it turns out, the Wild Card Game was just the opening. While no game since has provided as many signature moments, there have been 30 more playoff games – and the Royals won 21 of them. And it’s not just that they won them – it’s how they won them. The Wild Card Game was the first of three straight games, and four out of five, that the Royals won in extra innings. They would win another game that was tied in the ninth, and two more games by one run – before the World Series even started.

And if anything, they topped their 2014 postseason performance in 2015. Of their 11 wins, eight were comeback victories. In seven of them, they were losing by at least two runs at some point. They won two games that they were losing after eight innings, two they were losing after seven innings, one after six innings, one after five innings, one after four innings, and one after three innings. They outscored their opponents from the seventh inning on, 51 to 11, and from the ninth inning on, 18 to 0.

Put it this way: when Sam Mellinger ranked the 22 Royals’ postseason wins over the past two years – more postseason games than they had won in their previous 45-year history – the last game on his list was a game the Royals won, 2-1. Game 1 of the 2014 ALCS – a game the Royals won in extra innings – ranks 13th.

You know all of this already, but it bears repeating, because I was in it for the moment. And the way the Royals won in the postseason these last two years, by definition, guaranteed even more of those moments than you would hope to get out of two pennants and a world championship. After a quarter-century of waiting for a moment, I have seen so many moments in the last two years that I’m afraid I won’t remember them all.

This hit me in Game 1 of the World Series, when Jarrod Dyson hit a line drive leading off the bottom of the 11th inning that Curtis Granderson barely managed to corral in right field – had the ball bounced off his glove, it is quite possible that a World Series game that had begun with an inside-the-park home run would have ended with one, which would have been one of the most indelible memories of all.

And I remember thinking at the time about whether Dyson had had any big moments in the playoffs other than with his legs. (Obviously I hadn’t forgotten his steal in the Wild Card Game – I’m not senile.) I couldn’t remember any big hits, and while he had made some nice catches in the outfield, none of them were ovation-worthy or game-saving.

And then I remembered – his throw in Game 2 of the ALDS against the Angels. Tie game, bottom of the eighth inning, Wade Davis had uncharacteristically allowed a leadoff double, and David Freese hit a flyball to medium-depth centerfield. Dyson – who had just come into the game for defense – made the catch moving to his right, wound up and threw a one-hopper to third base to nail an astonished baserunner. Instead of having the winning run on third base with one out, there were two outs and the bases were empty. In the stands, a young Royals fan taunts his Angels fan-friend, who proceeds to bash him with his foam finger. Dyson, whose game revolves around his speed, showed the nation what Royals fans already knew: that unlike so many speed guys – think Ben Revere or Johnny Damon or Coco Crisp – he actually has a hell of a good arm. How could I forget that moment – even for a moment?

And that’s when I resolved to make sure that I wouldn’t forget any of these moments, that I wouldn’t take this incredible harvest of good fortune for granted. The best way to do that was to catalog them forever, which meant ranking them and writing about each one.

And so, beginning tomorrow, I will begin my rankings of the Best Moments of the 2014-2015 Kansas City Royals. A Top 20 would obviously be insufficient to catalog so much greatness, and I quickly dispensed with the idea of a Top 50 as an amateur effort. I was going to do a Top 100 list.

And then I started doing my homework, and quickly realized that if I wanted to do this right, even 100 wasn’t going to be enough. Even 200 wasn’t going to be enough. I managed to get the list down to 218 moments, and even that required some discipline to not include more. So that’s what I’ll be ranking: The Top 218 Moments of the 2014-2015 Royals. I’ll be ranking them for their impact on the Royals’ eventual world championship, obviously, but also on their memorability, their resonance with the fan base, and my own subjective feelings about them. Purely in terms of its impact on the field, Mike Moustakas’ catch over the rail of the dugout suite in Game 3 of the 2014 ALCS shouldn’t rank that highly; judging from the fact that the Royals made a bobblehead to commemorate the play, it absolutely does. You get the idea.

Spending the next three months reviewing the top 218 moments of the last two seasons is both stupid and solipsistic, but coming from the guy who was convinced the Wil Myers Trade would be the death of baseball civilization along the banks of the Missouri river, would you expect anything less? Part of me thinks I’m completely crazy for doing this. And part of me wants to do this and not even publish it – just keep it for myself to read, when I need a pick-me-up in five years, or I want to relive the fun times in 20 years, or I want to restore my flagging memory in 40 years and remind myself that yes, this really did happen.

(If you’re ever inclined to take on a similar project, don’t underestimate how much time it will take you simply to come up with the list. For the past month, I’ve spent the majority of my free time poring over box scores and reviewing hours and hours of video to make sure I didn’t leave any moment unrecognized. I hope you all appreciate what an enormous sacrifice I was making, watching Royals highlight after Royals highlight over and over again. It was as torturous as being a barbecue food critic, or the guy who had to test the Harry Potter ride at Universal Studios over and over again to make sure it was ready for public consumption. Your thoughts and prayers are appreciated.)

So tune in Monday when the rankings begin, probably 10 at a time, and I'll try to post a new one once or twice a week so that the countdown will end by Opening Day.

More than any article I’ve written in the past, I’m writing this series of articles primarily for myself. But I hope you come along for the ride. I have a feeling it’s going to be a fun one.