It felt surreal to wake up this morning knowing that, for the first time since I was 5 years old, the Kansas City Royals are a playoff baseball team. It wasn’t a dream. No pinching necessary; it’s absolutely legit. The Royals are going to the playoffs.
Twenty-nine years. Man, that’s been almost an entire lifetime. People throughout Kansas City – and Kansas City natives around the world – are partying like 1985! That was such an incredible season. Back to the Future was on the big screen; “Careless Whisper” by Wham was the No. 1 song on the charts (although, fittingly, Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” also were among the top hits); the original Nintendo was so new that you didn’t yet need to blow into the games to make them work; and, of course, George, Frank, Sabes and the boys in blue were celebrating a World Series championship here in Kansas City.
I remember it so vividly, like it was yesterday … I think.
I do remember it, don’t I?
I mean, there was Don Denkinger’s blown call on Jorge Orta’s infield single that propelled the Royals to victory in Game 6 against St. Louis.
There was the fly ball to Daryl Motley for the final out of Game 7, followed by Bret Saberhagen leaping into George Brett’s arms and, of course, the ensuing dogpile.
The memories are all so vivid, so very real … aren’t they?
I’ve thought about it more and more during the past few weeks as the Royals have closed in on the long-elusive playoff berth to end what was by far the longest postseason drought in major American sports. The more my mind chewed on it, the more I simply wasn’t sure.
Do I really remember the 1985 World Series? Or have the highlights simply been seared into my mind after being played so many times through the years since, let’s face it, there have been so few Royals highlights worth showing.
That’s not to say the Royals have been flat-out awful continuously during the playoff drought. Truth be told, they were plenty good for most of a decade after winning the World Series. They posted winning records in six of the next nine seasons, including winning 92 games in 1989. The 1987 squad finished two games out of first in the division, and the 1994 squad was four games out of first when the MLB strike canceled the season.
After the strike, however, the Royals finished with losing records in 17 of the next 18 seasons, including four 100-loss seasons in a five-year span. In fact, the one winning season — 2003 — was so unexpected that it was considered “magical” because the team finished four whole games above .500, or — as the rest of the league calls it — slightly above average.
The Royals’ Hall-of-Famers were long gone during that time; the franchise was devoid of superstars who wanted to stay; and the franchise looked every bit what you’d expect from a team owned by a former Wal-Mart executive.
As a fan base, Kansas Citians grew accustomed to the memories of 1985. We’d see the highlights a few times each year, reminding us of the good times and the reasons we remained loyal to the franchise all these years. It reminded us of the passion and fury that George Brett brought to the ballpark each day, of the speed and grace with which Willie Wilson patrolled the outfield, and the perfection displayed by Frank White at second base.
The throwback highlights also allowed us to forget – at least temporarily – the putrid level of stink that the Royals had come to embody in the years since David Glass took over the franchise following longtime owner Ewing Kauffman’s death.
The 1985 Royals and early 1990s Royals were Mr. Kauffman’s Royals. They were fighters, a blue-collar bunch of gritty guys who embodied the spirit of the city.
This was Mr. Glass’s Royals. And this. And this. And this. Clowns. Jokers. Buffoons. Give them this much credit: they were awfully clever at inventing ways to lose. I mean … seagulls. Yes, that’s correct. Seagulls.
It’s been a pretty miserable 29-year drought for Royals fans with a generation growing up knowing their franchise as a 162-game-per-year blooper reel and with most, like myself, latching on to memories of the glory days and assuming that’s all we’d ever have. Sure, 2003 had been a nice little tease, and 2013 felt the same way when the squad broke through and went 86-76 after flirting with playoff contention down the stretch.
We’d been teased before, so many of us were hesitant to buy into the 2014 squad, and our doubts were validated as the Royals failed oh so miserably to hit this season despite boasting a dominant pitching staff. The Royals had the pitching and defense, but they wouldn’t get out of their own way offensively.
Then, down the stretch, they started to hit. In the final weeks of the season they invented ways to win games. Meanwhile, it was their competition that melted down. Finally, with destiny in their own hands, they opened last night’s game with three straight hits and pushed across a few early runs. Starting pitcher Jeremy Guthrie was magnificent before handing the ball over to the bullpen Untouchables (Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland) to close the door on the Chicago White Sox and douse Kansas City’s 29-year playoff drought in a fine spray of champagne.
Fans who made the trip to Chicago crowded around the Royals’ dugout to celebrate with the team; bars throughout Kansas City were standing-room-only with strangers hugging strangers; the newspaper racks around town proclaimed “Royal Again” while the city partied like it was 1985.
Do I remember 1985?
Shoot, I don’t know anymore.
But I do know this: I still feel chills from last night. The Kansas City Royals are going back to the playoffs, and I don’t want to wait another 29 years to see it happen again.