It took an hour to make it out of the Kauffman Stadium parking lot Tuesday night. The traffic jam snaked past empty grills seven hours removed from tailgate party use, and past packs of fans swigging one last beer. A light drizzle glistened in the headlights.
It was well after midnight, and chants of “Let’s go, Royals!” echoed from the stadium concourse 200 yards away as a few thousand fans collected a couple more memories from a night unlike any this city has seen in years – if ever before.
Josh Vernier, host of a post-game radio show, implored listeners to call in and try to explain what had just happened. Numerous callers tried; none could find the words to do it justice.
Some nights are simply beyond explanation, but I think the answer goes something like this: Baseball took one final shot at keeping the Kansas City Royals out of October, and after 29 years of futility Kansas City refused to be denied.
A CITY OF HOPE AND HEARTBREAK
Kansas City sports fans are well versed in disappointment. It’s an unofficial rite of passage if you grow up here. The Chiefs and Royals – the heartbeat of the city for generations – make sure of it.
The Chiefs’ string of 20 seasons without a playoff victory is the third-longest in the NFL (Cincinnati Bengals, 23; Detroit Lions, 22). They can compile the best regular-season record in the league, steamrolling opponents along the way, but without fail they will unveil their signature move when it matters most: the postseason meltdown.
Ask any Kansas City native who Lin Elliott is, and they’ll quickly inform you that he missed three field goals in a 10-7 home playoff loss to Indianapolis after posting the league’s best regular-season record in 1995.
Ask them about how far the NFL’s most explosive offense got in the postseason in 2003, and you will learn quickly about how the Kansas City defense didn’t make a single stop in a 38-31 home loss to Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis Colts.
And don’t even bring up last year when they blew a 28-point second-half lead in an eventual 45-44 loss to the Colts in the playoff opener.
Meanwhile, to grow up a Royals fan is to live a lie; forced to defend the indefensible; letting unbridled hope stand in the way of harsh reality: Your team stinks.
Our friends remind us, and deep inside we know it’s true, but we can’t help it. We love this team. We grew up with the Royals, dreamed of playing at “The K,” and rooted for up-and-coming stars like Johnny Damon, Carlos Beltran and Zack Greinke before they went on to greener pastures and fatter paychecks on a better team that could afford their talent. And lest we try to argue to the contrary, the facts always stand in our way: 17 losing seasons in an 18-year stretch and four 100-loss seasons in five years are a recipe for irrelevancy.
Irrational optimism is strong in Kansas City, perhaps one of our most endearing traits, and there has been no better focal point for irrational optimism than the Royals and their largely uncompetitive existence during a 29-year playoff drought that represented the longest postseason absence in the four major American sports (the Buffalo Bills had the second-longest current drought at 14 years).
The beauty about irrational optimism, of course, is that every once in a while it pays off. Usually the rewards come in small doses … upending a heated rival, knocking off a division leader, or playing the spoiler to another team’s playoff dreams. Even Royals fans have had our share of small doses, as every team is bound to have during the course of a 162-game season, and those tiny shots of optimism have kept our hope alive for nearly three decades.
At some point if you are patient enough and wait long enough, the odds have to turn in your favor whether it’s through bold personnel moves and breakthrough performances, capitalizing on an opponent’s shortcomings, or some combination of the two. At some point, even if for just a fleeting moment, a tortured fan base is bound to be rewarded for its unrelenting loyalty.
Even in Kansas City.
KNOCKING ON THE DOOR OF OCTOBER
Through 29 years of futility, Royals fans fantasized about October baseball. October, we’re told, is when the game changes. The intensity is turned up to 11. Baseball becomes more than a game; it develops a pulse that you can feel radiating through your body with every pitch, every crack of the bat and every ball smacking into the mitt. October, we’re told, is magical.
Blame television scheduling or just some cruel bit of irony, but Kansas City’s season-long quest for that coveted thing called October baseball was not rewarded when the Royals secured their first playoff berth since 1985 last week. Instead, their American League Wild Card contest against the Oakland A’s was slated for September 30, less than five measly hours from October. Maybe this was one last taunt to a franchise on the cusp of shaking its reputation for failure.
You can have your playoff baseball, Kansas City, but you’re going to have to do just a bit more if you want to join the big boys in October.
Kansas City was in the playoffs, but its Hunt for Blue October required one more win.
Royals fans understood that challenge. The moment we’d waited nearly three decades for was upon us. A standing-room-only crowd of 40,502 of us piled into 37,903-seat Kauffman Stadium on September 30 and did not emerge until October 1. What happened during the 4 hours and 45 minutes of baseball in between was beyond magical. The one-game elimination match turned into a 12-inning, heart-pounding masterpiece that played its way into baseball’s 145-year-old history books.
Shortly after the 7:07 p.m. scheduled start time, the opportunities piled up for Kansas City to fold. Time after time the ghosts of Kansas City’s past crept back up, that bitter chill of disappointment that we know far too well.
Nobody headed for the exits when Oakland’s Brandon Moss belted a two-run home run off of Royals starter James Shields – the man who General Manager Dayton Moore mortgaged the future of the franchise to bring in specifically for nights like this.
The playoff virgins didn’t fold under the pressure of facing A’s starter Jon Lester, one of the most lethal postseason pitchers in baseball history. Oftentimes the goat for his hitting woes, Billy Butler smacked a base hit for a run in the first, and Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer tapped Lester for two more runs and a 3-2 lead in the third.
Royals manager Ned Yost yanked Shields in favor of rookie Yordano Ventura for a situation he was unprepared for in the sixth inning and Moss jacked a three-run homer. Oakland added two more runs off of reliever Kelvin Herrera as the deficit balloon to 7-3 after six innings. But here in Kansas City where irrational optimism springs eternal, hope remained.
From the seats behind home plate to the highest nosebleeds in the upper deck and the folks beyond the outfield fountains, Kansas City stood up to will on the Royals one more time. October was less than three hours away.
History said the game was done as soon as the Royals went quietly in the bottom of the seventh. According to ESPN, no team in baseball history had ever won a playoff elimination game when trailing by four or more runs in the eighth inning or later. Why should the Royals — who finished last in the league in home runs and walks – become the first to pull off such an offensive feat?
Still, as cruel as history has been to Royals fans for the past three decades, we continued to hope. There were six more outs to work with. October is close! Find a way! Get there!
The worst postseason start of Jon Lester’s storied career came to an end when the Royals tagged him for three runs in the bottom of the eighth. They stole four of their MLB postseason record-tying seven bases during the inning, tempting fate in the process while daring to do something great.
October baseball isn’t given; it must be taken.
Bottom of the ninth; one out; Nori Aoki smacks a deep fly ball down the right-field line for out number two. Jarrod Dyson – who stole third moments earlier – sprints home to tie the game. A high-fiving, stranger-hugging, beer-spraying frenzy explodes throughout Kauffman Stadium.
Kansas City had waited 29 years for a playoff game. Now it was getting bonus innings. It’s after 10 p.m. October is ticking closer.
Ned Yost hands Kansas City’s hopes to Brandon Finnegan, a rookie pitcher that was the Royals’ top draft pick this spring. Finnegan retires six of the seven batters faced during the 10th and 11th innings with an ice-in-the-veins cool about him that isn’t supposed to be seen from a kid less than five months removed from college.
The Royals’ offense feeds off of Finnegan, pushing the game-winning runner to third during the bottom of the 10th and again in the bottom of the 11th, both times failing to score. The 11 o’clock hour has come and gone. Hope is alive. October is minutes away.
History, it seemed, was poised to rip Kansas City’s heart out when Alberto Callaspo drove in Josh Reddick for an 8-7 lead in the top of the 12th. So close, but so far away.
One of the great things about sports is that history doesn’t always repeat itself. On a wild Tuesday night in Kansas City, on the brink of October and after 29 years and three extra innings of waiting, a new chapter was written.
Lorenzo Cain’s leadoff ground out didn’t send anybody to the exits; it brought fans from their feet to their tip-toes. Eric Hosmer’s opposite-field triple banged off the wall as Oakland outfielders Jonny Gomes and Sam Fuld collided in midair, a crash Fuld later attributed to the deafening roar of the Kansas City crowd. Hosmer scored moments later on Christian Colon’s infield single, tying the game.
It was 11:52 p.m. when Colon stole second, moving into scoring position with two outs and Salvador Perez – hitless in five tries – standing in the batter’s box. Then, with one swing of the bat, Salvy’s line-drive skipped just inside third base.
The celebration was in full force well before Colon crossed the plate. There would be no close play, no instant replay needed, and a city that had waited so long for this moment couldn’t wait for him to take the final steps. Four hours and 45 minutes of shoulder-to-shoulder cheering, chanting, cursing, standing, drinking, shrieking, hugging, crying and altogether hoping beyond hope paid off with a 9-8 victory and the assurance of a playoff series.
We entered Kauffman Stadium in September and emerged in October with more baseball to be played.
A NIGHT FOR THE AGES
Some nights are simply beyond explanation, so maybe there’s no point in trying to make sense of it. Maybe it’s better to let it stand on its own, just enjoy the moment and savor the sights and sounds from inside the stadium and the parking lot after-party.
On some nights crazy, unexplainable things happen that you know you’ll talk about for the rest of your life. That certainly is what we do here in Kansas City where nights like this simply don’t happen, save for once in a generation or so.
Nights like this are why we know Don Denkinger’s name and wax poetically about 1985. It’s why Len Dawson remains so revered after leading the Chiefs to their lone Super Bowl victory in January of 1970, and it’s why we worship Joe Montana who guided the Chiefs to the AFC Championship game and their last playoff victory in 1993.
Nights like this just don’t happen in Kansas City, so we savor those rare, magical moments when they actually do.
I know what I think I remember about the 1985 World Series as a 5-year-old kid, but I wanted to remember without a doubt what playoff baseball was like as a 34-year-old. That’s why I had no problem spending $120 for a standing-room-only ticket to see the city’s first playoff baseball game in a generation.
I might not be able to explain what happened Tuesday night, but years from now I’ll always know where I was when people ask: “Where were you in 2014 when the Royals earned their return to October?”