Twenty-nine years of agony. Twenty-nine years of never really coming close. The 2014 Royals did it. In one night, they exorcised the demons.
They are going to the playoffs.
What do you say? What do you write?
It’s been far too long. As we’ve built toward this moment over the last couple of weeks, several people associated with the team have come to mind. I’d just like to share a few thoughts.
I’m thinking of Dick Howser. Once upon a time, Howser’s teams had lost 11 consecutive postseason games. Eleven losses in a row! Imagine if that happened to a manager in the Twitter era. Ugh. Howser lost three in a row to the Royals as manager of the Yankees in 1980. His Royals got swept in the split season playoffs in ’81. And the juggernaut Tigers in 1984 blasted past the Royals in three straight. And the ’85 Royals lost the first two to the Blue Jays. One of my favorite Royals moments was Game Three of the 1985 ALCS. It’s generally remembered as the George Brett show. Brett went 4-4 with two home runs and missed a third homer by inches and made one of the best defensive plays I’ve ever seen. Bob Costas and Tony Kubek spent the entire broadcast comparing him to Mickey Mantle. As great as Brett was in that game, the moment that stands out is the final out. A popup that fittingly landed in Brett’s glove. A win for the Royals and Howser’s first post season win in 12 attempts. As the team came on the field for the end of game handshakes, Brett, knowing what that meant, handed the ball to Howser. The greatest manager in franchise history.
I’m thinking of Mike Sweeney. Sweeney played 1,282 games for Kansas City, the most of any player in franchise history not to ever appear in the postseason for the Royals. By the end of his time in KC, he was oft-injured (he was referred to on this site as Iron Mike Sweeney more than once) and was the focus of much scorn. Most – really all – of it undeserved. His .861 OPS ranks second all-time in franchise history and his 851 Runs Created ranks sixth. Sweeney played in an era most of us would like to forget. But Sweeney deserves to be remembered.
I’m thinking of Curt Nelson. Curt is the director of the Royals Hall of Fame. The man loves his baseball and he loves his Royals. He’s one of the great ambassadors of this franchise and I don’t feel like he gets the credit he deserves. He’s like our Tommy Lasorda, bleeding Royal blue. The next time you’re out at The K, stop by the Hall of Fame and see if you can get a moment or two with him. That moment will turn into several minutes, but that’s perfect. Curt is so friendly and warm and knowledgeable about the Royals past and present. He was in Chicago on Friday. Smiling, of course.
I’m thinking of Mike Groopman and his analytics staff. They operate in some CIA-style veil of secrecy, but talking to those guys, you know they bust their ass for the team. Their methods may still confound some of the old school baseball guys, but they are trying. Lord knows, I’ve mocked the Royals Brain Trust on this site (and others) over the last decade. Tonight, I tip my cap in their direction. They take a ton of crap inside and outside, but they’ve stayed the course and kept fighting the good fight.
I’m thinking of the fans. Almost thirty years without a postseason. Nearly a generation and a half that have, up until Friday, never experienced the euphoria of a clinch. I’ve said this a thousand times, but how some of these people are baseball fans is beyond me. These are the guys and gals I truly respect. I came of age with the great teams of the ’70s and ’80s and I suppose that’s why I’m still here. If my first exposure to Royals baseball was in 1995, I don’t know if I would have had the intestinal fortitude to stick with this franchise. And the true diehards… You guys deserve a medal.
Finally, I’m thinking of my grandfather. The man who taught me to love and respect the game. He had season tickets in Section 117, Row MM on the aisle. Third base side so he could see into the Royals dugout. Far enough back that we were under the overhang of club level so we would be protected from the elements. You should be getting the picture. He left nothing to chance. When I first started going to the games, he laid down one simple rule: We were there to watch the game. No food, beverages or souvenirs would be purchased during the game unless they were from a vendor working the aisles. Bathroom breaks were to be made between innings. And we were keeping score. My scorebook is still about 98 percent his influence. It was a damn near perfect system, so I’ve seen little reason to innovate.
He had a 40 game season ticket plan, but we went to so many more games each year. We’d just be hanging out and spur of the moment decide to head to the stadium to watch a game in general admission. It was my baseball education. My indoctrination. He got me a subscription to The Sporting News and a membership to SABR. He taught me how to read a box score and how to look at the standings. Everything that is my foundation of baseball fandom I owe to him.
Aside from the regular season games, my grandfather took me to my first playoff game in 1978 when the Royals beat Ed Figueroa for their only win of that series. He took me to my first World Series game in 1980 when we watched Willie Mays Aikens crush two beautiful home runs. He took me to the ’84 playoffs when the Royals were overmatched by the Tigers. He took me to every home postseason game in 1985 as the Royals rallied twice. And he took me to countless regular season games. He hated Reggie Jackson, Charlie Finley and the Yankees. He loved Amos Otis, Frank White and the Royals.
About midway through our baseball time together, his health began to fail. Just kind of standard stuff that I’m sure was uncomfortable for him, but he always soldiered on, especially when it came to going to ballgames. He had heart issues so he had to watch his sodium intake. That meant no hot dogs. Except it turns out no hot dogs at a ballgame wasn’t something he was ready to sacrifice. So he did the next best thing: He bought them for me to eat. For him, just the smell of the hot dog was enough. From time to time, he’d ask me for a bite, but he knew he shouldn’t. It was the smell. That was baseball to him.
We always would get to the stadium early for batting practice and we walked into the stadium the same way every time. Third base gate, we’d stroll beside the ramps that go to the upper deck and walk through a breezeway that housed a little food court. The area had a burger stand on the left with pizza on the other side. But the burger stand also did a brisk hot dog business and they actually boiled the hot dogs behind the stand, so that was what you smelled when you walked through on your way to the seats. And that’s why my grandfather liked to enter the stadium that way… The smell.
It’s funny, but that taught me so much about life. Enjoy the little things. Take nothing for granted. And figure out a way to have fun.
My grandfather passed away nearly 20 years ago in November of 1994. Just after the strike wiped out the postseason. While I’m thinking of him tonight, I generally think of him often. He had an opinion about everything, so I’ll usually wonder what he would think of something in particular. Sluggerrr? He would have absolutely hated that. Same for the other in-game entertainment. He would have loved Alex Gordon and his dedication. And he’d probably be irritated at Billy Butler for not hitting for more power.
These days when I return to Kauffman Stadium, no matter where I’m sitting, I go through the gates on the third base side and walk through where the food court used to be, searching for that familiar hot dog smell. Every single time I walk into The K, I think of my grandfather. Every single time. I’m a parent now and when I take my kids to games, I try to build their baseball foundation the way my grandfather built mine. When we walk into the stadium, as corny as it sounds, and even though my kids don’t realize it, we all walk in together.
Baseball and the Royals mean so much to me. I suspect if you’re reading this, you feel the same way. And I suspect you have a similar relationship with someone who is responsible for your baseball foundation. Royals fans have built quite a community and it’s been quite a journey. Many more downs the last three decades than ups. Naturally, at this moment, I find myself wondering about my grandfather. What would have he thought about Friday night? Returning to the postseason for the first time after 29 years?
Like all of us, he would have been thrilled.
I’ll be attending the next Royals playoff home game, and it will be the first time I won’t be attending a postseason game with my grandfather. But whether it’s the Wild Card game or the ALDS, I’ll make the familiar walk through the third base gate and into the concourse. My grandfather will be there. We will all be there.
Thanks so much for reading.