|Kaufman Stadium, May 2000|
I watched the Royals win the World Series in an empty Korean classroom on a computer, then gave out virtual high fives on Facebook and Twitter. While I wish I could have joined the party on Mass Street or Westport or Citi Field, I was fine where I was. It doesn't matter what continent I was on. The Royals won the World Series. The Royals. Won. The World Series. I was there.
I was there in 1985 too, in the family room when the Royals beat the Cardinals. I didn't know anything about baseball and I didn't really follow sports. The Bears and the Royals were the best teams in the world, and I just assumed that my teams always had been and always would be.
I don't remember the first Royals game I attended in person, though it was definitely in the mid-80s. I do remember my first double header. It was July 3, 1987, and the Royals were playing two against Toronto. The Old Man and I arrived late for the first game but saw the Royals seal the victory, then we watched the team retire its first number - Dick Howser's 10. Howser had died from a brain tumor just a couple weeks before. The Royals were down 4-3 in the bottom of the 9th with one out. They got a single, and Willie Wilson came in to pinch run, then promptly stole second. Kevin Seitzer struck out, and Toronto intentionally walked George Brett, then accidentally walked Danny Tartabull to load the bases. Enter Frank White. On a wild pitch, Wilson scored to tie the game and Brett advanced to third. Frank White hit the walk off single to score George Brett, and all was right with the 1987 Kansas City world. We got home from the game after midnight, but I didn't sleep for a second on the hour long drive even though it was the latest I'd ever been up.
The Royals were competitive throughout the rest of my childhood. I got to see Bo Jackson hit some towering blasts and break some bats over his knee. In 1993 they spent much of the year in first place before fading, and I cheered out loud in that family room at my parents' house when Bo Jackson finally came back from hip replacement surgery and hit a home run in the playoffs in his first at-bat - in a playoff game no less - even though he was now playing for the White Sox. Watching Kansas City stars make huge plays in other teams' uniforms was something that I would have to get used to. The Royals were on a 14 game win streak when the MLB went on strike in 1994, and the game's economics changed and the Royals began their long dive.
I mainly ignored the Royals during their uninspiring Bob Boone years in the mid-90s, but fell back in love when Tony Muser took over. The late 90s/early aughts outfield of Johnny Damon, Carlos Beltran, and Jermaine Dye was exhilarating. Carlos Febles was an exciting young player, Joe Randa was solid at 3rd, Rey Sanchez couldn't hit but stole hits on the regular at shortstop, and Mike Sweeney was a star in the making. However, the Royals bullpen was a disaster - no lead was safe. Ricky Bottalico seemed to blow saves every single night.
Johnny Damon was the first to leave. He was a homegrown, hometown guy who made it clear he would go to any team that paid him an extra nickel. The Royals traded him for Roberto Hernandez, the closer they desperately needed, but Hernandez ended up falling apart, and without Damon's bat and base running, the Royals weren't in the position to blow saves as often anymore.
Despite the losing, the team still remained fun and interesting with Sweeney, Dye, Beltran, and Randa. In 2000, I went to a game with some buddies. Some credit card company was offering a free Royals baseball for applying, so we all applied for cards, knowing full well our derelict college-aged asses would be rejected. Free baseball either way. As the game continued, we moved to better and better seats in the half full Kaufman Stadium, and we finally ended up a couple rows away from Buck O'neil. Buck was, as always, diligently watching the game and keeping score, so we approached him during an inning break to say hi, shake his hand, and ask him to sign our credit-card company provided baseballs, to which he of course obliged. We were absolutely starstruck. I really wish one of us would have gotten a picture instead of an autograph. Shortly after, the Royals won on a Joe Randa walk-off grand slam.
The Royals managed to sign Mike Sweeney on a creative contract that required the Royals to go over .500 in order to lock up the deal, In 2002 they lost 100 games for the first time in club history and fired Muser. Through largely smoke and mirrors, in 2003 they finally won - barely, going 83-79. Sweeney's back problems would begin soon after, and both sides were locked in an unhappy 5 year marriage as the Royals tumbled back to last place in 2004. They would lose 100 games and be the worst team in baseball for the next 3 years.
In 2006, The Royals hired Dayton Moore as GM, but most people had stopped paying attention. Another GM promising wins. A GM who wanted to emulate small market winners like Tampa Bay and Minnesota. At the time, success on the Twins level, i.e. winning the division and getting creamed by the Yankees in the ALDS, seemed unimaginable for the Royals at the time.
How do I know? Because I was there, like I said. I was there when Muser wanted the team to stop eating milk and cookies, I was there when Tony Pena jumped in the shower with his clothes on, I was there when Trey Hillman also was for some reason, I was there when Buddy Bell said it could always get worse and delivered on his promise. I never thought this, this World Series, could happen. I was there when the Royals traded future World Series MVP Jermaine Dye for Neifi Fucking Perez and Carlos Beltran for spare change.
The Royals showed improvement under Ned Yost, I actually liked the Wil Myers for Jamie Shields (and Wade Davis) deal and the Zack Greinke for Lo Cain and Alcides Escobar deal at the time they happened. Everyone knew the young up and comers like Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Salvy Perez could be the real deal. Still, I never believed THIS was possible until September 30, 2014 when the Royals came back from 4 runs down agains the Oakland A's in the Wild Card game, the most exciting baseball game I've ever seen.
I was bum(garnered) after Game 7 last year, but I always thought we'd be back. I never bought into the doubters who thought the Royals would regress this year. In a way, winning this year is even better than winning last year would have been. Last year the Royals were "cute," the little engine that could, America's favorite underdog. Winning this year, winning it all this year, that was for Kansas City. Our fiery starting pitchers were quick with the chin music, and other American League fan bases grew to hate us. Good. I want the scumbag Toronto fans that throw beers at their own brethren to hate us.
I still can't believe we won, but the way THIS TEAM was constructed, I never thought we could lose. Not after that game in Houston. Wasn't going to happen.
We'll never see another team quite like the 2015 Royals. I've never loved a baseball team more.