My Royal Generation

Why Ending the Longest Playoff Drought in Professional Sports was Worth the Wait

Technically speaking, I wasn’t born into the worst professional sports team of a generation.

Technically speaking, I was born into one of the most successful expansion franchises of all-time, which was at the time quietly making a case for itself as the best team in baseball.

Upon my arrival into this world (and Kansas City) in the summer of 1978, the Royals had just won back-to-back divisional titles, would win a third one that year, and another one two years after that.  Every one of those years they would face the Yankees in the Playoffs, eventually beating them in 1980 for the right to play in their first World Series.  They also featured perhaps the best hitter in the game…George Brett had won his first batting title at the age of 23 two years before, and two years later would win another with a batting average of .390…the highest full-season average in the past 70 years.  They were better than a good baseball team…they were a great baseball team.

When the Royals made it to the Playoffs again in 1985 (their 6th time in 10 years), I had just turned 7.  As far as I knew, the Royals were the Yankees and the Playoffs were my birthright as a Kansas Citian. So when I was snubbed for our family’s seats to the ALCS and World Series that year, leaving my brothers and me to watch the games on tv, I thought little of it.  There was always next year.

My 7th birthday, spent at (then) Royals' Stadium. That was the last year they would appear in the postseason for 29 years.

My 7th birthday, spent at (then) Royals’ Stadium. That was the last year the Royals would appear in the postseason for 29 years.

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As I waited for “next year” in that first offseason after 1985 I stumbled upon a box at home.  When I opened it, I found 14 VHS tapes, one for each of the postseason games the Royals had played that year.  My father had recorded each and every game, put the tapes away in his closet, and then forgotten to tell anyone about them.

I was still young enough that I probably would have never remembered that 1985 World Series in any detail, but those tapes ruined me.  One by one I would watch them…again and again. In the years that followed I probably watched each game at least 10 times, and Game 7 of the World Series I’m sure I viewed at least 100 times.  I watched those games so many times I didn’t just know all of the plays, I knew the commercials.  And while I didn’t realize it at the time, with hindsight it’s clear why I was so transfixed by them.  While at first they were just a bridge to pass the time until next season, over time they became a bridge back to a season that I was starting to realize I might never see again.  Because the sad reality for Royals fans everywhere was that the years were starting to pass, the winning was beginning to slow, and the championships were disappearing altogether.  It was becoming clear to me that “next year” might be further away than I’d first thought.

That’s what being a Royals fan has been like for someone of my generation.  There is an awareness that this was a proud franchise once – you can even vaguely remember it – but those memories have been fading for so long and have become so distant that they almost feel like they’re not really yours.

My brothers and I with Steve "Bye Bye" Balboni in 1985.  That year he would establish an ominous feat....36 home runs, which to this day remains the franchise record.

My brothers and I with Steve “Bye Bye” Balboni in 1985. He hit 36 home runs that year, setting the team record. 29 years later it remains the lowest home run record of any team in the majors (by 5).

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Of course, fans who start early enough don’t easily give up on their hometown team, and so it was for me growing up.  Even without any more pennants, the Royals still found ways to draw me in.

There were the hundreds of games we must have attended as a family, seemingly the only time my two brothers and I could find a common interest.  There was the fighting with my parents to stay until the end of every game, despite the score.  Going early to see Bo Jackson take batting practice.  Counting George Brett’s hits down from 3,000, game by game.  Celebrating the homecoming of David Cone, and believing home-grown talent with names like Damon and Beltran and Greinke would stick around long enough to take us to the promised land.  And, most memorable of all, there was my intuitive understanding as I observed grown men crying as 40,000 of us watched George Brett lean over and kiss home plate after his final home game.

Later that night, after we returned from Brett’s last game, I looked up Cooperstown on a map and made a commitment to myself that I would be there to see him inducted into the Hall of Fame.  Five years later, during an otherwise unmemorable college summer, I hopped in a car with 3 friends and started driving.  We tried to get a hotel along the way, but when we realized none of us were going to be able to sleep the night before Brett’s induction, we got right back in the car.  We arrived to Cooperstown at 2 am in the morning and immediately set up our chairs for the ceremony.  I think we may literally have been the first ones there.

Somewhere along the way in that trail of memories, probably much earlier than I realized, the Royals forced their way into my heart in a way that no amount of losing was ever going to dislodge.  For better or for worse, this was always going to be my team.  All I could do was hope for the best each year.

July 1999, Cooperstown, NY.  The trip to see Brett's induction to the HOF began the day he announced his retirement.

July 1999, Cooperstown, NY. The planning of the trip to see Brett’s induction to the HOF began the day he announced his retirement.

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I left Kansas City 10 years ago and, oddly, it’s been during that time that the Royals have come to mean the most to me.  I suppose it takes leaving home to understand how much of your self identity can be tied up in from where you come and for whom you root.

As I settled in the Bay Area, the Royals became a tie to my past and to my home. A hat or a comment about my team was an entrée to talking about growing up in Kansas, and the association between both the hometown and the baseball team that I were so proud to call my own reinforced itself. Years later when I would pick the location for my bachelor party, I dismissed destinations like Vegas or Miami; I wanted my friends to see Kansas City. The weekend was centered on a game at The K.

I also never could have imagined how a baseball team might actually serve to draw me closer to my family.  That the Royals would serve as the staple for any phone conversation with my dad.  Or how I felt closer to home each time my mom would mail me clippings from the sports section of the KC Star.  Or that I’d never feel closer to my older brother than when I overheard our wives comparing our eerily similar routines and personalities when we watch the Royals on television, 500 miles from each other.  Or that, even though we both now live in Chicago, the only time my younger brother and I can reliably find time to meet up is when the Royals are in town to play the White Sox.

The Royals are also a generational bridge.  As a child, it was beyond my comprehension that I had great-aunts in their 70s that knew the day’s starting lineup as well as I did; I enjoyed quizzing them as much as they enjoyed quizzing me.  As an adult, as I’ve watched my 96 year-old grandfather’s health decline, his awareness and interest in the Royals has persisted beyond just about everything else.

Even a bad baseball team – maybe especially a bad baseball team – can transcend generations and geographies in inexplicable ways.

Melvin Finley on his 96th birthday - 3 days before the Royals secured a 2014 Wild Card spot.

Melvin Finley on his 96th birthday – 3 days before the Royals secured a 2014 Wild Card spot.

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For these reasons, loyalty has always had to be its own reward when caring about the Royals.  But at some point, it became hard to understand or forgive what was becoming an historically embarrassing team.

Most teams have bad years to go with their good years.  But at some point in Kansas City it started to feel like we were different; it started to feel like we were a special kind of bad.  Slowly but methodically, one losing season followed another, until the point that the Royals had gone longer than any other team in Major League Baseball without making the playoffs.  Then, as if that wasn’t bad enough, we started to eclipse the longest playoff droughts of teams in other sports.  Before long, no team in North America had gone longer without getting to the postseason.  We were officially, indisputably, the worst team in all of sports.

Why this should still bother someone of my age, I do not entirely know.  I do know that following a team for a generation is a humbling thing.  You go from being a little boy cheering grown men, to being a grown man cheering players you realize are not much beyond boys.  It’s not lost on me that today I find myself older than nearly all of the players on the Royals’ roster.  But people who fall for their team early never grow too old to stop caring and cheering.  In Kansas City you can’t afford to – you might miss ever having something to celebrate at all.

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It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly it became clear that the team might actually be able to compete enough to get to the postseason.  Maybe it was the arrival of Dayton Moore as GM in 2006, or maybe it was in 2009 when the buzz about our farm system began.  The 2012 season offered the first real evidence that we finally had a team capable of winning, with a playoff push going as far as mid-September.  Perhaps it wasn’t until this year’s 10 game winning streak, or the arrival of Sung Woo Lee.  Though, because like most Royals fans I’ve grown to be so skeptical, I don’t think I really, truly believed it until last Friday night when we  beat the White Sox and finally, officially, clinched a spot.  Now living in Chicago, I was able to attend that game and see the magical moment in person.

After the game, the team came back out on the field to celebrate and take pictures. Like most of the Royals fans who’d been in attendance, I stuck around and waited for them.  Then I spotted my favorite player on the team, Salvador Perez.  He had a beaming grin on his face as he drank from a bottle of champagne he’d brought on to the field from the clubhouse.  And because I couldn’t think of a good reason not to, I waved at him and gestured a pour.  As if he could see in my face every one of the past 29 seasons that had ended in personal disappointment, he walked over and, with none other than the Kansas City Star there to capture the moment, poured the rest of his bottle down my throat.  And for a brief moment, Salvy and I celebrated together the end of the longest playoff drought in sports.

I’d given up my dream of ever playing for the Royals by the age of 9, but at that moment I’ll be damned if I didn’t feel like I was one of them.

Quenching the 29 year drought with Salvy after the Royals beat the White Sox to clinch.

Quenching the 29 year drought with Salvy after the Royals beat the White Sox to clinch.

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I made the trip back to Kansas City yesterday and, 29 years after being left at home for that 1985 series, attended my first Royals playoff game.  On my right sat my older brother, who was 10 years old the last time the Royals played a postseason game.  On my left sat my 10 year-old niece.  In the blink of an eye, the Royals were back in the playoffs.  Only a generation had passed.

What followed in the game – a single elimination game that could cruelly end the Royals’ postseason as quickly as it had begun – was a roller coaster of drama and emotion that I have never before seen in a baseball game. The Royals went down 2-0 almost immediately, then quickly came back to regain the lead. Hope was nearly shattered when the A’s put up 5 runs in the 6th inning, but the stadium remained full. When these games happen but once a generation, you don’t risk missing anything.

In the 8th inning my brother and I decided it was time to teach his daughter what a rally cap was, and I can only imagine the hope that poor girl is going to be putting in hats for the rest of her life. Because no sooner than she had turned hers inside out, the Royals scored three runs. They’d go on to score one more in the ninth to force extra innings. It was in that inning that I overheard her confide in her parents, “my heart has never beat this fast before.”

After the Royals had squandered chances in the 10th and 11th innings, and the A’s pulled ahead in the top of the 12th, it seemed our window of opportunity had finally slammed shut. No amount of small ball (7 stolen bases, an MLB Playoff record, and 4 sacrifice hits in the game) was going to save us now. Then, as if he was thinking the same thought, Eric Hosmer hit a shot that was so clearly going to come within inches – one way or another – of being a home run that time seemed to slow as we all watched it fly.  It was the longest six seconds in my life.  I immediately flashed back to those 1985 tapes…one of my favorite plays of the Series was when Jim Sundberg hit almost the same shot in Game 7 of the AL Championship Series. Like Sundberg, Hosmer’s ball bounced off the top of the outfield fence and back onto the field but he was able to turn it into a triple. Moments later he would be driven in to tie the game.

And so there we were. Almost five hours into the game, just a few minutes before midnight, with two outs in the bottom of the 12th inning on September 30th.  We were literally only minutes away from ushering in the month of October – that iconic month for baseball in which so few teams get to play, and it was all on the line. Losing at that moment would have been so cruelly ironic.  Yet I looked around and observed the most beautiful of sights: every seat in Kaufman stadium appeared to be full. Nobody was going to quit on this team or this game.

Salvador Perez walked to the plate, the same Salvador Perez who’d drowned me in champagne 72 hours earlier. But this time there was no bubbly – not yet, anyways. This time there was just an utterly indescribable tension in the air. After looking bad at the plate all night, he came through in the biggest of moments, slashing a hit down the left field line and driving in the winning run at 11:54 pm.

I jumped, and screamed, and hugged more strangers than I typically even meet in a day. It was the closest thing to a religious moment I’ve had in a ballpark.  My family and I looked at each other, stunned and speechless. We didn’t need to say anything – we looked in each others eyes and knew what the others were thinking. I suspect it was the same thing everyone in the stadium was thinking: “That was the best baseball game I’ve ever seen.”  The next day, George Brett himself would concur.

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By the time we got home last night, it was after 2 am. “Promise me one thing,” I leaned over and quietly asked my 10 year-old niece as we pulled in the driveway. “What?” she whispered back. “Promise me you’ll never forget tonight.” She looked back with a look of reverence for the evening that was beyond her years, and promised me that she never would.

You see, she doesn’t know it yet, but there’s a really important rule to being a Royals fan: cherish every big moment, because you never know how long you’ll have to wait for the next one.

A moment worth cherishing

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