It’s weird to root for something that goes against what you believe in, but that’s where I found myself as I flew out of O’Hare yesterday morning to watch the Royals play the A’s in the American League wild-card game, Kansas City’s first postseason contest since 1985. I wanted the team that adheres to the sabermetric school I support to lose, and I wanted the team that has thumbed its nose at evolving thought for decades to win. I was essentially pulling for my own humiliation.
As you might have heard, I got my wish, as the Royals won, 9-8, in one of the most bizarre and thrilling games in recent memory. It was a day I half-thought would never come, but I knew that if it did, it would have to come against the Oakland A’s, who for most of the last 46 years have functioned like the Mirror of Erised for Royals fans, teasing them with the idealized version of what K.C. could have been.
No team in North American pro sports had gone as long without a postseason berth as the Royals. I was 10 years old and living overseas when they won the World Series in ’85. I’m 39 today, and I have no memory of ever watching a Royals playoff game.
So damned if I was going to miss this one. I flew down yesterday morning and drove straight to Oklahoma Joe’s for lunch, because (1) it’s the best barbecue in America, and (2) I wanted to be so full that I wouldn’t be tempted to miss a precious pitch during the game for something as mundane as food.
I checked into my hotel at the Crown Center before heading to the ballpark, and the concierge wrote my room number on the envelope containing the key card. Room 2323. Something triggered in my brain as I headed to the elevator. 2323 … 2323 … 23. 23.
23, the number worn by former Royals pitcher Zack Greinke, whose jersey was in my bag.
23, the number given to SungWoo Lee, whose story was the story of the Royals season, and whose arrival Stateside coincided with the second-half surge that made this playoff game possible.
I’m not a superstitious man. I am, however, a religious man, and I realize for some that’s a distinction without a difference. I believe in an all-knowing Creator who was aware of the outcome of the game I was going to see. I didn’t particularly believe that God cared much who won, and I didn’t think it was particularly likely that He’d send me a message.
Still, I thought it was curious. 23. 23.
I also thought I’d gone to Kauffman Stadium to watch a playoff game. It turns out I’d gone to watch an M. Night Shyamalan movie instead.
The Royals could have been the A’s because once upon a time they were, back when the A’s called Kansas City home. The franchise left Philadelphia for the banks of the Missouri in 1955 and played 13 years there, all losing seasons. And then, just as the team finally hit upon one of the great mother lodes of young talent in baseball history, owner Charlie O. Finley pulled up stakes after the 1967 season and moved the franchise to Oakland. Reggie Jackson played his first game as a member of the Kansas City A’s. So did Catfish Hunter.
Kansas City was relieved to be rid of Finley, a self-promoting perpetual headache of an owner, and fans’ disappointment at losing an MLB team was short-lived, as they were granted the expansion Royals in time for the 1969 season. With a razor-sharp, no-nonsense owner in Ewing Kauffman, the new outfit managed a winning season in 1971, its third year of existence.
But it finished behind the A’s that year, as every other AL West team would for the next five years. The A’s won the World Series in 1972, 1973, and 1974; they are one of only two baseball teams in the last 60 years to three-peat. In 1976, the Royals finally ended the A’s reign by winning the American League West. The psychic scars — that fans had gotten from watching the team for which they once rooted leave town and then beat up on the new team for half a decade — started to abate. That began a 10-year stretch in which the Royals went to the playoffs seven times and won two AL pennants, culminating with their world championship in 1985.
By the late 1980s, the A’s were back to being the bullies of baseball, winning three straight AL pennants from 1988 to 1990. The 1989 Royals, the team that turned me into the die-hard K.C. fan I am today and still the best Royals team I’ve followed on an everyday basis, went 92-70 and tied for the third-best record in baseball — and never had a chance to make the playoffs while chasing an A’s team that swaggered and Bash-Brothered its way to a championship.
In the 1990s, baseball began its war between small markets and large markets, culminating with the 1994-95 strike, which decimated small-market clubs and crushed the one in Montreal. Two teams with similarly perilous outlooks came to a fork in the road. The A’s took the path less traveled, which happened to be the same one I had been on since I first picked up The Bill James Baseball Abstract in 1988, the summer I turned 13. The A’s became the team most identified with sabermetrics, spawned the most influential sports book of the generation, and entering this season had advanced to the playoffs seven times in the last 14 years. The Royals became the team most identified with old-school thinking and lost 100 games four times in a five-year span.
The Royals’ failures became as much a testament to the value of sabermetrics as did the A’s success. To paraphrase Voltaire: If the Royals hadn’t existed, we would have had to invent them. But we didn’t have to invent them. They existed, and I knew this because they were my team. For two decades, my heart was attached to a franchise that my brain would have sat on the porch, shotgun in hand, to keep away.
From the hotel, I headed to the ballpark, where I pretended to be an impartial journalist for an hour — this isn’t a royal blue shirt, guys, it’s navy — in the press box before giving up the ghost and heading down to Section 116. A beautiful human being named Alex Robinson, who works for MLB.com, had two extra tickets in the lower bowl just past third base, and offered them to me. Meeting us was a friend named Chris Kamler.1
We took our seats in time for the banal proceedings that begin any playoff series — the players announced individually, the military flyover — with the awe of a fan base that hadn’t experienced such banality in three decades. Everything was new. I’d attended dozens of games in this ballpark, but I’d never seen it remotely this full, or this loud.
Like many, I’ve grown to love the new double wild-card format as an inspired way to create drama. But until your team qualifies for this game, you don’t appreciate just how brutal it is. Forget having your season end because of one bad game; it could end because of one bad inning, one bad pitch, one controversial umpire’s call. My friend Joe Sheehan calls this the coin-flip game, and last night, I felt as if a referee’s thumb had just flicked upward and I was simply waiting for heads or tails.
The worst-case scenario arrived in the top of the first, as unsurprising as it was depressing. With two outs and Coco Crisp on first base, Brandon Moss hit a frozen rope, and there was no doubt it was going out. I watched that ball sail into the night, my dreams in tow.
The Royals fought back quickly; Alcides Escobar led off the bottom of the first inning with an infield single and advanced on a fielder’s choice. A steal and a walk set up a Billy Butler RBI single, which restored the noise to a crowd that had been shell-shocked by Moss’s homer.
And then came the TOOTBLAN (Thrown Out On The Bases Like A Nincompoop): With a two-strike count on Alex Gordon, the Royals’ best hitter, Butler — maybe the slowest everyday player in the game — was caught off first base. He got into a rundown long enough for Eric Hosmer to try to score from third base, but the throw home got Hosmer in plenty of time. Two on, two out for the team’s MVP, gone in a blaze of overaggressiveness. The air went out of the crowd again.
At least the Royals had the guy they wanted on the mound. They had traded Wil Myers, the pride and glory of their farm system, two years ago precisely so James Shields would emerge from their dugout when they played this game. I hated the trade with a passion, because I was skeptical last night would ever happen, and for three-quarters of Shields’s stint, my doubts were justified. But the mere fact that he was pitching was a small victory for old-school thinking over analytics. If he pitched brilliantly one more time, some would construe it as a much more significant victory, a symbolic defeat of the number-crunching A’s by a Royals team that eschews fancy concepts like “on-base percentage” in favor of heart and hustle. Never mind that the A’s have a lower payroll than the Royals or that the Royals have an analytics department of their own.
Shields steadied himself in the second, striking out the last two batters he faced, but in the third the A’s started barreling balls again. It was still 2-1, but Shields wasn’t fooling anyone.
While nothing compares to the intimacy of watching from the stands, you lose the ability to follow the big picture. The bottom of the third was well under way before someone noted on Twitter that A’s catcher Geovany Soto, who was starting because of his ability to control a running game the Royals used with abandon, had been replaced by Derek Norris, a far superior hitter but a much less threatening presence behind the plate. Soto had hurt his thumb. The TOOTBLAN had cost the A’s their best-throwing catcher. The Royals’ running game had just been handed afterburners.
The run game is key because of just how flat-out weird the Royals’ offense is. K.C. is the first playoff team ever to rank last in both walks and homers. The Royals are also last in strikeouts by a country mile, so they’re fourth in the majors in batting average. And they’re first in stolen bases, and third in stolen base percentage. They put the ball in play, and they run like hell. And with Soto out, they had a license to run even more.
Mike Moustakas led off the third. It was questionable whether Moustakas should even be starting; he’d hit .212/.271/.361 this season and was a left-handed batter facing one of the game’s premier southpaws, Jon Lester. But Moustakas blooped a ball down the left-field line for a single. And in manager Ned Yost’s rigid world, of course it was time for a bunt, because you should play for the tie at home, even if it’s the third inning and your starting pitcher is shaky and you have the top of the lineup coming. Escobar moved him to second. With two outs, Lorenzo Cain doubled to tie the game. Hosmer followed with an ugly duck snort that fell in front of us on an empty patch in left field. That’s what this team does: put the ball in play and take its chances that the bounces will go its way.
This time, the bounce did and Cain scored. The Royals had the lead in an elimination playoff game at home. Bedlam. The ballpark was deafening. We could feel it. Eighteen outs to go, which meant nine outs, at most, before the ball was handed first to Kelvin Herrera, then to Wade Davis, then to Greg Holland. The Royals had lost just four games all year that they led after six innings, and just one that they led after seven.
Kamler took a selfie of the two of us and sent it to SungWoo, who was watching in South Korea. Shields, who looked so vulnerable for the first three innings, suddenly righted the ship, retiring the side in the fourth and fifth. He started the sixth, and the Royals’ bullpen started to stir. Sam Fuld led off with a single, and Josh Donaldson walked on a full-count pitch. And then Yost did the one thing I was afraid he wouldn’t do: He came out to get Shields before the pitcher could do any further damage. Right-hander Yordano Ventura came on.
I was so psyched that Yost wasn’t falling into the trap of staying with his starting pitcher too long that I didn’t fully comprehend the implications of what he’d just done. He had pulled Shields, and that was right. This was a veritable Game 7, and the first rule of Game 7 is that all hands are on deck. The Royals hadn’t played Monday, and the bullpen was rested.
Only, Yost hadn’t called upon the members of arguably the greatest three-man bullpen of all time. All season long he’d gone to Herrera in the seventh, Davis in the eighth, and Holland in the ninth, and when the Royals had lost a game two weeks ago because he wouldn’t deviate from that formula with two outs and the bases loaded in the sixth and an inferior pitcher gave up a grand slam, Yost vowed to use his best relievers more aggressively moving forward.
Due up was Moss, who’d already homered, and Josh Reddick, a fellow left-handed batter. Yost could have gone to a left-hander, like September sensation Brandon Finnegan, to either get the platoon advantage or to force Moss and Reddick from the game, ensuring that a right-handed hitter would bat against Davis or Holland in the late innings.
Instead, Yost went with Ventura, who was one of the best rookie starting pitchers in baseball this season. But he’d relieved just once all year, in the game before the All-Star break, and he was coming in to pitch out of a mess. He had no margin for error. He didn’t have the platoon advantage. What he did have was a fastball that touches 100. Only, the Royals are blessed to have two guys who touch 100, and the other one, Herrera, had been brilliant all season in relief.
Ventura came in and was obviously amped. His first two pitches missed. His third pitch came in at 98 and left Moss’s bat like a missile, even higher and faster than the first home run.
The Royals had scratched out three runs with five hits, a bunt, and a stolen base. The A’s had hit two balls into the seats with men on base, and had five runs to show for it. It was a microcosm of everything the teams do differently.
It was also a microcosm of why Yost drives fans crazy. He makes tactical decisions that are inexplicable, and indefensible, and incorrect, and his decision to use Ventura instead of Herrera was no exception. He used Ventura simply because it was the sixth inning, and apparently it takes a court order to get a reliever to deviate from his role by even one inning.
Reddick singled. Ventura threw a wild pitch. Jed Lowrie flied out, and Yost came to get Ventura. The longest-tenured manager in Royals history, the first manager to take them to the postseason in 29 years, got booed heartily by a sellout crowd in his first postseason game.
Herrera came in. He didn’t help the situation, though he might have helped his manager get off the hook a little by giving up three more hits in the inning, leading to two more runs. Cries of anguish reverberated through the ballpark. A fan base that had been dreaming of the ALDS 20 minutes prior was now coming to grips with the end of its season.
Herrera came back to pitch the seventh — apparently he could go two innings after all — and struck out Donaldson and Moss. The Royals went quietly in the sixth and seventh, with Lester throwing a tidy 95 pitches in seven innings. A guy sitting in the row behind us, who’d driven in from Ohio for the game, announced that if the Royals came back to tie it he would eat the peanut shells that were under his seat. No one expected to take him up on his offer.
The Royals would need to score at least eight runs to win this game, but they hadn’t scored eight runs or more since August 17. This wasn’t a team built for big innings. The A’s could score four runs on a grand slam; the Royals needed something like seven singles to accomplish the same result.
It seems melodramatic to describe the atmosphere at that point as funereal, but no other word really fits. We sat there, calmly waiting for the end. We cracked morbid jokes to pass the time and break the tension. It was better than checking Twitter, which was a Dumpster fire.
And then the second-greatest rally2 in team history began, innocently enough, on a ground ball to the shortstop. Escobar is really fast, and Lowrie would have needed to make a perfect grip-and-throw to nail him at first base. Put the ball in play. Run like hell.
Next to me, Kamler yelled out confidently, “It’s time to run on Lester.” He pointed to his scalp. “Get in their domes.” Never mind that the Royals were four runs down with six outs to go. On the 1-1 pitch, Escobar took off for second, and Norris never had a chance. “THAT’S WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT!” Kamler yelled. “Yost is crazy — CRAZY LIKE A FOX!” I looked for, but could not find, any evidence of an alcoholic beverage in Kamler’s vicinity.
Two pitches later, Nori Aoki nailed a one-hopper to the second baseman that, without the steal, might have been a double play. Instead, Escobar advanced to third. Still, outs were mounting.
We started to believe again when Cain hit a 1-0 pitch back up the middle. Escobar scored. We needed one more baserunner to bring the tying run to the plate. The fans, who’d barely left their seats for the past two innings, stood.
Lester stayed in to pitch to Hosmer, presumably his last batter since a right-handed hitter was on deck. Cain took off for second base. It was close, but he was safe. And then on a full count, Hosmer did something he does all too rarely: He took a borderline pitch. It was a ball. The tying run was at the plate, and the Royals’ two most accomplished hitters, Butler and Gordon, were due up. We had a chance. All we wanted was a chance.
Luke Gregerson, a right-handed reliever with one of the nastiest sliders in baseball, came in to pitch. Butler had been uncharacteristically terrible all season, and this had all the makings of a 6-4-3 dream killer. On the second pitch, though, Butler went vintage, inside-outing an opposite-field line drive to score Cain. By the time he had reached first base, Terrance Gore had left the dugout to pinch-run for him. We went nuts.
Remember, the Royals can run. Cain had finished eighth in the AL with 28 steals; Escobar’s 31 steals tied for fifth. Both would get blown out in a race by Jarrod Dyson, whose 36 steals tied for third in the league even though he batted only 290 times all year. But even Dyson might not be as fast as Gore, who’s less a baseball player than a track star. Two months ago, Gore was hitting .218 in A-ball, and he’s never hit a home run as a pro. But he has Willie Mays Hayes speed, so the Royals called him up when rosters expanded. He batted only twice, but was such a weapon as a pinch runner that he stole five bases and scored five runs. Representing the tying run, he dispensed with any pretense, lighting out for second base on the first pitch. It wasn’t close. The tying run was on second base, and when Gregerson buried the next pitch in the dirt, the tying run moved up to third base as Hosmer came in to score. With one out, the Royals could tie the game without a hit.
There was just one problem: Salvador Perez, the Royals’ catcher, had looked terrible all game, and his free-swinging tendencies made him a poor match against Gregerson’s slider. In the stands, we agreed this would be a wonderful time for a squeeze bunt. Instead, Perez saw three pitches, swinging and missing at all three. Omar Infante struck out on four pitches, and the rally died one run short.
Holland worked out of a bases-loaded jam in the top of the ninth. In the middle of the ninth, the Royals did something for which I’ll always be grateful. In early August, at SungWoo’s first game at Kauffman Stadium, they showed him on the enormous Crown Vision scoreboard in the middle of the fifth inning, and the very next batter, Gordon, homered to break the scoreless tie and set the Royals on the path to victory. With SungWoo unable to attend Tuesday’s game, and with the Royals three outs away from elimination, they did the next best thing: They zeroed the camera in on a pair of young fans who had unfurled a large South Korean flag.
“We got this,” I said, to no one in particular.
Sean Doolittle, the A’s left-handed closer, took over. Yost called upon his one pinch hitter to use against lefties, Josh Willingham, who hadn’t gotten a hit since September 10. Willingham blooped one down the right-field line for a single. It was time to break the other glass case. Dyson stepped out of the dugout for his turn in the spotlight.
The whole point of having one of the fastest players in baseball on first base is so that he can take second without a bunt — but a bunt is what Yost wanted, and Escobar delivered. Two outs left. Dyson danced off second base with Aoki at the plate. A crowd of 40,000 strong egged him on. He took off for third. He was in by an eyelash. Once again, the Royals just needed contact to score, and Aoki is one of the best contact hitters in baseball. The Royals had acquired him because they’d sent their right fielder of the future, Myers, to Tampa Bay for Shields. Another plotline had suddenly come into focus. When the Royals needed a hitter to make contact with their season on the line, they had the guy with the second-lowest strikeout rate in baseball3 at the plate. Aoki drilled the next pitch to deep right field, and Dyson scored on the sac fly.
The game that was once over was now tied. I turned around to Peanut Shell Guy. “You have to honor your promise,” I told him. He grinned the grin of a man given a reprieve from death row, kneeled down to pick two shells off the grime and the muck, and chowed down.
The game was going to extras, and the Royals had already blown through their three elite relievers. They needed an unlikely hero. They got Finnegan.
No one expected Finnegan to pitch in the majors this year, because midway through the season, he wasn’t even in the minors — he was a collegiate starter at TCU. He was the Royals’ first pick, at no. 17 overall, in the June draft. The Royals said nice things about him then, but I’m fairly certain they didn’t say he would be pitching extra innings of an elimination game by season’s end.
Yost let Finnegan start the 12th in an attempt to keep the platoon advantage against Reddick, but the questionable call backfired; Finnegan walked Reddick, and after the A’s put down a bunt, Jason Frasor relieved the rookie. Pinch hitter — and former Royal — Alberto Callaspo came to the plate. Callaspo, like Aoki, rarely strikes out and has a nose for putting good wood on the ball. He did, lining a ball to left field to bring in Reddick. After all the drama, after the improbable rally, after the greatest game I had ever seen in person, the Royals were still going to lose.
Cain led off the bottom of the 12th and grounded out to first. In stepped Hosmer, who was the crown jewel of the farm system back when the Royals had the best farm system anyone had ever seen. I once said, only half-jokingly, that his performance in the 2010 Texas League playoffs was the greatest clutch performance by a Royal in a generation: six homers in eight games. Twice in elimination playoff games that year he’d batted with his team needing a home run to tie a game in the seventh inning or later, and twice he’d homered.
But that was the Texas League. This was the American League wild-card game, and the Royals needed a home run. Hosmer belted a 2-2 pitch to deep left-center. I put one arm on Kamler and one on Robinson and repeated, over and over, “It’s not going out, it’s not going out,” worried they might get their hopes up.
The ball hit the top of the wall and ricocheted past the two colliding outfielders who’d been chasing it. Hosmer made it to third. Once again, the Royals had the tying run at third base with one out. I was losing my fucking mind. An episode of chest pain had already come and gone — probably heartburn, but could I really rule out something more serious during the most stressful baseball game I’d ever witnessed?
Christian Colon, who had pinch-hit for Gore in the 10th, came to the plate. Colon wasn’t Chris Sale, whom the Royals had passed on in the 2010 draft in favor of Colon, and until this year he wasn’t much of a prospect at all. But he hit .311 in Triple-A this year and .333 in his very brief time in the majors. He’d struck out only 35 times all year. The Royals needed contact with their season on the line, and damned if a contact hitter wasn’t at the plate. Again.
Colon made contact, the weakest of contact, the kind of contact that’s so weak it’s perfect. He topped a ball to third base, and we watched it bounce high and Hosmer streak toward the plate. Everyone was safe, and the uproar was defeaning. THIS TEAM WOULD NOT DIE. A club whose only offensive skills are the ability to make contact and the ability to run had stolen six bases and twice brought home the tying runner from third base with one out and little margin for error.
My wife — who, bless her heart, never watches baseball and is usually asleep before 10 p.m. — texted my dying phone at that moment: “Omg – ur tied!!” This game had ceased to be a game a couple of innings prior and had become the kind of reality TV that even non-sports fans could appreciate. I texted her back, “I LOVE YOU SO MUCH FOR STAYING UP TO WATCH THIS.” And then my phone died.
Gordon popped out on the first pitch. Perez, who had gone 0-for-5 with two strikeouts and who’d allowed two wild pitches and a passed ball behind the plate, fell behind 1-and-2. Colon, not a particularly speedy runner, took off for second. The A’s pitched out, but it didn’t matter, because the ball popped out of Norris’s glove and Colon was safe without a throw.
It was 11:50 CT, and I suddenly realized I had set my DVR at home to record an extra two hours, but that meant only 10 more minutes before I’d lose for posterity the ending of the greatest game I’d ever attended. The Royals had to end this now, for so many reasons.
They did just that two pitches later, as unexpectedly as a game can end when the home team has been either three outs away from elimination or has had the winning run on base for each of the past four innings. Perez swung once again on a slider down and away — but this time he didn’t miss. He hit a line drive to third, and when the ball left his bat my first thought was that it wasn’t a bullet and that Donaldson would have time to lay out for it. And then came the glorious split second when I realized it was hugging the line and Donaldson wasn’t playing on the line and it was getting by Donaldson and it was a fair ball and Colon was rounding third and the dugout was emptying and …
Just before midnight, as September fell into October, I hugged my friends. I hugged complete strangers. I screamed until what was left of my voice was completely hoarse. I spontaneously invented a dance that would embarrass Elaine Benes. I had entered that state of joyous delirium that I’m told only sports can bring, but that I’d never experienced. This was the greatest baseball game I’d ever witnessed live. This was the first major-four-sports playoff victory for a Kansas City team in nearly 21 years, ending the longest citywide drought in North America. This was a feeling only other fans got to enjoy. This was a rumor. This was a decades-long tease. This didn’t actually happen. Maybe Cardinals fans got to see their team win an elimination playoff game after being down in the ninth inning, and again in extra innings. But not Royals fans. Not us.
I wouldn’t believe it myself if I hadn’t watched it firsthand.
Afterward, I went up to the press box and tried to write. It took me an hour to calm down enough to start. While sitting in the press box around 1 a.m., my now-recharged phone rang, and the caller ID gave off a long, random string of numbers that made no sense. I answered it. “Rany!” a voice rang out. “It’s Samy!”
Samy Azzam was my best friend in the world circa 1986, when we lived next door as expatriates in Saudi Arabia, him an 11-year-old from England, me an 11-year-old from America. He got me into Liverpool soccer; I got him into baseball, although he picked the Tigers as his team. He lives in Cyprus now. I’ve seen him once in the last 20 years.
“What a game!” he said. “I just wanted to call and say how happy I am for you!”
Just then, Ken Rosenthal, one of the most distinguished baseball writers on the planet and a stalwart on Fox Sports, walked by. “Rany!” he said to me, and he turned his eyes upward as if it say, “What a game!” and flashed a knowing smile that said, “You earned it!”
That was the kind of game this was: the kind of game that causes an old friend to pick up the phone and call from across the ocean; the kind of game that causes a seasoned journalist to get lost in the moment.
In the days to come, some people will no doubt try to use this as a referendum on the A’s versus the Royals and on Moneyball versus old-school thinking, as if a game this wild, this tight, this utterly drop-dead gorgeous could serve as a standard-bearer for either school of thought. This game didn’t vindicate Billy Beane or Dayton Moore. This game vindicated baseball.
And it vindicated everything I’ve been through as a Royals fan. All the threads of my life make sense now. I wouldn’t wish the last 29 years of misery on anyone. But right now, at this very moment, I also wouldn’t change those years one bit.