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One Away: The Total Improbability of the Royals’ World Series Run and the Agony of Potential Defeat

In three short weeks, the Royals have gone from being forlorn losers to being the biggest story in sports. But for Kansas City fans, winning hasn’t diminished the fear of losing; it has only heightened it, and a championship is the only release.

There is a medical condition called refeeding syndrome that occurs in people who have been starved to the brink of death’s door, such as hunger strikers or prisoners of war. If food is reintroduced to these patients too quickly, they can develop life-threatening electrolyte and metabolic complications. Starvation can kill, but so can reversing it.

I’ve found myself thinking about this nugget from medical school over the past month, as I’ve experienced its sports fandom corollary firsthand. No American sports fans had been as famished as Royals partisans, who hadn’t tasted so much as a nibble of a meaningful game in 29 years. Less than four weeks ago, I was in Chicago when the Royals clinched their first playoff spot since 1985. Most fan bases would have greeted such a moment with the restraint it deserved; all the Royals had done was secure a spot in the wild-card game, leaving them four elimination rounds away from a world championship. We celebrated like they had won the pennant.

Last Wednesday, they actually did win the pennant. So how are we supposed to act now?

When they won the wild-card game against the Oakland A’s, making up a four-run deficit with six outs to go in the greatest game I’ve ever had the privilege to attend, I was so exuberant that I felt like the debt I was owed for a generation of sports suffering had been repaid in full, even though all the victory gave the Royals was a spot in baseball’s Elite Eight. Maybe I should have acted like I’d been there before. But I hadn’t been there before. After that victory, any other good thing that happened would be gravy.

Gravy tastes great, but that doesn’t mean a starving man should double-fist it. I speak with wisdom born from experience: It’s not good for the heart.

Still, the Royals kept ladling more onto our plates. The team that couldn’t win anything for nearly three decades suddenly couldn’t lose. The Royals didn’t lose to the A’s, when by all rights they should have. They didn’t lose the ALDS to the Los Angeles Angels, who led the majors with 98 wins this season. They didn’t lose the ALCS to the Baltimore Orioles, who posted the second-best record in the American League. They haven’t lost once in eight playoff games, the first team in baseball history that could make that claim. They haven’t lost even though they’ve gone to extra innings four times, were tied in the ninth in a fifth game, and won two other contests by one run. They’ve literally won one game in the playoffs whose outcome wasn’t in doubt until the final pitch.

And tonight, they host Game 1 of the World Series. In three weeks, they’ve gone from being the least successful franchise of the past generation to experiencing more joy than some fan bases have tasted in a lifetime. The Seattle Mariners have never been to the World Series. The Washington Nationals have never been to the World Series, neither while playing in Washington nor in Montreal. The Milwaukee Brewers haven’t been to the World Series since 1982, and the Baltimore Orioles haven’t been since 1983. The Cubs, of course, last played in the World Series in 37 B.C., presumably against the Gauls. And there are Yankees fans turning 5 next month who’ve never seen their team in the World Series.

nori-aoki-royals-fans-triJamie Squire/Getty Images

Overnight, the Royals have become the biggest story in baseball, if not all of sports. Intellectually, I knew this would happen: If a team that’s been synonymous with “hapless” for a quarter century makes the World Series in dramatic fashion, people are going to notice. But emotionally, this has been a lot to digest. The New York Times is on it. The Atlantic and Time are doing think pieces, with Time calling the Royals “The Future of Baseball.” (Of course, the magazine missed that the Royals have been The Future of Baseball for years; what makes this season different is that they are also The Present.)

The Time article reveals an inevitable but still annoying trend, whereupon the Royals’ success in the small-sample-size laboratory that is the postseason must be mined for meaning instead of merely enjoyed. The Royals are the first playoff team in baseball history to finish last in the majors in both home runs and walks; the Royals are 8-0 in the playoffs; therefore, the keys to success must not be home runs and walks, but the things the Royals do well, like baserunning and defense and relief pitching.

That’s true to a point: If a team doesn’t do the big things well — and home run power remains the biggest thing — then it must do the little things exceptionally well. And it’s also true that the Royals do those little things better than any other team in baseball. They led the majors in stolen bases and had by far the fewest offensive strikeouts, and their defense was destroying the spirit of opposing hitters months before they achieved acclaim for it on a national stage.

But if the Royals had hit on a truly magical formula for team building, they would have won their division and avoided the randomness of the wild-card game in the first place. They would certainly have won more than 89 games, given that no AL wild-card team had won fewer than 90 games since the 1996 Orioles.1 Maybe the Royals’ 8-0 playoff record is a sign that, unlike Billy Beane’s, their shit does work in the playoffs. But before we call speed and contact hitting The Future of Baseball, let’s pause long enough to remember that the Royals have hit four extra-inning home runs this postseason — the most by any team in history — and that those home runs were directly responsible for three of Kansas City’s wins.


1.

While the addition of a second wild-card team has admittedly lowered the bar, this year both AL wild-card teams won fewer than 90 games, indicative of an unusual amount of league parity.

salvador-perez-greg-holland-royals-world-series-triChris O’Meara/AP Photo

The Royals are built for the postseason in one crucial way, though: The liberal off days in October allow teams to get their best pitchers on the mound more often, and the Royals have the law firm of Herrera, Davis, & Holland, the first trio of relievers in major league history with 50-plus appearances and ERAs under 1.50 apiece. During the season, they combined for a 1.28 ERA in 204.1 innings, an average of 1.26 innings per game. None of the three appeared in more than 71 of the 162 regular-season games. But with the Royals having played just eight games in the past 22 days, the three ace relievers have appeared in every playoff game, with one exception.2 They have combined for a 1.05 ERA in the playoffs, but more important, they’ve thrown 25.2 innings in eight playoff games — the equivalent of 3.21 innings thrown per game by a pitcher who approximates Bob Gibson’s ability in 1968.


2.

The exception is that after exiting Game 1 of the ALDS with numbness in his fingers, Herrera missed Game 2, but he was back on the mound to throw a scoreless inning in Game 3.

That those three have thrown so many innings is a testament to what has quietly been one of the most gratifying aspects of this playoff run: watching the lightbulb over manager Ned Yost’s head first turn on, then blaze with a fierce brightness many thought impossible. After losing crucial regular-season games because he was unwilling to use his best relievers outside of their strictly defined roles, Yost had an epiphany at the most pivotal moment, realizing just in time that the rules are different in October. Even his infamous error in the wild-card game — using rookie starting pitcher Yordano Ventura out of the bullpen in the sixth inning — was born out of a sense of urgency, an unwillingness to let his starting pitcher, Big Game James Shields himself, tire on the mound while fresher arms were a phone call away.

Since that debacle, however, Yost has maintained that sense of urgency while also showing the savvy to call upon his best relievers to put out fires. Wade Davis entered Game 1 of the ALDS in the seventh inning, an inning in which he’d appeared just once during the regular season. Kelvin Herrera and Davis each pitched two innings in ALCS Game 1, a feat Yost hadn’t asked them to attempt in the same game all year. In ALCS Game 3, Yost pulled starter Jeremy Guthrie after five innings, even after Guthrie pitched a perfect fifth; in Game 4, Yost pulled Jason Vargas with one on and one out in the sixth. In both games, the Royals clung to a one-run lead after six innings; both times, Herrera, Davis, and Greg Holland made the lead stand up, as they had all season.3


3.

The Royals have lost just four games all year that they led after six innings, and just one game that they led after seven.

Having your best pitchers throw the most crucial innings in October is common sense, but we saw two managers (Washington’s Matt Williams and St. Louis’s Mike Matheny) lose playoff games for lacking that sense. Yost, meanwhile, did what many thought he wasn’t capable of: He adapted. It has been tremendously gratifying to see an old dog — and I mean that in the nicest possible way, Ned — learn a new trick. And it has been vindicating to see him reap the rewards of an approach that those of us in the analytics community have been attacking him for ignoring all season.

Speaking of analysis, the other story line that has skittered out of the shower drain in the wake of the Royals’ pennant is that their success is somehow a victory against the forces of sabermetrics, and that the old school is the new new school. Leaving aside for a moment that the sabermetrics-happy Red Sox won last year’s World Series — their third in 10 years — the idea that the Royals thumb their noses at sabermetrics is silly. Kansas City has no fewer than four full-time employees listed under the “Baseball Analytics” department on the team’s own website; their director of baseball analytics, Mike Groopman, was briefly my colleague at Baseball Prospectus years ago.

It is true that the Royals continue to eschew plate discipline, the trait that has come to be most identified with sabermetrics. And it is true that the sabermetric community, of which I am a part, has been too slow to acknowledge that the Royals are no longer 20 years behind the times in this regard. But sabermetrics isn’t about walks, or OBP, or any specific philosophy on how to win. Sabermetrics is, as Bill James himself defined it, “the search for objective knowledge about baseball.” It is probably not a coincidence that the emergent area of sabermetric research over the past five years involves defense — and the Royals have had one of the best defenses in baseball the last two years. When Jarrod Dyson goes in for Nori Aoki in the sixth or seventh inning, the Royals have one of the best defensive outfields in the history of the game.

Like every other team in baseball, the Royals value sabermetrics enough to employ people specifically for their expertise on the subject. The sheer ubiquity of analytics in baseball front offices has diminished the edge teams can get from using it — but has not diminished its importance. On the contrary, it has revealed it. The sooner people on both sides acknowledge that the war is over, the sooner we can move on to issues that are actually debatable.

kansas-city-royals-celebrating-triJamie Squire/Getty Images

Precisely because the Royals’ success can’t be easily explained in the data, though, it’s tempting to try to explain K.C. as a team of destiny. I’m as guilty of this as anyone, having latched on to the story of South Korean superfan SungWoo Lee when he arrived in Kansas City this summer — an arrival that closely corresponded to the Royals beginning their current 49-23 streak. I’ve tried to build a career on approaching baseball in a coolly rational fashion, but when you feed a starving man nothing but gravy, a sense of delirium sets in. I’m looking for patterns in the tea leaves.

There was drawing Room 2323 at my hotel the day of the wild-card game. There was the moment right before ALDS Game 1, when my 11-year-old daughter told me about a new friend she’d made in middle school, “and she has a really fun last name — Biancalana,” a name shared with the talisman of the 1985 Royals.4 There was Greg Holland getting the final out of ALDS Game 1 the night after his wife delivered a baby boy, echoing Bret Saberhagen closing out the 1985 World Series the night after his wife delivered a baby boy — and that baby boy, Drew Saberhagen, was Holland’s college teammate at Western Carolina. There’s watching a team that couldn’t hit home runs all year suddenly launch bombs at the most opportune times. There’s watching players like Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, who have seemingly done nothing but disappoint throughout their four years in the majors, suddenly turn into stars on the biggest stage. It’s no wonder that Joe Sheehan, my closest friend in baseball, told me recently, “I feel like I’ve lost you to a cult.”


4.

They are apparently distantly related. Yes, I had my daughter ask.

Meanwhile, SungWoo is on his way back from South Korea, trailed by a documentary crew like some visiting foreign dignitary. We Royals fans are doing everything we can to affect destiny.

But the thing about destiny is that, like momentum, it explains only after the fact. Many a team looked like a team of destiny right until we heard the awful crunching sound when it hit the wall. No team in recent history resembled these Royals as much as the 2007 Colorado Rockies, who had been to the playoffs just once prior to that season, and who with two weeks to go were 76-72 and in fourth place in the NL West. They then won 13 of their last 14 games to finish the regular season 89-73, the same record as these Royals.

There was still only one wild-card team in those days, but the Rockies finished tied with the San Diego Padres for that spot, setting up a tiebreaker; like the Royals against Oakland this year, the Rockies won that game 9-8 in extra innings. After giving up two runs in the top of the 13th, they finished their improbable run to the NLDS by scoring three runs in the bottom of the inning. They then ran the table to reach the World Series, sweeping the NLDS and NLCS. Their seven-game win streak to start the postseason5 was the record these Royals broke. It was Rocktober. The script arrived late, but it seemed to say the Rockies were going to be champions.


5.

The tiebreaker game against the Padres is considered a regular-season game.

It turns out the script was actually for The Simpsons’ “Homer at the Bat,” with the Rockies playing the part of Homer Simpson, who crushed beer-league competition with his Wonderbat, only to have his stick literally incinerated the first time he stepped in against Roger Clemens. The Red Sox played the part of Clemens, leading Game 1 of the World Series 13-1 after five innings and never looking back. The Rockies got swept, and managed to hold a lead for a total of only three innings.

Baseball, like the truth, is pitiless: It cannot be other than it is. We think our teams are propelled by unseen forces until the very moment those forces abandon us. The Rockies won 21 of 22 games entering the World Series, and then got swept. The following year, the Tampa Bay Rays, who had lost more than 90 games in every year of their existence to that point, rose up to win 97 games, and won the AL pennant after a legendary seven-game ALCS battle with the Red Sox. The Rays lost the World Series to Philadelphia in five games. Finishing a dream season with a dream ending is hard.

eric-hosmer-royals-world-series-triCharlie Riedel/AP Photo

But every so often, it happens. Since the 1969 Miracle Mets defined the term, two teams have put a sudden end to extended runs of futility with a world championship: the 1987 Twins and the 2002 Angels. The Twins went 85-77 but lucked into the playoffs because they played in a weak division, and then took advantage of the Metrodome’s weird characteristics to win all four home games in the World Series against the Cardinals.6 Meanwhile, the Angels combined their own mystical revelation — the Rally Monkey — with an offense that had the fewest strikeouts in the league and an unhittable bullpen, highlighted by one of the biggest October sensations ever, Francisco Rodriguez. The Angels made up a five-run deficit with nine outs to go in Game 6 against the Giants, then won Game 7 to finish their dream season.


6.

The Twins won the championship in 1987 and 1991 without ever winning a World Series game on the road.

So the blueprint is there. If the Royals win four of their next seven games, the last 29 years will become the prologue to the greatest sports comeback I will likely ever have the pleasure of rooting for. But Cinderella teams are like first impressions: They don’t get a second chance. What makes this season so special, and what makes the Royals the darlings of the nation right now, are the nearly three decades they’ve waited to get back to this point. By next year, they’ll be old news, just as the Pirates were overshadowed this October by the Royals themselves. I feel like Herb Brooks, who after the Miracle on Ice found his team down 2-1 against Finland after the second period of the gold-medal game, and told his players, “If you lose this game you will take it with you to your fucking graves. Your fucking graves.

I don’t know if the Royals will take it to their graves if they let this opportunity to be etched into immortality slip away. But I’ll probably take it to mine.

There’s also an element of survivor’s guilt, as with an infantryman who watched his friends get slaughtered at Ypres. Having dealt with failure for so long, it’s difficult to adjust to success, especially when it comes at the expense of A’s fans, who have watched their team lose seven elimination games in a row now, or Orioles fans, who had gone longer without seeing a World Series than Royals fans had. There’s a sense that if the Royals don’t finish off their dream season, the suffering of A’s and O’s fans will have been in vain — that it will be easier for fans in Oakland and Baltimore to accept defeat if they know that one of their comrades in lucklessness went on to defeat the entrenched powers that be, the San Francisco Giants, who have won two of the last four World Series.

It wasn’t that long ago that the Giants were the definition of lucklessness themselves; before they won in 2010, they had never won a World Series in San Francisco. They came closest in 1962, when they had the tying and winning runs in scoring position with two outs in the ninth inning of Game 7, and Willie McCovey scalded a line drive that would have been, all things considered, the biggest hit in the history of baseball to that point.

But it wasn’t, because he scalded it straight at Bobby Richardson, who was playing second base for the Yankees, for whom that catch simply represented their 10th world championship in 16 seasons. Baseball is pitiless, and baseball follows its own agenda. The Royals can’t sit back and wait for destiny to propel them to victory; they’re going to have to forge their own destiny in one more series. If they do, I’ll lose my right to complain about my sports teams for many years to come. If they don’t, I’ll lose my best shot at the kind of dream season that sports fans wait a lifetime to experience.

Crazy as it sounds after the Royals have gone further than I ever dreamed they would, I’ll be more disappointed if they lose now than if they had lost three weeks ago against Oakland. Winning hasn’t diminished the fear of losing; it has only heightened it, and a championship is the only release.