Playoff baseball, I missed you. It’s good to be part of you again.
If you are going to go to the first MLB playoff game in your life, I suppose last night was the one to attend. The Kansas City Royals returned to the playoffs for the first time since I was eleven years old–“Party Like It’s 1985” signs were everywhere in the stands–and boy, was it worth the wait.
It’s hard to top the Don Denkinger black magic of that 1985 Game 6 against the Cardinals, but yesterday was close. Now, the Kansas City Royals have a four-game postseason winning streak, spanning 29 years in time. I know there have probably been a million comparisons of how much things have changed since the last time the Royals were in the postseason. Here are just a few that capture just how long it has been:
- Fox was not yet a network;
- Oprah had not started her national show;
- Elmo didn’t exist;
- This is what an Apple computer looked like.
I remember those games–I taped the Sunday night Game 7 on VHS (oh yeah, VHS was a thing then), but alas, I was not in attendance at age 11.
Growing up in those years of showdowns with the hated Yankees, we were spoiled in Kansas City. The Royals were good for as long as I could remember (the Chiefs were not), and it was a Royals town. It slid away so slowly at first that you hardly noticed.
The Royals were still a pretty good team for a few more years. Bo Jackson was a national celebrity figure, and led off the All-Star Game with a home run in 1989. If the current (or wildcard) format was in effect, they would have been in the postseason that year, finishing behind the Oakland Athletics’ Bash Brothers that year in the AL West. When baseball went to the three division format in 1994, they were right in the middle of the race, when the season was canceled.
Then you look up, and 28 years later, it feels like everything has passed you by. Steve Balboni is still the franchise’s single season home run leader, with 36 from that World Series season. There have been 272 different seasons since then when a player has hit more than 36 home runs. The steroid era completely flew over Kansas City.
So I know it is hard to explain to those who have not spent their whole adult lives watching bad baseball–those who complain when they have one or two down years–but last night was the culmination of a 29-year wait. I know it’s not true (officially, there were just over 40,000 fans), but it felt like every fan who was between the age of -10 and 18 the last time the Royals were in a playoff game was there. Hey, you never know when this will happen again!
The atmosphere was a completely new experience, something I had only experienced at a football game in my adult life. Over the years, as the bad baseball accumulated, you could go to a game with a sparse crowd, and see a pretty large amount of fans for the visiting team in attendance, especially for teams like the Twins, Red Sox, Yankees or Cardinals. Last night, the walk into the stadium was pure blue. I saw a total of three people–from my time in the parking lot to the walk to the stadium, to standing in front of the gate, to walking around inside–wearing an Athletics shirt.
From the first pitch, the energy was amazing. Brandon Moss’ first inning home run only dampened it slightly. Things took a decided downturn in the sixth inning. Ned Yost may have drawn much criticism for taking out James Shields after 88 pitches to bring in starter Yordano Ventura in a rare relief role, but it was far from the worst decision of the night. I’m going to say the decision to purchase the Royals’ rally helmet of giant nachos was a far worse call, one for which I am paying today.
Things looked pretty bleak after getting halfway through that–and after the Athletics put up a 5-spot for a 7-3 lead.
Royals fans don’t come in a vacuum. Most are also Chiefs fans, and the Chiefs haven’t won a playoff game since the 1993 season, either. A percentage are Missouri fans, and you can add in a series of disappointments and heartbreaking losses. Basically, sports has been emotional pain and disappointment. So when the Royals fell behind big, despite the large, emotional crowd, well, it felt like it was just a repeat of so many other big moments.
That changed, of course, in the 8th inning. The crowd was buzzing. The rally began with a single by Alcides Escobar. It featured four stolen bases in one inning, and a wild pitch (but amazingly with Ned Yost, no sacrifice bunts that inning). The steroid era may have passed Kansas City by, but for one night, a team partying like it’s 1985 really did turn back the clock and stage a comeback without the long ball. The Royals have hit 95 home runs all year, and the top 4 hitters in the lineup last night had 18 home runs, not on average, but total.
When Alex Gordon came up that inning, with the Royals already cutting it to 7-5, it was the loudest I have ever heard at a Royals game in my life. It was close to the loudest at any game–football included. Was it visions of a potential George Brett moment, seeing the left-handed Gordon in the box, off Goose Gossage?
For me, from my vantage point in the right field stands, it was the anticipation of just such an improbable moment. That home run by Brett in 1980 to go to the World Series was a culmination of years of frustration against the Yankees in the playoffs; a similar moment from the Royals’ best player would have released as much emotion. It was not to be, but the rally was completed the next inning, again with “small ball”, including a gutsy stolen base of third, that set up the tying sacrifice fly.
That prompted this emotional tweet, as the tying run crossed the plate, and the phone battery gave out, unable to go extra innings.
Extra innings was just as emotional. High fives all around the section after every out or hit. When the Athletics again took the lead, memories of all the past close heartaches popped up. Then, after Hosmer’s triple and another one of those freaky baseball plays that you get used to seeing in little league, the chopper right in front of the plate by Christian Colon, the game was tied. I turned to my brother-in-law and said: “They can’t lose this one now, not after all this.”
Of course, as a Royals/Chemefs/Memssourem fan, that was more hopeful than demandemng. Of course they could stemll lose emt. But after the 7th stolen base of the nemght, Salvador Perez–who had looked awful for most of the nemght at the plate–delemvered the goods.
Playoff baseball is back. Long live playoff baseball. And let’s do this again, but in more like 29 hours, not 29 years.