Joe Posnanski

Division Series - Kansas City Royals v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim - Game One

Royals continue to confound baseball logic


ANAHEIM, Calif. — In a general way, there are two ways to perform magic for people. The first way you might call the David Copperfield way; another term for it might be “confident magic.” The magician is always in control. Missing cards appear, minds are read, assistants emerge whole from dangerous predicaments – and the magician acts like he knew it was going to happen all along.

Then there is a second kind of magic show, one where the magician – maybe it’s Penn & Teller or Lance Burton – seems as befuddled as the audience does. Birds keep flying in, bottles of champagne keep popping up, the man’s watch isn’t anywhere to be found, and when it all turns out in the end the magician just kind of shrugs as if to say, “How the heck did that happen?”

These Kansas City Royals are the second kind of magic act.

Thursday night in Anaheim, the Royals beat the Angels, 3-2, in an 11-inning game so implausible that, long after it was over, the Royals still did not seem quite positive they had won. The victory had required eight pitchers, a series of preposterous catches, a momentary blackout of common sense by Angels manager Mike Scioscia and, finally, an extra-inning home run from Kansas City’s No. 9 hitter, who had not hit one since August.

source: Getty Images
“Bull Moose!” — awful headline-writers across America

That No. 9 hitter, third baseman Mike Moustakas, once projected be the Royals first 40-home run hitter since … ever. Kansas City’s team home run record of 36, set by ’80s cult slugger Steve Balboni, has long been a bit of an eyesore for the team. For three decades the Royals drafted, picked up and traded for a sequence of men with power in the odd hope of finding a Jim Thome or Ryan Howard or a Chris Davis. But, being the Royals, their efforts usually ended in dark comedy. There’s the story of Mark Quinn, who hit two home runs in his first big league game but then became obsessed with swinging the bat at any form of movement. He once went on a spectacularly long streak of games without a walk, and when he finally did draw a base on balls some smart-aleck set off the Kauffman Stadium fireworks.

Moustakas set a California high school record for home runs, and scouts gushed he had “80 power” which is as high as that scouting scale goes, and he mashed 36 home runs in Class AA and AAA when he was just 21. He showed some of that power when he got to the major leagues too, but other hits and walks proved elusive. This year he was sent to the minors for time with his batting average drowning in the .150s. He came back with a slightly more conservative swing, which brought the average up over the Mendoza line but at the expense of ever hitting a ball over a fence. His last home run was Aug. 25.

So when he came up in the 11th with the score somehow still tied, Moustakas wasn’t thinking about hitting a long ball. Royals legend George Brett had told him again and again that not thinking about home runs is the way to hit ‘em. Moustakas saw a hanging Fernando Salas change-up, turned on it and deposited the ball over the high right-field wall. An Angels crowd, which had been more and more desperately calling upon rally monkeys for support, slumped into its chairs. Beleaguered Royals manager Ned Yost somehow reached this point in the game without using his electrifying closer, Greg Holland — who with a one-run lead dispatched the Angels comfortably to end the game. In the Royals’ clubhouse celebration, players and former players and executives kept looking at each other with expressions that said, “How did we do that?”

“I don’t consider myself the hero,” Moustakas would say. “This clubhouse is filled with heroes.”

In this, he was right because it took a variety of heroes and anti-heroes to keep the Royals and Angels tied going into the 11th inning in the first place. The theme was set early. On the first pitch the Angels saw, Kole Calhoun blasted a 400-foot shot to deep center field, and Kansas City’s superb center fielder Lorenzo Cain raced back to the wall, leaped and somehow pulled it in. Lo Cain is actually a Hebrew contradiction, “lo” meaning no and “cain” meaning yes. That more or less describes Cain’s brilliant defense, where at contact pitchers yell “No,” at completion they shout “Yes.”

“That was about as high as I can go,” Cain would say afterward, and, as it turns out, the Angels would test that. In the sixth inning, with two runners on, the Angels’ Howie Kendrick crushed a ball to deep right-center, and Cain again loped gracefully after it and, at the precise moment he leaped as high as he could … and the ball went about two inches over the top of his glove. Fortunately for the Royals, right fielder Nori Aoki was nearby, and he blindly and awkwardly stabbed his glove in the right general direction. The ball stuck in there.

source: Getty Images
“Aoki-Dokie,”– former headline writers across America

It’s worth talking for a second about Aoki, because he so thoroughly symbolizes this team. As a young man, he was a major star in his home country of Japan, a whirlwind of a hitter a sort of a second Ichiro. At 29 he somewhat inexplicably fell off. He then found himself in Milwaukee, and this past offseason, he came to Kansas City. He was thoroughly disappointing until late September when, for no apparent reason, he briefly proved impossible to get out. He hit .458 the last two weeks of the season as the Royals held on to their first playoff spot in a generation.

But it is in the field that Aoki is a particular joy to watch; I have never seen a player look so confused while making so many good plays. It is like Aoki’s mind is a lost GPS voice repeating, “Still calculating,” but he somehow gets to the ball and catches it anyway. In addition to the backhanded stab over Cain’s glove, he also spun helplessly under a ball he’d lost in the lights, and he chased after one warning track fly ball by way of San Bernardino. But the balls all ended up in his glove, as always happens, and in this, he seems as surprised as everyone else. After catching the ball over Cain, he smiled and shrugged and theatrically tossed the ball into the booing crowd.

The Angels had the best record in baseball this year and for them to lose this game to the Royals took plenty of their own blundering. Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton went a combined 0-for-13, with Hamilton looking especially dazed. Scioscia, despite having one of the most powerful lineups in baseball, decided three times to have his hitters sacrifice, leading to zero runs and one particularly silly scene. In the eighth inning, Los Angeles’ Chris Iannetta led off with a walk – bringing up Calhoun, Trout and Pujols. Scioscia bizarrely decided to give up an out by having Calhoun bunt, even though Calhoun is a slugger who only hit into five double plays all year.

This was strange enough, but then even stranger, Calhoun worked to a 3-1 count against Royals super-reliever Wade Davis. This put Calhoun in an ideal hitting position, and it seemed impossible that the bunt was still on. But it was. Calhoun popped up the bunt and, had Moustakas been aware, he could have dropped the ball and gotten a double play because Calhoun was so defeated he did not even run to first base.

Of course it’s only one game, and there is still time for this series and baseball to regain its natural order. But for one more night in this crazy season, the Kansas City Royals’ magic worked. The clubhouse party was a mishmash of thrilled young players, elated club officials, and a few former Royals players like Mike Sweeney and Jeff Suppan and Jeff Montgomery who come from a time when absolutely nothing ever went the Royals’ way. Raul Ibanez, a 42-year-old hitter who played for some of those unfortunate Royals teams and plays for this one, too, says it like this: “It’s baseball. It doesn’t have to make sense.”

And Royals general manager Dayton Moore, who came to this team eight years ago and, like James Taylor, has seen fire and seen rain, puts his arm around you and says: “How did you like that game? For us, that’s a blowout.”

The beauty of belief

Nosotros Creemos!

There are words in baseball — code words, you might call them — that separate old school and new, classic ball (often referred to simply as “ball” as in “now they’re playing ball!”) and Moneyball, tradition and reform. “Momentum” is one of those words, and “grit” is another, and “clutch” is a third. You can usually get a good argument going with any of those three. “Heart,” too. And “Jeter.”

“Chemistry” is one of those code words. You will probably not hear a baseball broadcast through the World Series without lots of talk about players helping each other, liking each other, inspiring each other, cracking each other up, leading each other and so on.

There are people who believe that chemistry — whatever secrets are locked up inside that noun — is the secret to winning baseball teams. There are others who believe that chemistry, in the sports sense, is simply a made-up word. Where you stand on that question probably locates your exact place on the old-school-new-school-space-and-time continuum.

MORE: Royals headed to ALDS  |  A’s season ends in collapse

I believe in chemistry in baseball, thought not so much in the fuzzy clubhouse nirvana way. I believe that Tuesday night’s incredible, implausible, infuriating, intoxicating and impossible game between the Kansas City Royals and Oakland Athletics was all about chemistry. There were violent chemical reactions happening all over the place. It was like the surface of the sun.

* * *

The first postseason game in Kansas City in 29 years began with what you might call “anticipated anticlimax,” something that long-losing team sports fans come to expect. You see it in college football a lot. A generally dreary football team will get off to some sort of crazy 5-0 start, often because they played a series of patsies or overrated teams, and then, the team will find itself playing one of the really good teams, and the buildup will be enormous. Gameday will show up, blimps fly overhead, the stadium will be electrified in a way it hasn’t since the ‘40s. What follows will almost always be anticipated anticlimax — the good team will return the opening kickoff for a touchdown or will knock the quarterback out of the game on the second play.

In Tuesday’s Kansas City-Oakland game, Royals starter “Big Game” James Shields — a fine pitcher with the misfortune of having his first name sort of rhyme with “Big Game” — gave up a leadoff single to Coco Crisp, an uncomfortably long fly ball to Sam Fuld and, a batter later, a home run to Brandon Moss. Anticipated anticlimax. The A’s led, 2-0, before anyone had a chance to even breathe in hopeful air, and the homer instantly drained about 29 years of energy and optimism right out of the crowd.

The Royals brought some of that energy back in the bottom of the inning when they got a run-scoring single from Billy Butler, though this was countered with some classic Royals dark comedy. The Royals really are the closest baseball thing to a Coen Brothers movie. With two outs, the Royals tried some sort of double-steal with Billy Butler at first and Eric Hosmer at third. If I got the play right, and can write this without breaking down in convulsions, Butler was supposed to get hung up between first and second, distracting the A’s long enough to allow Hosmer to steal home. This, of course, ended in humiliation, with Hosmer being thrown out at the plate by 800 million steps, but as is often the case the spectacular ineptitude of the play was doubled or trebled by the Ned Yost explanation, where he explained that Butler left early and Hosmer left late and, otherwise, the Royals would have score a run.

Any comedian will tell you that you can’t explain comedy, and every effort to do so will just dig you deeper into anti-comedy, and maybe that’s why the straight-laced Yost always comes across so absurdly in these situations. Eric Hosmer is a generally lumbering first baseman, and Billy Butler might be the slowest player in baseball, and any complicated running play with these two is destined to become a Will Ferrell movie. It would have made me feel so much better if Yost had not given a considered answer on how that madcap scheme might have worked but instead said, “Yeah, that was crazy, right? Woo hop! Brain cramp! Hey, it’s the first postseason for me too!”

We will get back to the adventures of Ned in another moment.

* * *

The Royals took the lead in the third inning on a typically grueling Kansas City rally that included a single, a sacrifice, a groundout, a hard-hit double, and a bloopy pop-fly single. The fans of Kauffman Stadium unleashed three decades of frustration and optimism, and the place sounded like Alabama on a Saturday afternoon.

That Kansas City offense is something to behold. The Royals are the first American League in about two decades not to hit 100 home runs in a season. Watching their effort to score runs is somewhat like watching a documentary of an Oklahoma family trying to survive the Dust Bowl.

Or, to put it another way: You probably know a golfer who has the worst looking swing you’ve ever seen — one with loops and twirls and pauses in weird places and neck twists — but somehow manages to hit the ball straight enough to make reasonable scores. And watching that golfer grind, you might think to yourself: “Is that really worth it? Would I play that kind of exhausting golf in order to lower my score?”

That golfer’s swing — that’s the Royals offense.

* * *

The Royals led, 3-2, going into the sixth inning, and at that point Kauffman Stadium was a giant scream, and it seemed like the Royals had a chance to win the game their way.

Fezzik: Which way’s my way?

Vizzini: Pick up one of those rocks, get behind the boulder. In a few minutes the man in black will come running around the bend and the minute his head is in view you HIT IT WITH THE ROCK.

Fezzik: My way is not very sportsmanlike.

The Royals Way of winning means hustling as many runs as they possibly can (three is a reasonable number), somehow getting a lead to the seventh inning, and then handing it over to Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland, an almost unhittable trio of relief pitching machines. They are like Bullpen Cerberus, a three-headed mythological monster of late innings. Ned Yost has tended to use his three-headed bullpen monster in the most literal way possible. Yost, I sometimes think, manages a baseball team the way the rest of us build Ikea furniture. He’s looking at the diagram, looking at the parts, looking back at the diagram, looking back at the parts, and then shouting, “It says to use a 3/16 inch screw but I don’t have any left!”

The Royals Way works beautifully if things work out – meaning if the Royals actually get to the seventh inning with a lead – but the Royals Way is fuzzy on sixth innings, and the fascinating and oddball ways Ned Yost has tried to navigate that trouble inning this year could be the subject of a Looney Tunes adventure. This time, he decided to let Shields start the inning, which is no doubt how he would have played it all season. Shields had allowed two runs, he had retired seven Athletics players in a row, his first name sort of rhymes with Big Game.

source: Getty Images
Going Yostal, or crazy like a fox?

Trouble is, strange ideas were bubbling in Ned Yost’s mind. Before the inning began, Yost had decided to warm up Yordano Ventura, who had started the Royals’ game on Sunday. Ventura is a rookie pitcher who throws 100 mph, had a fine season, and had one relief outing this year to go with 30 starts.

I don’t understand the impulses that would make a man think it a good idea to give a rookie pitcher a rare relief appearance on one day’s rest in the team’s first playoff game since Microsoft released its first version of Windows. But when Ventura began warming up there was the thing any of us hope when forced to deal with a manager whose instincts we don’t trust – maybe things will work out and he won’t actually follow those instincts.

In other words, the hope was that Shields would just pitch well in the sixth and save Ned Yost from himself. But it didn’t happen. Shields gave up single to Sam Fuld, and he walked Josh Donaldson, and Yost made that unfortunate walk to the mound.

Yes, he might have seen that the A’s had lefties coming up and, perhaps, matched up with a lefty. Yes, he might have broken from the Ikea diagram and put Kelvin Herrera in an inning earlier than normal, since this was not a normal game. But Yost does not tend to stray from previously chosen paths, and in came Ventura.

A radar gun moment: When Ventura came out and threw his first fastball to Brandon Moss at 99 mph, the TBS announcers made a point of pointing out the mileage. The radar gun is such a mesmerizing distraction. “He threw that pitch 99 mph,” one of them said, and the others hummed their admiration. No one seemed too concerned that it was 99 mph and way above the strike zone, as was the second fastball. No one talked about how fast the third fastball was because Moss deposited it over the center-field wall for a three-run homer.

* * *

At this point I could write a long diatribe about the baffling baseball strategies of Ned Yost, but I have to admit that lately I’ve been coming around to a whole different point of view about him and managers in general, one that gets back to the chemical reactions I mentioned earlier. A few weeks ago, I was talking with one of the smartest baseball people I know, and though he was off on some of his views – he thought the Royals would finish seven games back in the division – he offered a view of chemistry that I like quite a bit.

His idea is that sports chemistry is not so much about how people on a team get along but how clearly those people believe that the team will be successful. The word there is “clearly.”

We use the word “believe” in nebulous and unfocused ways – in the “I know that sounds like a cat poster but it’s true,” way they use “believe” in the Lego Movie – but the textbook definition is simply “to have confidence in the truth, the existence or the reliability of something.” So belief in team success is less like belief in God or belief in karma or belief that Jennifer Lawrence is a great actress. It’s more like believing that if you drive safely you won’t get in an accident or believing that if you study for the test you’ll get a good grade.

The Royals, for many years, did not have anything concrete to believe in. They would talk the happy talk of spring training about how they believed they had better players, believed this pitcher would improve and that outfielder would build on last year’s success, and their defense would get better. But this was the misty kind of belief. There was no blueprint for winning that anyone actually could spell out, no clear line to victory like: “We will score more runs than other teams because we will hit more home runs” or “We will keep people from scoring because we have strikeout pitchers” or anything else like that.

The very best part of this year’s Royals team has been the replacement of that old bleary belief with a clarity of vision. It’s not an easy vision. But it’s clear. These Royals know what they’re up against. They can’t hit home runs. They don’t walk. They don’t have a starting pitcher who will get Cy Young votes. They have a manager who will occasionally just leave the planet. They don’t have as much money. They are not very deep.

source: Getty Images
Nosotros Creemos!

OK – that’s something to work with. Now, how do you use all that? No power? Well, let’s steal lots of bases. No great starter? Maybe not, but let’s put together five really good ones and build a legendary back of the bullpen. Kooky manager? Maybe, but remember a manager can only hurt so much and, anyway, sometimes the nutty stuff will work. No depth? All right, have Alicedes Escobar play all 162 games at shortstop and Salvy Perez catch more games in a season than any Royals catcher ever.

The point is – if you actually can get people to believe these steps will lead to victories, they will do those things with vigor. And, as Patton believed, a good army is an army in motion. The Royals’ players and management believed the team could run and bunt and slice and dice their way to enough runs. They believed that their bullpen was invincible and a late-inning lead was a guaranteed win. The Royals believed that they could win games even if Ned Yost did stuff that made the head hurt. It all became a part of their chemistry.

And that was what I thought about after Yost left the farm in the sixth inning. The Royals trailed Oakland by four runs, 7-3, and it sure seemed like they would lose. After they fell behind, they did all sorts of unsound things like try to steal a base when down four runs and sacrifice bunt anytime a Royals player reached base and swing at baseballs that were only marginally in the field of play. But they did it all with such enthusiasm, with such force of will, with such optimism that chemical reactions were sparking again and again.

A ground ball single, a stolen base, another single, another stolen base, a walk, another single, a wild pitch – that crazy, loud, emotional inning moved the Royals to within a run. Madness. The tying run came later after a bloop single, a sacrifice hit, a bunt single and a sacrifice fly. Mayhem.

In the 12th inning, the Royals came back one last time – an Eric Hosmer triple, a Christian Colon Baltimore chop, another stolen base, a ground-ball single yanked down the line by catcher Salvador Perez, who for most of the game had looked so helpless, you weren’t sure if he was even holding the bat right side up.

When the game ended, long after midnight on the East Coast, I walked downstairs to find my Kansas wife Margo babbling happily on the phone with her Kansas parents. They were left breathless. Kansas City was left breathless. It’s funny to think about, but the Royals might not have won that game if Ned Yost had done something more conventional and, you know, logical with his bullpen in the sixth inning. They might not have won the game if Billy Butler and Eric Hosmer had not danced their silly baserunning dance. There are so many wonderful things about baseball, and this is one of them: Illogical things happen. And sometimes feeling lucky actually makes you lucky.

Ron Gardenhire: Too much of the credit, too much of the blame

Ron Gardenhire

For a few years there, I saw it as my personal mission to the spread the gospel of Ron Gardenhire, then manager of the Minnesota Twins. From 2002 to 2010 or so, Gardy had an amazing run. The team won the American League Central six times in nine years.

And they won those championships with players who were, bluntly, not very good. In 2002, they won 94 games with an offense that couldn’t score (ninth in the American League) and pitching staff without a single starter throwing 200 innings. 

In 2003, none of the five starters who made at least 20 starts had an ERA less than 4.49, and only Torii Hunter managed 20 home runs. They won the division again.

In 2008, their rotation was Nick Blackburn, Scott Baker, an almost unpitchable Francisco Liriano, my buddy Glen Perkins who was soon in the minors reestablishing himself as a reliever, Kevin Slowey and Carl Pavano. They won the division.

In 2010, their closer Joe Nathan blew out in spring training, their former MVP Justin Morneau had a concussion and missed half the season. They won the division.

Twins fans would often to write to me then to say that the team was winning IN SPITE of Gardy, not because of him, and I believed that to a point. I sometimes think that, strategically anyway, managers in general hurt their teams more than they help — meaning that if they would fall asleep in the dugout they might do better than some of the ill-advised maneuvers that they try when wide awake. Gardy was an old-school type, meaning he would occasionally spit on advanced metrics and would talk a lot about the intangible value of Nick Punto.

But the team seemed to fulfill their potential year after year, at least in the regular season. Yes, they were playing in an often lousy division. Yes, it helped in many of those years to have 19 games with the Royals and Tigers and Indians. Yes, in the postseason they would collapse at the first hint of wind. But, honestly, they won six division titles. You look at those teams. Other than 2006 — when they had a legitimately great team with Joe Mauer and Morneau at full power and the good versions of Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano — show me a Twins team that you could win with in Strat-o-Matic. You telling me some other manager is getting more out of Christian Guzman and Boof Bonser?

Anyway, the last four years have been entirely different. The Twins have lost 92-plus games every year and have been general non-competitive. It hasn’t helped that Joe Mauer has aged five years at a time or that the Twins thought it was a good idea to give Ricky Nolasco a billion jillion dollars. But whatever. The Twins fired Gardy Monday, and it makes me sad, obviously, but it’s not like you could blame them. This is the deal with baseball managers. Maybe Gardy did get too much of the credit when the team winning. Now comes the time when he gets too much of the blame.

I suspect Gardy will get another shot with a team, though you never know about these things. Lately the theme seems to be to hire 1980s and 1990s All-Stars — Matt Williams (five times), Robin Ventura (1992), Brad Ausmus (1999), Don Mattingly (six times), Walt Weiss (1998), Ryne Sandberg (10 times) and so on. It makes you wonder if the days are gone when teams will hire scrappy middle infielders who couldn’t hit. Teams seem to be shifting toward player-manager types, once good players who the young players grew up watching.

Gardy comes from the Tom Kelly school — he was the valedictorian of the Tom Kelly school — where managers grump and demand and instill and bunt too much and occasionally fall in love with limited but gritty players. When you get the right players, the Gardy style can still win a lot of games. When you get the wrong players, the Gardy style can still lose a lot games. It’s almost enough to make you think it’s really all about the players.

A Royals Toast

Royals AP

In the afterglow, I find myself trying to remember the low moment, the moment that summed up all of what it meant being a Kansas City Royals fan the last 20 years or so. I think of the time Tim Belcher was named the Kansas City Royals pitcher of the year despite the somewhat limiting fact that he had a 5.02 ERA and had pitched no better than the numbers. He sat on stage glumly, accepted the award with a sheepish speech about how he didn’t deserve this award (in this case, he really didn’t) and sat down no doubt thinking he couldn’t wait to get out of Kansas City (which he did a year later).

The Royals, those Royals, are going to the playoffs.

I think of the time an energetic New York attorney named Miles Prentice, who had roughly the same net worth as your next door neighbor, was picked to buy the Royals. Prentice used to hop around town wearing suits and a Royals baseball cap, and he supposedly went into the manager’s office and told him to stop letting his hitters swing on the first pitch and into the radio booth to tell the announcers to use an egg timer, the way Red Barber did, to alert them when it was time to remind listeners of the score.

The Royals, those Royals, are going to the playoffs.

I think of a time when a genial man named Herk Robinson, as general manager, wanted to hire an artist to paint the Royals players in action in order to help the scouts. When told that the scouts already had something called video, which rather precisely transferred reality to a television screen, Robinson said yes, but art, true art, can transcend reality.

The Royals, those Royals, are going to the playoffs.

The drought wasn’t the thing. Yes, it had been 29 years since the Royals last reached the postseason — and baseball has completely turned upside down in those 29 years. The game has made the divisions smaller, added wildcards, rearranged the schedule, made it all but impossible for a team to NOT go to the postseason at least every now and again. The Royals would not go. But the drought wasn’t the thing — it was the hopelessness surrounding the drought. The Royals did not come close to the postseason. The Royals did things so mind boggling that the postseason seemed as far away as flying cars and trips to another galaxy.

I think of a time when a manager named Tony Muser decided to change his image. Muser was and is a good baseball man but he had this Charlie Brown cloud hovering over him, so that no matter what fiasco befell the Royals, you sensed the Muser was still looking up at the sky certain that a piano was about to fall on his head. In his final spring training, he announced that he was going to be more positive, a Happy Tony Muser, and the players created a calendar where they would put a smiley face sticker on days when Muser actually smiled.

The Royals, those Royals, are going to the playoffs.

I think a player named Ken Harvey, a 6-foot-2, 240 pound bopper from Beverly Hills (via the University of Nebraska) who went to high school, at least briefly, with Angelina Jolie. Harvey had this odd batting style where he would slide his right hand over his left during the swing and then employ a massive upper cut, but he hit well enough one year to be the Royals lone All Star representative. Still, it was his penchant for being in the wrong place at the wrong time that marked his career. He was hit in the back with an outfield throw. He threw the ball into a pitcher’s face from point-blank range. He got tangled up in the tarp trying to do something or other. Harvey was not a comic figure, though, he was a proud young man who just kept having bad things happen to him, not unlike Royals fans themselves.

The Royals, those Royals, are going to the playoffs.

I think of a time when the Royals decided to buy Johnny Damon a house in order, I suppose, to instill loyalty and make him want to stay in Kansas City when he became too expensive. Damon ran kicking and screaming from Kansas City at first opportunity anyway, probably when he realized that for a few million dollars extra he could buy his own house.

The Royals, those Royals, are going to the playoffs.

Nothing was easy about this season. These Royals are not a great team. They are often not a good team. They will not hit even 100 home runs this season — the first American League team in 20 years to fail to reach triple digits. They are ninth in the league in runs scored, just thirty or so runs ahead of last place. The calling card is pitching but they don’t have one starter who you could yet call a great pitcher.

But, dammit, that team never stopped plodding, never stopped toiling — run scoring for them is like manual labor, but they dribbled their singles and yanked their doubles and stole some bases and found a way to dig enough runs out of the dirt. Their starters, young and old, pitched to contact and relied on a frisky defense and somehow managed to give the bullpen enough leads. And that bullpen, that amazing three-man bullpen of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland, shut the games down.

No, the Royals are not a great team — but they understood each other and they saw their line to victory the same way a great golfer can see the line of a putt into the hole. Chemistry is an overused word in sports. Belief is an overused word in sports. Narrative is an overused word in sports. The Royals still used those themes, and now, for the first time since 1985, they are going to the playoffs.

I think of a Royals player falling off first base like a cut down tree, and I think of another climbing the centerfield wall only to see the ball bounce off the warning track in front of him, and I think of two Royals players jogging to the dugout, each thinking the other would catch the ball which landed softly and happily in the grassy area they had left behind. I think of a player not wearing sunglasses, losing a ball in the sun and having it hit him in the face — he wore sunglasses on the plane right home to cover the shiner. I think of a pitcher so frustrated that he complained to the press that he can’t even get no-decisions.

The Royals, those Royals, are going to the playoffs.

I think of Joe McGuff, my friend, who was instrumental in bringing the Royals to town. He suffered from ALS at the end of his life, and once when I went to see him the hospital he could barely speak, but he still managed to ask me what I thought of the Royals future. Those were bleak days, and I told him that they sure needed another George Brett. I saw recognition in those eyes — one year, when Brett suffered from hemorrhoids during the World Series, he was asked if he found the timing cruel. “Sure, I do,” Brett said. “I ask, ‘Why me? Why not Joe McGuff.” Joe wanted to talk some more about the team, what could be done, but he could not speak the words, and he began to cry.

The Royals, those Royals, are going to the playoffs.

I think of Buck O’Neil, my friend, who believed in the power of baseball to fix anything. In the most desolate of days, he was asked if the Royals had any chance against the money and might of the New York Yankees, and he raged, “OF COURSE they can beat the Yankees. The Yankees can have all the money in the world, but they can only put nine players on the field, just like our Royals.” When the Royals would win a game, even toward the end of one of their many lost seasons, Buck would take it in and then say, “It’s turning around.”

The Royals, those Royals, are going to the playoffs.

Every team with a long run of losing has stories, of course. Every team with a long run of losing has believers too, who refuse to stop caring even when there seems nothing left to care about. I think of a blind man in Kansas who would have his wife read to him the Royals account every morning at breakfast, and he would then ask her to go over the box score hitter by hitter. I think of a farmer in the Northern part of Missouri who would record the west coast games off the radio and listen to them in the morning when he worked the farm. I think of a friend in Overland Park who kept trying to give the Royals up, and kept finding himself drifting back when Opening Day arrived. I think of a restaurant owner in Kansas City who framed the Royals World Series tickets he got last year, not as a joke but as a harbinger of good things.

There’s no telling how much of a reward this season will be. The Royals still have a chance to win the division, and they still have a chance to fall to the second wildcard, so this postseason could be a full-fledged baseball series in Kansas City or it could be one game in Oakland … or it could be a magical run that rivals the crazy and wildly unlikely 1985 World Series march.

I think of Dayton Moore, the Royals general manager. He has made some missteps, no question. He has turned down some dark alleys, no doubt. But when he arrived in Kansas City eight years ago, he promised to build a respectable baseball team. He worked day after day to make it happen, not only on the field, but throughout the organization. One day, we were in the Plaza — that shopping district in the heart of Kansas City — and he said: “This would be such an amazing place for a parade.”

There might not be a parade. But there might be. And that’s the toast for the Royals on this day many thought might never come. Raise a glass. The Royals, those Royals, are going to the playoffs.

Mr. November (or, my favorite Derek Jeter story)


My favorite Derek Jeter story comes from a time that, I fear, no one will understand in a few years. Maybe no one understands now. It comes from a time of newspapers and early columns and running columns and crushing deadlines. I have tried to explain the newspaper deadline concept to my daughters but, like the concept of only three television networks and rotary phones, it simply drifts past their dulled eyes the way my father’s stories about having no television set drifted by mine.

“Why did you have such early deadlines?”

“Because they had to take the newspapers far away.”

“Why didn’t they just email the newspapers?”

“We didn’t have email.”

“So why didn’t they text the newspapers?”

On Oct. 31, 2001, I sat in the left field stands at Yankee Stadium as the helpless Yankees were being mowed down by Arizona’s right-handed force of nature Curt Schiling (their left-handed force of nature, Randy Johnson, had mowed the Yankees down three nights before). The left field stands was where the Yankees put their “auxiliary press” and one of the advantages of being banished out there was being so close to those hard-core Bleacher Creature Yankee fans who came up with the whole idea of chanting a players name until he acknowledges them. Watching them told the story. Schilling gave up three hits in seven innings, struck out nine, held Jeter to three infield outs — and the fans were deathly silent. There was no hope. This game was Arizona’s.

In those days (gather round children) you had to be keen to the early rhythms of games because of that horror enchantingly known as “early columns.” In order to deliver Kansas City Star newspapers to the driveways in the far-reaches of Kansas and Missouri, columnists were given a series of deadlines to hit. The first column needed to be delivered before the game even began — apparently so that people in Salina and Springfield did not have giant white spaces where a sports column was supposed to be. I often wondered what people out there must have thought of my writing. I can only assume they thought, “Did this guy even go to the game? He never writes anything about the game. There isn’t a single detail in here. Where’s the score?”*

*As long as we’re reminiscing, I will quickly tell a story from the 1997 World Series when, like all the other columnists, I was trolling the field before the game looking for anything at all to write early when all of a sudden I heard a voice call me.

“Joe!” the voice said.

I turned around. It was Bip Roberts. He had played for the Royals the year before. I had no idea how Bip Roberts knew my name.

“Hi Bip.”

“Come here for a second.”

So I went over to talk with Bip Roberts, who at the time was playing a smaller role for Cleveland. and unsolicited he proceeded to RIP the Royals organization. I don’t know if Bip Roberts simply understood the whole early column politics and knew I’d write about him or if he just wanted to vent but let me tell you something … that day Bip Roberts became one of my favorite people. I strutted around the auxiliary press box with a smile that said, “Ha ha, suckers, I have my early.” You give a columnist an early column, you are a friend for life.

In any case, with the Star, there was the early column (which I had already done). Then there was what we called a “running column.” That was the column that, more or less, had to be delivered just as the game ended. These newspapers, I guess, went to areas not quite as far out as the early region, but still out there somewhere. After that you would write your “late column” or as columnists liked to call it, your “real column.”

In theory, the “running column” could just be the early column updated with a few game details. But most columnists I knew rebelled against that idea. We almost always despised our early columns (except when Bip Roberts showed up). To dress it up as the running column first meant reading it again, which was more than we could bear.

So how did we write these running columns? Easy. We would guess. Early in the game, we would start writing a column based on the flow of the game. Sometimes, a flurry of points or runs or goals came early and we had a fairly easy time of it. Other times, no. If things changed in the middle, we would change in the middle. If things were unclear, we would sometimes write two different columns, updating each as the game progressed.

That night in New York, with Schilling dealing, with the Bleacher Creatures mourning, with Arizona leading the game 3-1 and about to lead the seven-game series by the same total … I was confidently pounding away on my running column. The theme to the column was simple: The Yankees are dead. That’s all. The Yankees had won three straight World Series up to that point, four in five years, they had dominated baseball like no team of my lifetime. They made more, spent more, won more, and were cheered more than any team. They were inescapable.

But not anymore.

The Yankees are dead, I wrote. I don’t remember the other words in the story, but I’m sure that — like Groot in “Guardians of the Galaxy” — I simply used those four words again and again in that same order.

Well, of course, you remember that ninth inning. The lamentable Byung-Hyun Kim had entered the game an inning before, and he had no idea at that moment that he would ever be called “lamentable Byung-Hyun Kim.” In fact, in that eighth inning he struck out the side. The ninth began with Jeter bunting into an out, Paul O’Neill singling and Bernie Williams whiffing.

My running column was done (The Yankees are dead) when Tino Martinez stepped to the plate. He homered. The game was tied. The stadium electrified.

I looked at my utterly worthless column. Worthless. It was … yeah, worthless. I kept looking at it, trying to find any way to salvage it.

And — I promise this is true — my first thought was: Maybe I can insert NOT into the sentences. You know, like, “The Yankees are NOT dead.”

And — I promise this is true — my second thought was: “Maybe I can lead off the column by saying, “Well, this was going to be my column before Byung-Hyun Kim gave up that homer to Tino Martinez.”

And — you know this is true — my third thought was: I am so screwed.

So, what do you do when you are totally screwed? The game went into extra innings, and the office called to say that they would push my deadline back a few minutes but they needed a column the SECOND the game ended. I was too frantic to even argue. I just started typing words — unrelated words, foreign words, gibberish words. Here I was trying to write a column from scratch from a tie game.*

Another quick story: Once, a few years ago, the Kansas City Chiefs were playing a Monday Night Game similar to this one, where the game was in doubt and running deadline had passed. A writer stood up in the pressbox and shouted, “I don’t know who is going to win! I don’t know who is going to win!” We’ve all snapped at one time or another.

So, I was barely watching the game in the 10th, with two outs, nobody on, and Derek Jeter came to the plate. Lamentable Byun-Hyung Kim was still on the mound for some reason. The crowd was still buzzing from the Tino miracle, still high from that crazy moment. And, of course, there was something else in the air, something beyond sports. Ground Zero was still burning. It was less than two months after 9/11 and New York was in pain, America was in pain, I don’t think sports had anything to do with that but here were 55,863 people together, almost all of them New Yorkers, and there was Derek Jeter, the player they loved most, and everything sort of stopped like in the movies. I looked up from the screen. Midnight had just struck. And I saw it.

I don’t know if the roar at Yankee Stadium when Jeter hit the home run was the loudest I ever heard. Probably not. The crowd in Beijing when Usain Bolt broke the 100-meter record was loud. The crowd at Allen Fieldhouse the last time Kansas played Missouri was loud. The crowd at Alabama, the Vikings crowd at the Metrodome, the crowd at Chicago’s United Center for the Stanley Cup, they’re all really loud.

But I’ve never heard a sound like that one at Yankee Stadium. It wasn’t a cheer. It was like … a prayer. A joyous prayer. A joyous prayer sung by a gospel choir. Jeter ran around the bases, and the noise was tangible, you could actually feel it, like it was misting outside. I blinked and tried to take it all in, and the phone rang, and I ignored it and wrote feverishly, something, anything, babbling about the Yankees and Jeter and gospel prayers and promising myself that I would never read that column again. Then, I finished, and I sent, and my heart was beating a million miles a minute, and I took a deep breath.

And that’s when I realized no one was leaving. The fans were staying there, all of them, and they were singing “New York, New York” along with the crackling recording of Frank Sinatra. When the song ended, the fans waited, and the voice would begin again, and they would sing again. Three times it played. Four times it played. Five times. Sinatra. Fans. These little town blues.

This is the luckiest job I know. The job has taken me all over the world. It has introduced me to the most amazing people. It has given me a seat to watch some of the most vivid art and most thrilling drama of the last 25 years. And all I’ve had to do is write it down. There isn’t a single day that I’m not grateful for this life.

That said, I remember sitting there, thinking about the passion of Derek Jeter, visualizing the home run again, listening to that crowd sing, looking at the blank screen I had to fill, and I could feel my eyes watering a little bit. Hell, I know sports isn’t life, and there’s a lot of bad out there in the games people play, and this Jeter Appreciation Tour seems to have lasted for twenty-five years and all that. But I still hear that crowd singing.