There are only so many ways to describe the impossible, so let me relate a personal anecdote. Minutes after the Kansas City Royals beat Baltimore and secured their first World Series berth since the first Nintendo game system was invented, my younger daughter, Katie, called on FaceTime. She was wearing a Royals sweatshirt.
“Mom’s crying,” she said.
My wife, Margo, is from a tiny town in Kansas called Cuba. Well, Cuba used to be a tiny town – it’s smaller than that now. Margo was valedictorian of her high school class of 12. That high school closed down a while ago.
In Cuba, when my wife was young, the years were marked by certain events. There was harvest, of course, and the Cuba Rock-a-Thon – which still proudly features delicious Czech food and more than 300 hours of people going back and forth in rocking chairs – and the Republic County Fair in Belleville. There was Kansas State football season and the college basketball season, Halloween and Christmas. As much as anything, there was Royals baseball.
Yes, the Royals were there, every night of summer on KSAL from Salina, Kan., (or, when the wind was right, the big station, 980 KMBZ out of Kansas City). Cuba folks would sit outside in the sweltering evenings and listen to Denny Matthews and Fred White call the action.
I know many people from tiny Midwestern towns – Minneapolis, Clay Center, Abilene, just in Kansas – and most of them seem powerfully impacted by Royals baseball on the radio. I’m not sure it’s an emotion I can fully explain, but I guess it had something to do with connecting to a bigger city, connecting to the country at large, reaching beyond the sometimes claustrophobic city limits and the often suffocating boredom of nothing new ever happening. The Royals of Margo’s youth were exciting and passionate. George Brett almost hit .400, Frank White made dazzling plays, Bret Saberhagen pitched games that were more like symphonies, and Dan Quisenberry closed the door.
Then, about the time Margo turned 16, the Royals just stopped. They didn’t just stop winning. They stopped being. The team of Brett and Leonard and Sabes and Quiz … well … what? Who could even say? One year they were a team of washed-up veterans. The next they were a team of overmatched kids. Then they were washed-up veterans again.
The Royals never had any money, so the best players would dig holes in the walls behind posters to escape. They were never any good, so the only time SportsCenter or anyone else paid attention was when they went on 19-game losing streaks or when their first-base coach was attacked by a lunatic father-and-son fan duo in Chicago.
Margo never stopped caring. Our first date was a Royals game. Every summer, even after the kids were born, we went to plenty of Royals games. I don’t think Royals fans in general ever stopped caring, but I do think Margo stopped believing.
Every spring training, when I was writing columns for the Kansas City Star, I would write a column called, “Why the Royals are going to win the pennant.” She would read it, and ask doubtfully, “Do the Royals REALLY have a chance?” I would shrug and say something like, “It’s not impossible,” and she nodded and went on with her life.
When Kansas City made the playoffs this year, Margo was as excited as every other Royals fan. But I don’t think she believed, not yet. It’s hard to overcome a quarter-century of bloopers and busted prospects and failed plans. When the Royals trailed Oakland by four runs in the Wild Card game, she dozed off under her covers and was jolted awake by the sounds of a comeback.
When the Royals won, though, it was well past midnight, she called her mother Judy, who had instilled in her a love of the team, and for a half-hour, the two lobbed giddy versions of “Can you believe it?” back and forth at each other.
This team; these Royals were something. For one thing, they caught everything. Margo has always been partial to great defense; it was the defensive blunders through the years (like the time two Royals outfielders jogged toward the dugout to end an inning and forgot to actually catch the fly ball) that drove her mad.
But this team. Lorenzo Cain was supernatural in center field. How could he make hard catches look so easy? Alex Gordon seemed to have some kind of magnetic force in the way baseballs would bend to his will. Alcides Escobar made every kind of play at shortstop. No pitch – even ones that bounced angrily in the dirt – ever seemed to get behind that catcher Salvador Perez.
That whole defense was brilliant, and then there were those three relievers – the closing law firm of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland – and they threw so hard, they made hitters look so helpless. They seemed to make the act of swinging a bat pointless. The Royals beat the Angels in extra innings, then did it again, then came home to Kauffman Stadium and seemed electrified by all those fans – Margo found herself on the phone with her Mom nightly, and she found herself reconnecting with old friends she had not talked to in years, and old feelings returned.
Then came this Baltimore series, four heartbreaking games of staggering genius. There was no place in the outfield for Baltimore baseballs to drop. There was no opening to the left side of the infield with Escobar and Mike Moustakas. Baltimore won this year by hitting home runs, but those Royals relievers don’t give up home runs. So when the Orioles players got to Kansas City they found themselves lost in a cavernous place where home runs died before even reaching the warning track. It became very clear, very quickly that the only way the Orioles could win was if they somehow held the Royals scoreless.
This scenario – keeping the Royals scoreless – is not implausible. Scoring runs is the team’s one weakness. But they kept going. They scored their second run in Game 3 on a blooper, a ground ball and a fly ball. They scored their two runs in Game 4 by beating out an infield single, getting hit by a pitch, (the first sacrifice bunt of Cain’s Major League life) and hitting a ground ball to first that Escobar kicked out of the catcher’s glove. They had two runs, and that was enough. The law firm came in and made sure.
Buck O’Neil, the wonderful Negro Leagues player, manager, and spokesman, used to say, “I don’t like that word unbelievable. … Nothing is unbelievable.” Buck had a gift for suspending belief and expecting good things even when there was no reason at all to expect them. Most of us don’t have that gift, certainly not to his extent, and so when the Royals got the final out and won the Championship Series and clinched their place in the World Series, I think it all just hit Margo, suddenly; the way people’s kindness hit George Bailey at the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the way a belief in magical things hit the farmer in “Babe,” the way it all finally made sense when the son asked his Dad for a game of a catch in “Field of Dreams.”
So Margo started crying. I know she wasn’t alone. The Royals are winners again. That word Buck loathed, that word “unbelievable,” lost some ground.