Joe Posnanski

This team.


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.

[ RELATED: Ned Yost doesn’t get much credit for Royals’ run. Maybe he should ]

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.

[ RELATED: Will too much rest before World Series ruin the Royals? ]

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.

Going all the way back to 1977


Look at that face. That is the face of experience, right? Those are the eyes of a man who has faced a thousand pitchers. That is the wrinkling face of a man who dived into the dirt countless times, all across the country, in efforts to spear scorching ground balls and line drives.

Brooks Robinson, man. He was the aging gunfighter by the time I knew of him, my father’s hero, the man whose reflexes had slowed, whose power had sapped, whose legs had grown heavy … but he knew things, secrets, mysteries of the game that the kids couldn’t quite fathom.

How could anyone be cooler than Brooks Robinson?

* * *

Baseball, I’ve written before, will never stop being the game it was when you were 10 years old. That’s the charm. That’s the nostalgia. That’s the trap. I was 10 years old in 1977. The Kansas City Royals had the best record in baseball that year. The Baltimore Orioles were baseball’s paragon.

They never met in an American League Championship Series. That was a weird quirk of timing. They just kept missing each other, like a scene out of an old Scooby Doo cartoon where people keep eluding each other by emerging out of different doors.

1973: Baltimore in ALCS
1974: Baltimore in ALCS.
1976: Kansas City in ALCS.
1977: Kansas City.
1978: Kansas City.
1979: Baltimore.
1980: Kansas City.
1983: Baltimore.
1984: Kansas City.
1985: Kansas City.

Now, it’s 2014 and baseball — more than at any point decades — is being played like it was when I was 10. Pitching dominates. Defense counts. The crazy thing is that teams are somehow scoring FEWER runs than they did in 1977, many fewer runs in fact.

And with the game gone retro, so has gone the American League. Royals. Orioles. Crazy, right?

* * *

Is that a smile? It’s hard to tell but, no, probably not. When Hal McRae came to the Royals, he made it plain: He did not smile. He was NOT going to play for some happy loser. He had played for the Big Red Machine Reds — he’d been taught the game by Pete Rose and Lee May, tough guys like that— and he wasn’t about to play with some wimpy group of American League candy asses.

Double plays are made to be broken.
Pitchers are born to intimidate.
Injuries are weakness of the mind.
These were the tenets of Hal.

The Royals John Mayberry grew sick of it all, and one day on the bus ride he mercilessly busted Hal McRae’s chops. Big John did that often, actually, but this day he was particularly cutting. McRae listened to it for as long as he could stand, which wasn’t long at all, and finally he stood up.

“Big John,” he said. “You’ll probably kill me. But here I come.”

And McRae rushed the big man. The players on the bus would never forget it. They were Hal’s team. They would back down to nobody.

* * *

He was fussy and pedantic, and they say he did not like wearing a baseball cap because he worried about losing his hair. But Jim Palmer gave you 300 innings of competitive fury every year. The bit of statistical trivia that is his own — Palmer never gave up a grand slam  — really defined him. He did not give in. Ever.

Palmer never struck out 200 in a season, and he was usually among the league leaders in walks, and he gave up his share of home runs. Those are the three components of today’s Fielding Independent Pitching numbers, which are pretty good at defining a pitcher’s effectiveness. Palmer’s strikeout-walk-homer numbers suggest it was quite impossible for him to be as good as he was.

But like Bugs Bunny, who could defy the laws gravity because he never studied law, Palmer defied the laws of pitching gravity. He didn’t need strikeouts, he strategically dealt walks, he gave up home runs when it was least painful.

Palmer pitched masterpieces of jujitsu, using hitters own strengths against them, tempting them into hitting balls into the teeth of Baltimore’s brilliant defense, overpowering them when they had grown defensive, giving way to them when he was at the disadvantage.

The umpire Ron Luciano, who had plenty of battles with Palmer through the years, used to say that Palmer threw a “positive fastball.” That was, hitters were positive they could it.

* * *

When you were the smallest boy in your class in 1970s, and you had stood in the front of lines ordered by height too many times, and you had heard all the, “Were you out playing handball against the curb:” jokes, and you were tormented again and again by Randy Nemwan’s song “Short People” — which came out, coincidentally, in 1977 — you turned to Freddie Patek.

He not just a short ballplayer. He was THE short ballplayer. He was the essence of what a proud little man could do in a big man’s world. He would run you ragged, and bunt you silly, and if underestimated him and threw him a cookie, he just might take you deep. And he still answered to “Freddie.”

To say Freddie Patek was a hero of mine undersells the word “hero.” He was someone who made me believe in possibilities.

One of the most poignant moments of my life as a sports fan happened when Patek hit into the double play that ended the 1977 American League Championship Series. The camera closed in on him in the dugout, he was the very picture of dejection, and I sat on the floor of our television room in our little house in Cleveland, looking I’m sure very much the same way. It just wasn’t right.

* * *

He seemed dark and brooding, to me, like the cliche of a struggling artist. Mark Belanger couldn’t hit at all. Even in his baseball card, he seemed to be holding the bat slightly askew.

But in the field, at shortstop, he made plays that were like witchcraft. He seemed to pull ground ball singles back in from the outfield, like he had this rewind button, and he unleashed throws that jarred the senses — no one so slight and so off-balance should have been able to project a ball with such force.

All I wanted to do, in those days when I was nine, 10, 11, was make plays. I didn’t care about hitting the ball and wasn’t much good at doing it. But in the field I felt powerful, I felt fearless, I felt in sync with the dirt and the ball. “Hit it harder,” I used to yell to the coach hitting infield practice, my favorite part of the whole day. I imagined this was how Belanger felt.

My childhood spanned that time when the designated hitter was still new, and I can remember wondering why baseball would not have a corresponding designated fielder, something for Belanger, so that he would never come to the plate but could display defensive genius day after day.

* * *

He once told me that he never played a game in his life without fear. George Brett, like another Kansas City hero Tom Watson, was raised with one clear truth: Nothing, ever, was good enough. When George would go three-for-four, Jack Brett would rant endlessly about the groundout to second.

Jack famously told George’s mother, Ethel: “He can’t read. He can’t write. He has terrible grades. He can’t play baseball. He can’t play football. He can’t play basketball. What the hell is he going to do?”

His mother said; “But he’s such a nice boy.”

Well, that wouldn’t do. Jack Brett raged at his nice boy son. And George Brett learned to fear failure. He learned to fear embarrassment. He learned to fear that voice, the rumbling voice of his father, tearing him apart over an error he made in the third or a swing out of the strike zone. After one such conversation, George tore the phone off the wall in the clubhouse. After more than one, he headed out into the night to find relief.

George Brett did not grow up to be a nice boy. He took a bat to the toilets in Minnesota. He broke a players’ leg in a collision. He leaped up to punch Graig Nettles. He struck a photographer with his crutch. He got into a fight with Willie Wilson. Nice? No. He became like Jack Brett, the essence of fury.

“Maybe I was too tough on George,” Jack would say after Brett had secured his Hall of Fame career.

Fathers. Sons. Such a riddle. When Jack Brett found out he was dying of cancer, he implored his family to not tell George.

“He’s in the middle of a slump,” Jack Brett said. “Wait until he turns it around.”

* * *

My childhood was the time of bigger-than-life managers, of Whitey Herzog running his players into a blur and Earl Weaver platooning players in and out and waiting for the three-run homer.

In a way, those managers defined the baseball I have never stopped associating with. They were mad scientists, mixing chemicals, evaluating the explosions, kicking dirt on umpires. Well, they had to be. They had to do something to make their team stand out.

In a way, the baseball of the 1990s seemed to take away managers’ choices. The ball was flying out of the yard with such regularity, and runs were so easy to come by, that anytime a manager wasted an out trying for an extra base, it seemed counterproductive. Teams were so desperate for arms that they basically stopped carrying a bench and the pitcher to use was the pitcher available.

And so being a manager seemed to evolve into counting pitches, making sure someone in the ever-growing bullpen was rested and shuffling nine good hitters into the lineup.

But now: It’s back to my childhood. No, not exactly — strikeouts are way up, batting averages way down, the 100 mph fastball makes its case as the dominant weapon in the game — but it’s staggering how similar to 1977 the American League is.

Average team homers in 1977: 144.
Average team homers in 2014: 144

Kansas City Royals ERA in 1977: 3.52
Kansas City Royals ERA in 2014: 3.51

Number of runs for Orioles in 1977: 719
Number of runs for Orioles in 2014: 705

And so on. Runs are harder to come by than they have been in a very long time, and in a weird way this opens up the game rather than closing it. It encourages risk because waiting around for runs probably won’t work. For better and worse it makes managers — whether it’s Buck Showalter or Ned Yost — stars of the show once again.

These Orioles are not unlike the Orioles of old. There are differences, of course, but they catch the ball and they prevent runs (more with their bullpen, but still) and they hit the long ball.

These Royals are not unlike the Royals of old. There are differences, of course. But they catch the ball, they prevent runs and they run whenever they can.

I was always told that every style eventually comes back around. This feels like a series right out of childhood. I never believed that basketball short shorts would come back, or those ridiculous pants golfers used to wear, or disco. But if you live long enough, I guess, you will see Royals and the Orioles will play in the ALCS. What can you say? Put on some Bee Gees, pretend to be Fonzie and may the force be with you, always.

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.”