It goes back to 1978, I believe.
Football was the first sport I discovered, but baseball followed soon after. We lived in southeast Missouri at the time, in the heart of Cardinals country. But on a trip to Kansas City that summer, my uncles and the boyfriend of one of my cousins introduced me to the Royals.
I still remember repeating the name “George Brett” over-and-over to myself so I wouldn’t forget it after the boyfriend explained to me that Brett was not only the Royals best player, but one of the best players in all of baseball. I got to tag along on his date with my cousin1 and I know I lost the name a few times and had to ask for it again.
“Who is that guy you said was the best player?”
I also remember how cool the name Amos Otis sounded to me.
Later on that trip, my dad and uncle took me to a game at Royals Stadium. I remember Dennis Leonard was pitching against the Chicago White Sox. Other than that, I recall little, other than how big the stadium looked from our upper deck seats.
Once I returned home, I began watching the NBC Game of the Week on Saturday, and Monday Night Baseball on ABC, hoping the Royals would be on. When school started in the fall, I checked out every baseball biography I could find to learn more about the game. On the nights the Cardinals were on TV, I watched and tried to discern the rules of the game.
I remember coming home from school one day that fall, turning on the radio, and hearing on the news that George Brett had hit three home runs in a playoff game in New York. The Yankees won the game, and the series, though, meaning I was in on the final heartbreak of that 1976-78 run. That was the first time sports made me cry.
By the time the next baseball season rolled around, I was well prepared. I had my Zander Hollander baseball guide. I knew who the best players in both leagues were. I had a modest collection of baseball cards. On our annual trip to Kansas City that summer we tried to get general admission seats to a game when the young phenom Rich Gale was pitching for the Royals against California’s Nolan Ryan. My uncle and cousin waited in line for nearly an hour, but before they got to the ticket window the game sold out. When told that we would be going home to listen to the game, I cried again.
I remember bits of the 1978 World Series, but I devoured the 1979 series, that epic clash between the Orioles and Pop Stargell’s Pirates. I knew the Royals would be there next year, and wanted to be prepared.
We moved to Kansas City in July of 1980. My first weekend in town, the Royals played an amazing series in the Bronx against the Yankees. Brett put one into the upper deck Friday night. Willie Wilson went 10-15 that weekend. The Royals won two of three from the hated Yanks.
A couple weeks later I was listening when Denny Matthews told me that George Brett was doffing his helmet to the crowd after his double lifted his batting average over the .400 mark. In early October, our teachers gave us a bonus recess during game one of the ALCS. A few kids went outside but most of us stayed in our room and watched the game, which featured a Brett home run. A few nights later Brett hit another massive blast in the Bronx and the Royals were on their way to the World Series. I celebrated in my aunt and uncle’s living room.
The World Series was a blur. Blown leads in the first two games. Brett and Willie Mays Aikens bring the Royals back in games three and four. Walking through a nearly deserted and deathly quiet Bannister Mall after Dan Quisenberry blew game five while I waited for my parents to get off work. Wilson’s strike out to end the series that again caused me to weep.
No other year was ever like 1980 for me. I was still a huge baseball and Royals fan. My card collection grew dramatically. My June birthday meant most of my gifts were Royals or baseball related. I harbored secret wishes that my newly divorced mom would meet George Brett and he would be my step-father. But the Royals started slow in 1981, the strike wiped out two months of the season, and I was now playing baseball. The Royals weren’t everything to me. I had my own team to worry about.
My best memories of the years between 1980 and 1985 are the warm summer nights I spent at my grandparents’ home in central Kansas. If the Royals were playing, they always had the kitchen radio tuned to the game so grandma could listen while cleaning up after dinner, and grandpa had a radio he carried everywhere with him so he wouldn’t miss a pitch. We would sit on their front porch listening to the game, eating ice cream, while watching the sun set. He and I watched the Pine Tar game together in disbelief. The first thing he said to me after his late afternoon nap that day was, “That damn Billy Martin.”
The fall of 1985 was fantastic. The Royals roared back to take the division, then the ALCS, and finally the World Series. It was the fulfillment of all my baseball hopes and dreams. And, sadly, it was the end of the glory years.
The team got older and faded. Danny Manning and Michael Jordan made me reevaluate which sport I loved the most. Heading to college changed things, making me as obsessed about college basketball as I ever was about baseball. The final straw came when the Royals signed an aging Kirk Gibson rather than hometown guy Joe Carter. I filed for divorce, leaving the team I had loved most first behind. Then the 1994-95 strike and lockout pushed me away from the game itself.
Eventually, I came back. At first, it was casually and as an uninterested spectator. I’d go if someone else had tickets, and mostly to make fun of the Royals. A few years later I was part of a season ticket package. The bursts of hope that came with the arrivals of Mike Sweeny, Carlos Beltran, Johnny Damon, and Jermaine Dye were short-lived. Soon the franchise was a complete joke, losing games at a record pace while refusing to spend money to improve the roster. I said, not completely jokingly, that one day Kaufman Stadium would be the nicest stadium in AAA baseball. Yet I was paying attention. Slowly but surely I became a fan once again.
When I moved to Indianapolis, that changed everything again. The Royals were decent that summer, and the team became one of my hooks back to my home town. Not all of my KC friends shared my love of KU sports, but just about everyone was a Royals fan. The team’s successes and failures were an excuse to send an email back to my buddies who I knew were watching too. Each year when a new season began, I dropped $120 on the MLB.TV package. Most seasons I was done watching games by June, as the Royals were hopelessly out of the race already. But I would continue to listen to the games deep into the summer. Maybe not every night, but several times a week they were the soundtrack to evening lounging or lazy weekend afternoons. They may not listen with me the way I listened with my grandfather, but I hope when my girls are older, they associate summer with me sitting and listening to baseball games.
“You know, your grandfather used to listen to baseball every night on his phone…”
Last year it appeared the Royals were out of it by the All-Star break again. But a late July hot streak shot them back into the Wild Card chase, and I was watching every night. Although they were only on the fringes of the pennant race, it still felt good to be watching them playing meaningful games in September for the first time since I was a freshman in high school.
And then this year. All the hopes and expectations of nearly 30 years were laid on top of this one season. Predictably, the Royals appeared to be circling the drain in late May. Three weeks later they were in first place. A mid-July swoon dashed those hopes and had fans who had been afraid to get their hopes up angry that they had been fooled again.
So the Royals naturally ripped off their best month since the late 1970s, taking the division lead for three weeks, getting feature articles in magazines and newspapers across the country, and producing dozens, if not hundreds, of posts just like this.
Today, four games remain in the 2014 season. The Royals trail Detroit for the AL Central lead by two games. They’re tied with Oakland for the Wild Card lead. Seattle is two games behind. With two more wins, the Royals are in the playoffs. With two more Seattle losses, the Royals are in the playoffs. ESPN lists the Royals playoff odds at 99.9%. It’s not quite over, but it’s damn close.
The Royals post-season could be quick. They will likely face Oakland pitcher Jon Lester in the Wild Card game, and he has owned the Royals in his career. Two-and-a-half to three hours after Lester or James Shields throws their first pitch, the Royals could be done, with only a loss in a 163rd game to show for their years of building and rebuilding and an uncertain future ahead of them.
It’s been a fantastic season. Even for all their problems, the Royals have done enough to be one of the six best teams in the American League. A few breaks here and there and they could be winning the division, and guarantee themselves at least a five-game division series. But if that one game Wild Card playoff is all we get, I’ll accept it happily.
One game after 29 years of hoping and waiting and leaving and coming back and hoping again.
- In retrospect I think I was sent along on the date by my aunt and uncle rather than invited by the boyfriend. I’m sure he was thrilled that a seven-year-old was joining his high school date. ↩