Our first ever Situational Essay comes today from Reeves Wiedeman. Reeves has written about hot dogs for SI.com, a Pi savant for The Boston Globe, and the Recently Insufferable Roger Federer at his blog, Meanderings, which he would be honored to have you skim after you get through Pitchers & Poets each day. An aspiring journalist and storyteller, whatever that means, he also likes the Kansas Jayhawks and barbecue.
“Our job is to inject as much joy into people’s lives as we can.” – Royals manager Trey Hillman.
I was born in Kansas City, Missouri on May 1, 1986, six months and four days after Darryl Motley caught the final out of the 1985 World Series (and for Cardinals fans, six months and five days after Don Denkinger astutely called Jorge Orta safe at first). In the subsequent 23 ½ seaons, the Kansas City Royals have yet to return to the playoffs, lost 2,039 games, run through nine managers, and traded away an outfield that would have included Carlos Beltran, Johnny Damon, and Jermaine Dye for Angel Berroa, Mark Teahan, and Neifi Perez (only Teahan is still with the team).
In short, it’s been a rough 23 years. But it’s been a rough two decades for Pirates, Rangers, and Brewers fans too, with the D.C. area set to join us. What’s unique about the Royals’ struggles is that people like you – Dodgers and Sox and Yanks fans – seem, strangely, to care about the Royals.
It’s often hard to recall that the Royals were once at the front of the national baseball consciousness. George Brett flirted with .400 and Dan Quisenberry made the submarine fashionable. They won – a lot. And perhaps most importantly, they were the little team from the fly-over town who had become arch-rivals with the New York Yankees. And of course, if you were the Yankees’ enemy, you were America’s friend. But then, bad things started happening. Mostly, they lost – a lot. A franchise going on 30 years old, they suffered through an affair with a rich benefactor, the loss of bowel control, and impulse buys: the baseball equivalent of a mid-life crisis.
If I may stretch to draw a different metaphor, the Royals are baseball’s much whiter, much less violent version of The Wire’s Stringer Bell. (Your assignment: identify your team with a fictional character). They came from the wrong side of the baseball tracks, challenged the Powers That Be with good old fashioned hard work and occasionally illicit behavior, and against all odds, won the hearts of viewers everywhere. (Ed. Note: Spoilers Incoming Of course, Stringer ended up dead: for their part, the Royals had been relegated to the last five minutes of SportsCenter with a Wikipedia entry for the era titled, simply, “Rock bottom.”
But you won’t find a fan of The Wire who wouldn’t give up Marlo and Wee-Bay to have Stringer back for one more episode. Though we still live in a world where it is possible to publish a fictional account of Willie Wilson questioning Sonia Sotomayor, the Royals are now defined not by losses but by a 25-year old right hander and a sense of, well, hope (forget for a moment that they are 14 games under .500). Zach Grienke may be the best pitcher in baseball. And for once, with a long-term contract in hand, he is a Royal that opposing fans can admire for his talent rather than dreaming what he would look like in their team’s uniform. Grienke has, quite suddenly, put the Royals back on the map.
But what’s odd about Greinke is just how much attention he’s gotten. Last season, Tim Lincecum was two years younger and started 10-1 with a 2.49 ERA, but had to wait until July for his SI cover. Greinke started with slightly better numbers, but got his cover by late April. To be fair, we primarily have Joe Posnanski to thank. One of America’s three (give or take) greatest local sports columnists was hired by SI last year, where he has been able to do nearly impossible feats like put the Royals in high places and work Tony Pena Jr. into a column about Andy Roddick. People in high places do wonders.
But I would contend that there is something else going on here: a national affection for everything the Royals embody and, occasionally, actually are. They are from the heartland. They have regal blue uniforms. They have a giant, kitschy crown scoreboard, and fountains that dance between innings. They have a recession-proof team salary. They are baseball in its purest, most uncompetitive, most enjoyable form, and because of that, people who have never stepped foot in Arthur Bryant’s BBQ are able to look at the Royals the same way they look at a toddler, longing for younger more innocent days and hoping the kid grows to do something great.
Which brings us back to Hillman. I cannot name the Royals starting lineup (Note: I just tried and got five of nine). I haven’t seen the Royals play in person in two years, and can’t remember the last time I sat through a whole game on TV. No matter how much you like a team, it’s hard to sit through all that losing.
But it’s not about the losing. It’s about the fountains and the uniforms and Buck O’Neill’s seat in the stands and crying when the team trades your two favorite players – David Cone and Brian McRae – on back to back days. It’s about relaxing in a row of empty bleacher seats, with a beer and a hot dog and a 3-2 game in the 6th. It’s about the joy at team gives you, that a 25-year old baby-faced pitcher gives you. It’s about the quaint hopefulness of a small-market team at spring training each year. And every once in a while, it’s about sitting in right field in a sold out Kauffman Stadium as Ken Harvey blasts a walk-off home run in the 11th on April 18th, 2003 to boost the Royals to 12-3, best in the majors – never mind that they would finish 3rd in the division, seven wins short.