Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey
I'm sitting here this evening with my eyes on the computer, but my ears pegged to the broadcast of a baseball game.
Baseball has had a huge influence on my life, in ways both substantial and subtle. While I've always been a fan of "the game," my loyalties have been tied like heartstrings to the fate of the Kansas City Royals.
Tonight, hopefully, will be special. If the Royals can hang on to their 3-0 lead over the Chicago White Sox for nine more outs, they will gain entry to that post-season tournament we call "the playoffs." Before you sigh and intone "so what?", let me explain.
In 1985, the Royals made the playoffs. No real surprise, since they had been there in 1976, 1977, 1978, and 1980. But this time, they survived all the way to the World Series, a memorable seven-game dogfight against their cross-state rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals. After a controversial play in game 6 gave the Royals one more desperate breath, they absolutely destroyed the Redbirds in game 7 to bring home the World's Championship of Major League Baseball.
The Royals were a dominant team, combining airtight defense, superior pitching and enough offense to do the job. They remained competitive through the rest of the '80's, but beginning in the '90's and on into the first decade of the 21st century, the team sank as far as a team can go. There were several 100-loss seasons in that time, and the tight-fisted owners pedaled away star players in favor of keeping the salaries under control. Fans grew disillusioned and began staying away in droves.
A change in leadership and a re-invigoration of the farm system (including a heavy investment in culling talent from the Dominican Republic) began to show dividends. This year was the year everyone talked about as the season when their impressive talent would mature into championship material. And that has finally been the case.
There have been dry spells, and times when the offense for a game consisted of mistakes by the other team and sacrifice flies. But tonight (and now three outs to go) the Royals will step through the golden door into the rarified air of the post season.
It's been 29 years
It's the longest playoff drought in North American sports. For the fans, it's seemed much longer.
True, it's a wildcard spot, not a division championship. A disastrous set against the Tigers pretty much took care of that last week. But it's still the playoffs. And as long as your team is still playing, the possibility of "winning it all" still exists.
Realistically, I doubt the team will go far. While the pitching staff is one of the best, and the defense is darn near airtight, you still have to plate runs, and the Royals' offense is...well...the word "pathetic" seems to be apropos. Certainly, if they survive long enough to take on the mighty Angels, they better be able to push spikes across the plate.
Still, it can be done. Across the Truman Sports Complex parking lot from Kaufmann Stadium is Kansas City's other team, the Chiefs. I will gloss over the Super Bowl drought for them, which this year turns into 44 excruciatingly heart-breaking years. But the last time they went to the Big Dance, they went as a wildcard team, having lost the division championship to the Raiders, they beat the Jets, and then the Raiders to qualify for Super Bowl IV against the Vikings, which they won in convincing fashion. So however humbly the Royals arrive at the dance, they still have the same chance every other team does.
Being a Kansas City sports fan is an exercise in patience and hope. And forgiveness, No lover has ever had their hearts broken, smashed, stomped on, crushed like the fans of this modest midwest metropolis. A lesser populace would have abandoned both teams long ago. But being a fan of the Royals and Chiefs is a lot like marriage. You have good days, and you have bad days. But you never forget how much you love them.
One out to go.
Pop-up. Salvy Perez under it. The ball descends. It hits the glove. And stays there.
There you go. The Royals are in the playoffs. And however short or long their stay will be, at least they got there.
29 years? Feels like it was just yesterday.