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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Unsolved Mystery of the Kansas City Royals

The Silent Assassin with a rare, but well-earned display of emotion.
© 2015 Kansas City Star

Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey
Written content only

The Kansas City Royals are headed for the World Series.  Again.  There is a delicious sense of justification in this spectacular achievement, considering that nobody, and I mean nobody among the experts thought they would finish higher than third in the AL Central Division.  You see, according to them, last year was a fluke, a one-and-done thing by a team that had the temerity to believe they could in fact win it all.  Of course, they didn't, leaving Alex Gordon on third in the bottom of the 9th in Game 7 of last year's Fall Classic.  But they did eke out a win against Oakland and blew past the Angels and Orioles, sweeping both.  In the World Series against the Giants, they fought and scratched, and occasionally dominated the Bay Area Boys, taking them literally to the last pitch of the last inning of the last game.

After an off-season spent listening to reporters from MLB Television and ESPN reduce that momentous achievement to something that belonged in a book by a fellow named Ripley, the Royals stormed out of the gates, winning the first seven in a row.  They took sole possession of first place on June 18th and never looked back, clicking along at an astounding .650 pace.  From that point on, they were the best team in the American League, and second-best in baseball behind those pesky Redbirds at the other end of I-70.

Being a KC ex-pat, I have to follow the team through whatever internet resources I can locate.  This became difficult.  Through the latter half of June and into July, August, and September, I experienced the daily frustration of looking for news stories about the Royals.  But going to the MLB.com and ESPN websites, I had to dredge past a mountain of articles about teams from New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, and L.A.  If I wanted to read anything at all about the two best teams in baseball, I had to use the search box.

I do understand that among the national sports media, one has to kowtow at least a bit to the MMM's, or Major Media Markets.  After all, that's where the numbers (read: $$) are.  But to steadfastly ignore the game's two best teams for the better part of two-and-a-half months seems almost a dereliction of journalistic duty.  Had the Yankees and Mets that that dominant for that long, I have little doubt that we the reading public would have seen nothing else.

I think part of the problem, outside of the micro-markets the Royals and Cardinals represent, is that the Royals are a different kind of team.  When the networks pimp a particular game, it's usually put in the context of one star and a bunch of supporting actors.  "A-Rod and the Yanks;"  "Jose Abreu and the White Sox;" "David Ortiz and the Red Sox;" "Yasiel Puig and the Dodgers;" and so on...

The Royals don't fit that mold.  There isn't the One Big Star to hang a promo on, because depending on the night, the big contributor is almost never the same guy.  Sometimes, it's not even one of the starting nine.  This group of 25 players all seem to understand the real concept of "team."  They're all equal to each other; they all have the same faith in each other.  In an era of self-promoters, this is truly a conundrum for the national media.

Because of that essential sense of "teamness," individual stats don't mean all that much.  In 2014, the Royals were dead last in the majors in home runs.  This year, they weren't dead last, but pretty close.  Last year, their two best starting pitchers won only 14 games each.  This year, 13 games each.  It's been rare that a Royals' player ends up on a top five list in any category.  But against all logic, they made the World Series two years in a row.

They just play the game differently.  A typical rally can be a walk, a stolen base, sacrifice bunt, and a sacrifice fly.  Or six or seven guys can string together singles, and watch runners take extra bases, or score from first on a single.  "That's what speed do," as Jarrod Dyson once said.  One of the signature offensive moments from this past year was a walk-off grand slam home run hit, not by a big gun, but a reserve outfielder who was playing while Gordon healed.  The bullpen is just sudden death.  If the Royals have the lead in the 6th inning, well, pack up the kids and head home, Martha; game's over.

One of the amazing things was how resilient they have been.  At the beginning of the season, new addition Alex Rios was pounding the baseball.  Then he broke a finger, courtesy of an inside fastball and was lost to the lineup for two months.  The Royals kept on winning.  Alex Gordon suffered a severe groin strain and was out for two months.  The Royals kept on winning.  Inhumanly great closer Greg Holland admitted he had pitched for a season and a half with torn ligaments in his elbow (still racking up over 40 saves during that span) and left for Tommy John surgery.  The Royals kept winning.  Players were suspended.  And they kept winning.  The rough patch came in September when Manager Ned Yost decided to try something different and took Alcides Escobar out of the leadoff spot. The reasons were logical.  His batting average was down, as was his OPS, critical for a leadoff guy.  Well, that messed with the mojo.  The Royals went 9-17 during that stretch.  When Yost came to his senses and put Escobar back at the top of the lineup, the Royals won seven straight.  Go figure.

The formula for this team can't be found in the standard baseball strategy guide, but could be gleaned in some arcane books on quantum physics and existential determinism.  The reasons can't be discovered in the study of statistics or even sabermetrics.

It is found in the sheer determination and the mutual faith these players have in each other; it is found in their refusal to surrender to an opponent's big lead late in a game.  It's in their willingness to lay down a bunt to beat the shift, or spend hours trying to learn to hit to the opposite field.  It's also in the relationship they have with the fans of Kansas City, a very strong midwestern component where everyone is family, and everyone matters.

As the Royals approached the ALCS with the Toronto Blue Jays, the "experts" prattled endlessly about the Blue Jays' mighty offensive lineup, with three players hitting over 40 dingers this year.  They bloviated about the mighty David Price and how the pitchers would smother the Royals weak offense.  Well, it was closer than we would have liked, but despite the undeniable beef in the Toronto lineup, the Royals won the series in six games.  In the last game, there was a controversy about possible fan interference on Mike Moustakas' home run, and no doubt the Toronto fans will bleed about that one all winter.  But there's no ignoring the fact that the mighty Jays were 0-for-11 with men in scoring position, which not only defined game six, but most of the series.  In the six games, their bats woke up only for two of them.

Maybe the experts were right, and the Blue Jays did have the better roster.

But the Kansas City Royals had the better team.

And in the end, that made all the difference.
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