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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, March 13, 2017

The Last Real Team

Eric Hosmer's mad...no, insane dash home
and what was the penultimate moment of the 2015 World Series.
© 2015 Newsday

Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey
Written content only.

It was magic.  There's no other way to describe that moment on a cool November night in New York City when Wade Davis blew a third strike past the buckling knees of the Mets' Wilmer Flores.  The Royals, after coming so close the year before, and coming so far from the previous 30 years, had been crowned baseball's World Champions.

To say that the win produced a cascade of celebration would be to labor in understatement.  While Kansas City rocked in joyous emotions, it was remarkable to observe that this midwestern metropolis wasn't the only place where the cheers could be heard.  This team, marked by such pluck, courage, and unity, had earned a following across the nation, and across the world.  Everyone remembers the Korean superfan and Seoul-mate Sungwoo Lee who expressed such a deep long distance ardor, that he was actually flown to Kansas City for a visit.  That summer, my wife and I were in France, and during that whole visit, my Royals cap inspired a host of smiles and spontaneous conversation from Parisians.  

It isn't hard to discover why that team was so popular.  Their youth, unity, that never-say-die attitude were all elements to that wide acclaim.  But I think the thing that really got to people was that these guys were having fun!  Baseball was still a game to them, and behind those infectious grins everyone could see the 9-year-old that still lived within.

2016 was a disappointment, but understandable.  Any team in any sport that parks five all-stars on the disabled list for extended periods of time is going to suffer.  But that passion never left them.  Alex Gordon's wrist certainly bothered him more than that titular Sgt. Rock would ever admit.  And close to the end of the season, it was painful to watch Lorenzo Cain try to swing a bat with one hand.  But through the swarm of injuries, that desire, that love of the game never wavered.  Even though they missed the playoffs, to Royals Nation, they were still our champions.

Change, as I've often remarked, is the only consistent thing in life. Even the game of baseball eventually becomes the cold, calculating business of baseball.  The economics of a small market team guarantees that the core group would not stay in Kansas City forever.  The days when a George Brett and a Frank White could reliably spend their entire playing career wearing the same uniform are pretty much gone.

Lorenzo Cain, Salvador Perez, Danny Duffy, Alcides Escobar, Eric Hosmer, Jarrod Dyson, and Mike Moustakas pretty much started their careers at about the same time.  Coming up through the minors, they played on the same teams, won championships along the way.  So when they got to the majors, they were bonded in a way very few baseball teammates have ever been.  In fact, they don't refer to themselves as mere teammates, but rather the more intimate "brothers." That closeness created a clubhouse culture that embraced equally everyone who wore the uniform. By their own earnest statements, there were no stars, in the usual sense.  Every one of them were equally valuable. In bonding with each other, they also bonded with the fans.  Kansas City fans are a breed apart, thinking of these players as family. That same relationship also exists with the players from the NFL franchise that works on the other end of the Truman Sports Complex. Players who have spent time here have many times commented on that special relationship.

When I ordered my Royals jersey, I was in a quandary as to which player I would honor.  In the end, I decided to honor them all.  On the back of my jersey, it says  "All 25."

But next year, 2018, looks like the end of this run.  Jarrod Dyson, a fan favorite, is already gone to Seattle.  Wade Davis, who closed games with the finality of a sarcophagus lid has also departed.  Greg Holland is in Denver.  And this is only the beginning.  In what is likely to cause the worst pain, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, and Eric Hosmer are likely to seek, and sign big deals with wealthier teams.  Eric Hosmer, even though some doubt his offensive numbers, would be a terrible loss.  He emerged as the clubhouse leader, the team whip-cracker, the go-to interview for the big networks, and the familiar public face this franchise has lacked since Mr. Brett retired.  As the Kansas City Star award-winning columnist (and the Hemingway of the prairies) Sam Mellinger has noted, if the Royals are not competitive at the trade deadline, the exodus could even predate the last part of the season. 

For fans, it would not be so much a departure as a divorce; it will hurt that much.  I was sad when Tony Gonzalez left the Chiefs.  But I understood why.  I will be sad when this incredible group begins to disintegrate.  But again, I will understand.  Not that it will ease my pain.

The career of a pro athlete is short.  One need only watch some of the stars of the 70's and 80's gimp around to understand why.  Athletes make careers out of playing through injuries, tearing their bodies up until very little remains.  Even though they make enormous sums of money (compared to most of us) that money is going to have to sustain them and their families for at least 50 years of their post-career lives, not to mention paying the medical bills for those accumulated and unhealed injuries.  Besides, one of the aspects of being in America is the right to be paid what the market will bear for your services.  We grumble about that, but come on.  Have we ever had 30,000 people pay money to watch us do our jobs?

Time moves ever forward, leaving behind memories both sad and sweet.  Such is the case with these Royals.  We were promised great things when this group matured, and that happened as predicted.  Two consecutive World Series, after three decades of very forgettable baseball. Honestly, however, we were all hoping they would stick around for a just a little while longer.

The future of this franchise is a bit unsure.  There are very good ballplayers waiting in the wings for their chance to step on that emerald green stage, but it will be different.  In fact, it won't ever be the same.

For those of us alive, awake, and aware, we were fortunate to be able to watch this group of brothers do something electrifyingly wonderful.  They created magic on the field and in our hearts.  For a brief, precious moment in time, we shared that magic and it changed our lives.  Their hard work and success brought pride and respect to Kansas City.  It was suddenly okay to wear the ballcaps, t-shirts, and jerseys, and not fear being laughed at, especially by those infuriating red-clad snobs from the Mississippi side of the state.  For us, those memories will forever be etched in our minds and hearts.  In our gray years, we will tell our wide-eyed grandchildren barely believable stories of a team that regularly snatched victory not just from the jaws of defeat, but sometimes even from its gastrointestinal tract.

It is said that those Royals rewrote the paradigm for Major League Baseball.  Usually the talk will be about the shut-down bullpen, or the death-by-a-thousand-cuts offense, or the hermetically-sealed defense.  But the paradigm that was really changed was in the basic concept of "team." It wasn't just a group of players who wore the same uniform, but a family of young men who were totally invested in each other; who understood and accepted that it could be a different hero every night, even someone like Christian Colon, who hadn't stepped in a batter's box for over a month, but would still deliver a scintillating base hit that changed our baseball world forever.

This was a very brief, but very special time for Kansas City and the world-wide legion of Royals fans.  Because of the nature of these players and the way they grew up together, it's not likely that such a time will ever happen again.  But it did. It happened in front of our eyes, giving us all a moment in time we will never forget.

We saw the magic; we felt the magic.  And we shared the love, 800,000 strong at the victory parade.  No matter how much time passes, none of us will ever forget this team, and the incredible ride upon which they took us.  

We will, in our conversations and recollections down the generations always honor this singular group of Kansas City Royals, not just as World Champions, but as the last pure and perfect team in the history of Major League Baseball.
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