Last week, while I piloted my personal vehicle toward a Hillsboro Hops game, Matthew Kory asked me a simple question ...
Are you still a Royals fan?
It's a simple question and I've been asked it many times, but I never really thought about it much. Until now. Before I attempt to answer the question in some depth, though, an abbreviated bit of personal history seems in order ...
I didn't become fully aware of Major League Baseball until 1974 or '75, when I lived in Buchanan, Michigan, just across the border from South Bend. I vaguely remember listening to White Sox games on the radio, and hearing of Dick Allen's exploits, perhaps because my best friend was a White Sox fan. But I developed no affection for the Sox, or for the Cubs or Tigers. Maybe because none of those clubs were any good, and so didn't have any sort of infectious following among my peers.
In the spring of '76, though, we moved to Kansas City, where the Royals had a huge following. Despite playing in one of the American League's smallest markets, the Royals finished third in attendance that season; in fact, they finished in the top four in the league in every season from 1976 through '82. Everywhere you went in the area, you could ask just about anyone who'd won the Royals game that day, and just about anyone would know. It was easy to get infected, and became even easier when the Royals won their first American League West championship that fall.
So when Chris Chambliss ended the Royals' season with a walkoff homer, I cried. Just one year later when Freddie Patek grounded into a double play to end another Game 5 -- yes, against the Yankees yet again -- I cried. In 1980, when I awoke from a long slumber after a car wreck that left me with a broken jaw, the first thing I asked my mom was, "Did the Royals win last night?" At that point, there were probably thousands of 14-year-olds who cared as much about the Royals as I did. But I'll bet there were very few who cared more about them.
My obsession held steady through the 1980s, which included a couple of stirring pennant races and a number of disappointing seasons. And then well into the 1990s, even as I moved first to Chicago and then Seattle. I continued to watch as many Royals games as possible, and I still lived with every victory and died (a little) with every loss. My ardor did cool somewhat over the years, if only because of the geographical distance and the then-difficulty of following a team from afar. By almost any definition of the word, though, I remained a big fan.
I've got friends who still remember how excited I was in July of 2003, the night Jose Lima ran his record to 5-0 and the first-place Royals opened up a 6½-game lead in the Central. They won again the next afternoon, pushing their lead to seven games over the second-place White Sox at the All-Star break. It had been nine years since their last winning season and eighteen years since their last postseason appearance, but now all the waiting and the losses and the pain seemed worth it. Facing little apparent competition, the Royals would almost have to try to lose first place to actually miss the playoffs again.
They tried to win. They tried real hard. They traded for reliever Curtis Leskanic, and he pitched well. They traded for starter Brian Anderson, and he pitched well. They traded for outfielder Rondell White, and he knocked home 21 runs in 22 games.
And none of it was nearly enough. The Royals owned a seven-game lead at the All-Star break, and at season's end they were seven games behind the first-place Twins. They'd lost 100 games in 2002 and would lose 104 in 2004, and today their 83-79 record in 2003 looks like a minor miracle. At the time, though, a winning record was small solace.
Still, it seemed a step in the right direction. It wasn't until the 104-loss season that followed, and the 206 losses over the two seasons after that, accompanied by all manner of ridiculous personnel moves, when I finally stopped living and dying with every single game. My passion for the Royals cooled off not because they lost, but because they lost so stupidly; some teams lose because it's a necessary step toward winning, but the Royals lost -- and lost, and lost, and lost some more -- because they just didn't know what the hell they were doing. Which, after a couple of decades, finally became intolerable for me.
Which got me to where I am today. For many years, I would watch a Royals game even when my work would have benefited from watching someone else. For a few years now, though, I watch the Royals only if there's a particularly good reason to watch them. Which doesn't happen too often. I still check the box scores religiously and I still know the Royals' farm system better than any other club's farm system (which isn't saying much) and I remain frustrated by the incompetence of Royals management more than the incompetence of any other club's management.
Does that mean I'm still a fan? I don't feel like a fan, but that's because I remember the fan I once was. I do still care about the Royals, but you probably care more about your favorite team than I care about mine. I do still think of myself as a fan, because seeing Royals on a jersey still stirs something deep inside me. I want them to win, even though I haven't seen them play nine innings since ... actually, I can't remember. Not this season, for sure; there's always a more interesting game to see.
Or there has been, anyway. The stirrings are more acute, lately. To the point where I'm just about this close to planning my evening around a Royals game. If the Indians had lost Sunday to the Angels -- and they were losing 5-0 after five innings -- the Royals would have edged ahead of Cleveland in the wild-card standings, and also in the run-differential rankings.
But the Indians came back and beat the Angels, and so the Royals remain a half-game behind the Indians ... and three games behind the Orioles, and 4½ behind the Athletics. For now, though, I'm forgetting about the O's and the A's. I just want the Royals to get past the Indians. I don't know exactly why, but I've settled on the Indians as the benchmark; if the Royals keep winning -- they've somehow won 16 of their last 19 games -- and pass the Indians, I'm going to start dreaming a little.
Maybe dreaming is what being a fan is really all about. If so, I guess I haven't been much of a fan lately.
I do miss dreaming. I do miss being a fan. I do hope the Royals keep winning.