KANSAS CITY -- When the World Series comes to town, everyone talks about baseball. Everyone wears baseball on their shirts, baseball in their eyes. They sit next to you, waiting for you to bring up baseball, unless they snap and bring baseball up first. On the flight into the city, there are announcements about baseball. Driving into the city, there are baseball billboards, baseball banners, electronic traffic signs that end with messages about baseball. The walls of the city are festooned with baseball. The people are mad about baseball. Everything is baseball.
It's a living, delightfully suffocating experience. The deeper you dig, the more you realize there's nothing like it. It shows up unexpectedly where you live. It's about you. It's about the people around you. It's about where you live, happening right there. It's unambiguously good. It's all anyone can talk about, unless they're talking about the plans they're making around it.
There's nothing like it. When an entire section of the country can't stop talking about the same thing, it's always a tragedy or awful story. The happy, fun things are shared on social media until the next happy, fun things come along, but they're mostly disposable. There isn't a wellspring of this this this for everyone to enjoy at the same time, all around you, completely unavoidable.
When the World Series comes to town, everyone is sure thinking about the World Series.
In Kansas City International Airport, there's a store that sells t-shirts. There are probably several, but there's one in particular that is doing the Lord's work right now. It features a display that's mostly Royals shirts and hats and glasses that are all variations on a Royals-in-the-World-Series theme. The other part is filled with shirts that read "I like pig butts, and I cannot lie."
That's the analogy, then. Imagine that once every 10, 20 or 30 years, someone runs up to you and says, "We've discovered barbecue! It might be the best in the country."
This is good news, indeed. Before this, there was no barbecue.
"It's incredible, and we'll have it for a week, give or take. And then it might never show up again. At least, not while you're alive. But for now, it's here. Barbecue."
Imagine someone cynically asking for the long-suffering fan card when you're presented with that announcement. Imagine someone lambasting the fair-weather fans for paying attention. The sudden arrival of the World Series is amazing, and no one disputes it. The city orbits the World Series for a week or so. It affects the tides and changes the seasons. Everyone is sure thinking about the World Series.
And this Royals team is magic, don't forget. Some call it devil magic, some call it blood magic and some just call it plain, stupid baseball magic. But Royals fans escaped from maximum security baseball nightmares before, and they'll do it again. They were a cute story, pinch their cheeks, when they were about to lose to the A's in 2014. Then they chewed our faces off. They weren't going to come back the next year, but they surprised everyone, ha ha, isn't baseball grand? And right before they were going to lose to the Astros, they chewed our faces off again. They're relentless.
Except, the Royals are also sad sacks, the punchline to a joke you didn't even feel like telling. They failed artistically -- with aplomb! -- over and over, providing contrast for the normal teams. It was a public service. And for all this recent devil magic, why, it's just 13 months old and untrustworthy. The devil magic showed up last year, but it also disappeared right when everyone was expecting it the most.
This is the tension of the 2015 Royals, caught between being both unstoppable and entirely stoppable at various points over the last 30 years.
The Royals are back in the World Series, even though teams don't just walk into the World Series. They ran through the gauntlet of the regular season, again, just like nine other teams, but then they hacked their way through the rest to get to the steel cage match. They learned from the heartbreak of the previous year (hopefully) and this was going to be the second chance that teams almost never get (hopefully). Richard Dreyfuss is somewhere building a Kauffman Stadium out of mashed potatoes right now.
Between the National Anthem and the first pitch, the place hums. It advances to a medium hum when the Mets are retired 1-2-3 in the first inning of the World Series -- look, everyone, it's the World Series.
Then the first pitch a Royals hitter sees is slapped for an inside-the-park home run.
Man, how the inside-the-park home run builds and builds. The ball off the bat, the flight of it, the outfielders converging, that moment of I-got-it-you-take-it, the ball getting through the outfielders and the realization that the runner is really quite fast. It builds and builds and builds, and by the end, everyone who had waited a year to get back to the World Series just saw the most exciting play in baseball the very first chance they got.
The concrete shakes. Fans in the upper deck, where the lights hang down close enough to see the gigantic moths circling around them, start waving the giveaway rally rags. The rags are ejecting flecks of fabric, not unlike a rat hat, which float gently to the ground.
Who denies the Royals at that point? Who blasphemes their ability to ride this momentum all the way to the Commissioner's Trophy?
The Mets, for one. That inside-the-parker? It was one of the greatest Game 1 moments in World Series history. And it was still just a run. Everything tightens with each subsequent out. The fans groan. Pleas are uttered. An hour after the Jumbotron features a homemade "HOSMER>BUCKNER" sign, Eric Hosmer makes a rough, Bucknerian error. He's a Gold Glover, but his glove was pudding at exactly the wrong time.
The Royals were behind again (they always are), even if they could still come back again (they always do). Hosmer comes up in the eighth with the tying run on second and one out. He has a chance for redemption. What a story! And he strikes out on three pitches.
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Photo credit: USA TODAY Sports
There was a story. Then there was a realization that other teams have stories. Wilmer Flores was traded and crying. David Wright's spine is a mess, but he's playing anyway. From Cespedes to Colon, the Mets have stories, too. Stories aren't going to propel the Royals to a championship. Timely hits are the only thing to fix that. So, it's probably a good thing that the Royals are full of them.
When Alex Gordon hit his home run, Royals fans spilled out of the aisles because they couldn't just stand where they were, dummy. Some of them jumped and screamed all the way into the concourse, hugging the people with standing-room only tickets. Gordon's dinger was entirely expected, hoped for and anticipated. It was entirely unlikely and ridiculous, probably not going to happen. It was the Royals of home runs, then.
After that, though, there's nothing. For hours, at least. In extra innings, Kaufmann Stadium was a morgue during the top of the inning, and a rave in the bottom. When the Mets were up, everyone was waiting for the pie to the face, the confirmation that 2008 was still here and controlling the strings of the Royals' marionette. When the Royals were up, everyone was thinking it's going to happen again, they're going to walk off, this team is absurd.
It was the same dynamic before the games. In the parking lot, there's nothing but good vibes. The Carlos Febles and Angel Berroa chatter was kept to a minimum. The mood was something between bluster and confidence. A man in a Hosmer shirsey yelled, "We got this!" at one tailgate, while a woman in a George Brett jersey followed up with "TAKE THE CROWN" at another. Unless it was the other way around. It was like that around the entire parking lot. Everyone was high on powdered Royals, and why wouldn't they be? You saw what they did to the A's last year. You saw what they did to the Astros this year. You saw what they did against David Price with his best stuff. Hell, yes, there is confidence.
During the games, though, the fans held their heads in their hands when the bad stuff happened, just like you do. Every runner the Mets got was a catastrophe, a looming disaster. They knew the fragility of it all. Even when the Royals enjoyed one of the wackiest magic seasons in recent baseball history last year, the magic ran inexplicably dry at the worst possible moment.
For Game 1, though, there was sweet release after the epochal game. The Royals won on a walkoff, as they do every other time, give or take.
Thousands of people gathered in the Power & Light District for both games. They were young crowds, caught in the purgatory of not being around when Don Denkinger was the story, yet also living the awful Royals of the last 15 years. They reacted just like the crowd at Kauffman. A Mets single through the right side, moving the runner over to third, was imminent doom. In Game 2, the Royals scored for them, again and again, and the excitement built and built and built. This is gonna happen. This is finally gonna happen. The Mets couldn't put that thought of "But what if it doesn't?" back in their heads. It'll take exactly one leadoff single in the bottom of the first of Game 3 to get it there.
Are Royals fans the new best fans in baseball?
Observed from time there during the ALCS and watching last night: Kansas City is the baseball town St. Louis thinks it is.— Adam Kilgore (@AdamKilgoreWP) October 28, 2015
I don't know. They're not that different. They still have a crowd that boos when the other team makes a pickoff throw in a tense moment. There are still gasps of hope with every pop-up. You can still tell if a ball is actually a ball because only half of the stadium moans with geometric precision. They still have the same grown men wandering through the empty seats, collecting dirty commemorative cups after the game. There are still selfies and just-happy-to-be-there faces. There was a dude in the stands explaining to his seatmate why Edinson Volquez was being silly for throwing balls instead of challenge fastballs right down the middle to a guy hitting .250 in the postseason (the hitter was Yoenis Cespedes). They're still very much baseball fans, for better or for worse.
Royals fans are at least tied for the best fans in baseball, though, and they have a temporary shot at the top right now while they're all hopped up on postseason nonsense dust. Who wouldn't cheer like maniacs for a team like this, a team that has gone so far, after being left for dead on multiple occasions? The fans are still stuck between the gravity of the new Royals, who won't die, and the old Royals, who couldn't win, and they're screaming as loud as they can because they don't know any other way to help.
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Since I was a kid, a line from the brilliant SNL skit George F. Will's Sports Machine has stuck in my head like a catchy song. It's where Dana Carvey's Will nonsensically describes the space between the infield and outfield as embodying "the exhilarating tension between being and becoming." The description was nonsensically florid on purpose, meaningless high-brow gobbledygook, and I've always loved it as a well-delivered punchline.
Except that's the Royals right now. They're the exhilarating tension between being and becoming, stuck between the impossible they've already accomplished and the possible that's always out of reach. And everyone feels it. It's why the miscues lead to groans and the successes lead to rapture. They're between two places, they've turned me into a fake George Will, and I don't care.
The Royals are caught between waiting for the other shoe to drop and beating other teams to death with the shoe. They're heading to New York with their best shot to win a title in 30 years, unless it's not quite as good as the shot they had last season, not yet. The Royals are at the doorstep of a World Series championship, and nobody's sure how to act, other than fans cheering wildly because any team that's gotten this far by doing that deserves it.
The Royals fans are loud because they deserve it. Maybe next year, they'll be that loud because they feel like they're entitled to it. Or maybe they'll be even louder because they're even deeper into that cycle of implausible comebacks and crushing disappointments. But they're loud now. They're loud, and nervous, and confident and always aware that their team didn't patent the unlikely comeback. They're waiting in the middle of two Royals realities right now. It's the exhilarating tension between being and becoming.