I have a birth defect, a bilateral cleft lip and palate. On my arrival into this world, there was no skin separating the top of my mouth and my nostrils and a fissure ran through the center of my palate, like a crack in the sidewalk. My face failed to finish forming during gestation. The doctor told my mother to look away so she wouldn't go into shock.
I was born on October 21, 1985 in Kansas City, Mo. The Kansas City Royals had just lost two games in the World Series, and there was no game that night. Everyone wore frowns but me; my mouth couldn't make much of any shape.
In the following days, things changed. My parents rapidly grew accustomed to their goofy-mouthed child, and the Royals began to win. The nurses dressed me up. There was no good way to conceal the hole in the center of my face, so they didn't try. Instead they decorated me as the world's youngest and loyalest Royals fan. A small Royals shirt to show my pride, a microscopic Royals arm wrap to keep this little fan from picking at his wounds. My head got cold, so they fashioned a small Royals cap.
I didn't wear the robin's egg blue of newborn boys. I wore royal blue. The blue of George Brett, Bret Saberhagen, and Frank White, the latter of whom I'd meet several years later after my tenth or so reconstructive surgery. He'd spend a little extra time talking with me about my challenges, claiming mine were tougher than any he saw on the field. A little encouragement goes a long way when you have bandages covering the lower half of your face.
In the week after my birth, the Royals went 4-1, winning the World Series. On Oct. 27, the night of the deciding game, there was no place happier than Kansas City, and in Kansas City, there was no place happier than the hospital bedroom where my parents learned their child was stable enough to bring home.
At 7, I desperately wanted to be a baseball player, but I had no coordination, no speed and an abundance of fear. My parents had invested a lot of time and money into my face and neither they nor I could shake that image of a stray pitch obliterating my mouth, sending us all back to square one. I started on shortstop, moved to outfield, and then played my heart out from the bench.
At bat, though, I discovered even the best pitcher couldn't consistently nail my child-sized strike zone. If I didn't swing, I'd get a walk. And once I got on base, my second discovery came: Children lack the skills to throw someone out if they choose to steal. So I stole everything. First. Second. Third. Home. Nothing scares a catcher like a running, screaming little boy covered in medical gauze.
The 2014 Royals have constructed an identity off stealing bases. They don't have the power to win with home runs, but they're scrappy and fast, and they take advantage of the game's idiosyncrasies. They're not as strong as everyone else, but they don't play like everyone else. The team's motto comes from a postgame interview with Royals outfielder and base stealer Jarrod Dyson: "That's what speed do."
The Royals have been scrappy my entire life, though more often like the runt of the litter. The 1985 World Series was the last time the team saw the postseason until this year. The years in between were nearly three decades worth of struggles, some of which I followed, many of which I didn't. It's hard to learn baseball when you can't play it and neither can your local team. To this day, I still make mistakes that would have you believe I don't understand the game - because I don't. I'll call umpires referees. I'll call runs points. I'm only now learning how clean-up pitching works. Is that even how you say that?
But I've always watched. My parents wouldn't let me miss school, so the roughly two dozen surgeries necessitated between my birth and my 23rd birthday were scheduled for summers. Stuck in a bed, far removed from the dangers of childhood that could cause infection (and fun), I watched the Royals make the most of things. At 12, I'd often sit in a tree in the forest behind my family's home with my neighbor Alex, and we'd listen to the game on his brother's Sony boombox while carving figures into the bark with our pocket knives. Now Alex has a Royals logo tattooed on his forearm. He drunkenly inked it himself, because what is loving the Royals without self-inflicted pain?
In Kansas City, you don't watch the Royals because you expect them to win. The Kansas City Royals, for most of the past 29 years, were at best ignored and at worst a joke. They were perfect for our cowtown, and a kid whose summer vacation felt like a series of torture tests. Starting in June of 2005, my jaw was wired shut for seven weeks. That summer the Royals went 56-108, and I watched every game the local channels bothered to air. We were busted, but we were busted together.
You support the Royals because they are busted. They are, in their very essence, Kansas City. At some point in my childhood, the team adopted Sluggerrr, a beefy lion mascot, but he'll never be the team's real mascot. The team is greasy plated barbeque, Knob Town strip clubs, and Cool Crest miniature golf, which hasn't been remodeled since the 1960s. It's neglected highways, a mostly domestic international airport, and an exhausting spiral of concrete on the side of Kauffman Stadium that gets you to those cheap, cheap seats at the top, the seats you get for free because of some giveaway at Pizza Hut or Hy-Vee. The team is the "KC" stitched into the players' caps.
On Friday, I will be a speck of blue in a crowd of orange and black. Because of their scrappiness, not despite it, the Kansas City Royals squeaked into the American League Wild Card Game, won that game off steals, overcoming a gut-churning deficit, and blasted through the ALDS series against the superior (on paper) Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. This weekend, they begin the ALCS in Baltimore, against the Orioles.
I will be the maniac telling strangers how much I love this team. I love them because they're dogged. I love them because they steal. I love them because they have been there for me every day of my life, not in good times, but in the bad, the awful, the worst. I already mentioned Frank White, but I can name a dozen other former players who picked a funny looking kid out of the crowd at a local diner or cub scout meeting or mall autograph signing and gave him a hug and told him to keep up the good fight. Because things get tough, boy do they get tough, but they also get better. I didn't believe them for so long. And here I am, a happily married man with the job of my dreams. And here they are, only a few games out from the World Series. And on Friday, we're going to be in the same place.
God, do I hope the Royals win. I hope they recreate those nights in October 1985. But if they don't they'll still be my team. They'll always be my team. I was born in blue, the royal kind.