AT ROUGHLY 10:30p.m. on September 30, I was performing an early-autumn ritual I’ve done intermittently since I was twelve years old, only a little later this year—bidding adieu to another disappointing season for my Kansas City Royals.
It was the sixth inning of the wild card play-in game, and Ned Yost had just added a chapter to his lore as the least popular man in Kansas not named Sam Brownback. Clinging to a one-run lead with our starting pitcher James Shields showing some signs of fatigue but still under 90 pitches for the night, Yost decided to pull Shields and replace him—but not with one of the Royals’ three stud relievers, or with recent callup Brandon Finnegan, who had shown the ability to go multiple innings in relief. Instead, Yost had put in Yordano Ventura, our 23-year-old starter who had just pitched three days earlier, would be needed in the rotation should the Royals advance, and had never come into a major-league game with multiple men on base. Ventura promptly gave up a three-run homer and was responsible for an additional run after that, and the Royals were down 7-3 with Jon Lester, the most dominant postseason pitcher of the last ten years, still pitching strongly. And the Royals’ offense hadn’t scored more than seven runs in a month and a half.
I slouched into my seat at the Dram Shop in Brooklyn, taking scant comfort from my friend Zach, a longtime Mariners fan who’d been watching the AL West all season. “Don’t worry,” he said, “The A’s will blow it. It’s what they do this season.”
“You don’t understand,” I said. “This is what the Royals do. Always.”
Zach, a researcher at a law firm and active owner of a fantasy baseball team, took this time to explain to me the sabermetic concept of clustering and how it applied to the Royals, a light-hitting team that had driven me crazy for countless games this season by scattering many singles over multiple innings without scoring runs. “All they need is one inning when they string a handful of those singles together, my friend. We call it Cluster Luck, and the Royals are the #5 team in MLB for it this year.”
I’m pretty sure my forehead was still touching the table two innings later, when cluster luck struck and the Royals chased Lester on a series of singles and steals and singles and steals that brought them within one run, 7-6, heading into the ninth inning.
“See?” Zach said. “Never give up. We got a ball game here.”
I still was preparing myself for a 1-2-3 ninth inning, convinced my team had squeezed all the runs it could out of its anemic offense for this night, especially facing Sean Doolittle, Oakland’s closer and the only solid reliever they had. But I’m starting to feel overly dramatic, since we all know what happened. I was wrong. The Royals manufactured a run out of a pinch-hit bloop single, a sacrifice to second, a pinch-run stolen base at third, and a sacrifice fly to right field. They settled into a vintage-Yost single/sacrifice bunt/out/out pattern for the first two extra innings, then powered to victory on an Eric Hosmer leadoff triple and a single by catcher Salvador Perez, who’d been 0-for-6 on the night.
I wanted to celebrate with Zach, but he’d already left at 1:00am, a good half hour before the game ended. So I slapped high fives with just about every person in the bar, downing the last of three complimentary shots, one for each extra inning. I’ve never been a fan of the term bro, even worse its derivatives bruh and brah, and flinch at the thought of using the word as a verb. But on this night and with these strangers, I bro-ed it down like I’d never bro-ed it down before.
As a longtime Royals fan, my heart has been destroyed regularly by a game that, as A. Bartlett Giamatti said after his beloved Red Sox had once again been eliminated from playoff contention in late October while the hated Yankees played on, “was designed to break your heart.” But, on this night and the month of October that followed, I discovered how flippantly the game can restore it.
It took me a couple of days after that game in late September to remember a similar game in early August. The Royals were playing Oakland at home, and were on the verge of taking first place in the AL Central this late in the season for the first time in more than a decade. I was at another bar, the Red Lion in Lawrence, Kansas, watching the final inning with my wife and my old friend Stanci. The Royals were clinging to a 3-2 lead, and on the TV a guy dressed up in Royals gear stood precariously near the fountain holding a giant “W” next to SungWoo Lee, who’d become a local sensation since he’d arrived from Korea a few days earlier to watch his first live Royals game since becoming a fan in the early Nineties. After the last out was recorded, we all went nuts. At the bar Stanci and I exchanged hugs and he said something to the extent of, “OK, I’m a Royals fan again.” My social media exploded with what I describe to my writing students as the oralization of the written word: all caps, lots of exclamation points, emoticons, tweets that made no sense because they were typed at the speed of thought. And there, in front of the fountains atop Kaufmann Stadium, SungWoo Lee danced unashamedly while the guy in Royals gear hung up another W.
SungWoo’s development as a Royals fan serves as a case study in many of the changes in sports fandom wrought by the internet age. If he had been relegated, as he was in the early Nineties, to watching random CNN highlights, I don’t think it’s a stetch to say he might have found a pastime with more immediate rewards. But I don’t need to tell anyone that the early Nineties were not the late Nineties, or the 21st Century. By the mid-Nineties he could watch a pixelated graphic representation of the game in real time, comment on the game with online friends and foes who are denominated by the team for which they were rooting, join discussion boards for fellow Royals fans, and commit to the soul-destroying work of online flame wars with fans of the Tigers, White Sox, Yankees, or whatever team the Royals happened to be playing. By the late Nineties he could watch the game either streamed or archived via pirated ISP’s, and by the Aughts he could pay the MLB for (slightly) better quality, legally streamed games.
For us homegrown types who don’t have to navigate the intricacies of overseas fandom, the myriad ways we can enjoy a baseball game are both exhilarating and daunting. Live broadcasts are easily accessible on TV if you’re close to home or online if, like me, you’re transplanted elsewhere. If you need the immediate call-and-response interplay with others while watching, you can go to a bar and/or remark on game logs and social media. I tend to do all of this simultaneously, sometimes annoying the crap out of the people who watch the games with me, who tend to feel a slight sense of betrayal that I said something to them in person then tweeted it verbatim.
I in Brooklyn, my family and friends back home in Kansas, and SungWoo Lee, who is now back in Korea after his starstruck tour through the magical land of Kansas City, can all absorb this game—whose early history is still shrouded and contested in a pre-daguerrotype haze—in a multitude of thoroughly mediated ways. This new way of ingesting baseball (or anything else, really) has both extended and diminished our sense of family, uniting every Royals fan—and most other baseball fans in October not residing in Oakland, Anaheim, Baltimore, or San Francisco—in the common cause of cheering for the underdog, then dispersing to our respective non-virtual homes.
Which brings us (or me, at least) back to that year everyone’s talked about this postseason: 1985, the last year the Royals played any postseason ball and the year, infact, when they won their only World Series.
It’s hard to talk about Royals baseball without talking about your grandparents. Twenty-nine years is, after all, a multigenerational gap. My grandfather died in the spring of 1997, months after the Royals finished 75-86, last place in the AL Central by 24.5 games. Most of the time he was Grandpa Light or Grandpa Nathan, but I liked to call him Grandpa Rufus during games in tribute to my grandma, who would break out his full name, Nathan Rufus Light, to get his attention when he and I were transfixed in front of the radio late into the night in the early Eighties listening to the familiar voice of Denny Matthews as he called out colorful names like Frank White (who was black), Bud Black (who was white), and Vida Blue (who was not blue). I’d listen to Grandpa Rufus’s crafty Arkansas-inflected voice narrate those games, giving color commentary about hearing Hitler shouting orders at his prison camp during WWII, his working days loading and unloading the docks, or skipping out of work to fish for channel cats. Grandma would sigh violently and shake her head if she was on the porch with us as the radio droned on.
Yes, the radio. I’m not sure if my family was exceptionally poor—we probably were—but I took in almost all of my hundreds of Royals games either with my grandfather and the radio or alone in my room with my nine-inch black and white TV. This, to me, elucidates a twofold inverse generational divide between 1985 and 2014, both real and virtual. When referring to the transition between analog, print- and broadcast-based media and and digital, virtual media scholars have developed a temporary intellectual framework that flips the generational script: “first-generation” digital media users, also commonly called “digital natives,” have only ever known digital media, whereas “second-generation” digital media users, or “digital immigrants,” are those millions of a dying breed who spent varying periods of their earlier lives—egad!—without the internet. I always entertain my students by telling them about my senior year attending the last Typing for the College Bound course my high school offered, and having one “word-processing” section my ancient teacher grudgingly included with WordStar, one of WordPerfect’s early competitors, years still before Word was capitalized in reference to anything but the Bible.
I think my status as a second-generation digital immigrant accounts at least partially for my love of words, and player names in particular. My earlier color-coded list doesn’t even scratch the surface of the names that became my childhood lexicon. Willie Wilson, Buddy Biancalana, Hal McRae, Dan Quisenberry, Amos Otis: from 1979-1985, the salad days, not only were the Royals at or near the top of baseball, they had by far the best names. And the fact that our best hitter (George Brett) and our best pitcher (Bret Saberhagen) shared reciprocal names became ingrained in my childhood hero-worship mythology.
Over the past month I’ve found myself having spirited, intimate in-game conversations on Facebook and Twitter with people I haven’t seen since high school, or even grade school in more than one case. In many ways, I feel closer right now to many of my old family and friends than I ever did when we knew each other in real time. We’ve spent the past few years collecting each other online, occasionally reading about each other’s small triumphs, bitchings and moanings, children’s photos, even deaths in some cases, almost never transcending the limited bounds of the online space to actually interact in any non-virtual sense. But now, united in the long-dormant commonality of cheering for a winning team, we connect daily in ways that feel, to me at least, genuinely human.
Despite, or perhaps because of, many years of losing, the Royals as a team have become like a family to their fans. As such, they’ve also used digital media to communicate with this extended family. First baseman Eric Hosmer used his social media to invite fans out the a bar to celebrate winning the ALDS over the Angels, then paid the $12,000 bar tab; rookie relief pitcher Brandon Finnegan responded to a fan’s tweet by giving him and his girlfriend tickets to an ALCS game; Wade Davis’s wife left two World Series tickets to a waiter as a tip, and had him sit with their family during the game.
All this belies the aloof, cliché-strewn relationship professional athletes making exorbitant amounts of money are supposed to have with fans and the media. Speedy outfielder Jarrod Dyson—who was selected eight years ago with the 1,475th pick of the 2006 draft—made numerous headlines by repeatedly calling out the competition, air-revving his engine every time he stole a base, dunking the ball twice in pregame warmups at an NBA exhibition game in Kansas City between the Heat and the Warriors, and generally behaving like an athlete who’s spent years in obscurity and can’t yet afford a PR rep. Outfielder Lorenzo Cain, just before being announced Most Valuable Player of the ALCS, proudly paraded his newborn son—born a week earlier, as the Royals were clinching the ALDS—around the bases at Kaufman Stadium as his team secured its berth in the World Series. Pitcher Jeremy Guthrie wore a t-shirt a fan had sent to him that said, “These O’s Ain’t Royal” to a press conference after his ALCS victory over the Orioles, then had to give a follow-up conference the next day to apologize after members of his former team tweeted and texted him expressing their hurt feelings. After the Royals beat the Orioles to win the AL pennant, my buddy Rimas, a resident of the Baltimore/DC metropolitan area, told me on Facebook about a friend who lives next to an Orioles relief pitcher who said most players in the AL really don’t like the Royals: “‘Arrogant, don’t play the game right,’ the usual litany.” I keep wondering to myself—would I like this team as much if I didn’t feel they didn’t come off as a bunch of amateurs?
I’d also be remiss to attempt any discussion of mediated baseball fandom without addressing perhaps the most obvious change in the way we take in the game: Digital culture has made stat nerds of us all. In vintage American fashion, we’ve developed an exponentially increased capacity for storing, retrieving, and manipulating information through our military, then applied it to our basest forms of entertainment, porn and sports. And we love our acronyms. No online flame war is complete without competing stat lines, many of which have been invented in the 29 years since the Royals’ last trip to the World Series. Some feature gladiatorial acronyms like WAR and WHIP. Most refine the two traditional statistical measures: the hitter’s batting average (slugging percentage [SLG], on-base percentage [OBP], on-base percentage plus slugging [OPS], batting average on balls in play [BABIP], ad infinitum) and the pitcher’s earned-run average (peripheral ERA [PERA], adjusted ERA [ERA+], defense-independent pitching statistics [DIPS], ad nauseam). Even NERD is a baseball acronym: Narrative, Exposition, Reflection, Description, or everything that makes a pitcher good that can’t be quantified in stat lines (it’s a very complex formula, which I’ll leave at saying “luck” is an actual, quantifiable variable).
Sabermetrics, as this statistical rabbit hole is now collectively dubbed, has become to baseball what neuroscience has become to modern thought: a way of explaining the unexplainable. Everyone uses these increasingly complex formulas, even if they don’t really understand them. Most if not all of these stats have been developed by scouts, GMs, and other upper-management types who want to quantify an economic investment in a potential player. Fans, though, have found a distinct pleasure in this aspect of the game—fantasy leagues have millions of fans assuming the pressures of building and sustaining a team based entirely on stat lines, and degenerate gamblers have become increasingly adept (and arrogant) at their perceived ability to predict outcomes based entirely on aggregated precedents. Using our increased capacity for cataloguing information, we impose a sense of certainty on a future that is unknowable.
I’ll freely admit that BaseballReference.com is a permanent tab on my internet browser, but that doesn’t prevent me from voicing my own neo-Luddite proclamation: We fans don’t know as much as we think we know. And further, by attempting to quantify the unknowable, we are denying ourselves (or attempting to deny ourselves) of perhaps the most life-affirming aspect of sports spectacle: the capacity for narrative mythmaking.
Of course, maybe I’m arguing this simply because my team is not statistically sound. They were the only team in the majors with less than 100 home runs this season, and they also took less walks than any other team. They had solid pitching, but no ace. Manager Ned Yost is unimaginative on his best days, game-losingly boneheaded on his worst. Most experts will tell you this is not the way to field a winning team. Another increasingly popular statistic, the “pythagorean record,” a method of sorting teams not by actual wins but by imaginary ones based on total runs scored, has the Royals at only 84-78 on the year and missing the playoffs entirely. You might call this year’s Royals the anti-Sabermetrics team—which is ironic considering Bill James, who coined the term sabermetrics, is a diehard Royals fan—or a mediocre group of misfits who happened to get hot at the right time. In fact, many have. Sabermetrician David Cameron’s October 20 Slate piece is representative in its bitterness:
I think there’s a pretty good chance that I’ve underestimated the positive returns on mediocrity in Major League Baseball. That isn’t a goal to be derided anymore. The sport rewards it, especially if a few things break your way. The Royals put themselves in a position to take advantage of a few lucky breaks.
To that, I have a simple reply. The loser of that September 30 Wild Card game, undoubtedly the most memorable single game of the year, was the Oakland A’s, subject of Michael Lewis’s classic Moneyball and prototypical sabermetrics team. Lewis pondered this himself in relaying the 2002 ALDS, which Oakland lost in five games to the “clearly inferior” Minnesota Twins:
The postseason partially explained why baseball was so uniquely resistant to the fruits of scientific research: to any purely rational idea about how to run a baseball team…Over a long season the luck evens out, and the skill shines through. But in a series of three out of five, or even four out of seven, anything can happen…Baseball science may still give a team a slight edge, but that edge is overwhelmed by chance. The baseball season is structured to mock reason.
The A’s have collectively won as many games as any AL team not residing in New York City or Boston this millennium, but they have exactly one postseason series win and zero trips to the World Series to show for it. In many ways, they are to 21st-Century baseball what the Buffalo Bills were to football in the Nineties. This year’s epic collapse was both micro (the Wild Card Game) and macro (the season), but it was hardly their first in recent memory. The Red Sox, for example, would have never had their epic 7-game ALCS with the Yankees—the one where Pedro headcuffed Don Zimmer in Game 3 and Aaron Boone got Grady Little fired with one Game 7 swing—if the A’s hadn’t blown a 2-game lead on them in the ALDS. That, in fact, marked the A’s third ALDS loss in three years.
I would argue that the A’s and the Royals are keystone representatives of what differentiates fantasy teams from actual ones. In treating his team like an interlocked corporate web of fungible parts, almost all of them on short-term contracts, A’s General Manager Billy Beane doesn’t allow his players the time or comfort to develop into anything more than their statistical composites. More importantly, he deprives both his players and their fans the time and comfort to cultivate perhaps the most necessary myth of team spectator sports: The myth that they are a family.
Perhaps I should define here what I mean by myth. I don’t mean it in the sense of being inherently fantastical, like Pecos Bill or John Henry, or that it is by nature deceptive, like trickle-down economics. But myth, in the sense I’m talking about, does exist primarily to reinforce social structures, and to create a collective vision of the world as it is and as it should be, with as little cognitive dissonance between these as possible. Being completely unquantifiable and utterly ineffable, this and any other myth is not bought or traded in the offseason market, and usually doesn’t reveal itself in the course of a single season or a cumulative stat line; it’s made real through telling and retelling until it hardens into fact. Or, as D.H. Lawrence said while strolling through ancient Etruscan tombs, “Every great discovery or decision comes by an act of divination. Facts are fitted round afterwards.” Perhaps the most special thing about the Royals’ postseason, the thing that made so many disinterested parties into Royals fans for the month of October, is the swiftness with which the running narrative of the Royals changed. Remember, this team had a losing record as late in the season as mid-July. “Fire Ned Yost” had become the primary rallying call for many Royals fans as late as the seventh inning of that September 30 Oakland game.
In Chapter Five of his Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton wrote, “My acceptance of the universe is not optimism, it is more like patriotism. It is a matter of primary loyalty.” Being a fan of, and I imagine also a player for, the Royals hasn’t been a cause for optimism, arguably since 1985 and definitely since the 1994 players’ strike. Many fans, myself included, have taken a fairly well-trodden path of predicting in-game miscues and blunders, bemoaning ill-advised offseason acquisitions and departures, and complaining about our millionaire absentee owner and the second-rate upper management he has systematically hired with a detached sarcasm that regularly dips into outright cynicism. In this sense, we are a family united by common misfortune. Even when the team went on a ten-game winning streak before this year’s All Star break, no true Royals fan was surprised when they evened it out with ensuing losses. When they became the winningest major-league team in the 30 days from mid-July through mid-August, no one was surprised that they spent the rest of the season semingly alternating wins and losses. And when they failed to maintain the division lead they’d gotten on that August day with SungWoo Lee in town, I don’t think I was alone in feeling a Wild Card loss looming as a fitting end to a season for a once-proud, then longsufferly pitiful, and now barely-above-average family of fans, players, and management.
It feels good to say that now, knowing that’s not how it happened at all. And it also feels good, with a few weeks’ perspective on the season, to say that we fans were wrong about the players. They’re not average, or even simply above average; they might be the best defensive unit in modern baseball history. And we were also wrong about the upper management and ownership. They are not average; they might be the worst ownership ever to field a World Series team. With all of this in mind, I present to you, at the risk of being branded a socialist yet again by my family, my own mythology of this year’s Royals team: the triumph of a long-repressed proletariat.
“All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
The Royals’ very name has become a bitterly ironic joke for the club’s fans. The most obvious punchline is that for a long time now this team—Jeremy Guthrie’s t-shirt notwithstanding—ain’t been royal. But another, more probing reason for this irony is the assumption underlying the grievance of most long-suffering fans (and players in their most honest moments) that their team’s longstanding tradition of losing was simply one part of the financial portfolio of its absentee owner, former Wal-Mart CEO David Glass.
It would be fairly easy, especially considering the renewed sense of family and place their recent run has given me and an entire metropolitan area, to think of the Royals as a broken family empire restored to glory. That narrative plays as a tragedy of late capitalism’s influence on modern sport. Ewing Kauffman, who went to high school and community college in Kansas City, rode the post-WWII pharmaceutical boom from a $5,000 investment (which many fans will emphasize was his entire life savings) in a private laboratory he ran out of his basement in 1950 to the 1989 merger that formed Marion Merrell Dow. In the course of this trajectory, which made hxim a millionaire many times over, he gradually devoted more and more of his time to two causes much closer to his heart: the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a philanthropic organization he started in the Sixties that is still active in the Kansas City metropolitan area, and the Kansas City Royals, whom he put together as a major league expansion team in 1969 to fill the void left after the Kansas City A’s left for Oakland the previous year. He was the team’s only owner until his death in 1993, and Kauffman Stadium, built in 1973, still stands as one of many Kansas City landmarks bearing the wildly successful capitalist’s name.
Enter David Glass, Kauffman’s close friend and member of the board directing the Royals at the time of Kauffman’s death. Though many Kansas Citians see Glass as as the Mr. Potter to Kauffman’s George Bailey, both men share the intrinsic nature of the opportunistic capitalist. The reason for Glass’s rise as the eventual owner of the Royals was, ironically, a contractual clause Kauffman had stipulated to preserve the Royals’ connection to his beloved hometown: for the first six years after his death, no owner could move the Royals from Kansas City. Glass ran the Royals for the next six years, then bought them outright in 2002 after all of the slim list of potential buyers’ bids failed. He would have undoubtedly then sold the Royals outright to the highest bidder, if not for another of Kauffman’s wily contractual stipulations: that no future owner of the Royals could sell the team for a profit. So here he was, owner of a major league baseball team he didn’t want, in a town to which he had no real connection (he’d by then retired to his home somewhere in Walmartlandia, Arkansas). In the face of a fairly untenable situation as owner of a team no one else wanted that he couldn’t make any money selling, Glass decided to continue to make money by keeping the team. Extending the payroll cuts he’d instigated since taking over the board, Glass as owner turned the Royals into essentially a farm affiliate for the larger-market teams. The list of outstanding Royals players who went on to postseason success with other teams in the Aughts was enough in itself to drive away a whole generation of Royals fans: pitcher Kevin Appier started for World Series Champion Angels in 2002; outfielder Jermaine Dye was the 2005 World Series MVP the Chicago White Sox; and Johnny Damon did double duty, winning World Series championships with both the Red Sox and the Yankees.
You can hardly blame Glass. In many ways, he was made to own a baseball team. With no salary cap, an overgrown system of minor league affiliates to fund and operate, and a general downward turn in overall popularity of the game in relation to basketball and football, the success of a baseball team has become inextricably dependent on the interest and competence of its owners and upper management, about which Michael Lewis had this to say in the afterword to his most recent edition of Moneyball:
Anyone who wanders into Major League Baseball can’t help but notice the stark contrast between the field of play and the uneasy space just off it, where the executives and the scouts make their livings. The game itself is a ruthless competition. Unless you’re very good, you don’t survive in it. But in the space just off the field of play there really is no level of incompetence that won’t be tolerated.
Here are two contradictory points any reasonable observer will find impossible to reconcile, but somehow make perfect sense in the world of Major League Baseball: 1) Possessed of perhaps the most successful union guild of the 20th Century, the sport of baseball has seen, especially since the players’ strike of 1994, exponentially outgrown salaries of its most successful players, and 2) Despite, or perhaps because of, the increased financial stability of its players, baseball is, probably more than any American sport, essentially genteel. The owners are the royalty, and the fans either willingly allow themselves to be systematically ignored or they give up on the sport. Or, just as plausibly, they retreat into capitalist fantasy and become “owners” of fantasy teams, where they build virtual empires of their own.
And herein lies the rub: to paraphrase my socialist-scholar friend Pete Dolack, who is merely echoing roughly two centuries of post-industrial thought, capitalist empires have nothing to fear because all the proletariat sincerely believe they can be bourgeois if they only try hard enough (that’s what we mean by “industrious,” right?). And, sports being justly seen as a microcosm of society, every fan and every player of every major-league team enters every season with the vague hope that this could be the year we turn it around, transcend inept ownership and management, a stunted talent pool, and certain financial realities, and…
But wait. This “we” always gives me pause, and I’m hardly the only one. There are two fundamental reasons so many fans are uneasy saying or hearing the personal pronoun attached to an athletic team, both equally compelling and equally obvious. The first is the old standby employed by any fan of an opposing team, especially on sports message boards where no one is tasked with actually knowing anyone else: We didn’t have any game-winning hits this season, or pitch any shutout innings. Our cumulative ERA is 0.00 and our cumulative batting average is .000, based on zero innings pitched and zero at-bat’s. The other reason is socio-economic, its cold reality existing outside the bounds of the game itself and capable of giving even the most stalwart fan an existential crisis: We are cheering for a class of men being paid more money per on-the-job minute than any of us could reasonably hope for, to play a sport my wife recently reminded me, as we counted the number of players still sporting knee-high knickers with hose, is played by “a bunch of boys.”
Any sane person could reasonably decide not to pay into this machine with our $35 nosebleed tickets and $10 Bud Lights, much less to use “we” when referring to the ant-like specks we see down on the field from our vantage point. But we do, buying into the myth that this team will hopefully—if we watch enough, pay enough, suffer enough—unite us in a community of winners. It just happens that Royals fans, over the past 30 years at least, have suffered the longest. Both complaints and sarcasm come most purely and most often from the disenfranchised, a term that bears a wicked reciprocality here: We have been systematically disenfranchised by the franchise we support.
But before I got too far afield, let me make one thing clear: a baseball team and its fans are not a completely sound diorama for Marxist ideology. Baseball players are about the furthest thing from an industrial working class, though (or perhaps because) they have the most successful union of the late 20th Century. Jarrod Dyson, a utility outfielder who is perhaps my favorite Royals player—you know, the guy chosen with the 1,475th pick of the 2006 draft—will make a meager $530,000 this year, or roughly ten times as much as I make in my job as a college professor. (I know, some would say that’s about right.) The revolution of of 1994 was televised, and its result was a vast, permanent economic schism between baseball players and their fans.
If there was ever a strike in which both sides of the table were laughably, obscenely wrong—in the sense that exorbitant corporate bonuses, or kicking one’s neighbor’s dog, is wrong—it was the Players’ Strike of 1994. Players wanted to be paid market value as unrestricted free agents, which essentially meant they wanted owners to pay them like A-list movie stars rather than like baseball players. Owners wanted to impose a salary cap and continue to run baseball like the patriarchal oligarchy it had been at least since Walter O’Malley moved the Dodgers away from Brooklyn in 1958. Fans, the drivers of this economy, just wanted to watch their teams play.
Royals owner David Glass was in his first full season at the helm that year, and he was a central cog in the owners’ arguments to keep salary caps, using replacement players (a gentle euphemism for scabs) until the players came to terms, a violation of federal labor law. He must have gotten a taste for using subpar baseball players. After he and the players had collectively sacrificed the 1994 season and the regulars came back the following year demanding heftier contracts with a “successful” negotiation behind them, Glass doubled down, slashing the Royals’ payroll through the rest of the Nineties until the Royals became the Bad News Bears in the free-spending new world of Major League Baseball.
Like many fans, I stopped watching baseball in 1994. I tend, in retrospect, to put a probably inordinate amount of blame for this on the Players’ Strike, but I was also just turning 21, had finished my own collegiate running career, and was discovering sex, drugs, insurgent music, and an increasing number of friends who were also interested in these things. I’d outgrown my sports fixation, or so I told myself.
Allow me to time-warp ten years, to the year 2003. I’d moved to Brooklyn three years earlier to assume my microscopic place in the Great Brooklyn Writers’ Gyre, and my roommate Sarah was a budding old-time singer. Both her boyfriend and my girlfriend were obsessive Red Sox fans. The Royals were coming off yet another consecutive losing season, thirty-eight games below .500. I loved my girlfriend and respected the opinion of my roommate’s boyfriend, a WFMU DJ and bassist in a hardcore band. These things, if not reigniting my interest in baseball, at least forced me to pay attention again to the sport.
The 2003 season was special for both the Royals and the Red Sox. The specialness of their seasons was simply a matter of degree. The Royals started that season 17-4, and my brother-in-law started calling regularly to report on the team. The rest of the season was fairly pedestrian, but a weak AL Central kept the Royals in the playoff hunt until September, when they faded down the stretch to finish 83-79, good for third place in the Central Division. This would be their only winning season from 1994-2012. The Red Sox—well, I’ve already covered that. They would use their run to that final Aaron Boone homer as a springboard to their first World Series victory in 84 years in 2004, and after that become the most successful American League team of this millennium, winning three World Series.
From 2003 on, I was again a baseball fan. Following the Red Sox made following the Royals bearable. I went to games at Fenway at least a couple times a year and started going to Royals games again when I went back home to Kansas. I remained a Red Sox fan even after breaking up with that girlfriend, and my next girlfriend—now my wife—was also a Red Sox fan. She indulged me in my Royals fandom, even letting me take her and her parents to a Royals-Bluejays game when we visited them in Toronto in 2008. This was just a few days after Jon Lester had no-hit the Royals in Boston, and the Royals were in the middle of a 12-game losing streak. I impressed my future mother-in-law by predicting certain things the Royals always did to lose games—making average pitchers look unhittable, absentee game management, at least one routine throw to first base that ended up in the stands—all of which occurred as they allowed Toronto’s Jesse Litsch (who would go on the compile a cumulative 4.16 ERA before retiring after five seasons) to throw a complete game and the Royals lost 6-0.
In 2006, after establishing themselves as the most consistently bad team of the present millennium, the Royals saw yet another change in general management. Many Royals fans, my brother-in-law and a few cousins included, weren’t as jaded as I was. They saw some vague hope in what they saw as the first pro-Royals choice David Glass has made as owner, hiring Dayton Moore. At the very least, Moore was a lifelong Royals fan. Now, after two winning seasons and a World Series appearance, maybe I should admit they were onto something. I’m not entirely convinced. I see at least two ways of looking at their current success. The first is that, using a managerial mindset that might be dubbed “post-sabermetrics,” Moore decided to buck the trend of looking for numbers, deliberately seeking out team players, passing on he ones lacking what he subjectively called “character,” and allowing them time to develop chemistry with the fans and each other. The other way of looking at it is that this is the inevitable result of being bad for so long, piling up early-round draft picks and prospects from trading away their stars. Perhaps it’s a combination of the two, steeped slowly until it’s impossible to tell which ingredient—luck, strategy, timing—wrought the heady brew that finally reached maturity this postseason.
Just look at the Royals’ postseason roster, and you have a heady mix of first-round picks that hadn’t performed well enough to trade, players too young to be be eligible to trade, and products of the many fire-sale trades of the past years. Our amazing outfield is composed entirely of players no one else wanted. Alex Gordon has had an entire career arc playing for the Royals, a first-round draft pick in 2005 who has been demoted back to the minors numerous times before being moved from third base to left field to make room for Mike Moustakas, who was also demoted to the minors as recently as this June. Breakout centerfielder Lorenzo Cain was a bit part of the trade with the Brewers when the Royals unloaded superstar pitcher Zack Greinke. Nori Aoki was the product of a more recent (and relatively even) trade with the Brewers, for middle reliever Will Smith. And Dyson, of course, is Mr. 1,475. Look into the infield, on the mound, and even at our manager Ned Yost (also a Brewers “acquisition” who holds the dubious distinction of being the only manager to be fired by his team with three weeks to go in a playoff race) and you’ll see the same picture: a bunch of guys seemingly held together by one common thread—no one else wanted them.
In his Communist Manifesto, Marx optimistically predicts the triumph of the proleteriat based on the assertion that, once working together in unity, workingmen of modern industrialized society would inevitably overthrow the bourgeois curators of their labor:
The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the laborers, due to competition, by their revolutionary combination, due to association. The development of modern industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its grave-diggers.
We’ve now seen the fault in this logic off the field, in the real-life effects of the players’ draft reinforcing my socialist friend Pete’s assertion that the proletariat will gladly join the bourgeois if given the chance. But on the field, the game of baseball supplies the outline one can fill in with any number of wish-fulfillment mechanisms. This year’s Royals, in taking accumulated first-round draft busts and firesale trades and winning despite a bourgeois owner intent on building a losing team, represent perhaps the closest any progressive thinker could approximate to revolution.
If watching that Oakland game with my wife and Stanci in early August reignited the firebox of repressed memories and expectations for my hometown team, a game at Yankee Stadium in early September reinitiated me in the true-believing disappointment awaiting baseball fans the world over this time of year, when roughly three quarters of the fanbase comes to terms with their team not playing the next month. I even developed a tiny bit of empathy for those who rooted for my least favorite team.
I thought I’d be the only Royals fan there, but was pleasantly surprised to find myself in a section filled roughly half-and-half with baby blue and pinstripes. I guess I wasn’t the only one who’d deliberately gotten seats above the Royals bullpen. I was looking forward to seeing our gauntlet of one-inning wonders in action, but James Shields pitched a gem, going 8 1/3 innings before Derek Jeter finally got a hit, a weak bloop single that sent the stadium into a frenzy and ended Shields’ night.
The “Let’s Go Yankees-clap-clap-clap-clap-clap” started to break out, and inevitably morphed into “Derek Jeter-clap-clap-clap-clap-clap.” My wife and I were sitting behind two true blue Yankees fans, and one of them shouted back at our whole section, “Five years ago there wouldn’t be one person sittin’ in this place!”
Two Yankees fans sitting next to me replied, “Yeah, and they were getting ready to win a World Series five years ago.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen a purer distillation of the good fan/bad fan dichotomy.
After Wade Davis had come in and closed out the game, I tapped the guy in front of me, the one who had berated his fellow fanbase, and said, “Hey, man. You’re a great fan.”
“God bless, man,” he said, and gave me a fist bump before jumping up with his friend toward the steps. I made sure to give the stink-eye to the guys sitting next to me.
By the time the Royals had beaten Oakland in the wild card, I said the Royals could get swept in the next series and I wouldn’t care. But with every postseason game they won, I cared more and more. By the time the Royals had swept both the Angels and the Orioles, the two teams with the best records in the AL, everyone was with me. My wife’s brother Phil, a Phillies fan, texted saying he was now a Royals fan; my mother-in-law emailed me congratulations; former students got ahold of me, including Miguel, a Giants fan who said he felt he had to get in touch because “You are the only Royals fan I know.” Even Pedro Martinez, who’d been so integral a member of those great Red Sox teams, was hamming it up as a Royals fan, though perhaps mostly because fellow Dominican Yordano Ventura was our rookie pitching sensation.
I find it interesting that I’ve scanned summarily through the two series sweeps over Anaheim and Baltimore. Each successive close win, and most of them were close, seemed a little less special once I started to expect them. In the span of roughly one month of winning, I’d already become jaded.
With the first game of the World Series—a profound thumping by the San Francisco Giants from every possible perspective—I got back my losing mojo. The script by which my team had blown its way through the playoffs—don’t give up more than 2-3 runs through the first six innings, let our closing trio of Herrera-Davis-Holland mow through the last three, and try to pinch together 3-4 runs throughout—was blown out of the water by San Francisco’s first six batters, who battered our “ace” James Shields for six hits and three runs (it would have been four without yet another amazing play in the outfield by Nori Aoki) and then turned it over to the best playoff pitcher of the modern age, Madison Bumgarner, who systematically silenced the home crowd for seven innings. By his exit it was 7-1 and I’d stopped even groaning or yelling at the TV, sitting instead in stunned, ruminative silence. I couldn’t help thinking, Oh no. These Royals are back.
But the second and third games saw the Royals getting back to the recent script, leaving the sixth inning with a lead and handing it over to our trio of closers. (Note again how easily I can summarize the wins.) The third inning of the fourth game was perhaps my favorite of the World Series: four runs, sparked by two-out singles in which Lorenzo Cain leaped probably ten feet to tag first and Eric Hosmer’s quick feet were aided by San Francisco pitcher Eric Fogelsong’s shuffling gait to make what looked like a routine tag, led the Royals to a 4-1 lead and what looked like a solid shot at a 3-1 series lead. As I immediately noted on my social media: “This inning will be replayed to thousands of Midwest little leaguers to show the importance of running out ground balls.”
Unfortunately, that was the last decent inning the Royals would have for that game or the next. The Giants chipped away at the lead until breaking it open against our soft early relief, scoring 2, 3 and 4 runs in the fifth, sixth, and seventh innings. Herrera, Davis, and Holland didn’t even get in the game. Game 5 was closer than the Game 1 Bumgarner/Shields matchup, but only by a run as our vaunted Herrera/Davis combo gave up 3 late runs and Bumgarner pitched a complete-game shutout. The Giants had outscored the Royals 15-0 since that third inning that now seemed so much longer than a night earlier. But we were going back to Kansas City for the final two games, and if there was one plus, it was that we’d seen the last of Bumgarner.
The team played Game 6 like they’d just had a two-ton weight lifted from their collective back. It was already a foregone conclusion by the end of the second inning, with the Royals up 7-0 and on their way to a 10-0 shutout, setting up a decisive Game 7. With 35-year-old Jeremy Guthrie on the mound for the Royals, 39-year-old Tim Hudson pitching for the Giants, and both bullpens well-rested, it promised early hits, multiple pitching changes, and descending chances for runs as the innings progressed. Bumgarner had told the press he’d be happy to pitch on short rest and Giants manager Bruce Bochy took it a step further, saying he thought his ace could go 50-60 pitches if need be, but I figured he’d be good for two innings tops, a la Curt Schilling’s and Randy Johnson’s brief service out of the bullpen in Arizona’s Game 7 for Arizona in 2001. In any case, I figured the team with the most runs going into the seventh inning would win either way.
I entered Wednesday, October 29, with a sense of hope, purpose, and sublimated dread. My first social media post of the day was, “Game 7, World Series. Welcome to the greatest day of the year, Facebook.” I spent all day madly grading student work I’d gotten behind on while watching baseball, reading about baseball, writing about baseball, and talking about baseball. After picking up my five-year-old daughter from school, I took her to buy her first Royals baseball cap. My wife and I hired a last-minute sitter and met my friend Zach at the Dram Shop, where the Royals magic began for me almost exactly a month ago.
By then almost everyone in New York City who was even paying attention to baseball was cheering for the Royals—never underestimate the rags-to-riches allure of a 29-year bust going to the World Series—and the bar felt almost like I was back in Lawrence. The Giants scored first in the second inning on two sacrifice flys, but the Royals chased Hudson in the bottom of the inning, tying the score at 2-2 and sending the bar into a frenzy. Guthrie breezed through the third while San Francisco brought in Jeremy Affeldt, their middle reliever who hadn’t yet given up a postseason run. Affeldt pitched two scoreless innings while Guthrie ran into trouble in the fourth, allowing leadoff man Pablo Sandoval on first after Omar Infante made a spectacular catch off the bounce but slipped and couldn’t quite get the throw to first on time. Two hits and a pitching change later, Sandoval came home on an RBI single and the Giants led 3-2. But with five innings to go, that was surely not the last of the scoring.
Then the camera went to the Giants’ bullpen, and Madison Bumgarner was warmng up. No one else was even throwing. He was definitely coming in.
Infante greeted him with a leadoff double to start the fifth, and I thought, Finally. Bumgarner—Madison Fucking Bumgarner—was tired. He missed the first pitch of the next two batters, but managed to induce deep flyball outs. Then, with Lorenzo Fucking Cain at bat, I just felt something was about to break. He threw another first-pitch ball that almost hit Cain’s foot.
Only the umpire called it a strike. I yelled at the TV, the rest of the crowd yelled at the TV, and Bumgarner threw two actual strikes to end the inning. By the time he’d taken turns with our best relievers retiring three innings’ worth of batters, it was the 3-2 in the ninth inning and the bar was silent, except for one person. By then I’d gone full-on Freddy Exley, yelling profanities and ready to fight the woman at the table next to us who was cheering for San Francisco, even though she had a good four inches and 20 pounds on me. My wife was slouched into her seat, and Zach was calculating the odds of the Royals coming back while looking at a YouTube video of George Brett telling a story during preseason warmups about shitting his pants.
Then, with two outs, Alex Gordon got a piece of a hanging slider, sending it into the outfield. Then outfielder Gregor Blanco missed the catch, letting the ball bounce past him. Then another outfielder, Juan Perez, dropped the ball while chasing it down, let it hit the wall before picking it up. And just like that, Gordon was rounding third and thinking about stretching a well-hit single into an inside-the-park home run. But third base coach Mike Jirschele played it safe, setting Gordon up at third to give Salvadaor Perez, our catcher who’d had the game-winning hit in the wild card game, a chance to win it.
Three pitches later, Salvy hit a weak pop foul to third and the Giants were celebrating their third World Series win in five years. My wife rubbed my shoulders and reminded me how unlikely a run it was after all. Zach apologized for trying to show me a video of George Brett talking about shitting himself during the most important inning of my life. The massive lady who was cheering for the Giants looked at me meekly and said, “Sorry.” I shook my head and glowered.
Weeks later, I’m still going through various manifestations of the stages of loss and grief. I tell myself how irresponsible it was for Bruce Bochy to send out Bumgarner on three days’ rest to pitch those final five innings. I bargain ex post facto with the baseball gods: I was nice to everyone, no flaming! Why couldn’t my team win? I replay Infante’s trip while throwing to first that would have prevented San Francisco’s go-ahead run in the fourth. But most of all, I wonder, What if Gordon had kept running for home?
Sabermetrics folks are already arguing whether Gordon should have run for home (here, here, and here, for example), but one Royals fan, Robert Bingaman, has already crystallized the mythology perfectly:
For many of us, Alex Gordon still stands panting at third — our hearts in a stasis of disbelief and dread for what can no longer be.
But the great thing about baseball, at least this year, is that we can always look forward to next year. The urge I’ve repressed all these years, to believe in tomorrow for this team, has returned.
As I was skulking out of the Dram Shop on that ill-fated night, I spied a guy in a Royals cap bent over the bar while two or three guys lectured him, something like, “This is New York, friend,” and “The Yankees are gonna win it next year,” and “Maybe the Met’s’ll even break through.” I stopped, put my arm drunkenly over the guy’s shoulder, and said, “We got everyone important coming back next year. And this is the second straight year we’re better than the Yankees.”
I fist-bumped my newest bro, and sauntered lightly into the cold, dark night.