By Zack Lewandowski (@ZackLewandowski)
It’s just a game.
That’s what I told myself, over and over again. To the point that a supposedly comforting maxim became more like a mindless spinning record, queuing up every time the emotions started to stir.
In June of 2004, the Red Sox second baseman Cesar Crespo hit a chopper down the first base line to Royal’s first basemen Ken Harvey, who picked it up in haste and tried to fire it home to get the runner advancing from third. But instead of throwing an accurate laser, he collided with pitcher Jason Grimsley (who was sprinting with his head down to cover first). Both Grimsley and Harvey fell to the ground nearly unconscious. It was one of those freak plays that happen once-in-a-never, unless you made a habit of watching the Royals.
“That was just crazy,” Red Sox’s first baseman Kevin Youkilis said after the game. “I hope they’re alright. That play will probably never happen in baseball again.”
The Royals were ahead 3-1 before that moment. They went on to lose 5-3.
“It’s just a game,” I told myself. I was 15.
It was games such as this, stacked up over time, that began to chip away at my resolve. Being a fan (according to the age-old theory) is about sticking with your team through the good and the bad. In sports, there’s always something worth holding on for, but Royals fans have been white at the knuckles for 29 years.
I wanted my own stories. When my dad would talk with his friends about a George Brett memory or a Bo Jackson highlight, all it left me with was the feeling of solitude.
Different fans dealt with it in their own different ways. Some remained steadfast and always believed next year would be better. Others just watched the Chiefs and forgot about baseball altogether. My route was to eventually convince myself to care less. And it worked.
It didn’t happen all at once; it was more like a slowly deflating balloon. Eventually, my defense became better than an Alex Gordon-Lorenzo Cain-Jarrod Dyson outfield. When the Royals lost 100+ games in three straight seasons (2004—2006), I cared a little less. When the Royals went eight straight seasons finishing either fourth or last in the division (2004—2011), I cared a little less. I kept the Royals at a distance like a bad girlfriend. I’d play along and give my attention, but as soon as things started to get bad, I was out. You can’t hurt if you don’t care.
But many others did. Older generations spoke about stories of the parade that once illuminated a city. I heard of the proud tradition, the competitive spirit with which they played. I heard that when someone said Royals, people didn’t snicker or spit snark; the name demanded respect—so much so that, at one point in time, the Royals biggest rival was the Yankees.
As a millennial, it was nice to hear, but it didn’t matter. I wanted my own stories. When my dad would talk with his friends about a George Brett memory or a Bo Jackson highlight, all it left me with was the feeling of solitude (and the memory of seeing Ken Harvey wince as he took a relay throw to the back).
Being a Royals fan is like being trapped in a DeLorean. The future and the past are at every turn. The present just sits there quietly as we choose to ignore it. I felt like Marty McFly, wandering around while everyone talked about things that happened or were going to happen.
The 2014 Royals have changed everything.
The night the Royals clinched a wild-card playoff spot, I was back home in Kansas City for my little brother’s wedding. Just a year earlier, I’d gotten a job in St. Louis, a town where playoff appearances seem to come along with the daily paper. It was lucky timing (or fate, depending on your holy affiliations) that I would be back in Kansas City the night they clinched. I sat in my dad’s neighbor’s backyard, sharing a cold one with two men born pre-1985.
We watched on television as a plastic-covered locker room became flooded with champagne and tears of joys. And I'll be damned if my eyes didn’t run like the Missouri river. The act of not caring dissolved, because the truth is I never completely stopped caring. No lifelong sports fan ever does. But you do become numb.
For the Royals organization, it was 29 years of playoff drought. For me, it was a lifetime.
Years and years of losing had beaten me down. I still followed the Royals closely during the hard times. I still went to games. But there was smog above Kauffman stadium. You could feel it. There was anger at the owners, anger at management. And a city’s pride had taken quite a hit over the years.
If you talk to an average Royals fan, you’d be hard-pressed to find a confident person wearing Royal blue. And I don’t mean the kind who says his or her team is going to win. I mean a fan who knows his or her team is going to win. You can find them in St. Louis, you can find them in Boston, you can find them in New York, or you can find them in Los Angeles. These teams have earned that bravado (though some are starting to lose that legitimacy now). The Royals fan braces for the inevitable heartbreak waiting just beyond the corner. The Royals fan carries a humbleness befitting a history of letdowns. The Royals fan remembers Neifi Perez.
For the Royals organization, it was 29 years of playoff drought. For me, as a 25-year-old, it was a lifetime. And as I watched pitcher Jeremy Guthrie give a postgame interview with ski goggles and a snorkel dripping with bubbly, I thought about those words I used to comfort myself so many times before: It’s just a game.
Then I looked down at my phone. It hadn’t stopped buzzing since the 9th inning. I had text messages from friends in high school I hadn’t spoken with since … high school. There were messages from family members who couldn’t sleep. I had messages from a best friend from childhood who was stationed in Florida working as a mechanic in the Navy.
At that moment, we were all connected. An entire city was rejuvenated. We were buzzing. Sleep was an afterthought. We just wanted to share with each other how crazy this season and this team is. And plan a World Series visit none of us could afford. The Royals might not make it that deep into the playoffs, but that doesn’t matter. In October of 2014, the Royals are still playing baseball, and a city is right there with them.
This season is as much, if not more, about the fans as it is about the players. It’s the revival of a baseball town that’s been bottled up for 29 years. Only now, the champagne is flowing, and with it the excitement and joy of a battered, but still strong, fan base. Kansas City deserves this. And you know what, we all do. This moment is a reminder that baseball is just a game. But the people who play it, watch it, and care bout it; they are what make it special.
It is just a game, and right now it’s ours.