K.C.'s moment and what athletes mean

The success of Eric Hosmer, center, and his Royals teammates is the latest example of how a sports team can lift an entire city. AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Had you spent Monday and Tuesday in Kansas City, you'd know why we treat athletes like elected officials, hold them to a higher standard of conduct, wished they ran and jumped like 20-somethings and thought and acted with the wisdom and experience of our grandfathers.

We want athletes and athletics to be perfect because they're about the only things we agree on, the only things that bring us together and make us feel good.

Kansas City feels awesome today, the best it has felt in three decades. Tuesday night, the city's baseball team rallied from a four-run deficit, overcame the overzealous managing of Ned Yost and knocked off the Oakland A's in a wild-card playoff contest that played out like the final scene in the movie "Major League." The series with the Los Angeles Angels that begins Thursday night will only extend the buoyant feelings locally.

Monday night, the city's football team boldly unveiled a two-headed running back attack that crushed and exposed Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots and signaled the Chiefs are a legitimate threat in the AFC.

The Harry S. Truman Sports Complex -- home to Kauffman and Arrowhead stadiums, funded, maintained and renovated by local taxpayers for more than 40 years -- hosted a two-day religious pilgrimage that left its Kansas City congregation convinced eternal joy is a possibility. Eighty thousand worshipers packed Arrowhead Stadium to witness Knile Davis, Jamaal Charles and the Chiefs steamroll the Patriots 41-14. Forty thousand congregants jammed Kauffman Stadium and never lost faith during a 12-inning roller-coaster ride that ended just before midnight on catcher Salvador Perez's unlikely single down the third-base line.

The crowd inside Arrowhead broke some convoluted stadium-noise record. The crowd inside The K demonstrated a rare versatility, offering the Royals rabid support while booing Yost when appropriate, which was often. A fan base denied postseason success since a Chiefs playoff victory after the 1993 season and a Royals World Series title in 1985, tapped into every emotion during a 24-hour stretch. On back-to-back nights, strangers of different races, genders, religions, economic class and political bent wept, hugged and shouted in the aisles, at bars and in their homes.

No one else, no other group, has that power to connect us, make us simultaneously feel the same pleasure and pain. The Beatles, Elvis and Michael Jackson could never do that. Assassins killed Lincoln, Kennedy and Dr. King for representing the idea we could connect across our cultural differences.

Sports bind us in ways we could never imagine at their advent. Sports are the common ground between you and the guy on your job you cannot stand because he disagrees with your perspective on Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin. You both love Peyton Manning or LeBron James or Derek Jeter. You both cried when the ball slipped under Buckner's glove or when Mario Chalmers' shot swished through the net to stun Memphis.

In flyover country, in cities where we settle down and choose family over ambition, our teams fuel our self-confidence and say to the world we still want to be the very best even though we've made career decisions that suggest otherwise. Our sports teams -- more than fancy cars, trophy wives -- keep us young. We collectively live vicariously through Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon, James Shields and Lorenzo Cain. They remind us of when we thought we might conquer the world.

I was young and dumb when I arrived in Kansas City in September 1994, the new sports columnist for the Kansas City Star. I wanted to conquer Kansas City. It was a terrific sports town. I knew a bit of its history because my mother had relocated here from Indianapolis in 1984, my senior year of high school. When I relocated here, the Royals and Chiefs were both nationally relevant. At the time of the 1994 work stoppage, the Royals were arguably playing the best baseball in the league. A week before the strike, the Royals had completed a 14-game winning streak and moved into serious playoff contention. The Chiefs were a season removed from the AFC Championship Game and were still led by Joe Montana and Marcus Allen.

When I watched my first Chiefs game at Arrowhead Stadium on Sept. 25, 1994 -- the Chiefs were 3-0 and the talk of the NFL -- there was absolutely no reason for me to believe that it would take 20 years for me to witness a Kansas City professional sports team win a playoff game.

It took 20 years, six days, three extra innings, a Big Brothers Big Sisters charity event and a plane ride from my home in Los Angeles to witness it. God, I'm so glad I made the trip. During my 16 years as a columnist at the Star, I had reluctantly accepted the fact that I was part of the city's bad sports karma.

The Royals' greatest player (George Brett) retired and magnificent owner (Ewing Kauffman) died in 1993. The Royals launched an ill-fated, decade-long "youth movement" in 1994. Kansas City played a lot of bad, meaningless baseball during my time there. There were many, many low points, including manager Tony Pena showering with his clothes on in hopes of snapping a Royals funk. Hell, recently you could nab free Royals tickets by ordering a pizza for delivery.

Things were slightly better with the Chiefs ... during the regular season. Marty Schottenheimer built amazing teams that self-destructed in the postseason. After leading the Rams to the Super Bowl, Dick Vermeil came to Kansas City and built a spectacular offense and a defense allergic to tackling. I led a media campaign to hire Bill Belichick puppet Scott Pioli to run the Chiefs, and then quickly realized my mistake and led the campaign to have Scott Egoli fired.

It has been a 20-year odyssey. Monday and Tuesday felt a little bit like an exorcism, a cleansing of a tortured soul. The Chiefs and the Royals are relevant again. Kansas Citians are walking around with their chests puffed and wearing red and blue. The millions of dollars they've dumped into a parking lot with two stadiums seems as if it's worth it. You can't buy the memories and lifelong bonds created and formed since Monday night.

Our communities are too often fractured and boiling with just-beneath-the-surface tension and hostility, a Ferguson, Missouri, waiting for a match to light the fuse. We count on our sports teams to bring us together and our athletes to remind us that cooperation across cultural differences is worth it.

Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson pushed this country forward by integrating baseball. Joe Louis hospitalized Max Schmeling, pummeled Hitler's supremacy theory and made America proud. Muhammad Ali energized our anti-Vietnam War movement.

Athletes (and athletics) play a special role in our society. We shower them with fame, riches and the ability to influence us. We're not wrong for demanding they behave as role models. It sounds foolish to want the National Football League to be a leader on domestic violence until you realize the sports world has long been a vehicle for societal change.