KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The baseball fantasy camp that plops down once every three decades in Kansas City officially ended late Wednesday night, and it ended quietly -- with a Salvador Perez foul pop that settled into Pablo Sandoval's glove, Charlie Hayes-style, before the San Francisco Giants third baseman toppled to his back in a combination of exhaustion and disbelief.
The Kansas City Royals' dream died 90 feet from home plate in the person of left fielder Alex Gordon, whose evening ended with a disconsolate walk from the third-base bag to the first-base dugout rather than a frantic sprint home with the tying run.
And then, magically, something poignant materialized out of nowhere. As the San Francisco players celebrated in the infield and a few Royals fans ducked down the exits following the team's 3-2 loss, a chant gradually spread through the stands at Kauffman Stadium.
"Let's go, Roy-als! Let's go, Roy-als!"
The cheer -- and the applause that accompanied it -- reflected the newfound optimism that took root in Kansas City over an 8½-month span from the first day of spring training to the final out of the Fall Classic. The 2014 Royals did not claim the ultimate prize, as George Brett, Bret Saberhagen & Co. did during the heart of the Reagan administration, but they left an indelible mark on a proud baseball city with a success-starved fan base.
San Francisco's third title in five years and Madison Bumgarner's brilliant pitching will go down as the top stories of the 2014 postseason, but the Royals crafted quite a story of their own on their way to Miss Congeniality. They went 34-21 in August and September to clinch a wild-card berth, rallied from a late 7-3 deficit against Jon Lester to beat the Oakland A's in the play-in game, swept the Los Angeles Angels and Baltimore Orioles on their way to a record eight straight victories to begin a postseason, and pushed the Giants to the final out before falling tantalizingly short.
With the notable exception of spraying champagne on each other, it was precisely the step the Royals had hoped to take after vaulting from 72 to 86 wins in 2013 and finishing just short of the playoffs.
"Last year, at the end of the year, I was like, 'OK, I hope they got over the hump,'" Royals manager Ned Yost said. "There's no hoping anymore. These guys have gotten over the hump. They're still very, very hungry. It's a very dejected group in there right now. They didn't accomplish their goal. They know how close they came, and they're going to want to taste it again."
General manager Dayton Moore, who came to Kansas City from Atlanta in 2006 with specific ideas on how to build a contender on a limited budget, will not be leaving the organization to return to the Braves, as a brief flurry of media speculation had suggested. Instead, he'll try to make the needed upgrades to complement a Royals roster with a lot of pieces in place to contend again in 2015.
"The players here are different today than they were a month ago for this experience, no doubt," Moore said. "The only thing they'll think about as baseball players, from this day forward, is getting back on this stage."
In a down year for offense in baseball, the Royals succeeded with a quirky formula. They became the first team in history to qualify for the postseason while hitting the fewest homers and drawing the fewest walks in the majors. They won with defense, speed, starting pitching that was under-the-radar good and a back-end-of-the-bullpen threesome (Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland) that demoralized opposing lineups in increments of 95 to 100 mph.
Where do the Royals go from here? Moore plans to confer with owner David Glass in the next couple of days to discuss finances and personnel moves. Outfielder Norichika Aoki is eligible for free agency, and veterans Raul Ibanez, Josh Willingham, Jason Frasor and Scott Downs are all retirement candidates. But two players will dominate the conversation in Kansas City over the next few days and possibly longer.
Pitcher James Shields, who arrived from Tampa Bay with Davis in December 2012 as part of a seven-player trade that sent prospects Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi to the Rays, fulfilled his end of the bargain as a staff leader and 225-inning-per-year horse for Kansas City. He posted a disappointing 6.12 ERA in five starts and 25 innings this October, but he will enter the free-agent market as the third-most high-profile starter available, behind Max Scherzer and Lester.
Under ideal circumstances, Shields' spot in the rotation would be filled by Kyle Zimmer, Kansas City's top pick in the 2012 draft. But Zimmer is iffy for next season after surgery to remove damaged tissue in his right shoulder, and Moore now has to find a starter to join a rotation that includes Yordano Ventura, Jeremy Guthrie, Jason Vargas and Danny Duffy.
The Royals are expected to make Shields a $15.3 million qualifying offer to assure themselves of draft-pick compensation should he sign elsewhere this winter. But they're limited in their ability to keep pace if his price spirals beyond their comfort level. And as Shields closes in on age 33, he owes it to himself to see what the market has to offer.
"The next couple of days, I'm going to go home and enjoy some trick-or-treating with my kids," Shields said. "I'm sure I'll be thinking about that a little later, but right now I'm not too worried about my free agency. We'll see what happens."
Kansas City's other big decision revolves around designated hitter Billy Butler, who has a $12.5 million option that the Royals will almost certainly decline in favor of a $1 million buyout. Butler has been with the organization since 2004, but he hit a mere nine home runs this season and posted a career-low .702 OPS, and both parties will have to do some compromising if the Royals are going to fit that kind of production into their budget.
"Even if they decline [the option], we can still talk," Butler said. "The only thing I know is I've been a Royal since I was 18 years old. I bleed Royal blue, and I'd rather be here than somewhere else. We're a small-market team, and business is business, but I feel like it's a little more than that here.
"My dad has always told me, 'Good things come to an end,' but I hope this isn't one of those times. I'd like to see if we can build on this next year with this squad. If I'm in those plans, I'll be here. And I'm not, there's nothing I can do about it."
With or without Butler in the picture, Gordon and Perez are signed to multiyear deals and will remain lineup mainstays. Hosmer, Moustakas and outfielder Lorenzo Cain made huge contributions throughout the postseason. And Ventura showed his mettle in Game 6 of the World Series when he threw seven shutout innings to beat the Giants while mourning the death of his friend, St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Oscar Taveras.
By the end of the team's postseason run, even Yost's harshest critics in Kansas City were willing to cut him some slack. Contrary to one popular line of thinking, the Royals did not win in spite of him.
"I don't know if the relationship was ever broken between the Royals and our fans," Yost said. "They just wanted us to be good again so that they could come out and support us. On a scale of 1 to 10 in terms of support through the postseason, it's got to be 14. I mean, it was phenomenal."
After the media crush began to disperse Wednesday night, the Kansas City players showed the strain of a tough loss. Hosmer spun his chair toward the wall, stared into his locker and quietly gnawed on a thumbnail. Several lockers away, Moustakas systematically placed caps, bats, jerseys and other possessions into a royal-blue duffel bag.
The memories of how close they came -- with Gordon perched on third with Perez at the plate against Bumgarner with two outs in the ninth -- will haunt the Royals this offseason. Yost will likely think about it when he's bow-hunting with his pal Jeff Foxworthy back home in Georgia. Shields will likely reflect when he's handing out treats on Halloween and, later on, when he's exchanging texts with his agent over job opportunities. And Hosmer and Moustakas will likely use the disappointment as motivation when they're working up a sweat at the Scott Boras Sports Training Institute.
It did not turn out to be a Royal O(kc)tober, as the MLB-sanctioned T-shirts and caps proclaimed. But this was nevertheless a special summer and entertaining fall in Kansas City, and a time for big strides. The Royals have every reason to believe there will be more to come.