Of all the amazing things I'll remember the 2015 World Champion Kansas City Royals for, the most amazing is this: They turned the story of the 2014 Royals into a prologue.
The 2014 Royals were the biggest story in American sports for an entire month and the greatest story in Kansas City sports in a generation. Before that, the Royals were as connected with being hapless losers as they are associated with being a relentless winning machine of late. They had gone 29 years without reaching the postseason, the longest playoff drought in professional sports. They had just finished a stretch of 17 losing seasons in 18 years.
And then the magic started. In the AL wild-card game, the Royals became the first team in playoff history to win an elimination game after trailing by four runs or more in the eighth inning. They wouldn't lose again for three weeks, sweeping their way through the ALDS and ALCS before falling to the San Francisco Giants and Madison Bumgarner, taking the World Series to a Game 7, and making the final out with the tying run 90 feet from home plate.
It was an enchanted run. It was about as enjoyable a team to root for as any team can be without actually winning a championship. And afterwards, I didn't think there was any chance they could repeat it. I felt like the 2014 Royals were the closest I would get to seeing a championship in a long time, perhaps in my lifetime. Walking to my car outside Kauffman Stadium in the wee hours of the morning after Game 7, I tried to cheer myself up with the memories of the Royals' month-long assault on immortality. But all I could think about was how rare and precious the opportunity to play for a championship is, and having fallen just short in 2014, there was no guarantee the Royals would get that opportunity again. The 29 years the Royals had waited to make the playoffs might not be the norm, but to win a championship, in a 30-team league, it actually is.
I'd like to claim that I broke from the offseason consensus that the Royals would return to mediocrity, but I didn't: I had them pegged for 83 wins and watching the playoffs. Most of that was based on the reasonable, if completely inaccurate, assumption that their bullpen couldn't possibly be as effective, their defense couldn't possibly be as impermeable as last year, and that they wouldn't improve enough in other areas to compensate. But I think that, somewhere in the subconscious recesses of my mind, part of me was convinced that the 2014 Royals had exhausted the franchise's supply of good fortune for the foreseeable future.
I know that's irrational, the sports fan's equivalent of the Gambler's Fallacy. Sports aren't fair; things don't even out in the long run. But having been a fan of a team that had been the bug for a generation, I wasn't prepared to accept that they were now the windshield.
And then the 2015 season started, and it took about a week -- the time it took for the Royals to start 7-0 -- to suspect that maybe we had all underestimated them, and that this was a better team than the 2014 club that won only 89 games. The lineup was significantly improved, and the expected declines in the bullpen and defense never materialized. Mike Moustakas had overhauled his swing over the winter and was a force at the plate. Lorenzo Cain added power to his speed-and-defense game. Eric Hosmer shook off a poor 2014 season and was hitting .300 again. Controversial free-agent signings Kendrys Morales and Edinson Volquez were performing exactly like the Royals said they would.
Not only did the Royals win their first division title since 1985, but for most of the season that victory was essentially a foregone conclusion -- from the end of July on, they never led the AL Central by less than eight games. Their hold on the division was so strong that when they made the first big trade-deadline acquisitions in the franchise's entire history, trading four left-handed pitching prospects for Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist, their stated purpose was to help the Royals win in October, not get to October.
After a generation of watching the Royals play stress-free baseball in September because they had nothing to play for, now they were playing stress-free baseball in September because they had a playoff spot locked up. And even then, I had no expectation that they would make it back to the World Series, let alone win it. My 12-year-old daughter, like an entire generation of young Royals fans, fell for this team last October, and all season long I tried to temper her giddiness at rooting for this team. "Enjoy it now," I would tell her, "because you probably won't enjoy October like you did last year."
That wasn't me being cynical about this team, it was me being realistic about the nature of baseball's postseason. Eight teams enter the LDS round, only one is crowned a champion, and there appears to be little rhyme or reason to who becomes that champion. The Royals finished the season with 95 wins, the most in the American League, which put them in the same category as the Los Angeles Angels in 2014, who won an AL-high 98 games -- and then got swept in the ALDS. By the Royals.
I was being realistic about how high the expectations were for this season after the magic of last year. The only goal for the 2014 Royals was to make the playoffs; that alone was enough to make it the best Royals season in 29 years. After they won the wild-card game in dramatic fashion, everything they would accomplish afterwards exceeded expectations -- it was all just gravy. But after making it to Game 7 of the World Series last year, this year's team was saddled with the loftiest of expectations: championship or bust. "Unfinished business," the players called it. The Royals were the best team in the league from April to September, but all that really mattered was how they played in October.
In the ALDS, they were matched against the Houston Astros, who looked for all the world like the 2014 Royals: a team that had endured a historic stretch of awfulness, that had arrived on the postseason scene ahead of schedule, that was filled to the rafters with young talent, and that had just dispatched the Yankees in the wild-card game. They lost two of the first three games, and facing elimination in Game 4, they fell behind 6-2 when Carlos Correa and Colby Rasmus homered in the bottom of the seventh. The upstart Astros would move on. The best-record-in-the-league Royals would go home. The circle of life would be complete.
And then... I wouldn't say the magic happened again, because this team wasn't about magic. They were about simply refusing to give up, refusing to give in to convention, the one that says that when you're losing by four runs in the eighth inning, you're going to lose the game. Alex Rios singled. Alcides Escobar singled. Ben Zobrist singled. Lorenzo Cain singled to make it 6-3. Eric Hosmer singled to make it 6-4. And then came the moment when the opposition cracked, an instant that changed the fortune of both teams: Morales hit a double-play ball that tipped off pitcher Tony Sipp's glove, headed straight to Correa at shortstop, and then took a funny bounce, causing Correa to somehow miss it. The game was tied, there was still no one out, and the go-ahead run was at third base. The Royals would get the go-ahead run home, because that's what they do. They would win the game. Two days later, they would win the decisive Game 5 when Cueto, a source of frustration for most of his tenure as a Royal, delivered his best start in two months.
They would beat the Toronto Blue Jays in the ALCS, the series turning in Game 2 when -- after David Price had allowed just a single baserunner in the first six innings and took a 3-0 lead to the seventh -- a miscommunication between second baseman Ryan Goins and right fielder Jose Bautista let Zobrist's fly ball drop for a single. That was the one crack in the armor the Royals needed. Four line drives -- three singles and a double -- later, Price walked off the mound shaking his head and the Royals had a lead they wouldn't surrender. Six days later, they would win the decisive Game 6 in the bottom of the eighth inning when Lorenzo Cain never stopped running on Hosmer's line drive to right field, scoring the decisive run in the decisive game from first base on a single.
Having already established their bona fides as a team that isn't dead until the final out, the Royals upped their comeback game a notch in the World Series. In Game 1, trailing by a run and down to their final two outs, Alex Gordon hit a bomb to center field off Mets closer Jeurys Familia to tie the game. The Royals' bullpen was designed to put goose eggs on the scoreboard for as long as necessary, and after five extra innings, the Royals finally walked it off in the 14th off of Bartolo Colon.
In Game 4, the Mets took a 3-2 lead to the eighth, but with one out, Zobrist and Cain both walked, finally prompting Terry Collins to bring in Familia. Hosmer greeted him with a slow ground ball that Murphy somehow whiffed on completely, allowing Zobrist to score the tying run. Moustakas and Salvador Perez followed with RBI singles. Ned Yost managed the rest of the game with the urgency that Collins lacked, bringing in Davis for a six-out save, putting the Royals one game away from a title. Like last year, one more win would bring them a championship, but this time they would get three cracks at it.
They wouldn't need all three, because they saved their best for last. The Mets led Game 5 from the first batter of the first inning on and held a 2-0 lead going to the ninth. Collins, perhaps spooked by Familia, perhaps enthralled by Matt Harvey's dominant performance, perhaps egged on by the crowd, allowed Harvey to talk him into letting him pitch the ninth. Cain walked. Hosmer doubled him home. Familia came in, and as in Game 4, was betrayed not only by his manager for waiting until the rally started to bring him in, but also by his defense. Moustakas' grounder moved Hosmer to third base. Perez got sawed off and hit a weak ground ball to David Wright at third base. Last year, with two outs in the ninth and the tying run barreling toward third, third-base coach Mike Jirschele sensibly told the runner to hold -- a good throw would have nailed Alex Gordon by 30 feet. This time, there was no need -- Hosmer reacted on instinct, dashing home when Wright threw to first, and was safe when Lucas Duda's throw home sailed past the catcher.
The game was tied, but everything that came after seemed preordained. The Royals got a third scoreless inning from Kelvin Herrera, and then two scoreless innings from Luke Hochevar, and the game headed to the 12th inning. The 2014 wild-card game, the game that introduced the Royals to the nation and began this wild ride 13 months ago, went 12 innings, and in a perfect bit of symmetry, the story that began that night would end with a championship in the 12th inning as well. Perez started the rally instead of ending it this time, blooping a single to right field. Jarrod Dyson came in as a pinch runner for him. Dyson had served as a pinch runner, stolen a base, and scored the tying run in the ninth inning of the wild-card game -- so of course he stole second base here, and moved to third on Alex Gordon's groundout.
This brought up Christian Colon, batting for the pitcher. Colon had been on the Royals' postseason roster all month yet hadn't appeared in a game since the regular season ended four weeks earlier. His last postseason at-bat had come in the 2014 wild-card game; like this one, it came in the 12th inning, with a man on third base and one out -- a situation in which the ability to make contact is vital. Colon had come through last time, beating out a high chopper to score Hosmer with the tying run, and then scoring the walk-off run himself when Perez singled him home.
Colon came through again, ringing a single to left field to give the Royals a 3-2 lead. Mets fans headed for the exits as Murphy misplayed another ground ball, as Escobar doubled home another run, as Cain hit a bases-clearing double to give the Royals a five-run lead and erase any doubt. The last 10 minutes of the game were a giddy coronation ceremony for Royals fans lucky enough to be there, crowding around the dugout 20 people deep, camera phones out en masse as Davis dispatched the Mets in the bottom of the inning.
The Royals had done what they alone believed they could do from the first day of spring training. They atoned for and avenged 2014. And along the way, they did something even more incredible: They exceeded 2014 not just as a team, but as a narrative, because somehow the sequel exceeded the original. The 2014 Royals were a Disney fairytale, the plucky, underdog team that no one expected anything from, vanquishing bigger and stronger opponents, but they weren't a big comeback team -- after the wild-card game, they didn't win a game after trailing by more than one run for the rest of the playoffs. By contrast, the 2015 Royals are a Michael Bay blockbuster, a big-budget, high-expectations action thriller about a team that finds itself in one impossible situation after another but always finds a way out, complete with plot points that sometimes demand you check reality at the door. Another comeback from a four-run deficit in the eighth inning? Really? Didn't they already use that storyline? And the World Series ending was a total cliché.
As a Royals fan, all I wanted was a championship. Instead I got something more: a team that makes a case for being the most clutch October team of all time, best summed up in this SportsCenter tweet that I ought to frame and hang on my wall:
At some point in 2015 postseason games, KC had win probabilities of: 18% 1% 25% 8% 10% 16% 5% KC won all 7 of those games. (via fangraphs)— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) November 2, 2015
The stats are astounding. From the seventh inning on in the postseason, the Royals scored 51 runs -- the other nine playoff teams combined for 55! -- and allowed 11. They won games in which they were losing after four innings, after five innings, after six innings, after seven innings (twice), and after eight innings (twice). They won seven playoff games in which they were losing by two runs or more; no other team in history has won more than five such games. (If baseball games were seven innings long, the Royals would have lost the World Series in five games instead of winning it in five.) There have been better teams in baseball history, but no team has proven itself so hard to kill.
The 2015 Royals are a testament to general manager Dayton Moore, who was maligned for years for the glacial pace at which his rebuilding project, begun when he was hired in 2006, moved forward. Moore made some glaring personnel errors in his early years, but his on-the-job improvement is striking: He has rarely had a misstep in the last five years. Forced to trade Zack Greinke before Greinke left as a free agent, Moore nailed the deal, acquiring Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, and Jake Odorizzi. Two years later, Moore would make the most controversial move of his decade as a GM, a move for which he is now completely vindicated, dealing Minor League Player of the Year Wil Myers, Odorizzi, and two other prospects for Wade Davis and James Shields.
And virtually every move he made last winter to get the Royals back to the World Series worked. He signed Morales and Volquez to two-year contracts, stole Chris Young on a one-year deal when there was no market for him, and signed relievers Ryan Madson and Franklin Morales as non-roster players. Kris Medlen signed a two-year deal coming off of Tommy John surgery and contributed important innings after returning late in the season. Even Alex Rios, who was terrible during the regular season, hit a respectable .271/.314/.375 in the postseason, started the four-run rally against Houston in Game 4, and hit the go-ahead double in Game 5. Moore's two trade-deadline acquisitions eventually worked exactly as they were intended to: after driving the Royals and their fans crazy with his inconsistency for two months, Cueto was lights-out in the two biggest games of his career, and Zobrist was the Royals' best overall hitter (.303/.365/.515) in the playoffs.
The Royals are also a testament to manager Ned Yost, who will almost certainly have his number retired by the franchise when he decides to retire. Yost still makes questionable tactical decisions at times, in particular sticking with his starting pitchers too long in the playoffs given the depth and talent of his bullpen. But he's no longer a liability in that regard, and he managed circles around Terry Collins in the World Series. When it comes to putting his players in the right frame of mind to succeed and giving them roles they can succeed in, Yost is almost without peer.
You come back from a four-run deficit in the eighth inning in an elimination game once, maybe it's a fluke. You do it again the next year, it's a credit to the players. You couple that with six other comebacks from two runs down or more, and at some point you have to credit the manager. Yost is occasionally wrong, but he is never in doubt, and neither are his players. And the fact that the Royals' bullpen is dominant year after year, when massive bullpen variability from one season to the next rules the sport, has to reflect well on Yost, who gives his relievers a strictly defined role, rarely has them warm up without using them, almost always uses them to start an inning, and rarely asks for more than one.
They are a testament to the value of building from within and being patient with your best young players. A year ago, Moustakas was sent to the minor leagues and Hosmer hit .270 with nine homers as a first baseman. Gordon was a bust before he became the best left fielder in baseball. If the Royals had given up on any of them, they wouldn't be where they are today. Four years ago, when the Royals had the best farm system anyone had ever seen, many predicted that they would win the World Series in 2015. No one predicted that the road from there to here would be quite this rocky, but give credit to the Royals for never going off-road.
They are a testament to the power of coaching and advance scouting, two generally overlooked areas in which the Royals do as well as any team. First-base coach Rusty Kuntz is practically a legend in Kansas City because of his ability to coach baserunning and outfield defense and, OK, because his name is awesome. Third-base coach Mike Jirschele made the right call when he didn't send Gordon against the Giants last year, and he made the right call when he did send Cain against the Blue Jays this year. How often does a third-base coach become a national name for not making a mistake? The Royals' advance scouts tipped the players off to the fact that David Price would telegraph his changeup, and that Jose Bautista always throws to second base on a hit down the right-field line, and that Lucas Duda's throws sail.
And they are a testament to the fact that sometimes even bad things happen for a good reason. The Royals haven't simply erased the disappointment of 2014, they've done something I would have thought impossible: They made the way the 2014 season ended necessary. All season long, the Royals have talked about how the 90 feet that separated Gordon from home plate last season motivated them to accept nothing less than a title this year. Maybe it's just talk. Maybe they would have won this season anyway. But when you consider how many times they were on the ropes in October -- when you consider how their season looked dead and buried in Houston on Columbus Day, down four runs on the road with six outs to go in front of a raucous Astros crowd -- you have to wonder if the Royals' loss in Game 7 in 2014 was the final piece of the puzzle they needed to win in 2015.
Trying to make sense of what had happened after Game 7 last year, I wrote that "sports are pain. ... But there's meaning in that pain. There's a sense of belonging in that pain." Why do any of us bother to be sports fans when 97 percent of the time a season ends in failure? No one signs up to be a sports fan for the chance to share misery with a community. We sign up for the promise of that three percent, for the hope that once or twice in our lifetime the heavens will open up to us, that we will reach the mountaintop.
After waiting 30 years for this, I can tell you that everything you've heard is true: The view from here is amazing.
So here's to the 2015 Royals, for taking us there. For being the team I've waited my entire life to root for. For dominating the regular season from start to finish. For being the most unkillable baseball team October has ever seen. For finishing the season with a Game 5 that so perfectly embodied their season that it's as if they had planned it all along.
If I live another 50 years, I may never see another Royals championship. Even if I do, I will probably never see another championship as gratifying as this one. And you know what? That's okay. This was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of season. This was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of team. Sports are pain. And then, suddenly, they are perfection.