There’s this scene from Ken Burns’ documentary Baseball that’s always stuck with me. Historian Manuel Marquez-Sterling is talking about his two passions in life — baseball and opera — and how they share an important similarity. Both, he says, are “epiphanic arts”:
It’s an analogy that works well for baseball at the micro level of a single game, or even an at bat, for that matter. But it also transfers well to the macro level of a season. Or decades of fandom.
Royals fans were reminded of that last night.
Because after 30 years of abject futility, of wandering through the cruel desert that many were convinced would stretch on indefinitely, the Royals found the Promised Land on Sunday.
Milk and honey — not to mention champagne and Budweiser — have never tasted sweeter to any group.
The real problem for Royals fans during those wilderness years was that things had been so good before they got so very, very bad. There was this firmy held belief that we don’t belong down here. The Royals entered the league in 1969 and quickly set about establishing a foundation of success, bringing home division titles in 1976, 1977 and 1978 before making their first World Series in 1980. And then, of course, there was 1985, that perfect season that served as the culmination of founding owner Ewing Kauffman’s dream for the city.
Year by year, though, the diamond of 1985 started to get cloudy. The memory got further and further away. The photos started to look dated:
Following the championship, the next eight years saw Royals teams with flashes of promise and truly great players, but no playoff appearances. Then Kauffman died in 1993, and the team floated along without a true owner for seven years until David Glass, the Walmart executive who had minded the franchise as Chairman of the Board after Kauffman’s death, became its sole owner. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, perhaps, but he ran the team like a Walmart, slashing payroll and putting a shockingly inept product on the field while focusing on profitablity:
Fans may have had to endure four 100-loss seasons in five years…but at least there were Buck Nights! The Onion started using the team as shorthand for failure. The Royals had become a national laughing stock:
And then, something changed. Perhaps Glass got tired of the ribbing, of the constant dismal headlines, of the whispering among civic leaders that his ownership had been a disaster for a proud franchise and the city that so desperately wanted to support it. In general manager Dayton Moore, he found a savvy evaluator of talent – and a Kansas native who remembered the good years and understood what they meant to the fan base — and tasked him with righting the ship. There wasn’t much to work with when Moore arrived. But year by year, trade by trade, he started to restock the cupboard. Baseball Prospectus said the Royals had the best farm system in the majors. Royals fans, who had built up thick armor at this point, said, “We’ll believe it when we see it.”
In 2013, they started to see it. The youth movement arrived as promised — rough, unpolished, but so full of potential that a fan base that had begun to question whether hope really does spring eternal let its guard down and started to believe.
And then there was last season: the breakthrough, an unprecedented eight-win run though the Wild Card game, the American League Division Series and the American League Championship Series to earn the franchise’s third trip to the World Series, only to come up just short.
And then…and then: 2015, when despite the remarkable show of last year, prognosticators had the team pegged to regress to mid-2000s form and win just 73 games. No matter. The Royals took to the field every day with such a clear sense of purpose that by the All Star break there was hardly a doubt they would be making another postseason appearance. And what an appearance it was, punctuated with so many comebacks — so many late pushes made possible by loose play that belied the squad’s love of the game and each other — that it was hardly surprising when the Royals found a way to tie the game in the ninth Sunday and outlast the Mets, sending New York fans to face November’s cold with no comfort.
Royals fans, on the other hand, had their epiphany.
When the final out was recorded at 11:34 p.m. and fireworks started popping over northeast Johnson County and the rest of the metro, you knew the celebration was only just beginning. Because after 30 years in the valley, no one can appreciate the view from the mountaintop like we can.
Sorry, Joe Buck. Sorry, haters. Time to lock the doors and turn up the volume. We’ve earned this aria. You gotta love it.