Salvador Perez careened into the stands along the right-field line and doused the front row with Cook’s champagne. Eric Hosmer flung his commemorative white cap into the hundreds of Royals diehards who had trekked to the Windy City to witness history. Standing in the back of the group, Alex Gordon hoisted his son, Max, on his shoulder. As members of the front office shot video with their phones, the fans celebrated a feat nearly three decades in the making.
“Let’s go Royals,” they chanted, over and over again, the sound echoing through U.S. Cellular Field, after a 3-1 victory over the White Sox guided Kansas City to clinch at least a spot in the American League Wild Card game.
Perhaps it was the noise. Perhaps it was the bath of champagne and Miller Lite he had just received. But Billy Butler found himself blushing at the scene. “We’re in Chicago, and look at all the Royals fans,” Butler said, with a smile flashing ear to ear. He was not sure what else to say. The fans spoke for them all.
Less than an hour earlier, at 9:51 p.m. on a gorgeous Friday night, the final out of this game settled in Perez’s glove, and a generation of waiting was over. The longest postseason drought in major North American sports will end next week. For the first time since Oct. 27, 1985, when Darryl Motley gloved the final out of the seventh game of the World Series, the Kansas City Royals are going to the playoffs. They could host Oakland on Tuesday at Kauffman Stadium.
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When Perez caught the ball, his 35 teammates united around him and formed a heaving mass as they leapt up and down. They flung their gloves to the ground. They replaced their caps with new ones and celebrated an achievement that once appeared so unlikely this season.
“For everything we went through this year, to get here right now, it’s awesome,” Mike Moustakas said. “It’s awesome.”
They had gathered at the team’s complex in Surprise, Ariz., for their first official workout 218 days ago. Inside the office of manager Ned Yost hangs a framed portrait of the 1985 World Series trophy. Yost gazed at it each day. The team now has a chance to add to its collection.
Soaked from head to toe, red-faced and unable to stop grinning, Yost leaned against a wall outside the clubhouse. He is the longest-tenured manager in franchise history, and perhaps the one who operated under the highest scrutiny. His faith in his players did not waver. “I’ve been waiting a long time to see these guys celebrate like that,” he said.
Inside the room, James Shields glugged from a bottle of champagne. He held another in his other hand. Two pairs of ski goggles adorned his head. His eyes were red. His arrival two winters ago foreshadowed this moment. The front office staked its reputation on reaching this stage when they traded top prospect Wil Myers to Tampa Bay in exchange for Shields.
Now Shields tried to distill the scene into words. His teammates handled this for him. The clubhouse speaker system boomed “We Ready” by Archie Eversole, this team’s anthem, which ran on a loop for the next half hour. Massed behind him, unleashing jets of bubbles in all directions, the players belted out the words as Shields wiped champagne from his face.
“I’ll tell you right now, man, there was a lot riding on this,” Shields said. “I’m glad that we did the Kansas City fans proud.”
The Royals still have an outside chance at the American League Central crown. The Tigers lost Friday and reduced their lead to one game with two to play. The Royals could force a one-game playoff on Monday at Comerica Park.
On Friday they relied upon the formula that shepherded them here. The hitters staged a first-inning ambush for three runs. Jeremy Guthrie delivered one of his finest nights as a Royal, striking out six across seven scoreless innings. The final six outs belonged to Wade Davis and Greg Holland, the backbone of this club. Davis yielded a run in the eighth but recovered with a pair of strikeouts. Holland locked down his 46th save of the year.
The nine innings represented a microcosm of the previous 159 games. All season long Kansas City weathered sporadic disappearances from its offense and the occasional tactical misfire from Yost. The cure was always the same: The man on the mound, and the eight men defending for him. In that sense, they fulfilled the vision set forth by their architect.
On that night nearly 29 years ago, fans at Royals Stadium stormed the field and flung streams of toilet paper from the upper deck. Fireworks burst above Interstate 70. On a grassy embankment outside the park was an 18-year-old student at Garden City Community College, a plucky infielder from Wichita named Dayton Moore.
Moore transferred to George Mason University and became a college coach. The Braves hired him as a scout in 1994. He climbed the executive ladder until 2006, when Royals owner David Glass sought Moore to resuscitate a moribund franchise.
The process lasted eight seasons, years that were long and lean. The journey carried Moore, now 47, to 4:06 p.m. on Friday, when he walked into the clubhouse. Trailing behind him was George Brett, the franchise’s icon. His title of vice president for baseball operations is mostly honorary. Brett curates a connection to the past, a badge he sometimes wore with dishonor.
“If these guys only knew what it means to the city,” Brett said before the game. “Jeez, it means the world to me. I’ve lived here 40 years. I’ve been sticking up for them for all these years. ‘Hey, we’re not that far away! We’re not that far away!’”
During this charmed season, the Royals flirted with both delight and disaster. When Pedro Grifol was deposed as the hitting coach in May, with Dale Sveum replacing him, the club hovered in fourth place. They soared to first in June only to sink back to two games below .500 on July 21. They captured first place for 32 days in August and September, then squandered the lead to Detroit down the stretch, and stabilized in time to hold on to a wild card spot.
“It’s a resilient group,” Moore said. “They always come back. They always respond.”
The group was subdued on Friday afternoon until a few minutes after Moore arrived. Jarrod Dyson cranked the clubhouse speaker system, and a steady stream of Usher and early-period Kanye West boomed through the room. Guthrie studied video on a Lenovo ThinkPad, and Lorenzo Cain did the same. Nori Aoki contorted on a rolling pad in front of his locker.
The room was coming to life, moving to the music, preparing for their night. The ceiling’s perimeter was lined with plastic drapery, ready to be unfurled to protect the players’ lockers. In a few hours, the plastic would fall and the suds would fly.
The Royals left little doubt. Four pitches into the game, Nori Aoki slashed an RBI triple into right field. Two pitches later, Lorenzo Cain rifled an RBI single up the middle. Cain stole second, and Butler shuttled him home with a grounder into center.
Guthrie turned in a masterful performance. He limited the White Sox to four hits and one walk. He did not allow a Chicago batter to reach third base. Davis recovered from his hiccup to strike out Cuban slugger Jose Abreu and third baseman Conor Gillaspie to end the eighth.
Then it was up to Holland, the two-time All Star closer. He dusted off the first two batters. His last pitch of the game was a 94-mph fastball to outfielder Michael Taylor. Perez drifted into foul territory near his dugout.
The pitch was in the air for seven seconds. For the diehards, for the fans who had suffered through 28 years without October, it must have felt like a lifetime. The players tensed in the dugout and on the field, waiting for the baseball to fall.
“I’m just thinking, ‘Catch it,’” pitcher Danny Duffy said. “Please catch it. So we can start celebrating.”
“Man, I don’t even know,” Cain said. “All kinds of thoughts went through my head.”
“I was thinking: I’m ready to get the champagne,” Moustakas said. “Let’s go.”
And so they went. They huddled on the field. Then they soaked the clubhouse. Then they formed a conga line back out to the diamond to salute the fans. At last they returned once more inside to their sanctuary.
As plumes of Cuban cigar smoke filled the air, feet squished across a floor littered with corks and bottle caps. Guthrie circled the room snapping selfies. Shields bellowed through the clamor.
“We are not done,” he said. “We are not done.”