The boxes of praying mantis masks showed up at the official Royals team store inside Kauffman Stadium last Friday, the packaging spilling onto the floor and onto a row of shelves near the front entrance.
The masks were green and made of latex, featuring shiny yellow eyes and two pointy antennae, and if we are being honest here, they were pretty ugly. There was also that fresh latex smell.
In the history of the store, they might have been the strangest item to appear on the shelves. But the retail manager here, a man named Brett Salzenstein, was sure they would be a hot item.
In the days after the first insect appeared in the dugout at Kauffman Stadium and the wins started, Salzenstein and the staff noticed Royals fans were showing up to the stadium dressed in their own praying mantis masks. It was a strange sight, of course, but you don’t mess with a winning streak — whether you are Ned Yost, Danny Duffy or the director of the team store — so Salzenstein turned to the Internet and found a company that sold Praying Mantis masks. The company was called Archie McPhee, and the first order finally showed up last week, as the Royals were finishing up a road trip in Boston.
By Tuesday afternoon, one of the mantis masks had found its way to the first floor of Kauffman Stadium, outside the entrance to the Crown Seats and just a few paces from the entrance to the Royals’ clubhouse. In the minutes before 5 p.m., Royals pitcher Danny Duffy appeared, eyeing the mantis head in the middle of the souvenir display.
“You guys got mantis souvenirs now?” Duffy said. “That’s so cold.”
Duffy laughed and kept walking. In another month, in another season, the whole scene would have seemed so richly bizarre. Here was a giant insect mask, sitting alongside some miniature baseball bats and packets of Big League Chew. But here at Kauffman Stadium, in the month of the Rally Mantis, the retail worker simply smiled and nodded. The mantis head cost $44.99 plus tax — the price for a scorching August that kept postseason hopes alive in Kansas City.
By now, you know the story, the one of a late-summer revival and a little green talisman. But here it is once more: On the evening of Aug. 6, as the Royals sat 51-58 and buried in the American League playoff picture, a praying mantis appeared near a trash can inside the Royals dugout. Outfielder Billy Burns, recently acquired from the Oakland A’s, placed the insect on his hat. Inside the dugout, the Royals laughed at the scene and finished off a 4-2 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays.
The next day, they won again. Three weeks later, they had won 18 of 22, weathering the death of the original mantis and the discovery of another, igniting a cult phenomenon. As the Royals began a series Monday against the New York Yankees, there were mantis masks and mantis signs, and there was catcher Salvador Perez, kissing the clear plastic cage in the Kauffman Stadium dugout.
“The superstition is real,” said Teresa Simmons, a Royals fan from St. Joseph who stood inside the team store earlier this week. “Absolutely real. This guy is going all the way with us this year.”
At this point, we can recognize how absurd this all sounds, which, if you listen to the Royals, may have been the most crucial point. As August began, they were stumbling past the trade deadline and looking like a tired team. And then, well, something happened.
“I just know that when Billy came over, the first thing he did, was he caught the mantis,” infielder Christian Colon says. “And we were like, ‘OK, that’s kind of cool.’
“And it just took some of that pressure that we were maybe feeling at the time, like, gosh, we were losing games and we were not performing to our ability. And it just kind of gave us a little something to think about, something different. And I think that releases a lot of stress.”
According to cultures in ancient China, the praying mantis represented fearlessness. According to the cultures of southern Africa, the mantis was thought to be a good-luck charm, to arrive at times of unrest and to restore to the dead. But in this case, it may be better to simply pay attention to the culture of baseball.
“It’s unexplainable and it’s uncontrollable,” reliever Peter Moylan says. “You can’t force the kind of run that these guys have been on. It’s something a group has to have inside it.”
In Moylan’s words, a bug is not the reason the Royals’ starting rotation posted a 3.27 ERA in August. It is not the reason that the bullpen threw 41 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings. A bug is not the reason Lorenzo Cain offered a spark with a return from a hamstring injury. And one other thing: What exactly was the mantis doing during consecutive extra-inning losses to the Yankees on Tuesday and Wednesday?
“I’ll put it this way,” Moylan said. “If I could explain it, I would bottle it, and I would send it around to sell it to certain clubs.”
The easiest explanation, manager Ned Yost says, is that this is baseball. This is who the Royals have proven to be over the last two-plus seasons. This is a championship core, resilient and relentless, refusing to quit after injuries and underperformance nearly torpedoed the season.
“You don’t spur turnarounds,” Yost says. “If you could spur turnarounds, then what the hell were we doing in July? It’s baseball.”
On a quiet afternoon earlier this week, the mantis cage sat in its usual spot, on a table in the middle of the clubhouse. In some ways, the insect had become an afterthought. Burns kept feeding it crickets. The wins kept piling up. Nobody likes to mess with a streak.
But a few feet away, Moylan sat in front of his locker. If the mantis represented anything, he said, it was a team that didn’t take itself too seriously, a clubhouse that wasn’t afraid to have fun.
“This game is fun,” Moylan said. “People lose that so often. The game is fun. And this team, I had never seen anything like it.”
In this case, the jokes extended to the mantis. For days, starter Ian Kennedy had ribbed Burns about what would happen to the mantis if a losing streak surfaced. The first one received a “hydro burial” after it died in Minnesota. The second one might be turned loose.
“If we lose a series, I don’t know what’s going to happen to the bug,” Moylan said. “That bug is living a charmed life right now.”
A few hours later, the Royals would lose to the Yankees in 10 innings. One night later, they would fall again, 5-4 in 13 innings, losing two straight for the first time since Aug. 5.
On Thursday, the Royals enjoyed a day off and the whereabouts of the mantis were unknown. And perhaps that was OK. As the month of September began, the defending World Series champions remained just three games behind Detroit and Baltimore in a crowded race for the second American League Wild Card spot. On Friday, the will welcome the Tigers to Kauffman Stadium for a three-game weekend series. With 29 games remaining, the odds appear stacked against them. But as first baseman Eric Hosmer said, this is when the Royals do their best work.
Of the remaining schedule, 17 games will come at Kauffman Stadium and 25 will come against the American League Central. And of the seven teams still in the wild-card hunt, only the Tigers have an easier schedule, based on opponents winning percentage.
In the month of August, a mantis’ arrival coincided with a season awakening. As another month begis, the Royals are confident they can do the rest on their own.
“Now it’s time to do what we did in 2014 and 2015, too,” Colon said. “Get in the playoffs and go to the World Series. Now it’s right there.
“We smell it. There’s no turning back now.”