The nice woman and her three boys are walking down the spiral ramp out of Kauffman Stadium and into the happiest parking lot of baseball fans since … when, exactly?
She is smiling and her sons are laughing, and then one of them stops. Let’s get a picture. They ask the first stranger they see, and these days if you’re in a Royals T-shirt and someone in a Royals T-shirt asks you anything short of helping them move you are going to say yes.
So the woman and her sons put their arms around each other. Big smiles now. They thank the nice stranger, then gather around the screen.
“Let’s do this in the same spot when we come back for the playoffs,” one of them says, and for once this is neither intended nor taken as a joke.
If you are a baseball agnostic, or if almost an entire generation of meaningless Royals games has given you the muscle memory to forget about them by this time of year, you might want to reconsider. The Royals — the freaking Royals — are baseball’s hottest team and perhaps the sport’s best story at the moment.
The team with the longest playoff drought in North American sports also has the longest win streak in baseball this year, and son of a gun, they’re doing it again.
They swept the Giants over the weekend, a 7-4 win on Sunday highlighted by home runs from Alex Gordon and Salvador Perez. They are 63-53, winners of seven games and six series in a row. Go back three weeks, and they’ve won 15 of 18, making it all the way from eight games behind the Tigers to just a half-game.
If the season ended today, the Royals would be in the playoffs for the first time in 29 years. No matter what, you’ll be able to say that until at least Tuesday night. We might as well mention this, too: the Royals have a magic number. It is 45.
This fan base has waited for a winner far longer than should be allowed by law. Breaks in the storm like this have been cruelly rare, a crusty cynicism picked up honestly. That’s what happens with playoff droughts longer than it takes for a baby to be born, potty trained, and eventually become a doctor.
So there will be some holdouts, even still, because if we’re being honest, the whole thing doesn’t make a lot of sense. The Royals basically skipped the trade deadline, and when word got out that ownership didn’t want to increase a franchise record $92 million payroll, there was grumbling around the clubhouse.
Then, in one of the most Royals moments you could imagine, Eric Hosmer (who’d been hitting .366 with power the previous month) aggravated an injury hours after the deadline and could be out another month. So the team that needs offense loses what had been its best bat and, baseball being baseball, immediately starts slugging its way up the standings.
It’s all crazy. As the Royals realistically took a step back at the deadline, the Tigers traded for David Price. The rich get stronger, right? Well, in the last few days, the Tigers have put Anibal Sanchez and Joakim Soria on the disabled list and they’ve lost 10 of 16, including a walk-off loss to the Blue Jays in the 19th inning on Sunday.
A pitching staff stressed already used seven relievers to cover 12 innings and throw 213 pitches. They got so desperate they used Rick Porcello, normally a starter, for two innings.
This is a fairly epic run of sevens at the crap table, especially for a franchise used to going bust by Memorial Day. The win streak more or less coincides with the arrival of Sung Woo Lee, who a week ago was a minor Twitter curiosity but by now is something closer to a civic cult hero.
Lee is the longtime Royals fan from South Korea, here to watch his team for the first time. He’ll throw out the first pitch on Monday. His face is on T-shirts and SportsCenter. He won the dance-off during Sunday’s game. The Royals haven’t lost since he landed in the States last week. Fans are threatening to hide his passport, and there is no guarantee that all of them are joking.
If the Royals find a happy ending to this season, the movie is going to be cornier than anything Kevin Costner has even imagined.
To review: mentioning the Royals and playoffs in the same sentence is no longer a punchline. The team that traded for nobody and lost its hottest hitter at the trade deadline is now the hottest team in baseball, closing fast on the three-time defending division champions who traded for a Cy Young winner.
All of this may or may not have something to do with a nice South Korean man who followed the Royals in part to learn English, and may or may not have to take seriously the idea that a fan base will collectively kidnap him and keep stuffing him full of beer and barbecue for as long as this ride lasts.
No matter what, we all knew it would take something crazy for the Royals to get into the playoffs.
Well, look around. Crazy is here.