Maybe we should start with James Shields. That’s where most of the men in this clubhouse will tell you it all starts anyway.
Six weeks left, and this Royals season has already gone through so many blind turns and trap doors. The fired hitting coach. The demoted franchise cornerstone. The surge into first place and immediate fall back.
And now comes a three-weeks-and-counting movie montage that’s put the longest-suffering fans in major North American pro sports in an entirely euphoric state of confusion about what to do with their hands. Their team is in first place late enough in the season for scoreboard watching.
So maybe Shields is the best person here to help a fan base that’s accustomed to rain learn what to do in the sunshine. He has lived this life before, you probably know, as an anchor for the Tampa Bay Rays’ rise from perennial loser to three postseasons in four years.
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“Yeah, it took a while,” he says of that fan base’s acclimation to good baseball.
The key, Shields says, is consistency. You hear this a lot in baseball. One-hundred and sixty-two games are twice as many as any other sport plays in a season. One loss — like the Jonny Gomes incident in Boston — can feel like a killer. One win — like Sal Perez’s eighth-inning home run at Tampa Bay — can feel like a savior. But both extremes wash away by how you handle the parts in between.
So now there are 40 games left, and the postseason positioning is just beginning. Fans in Kansas City haven’t been through this in a generation. It’s hard to act like you’ve been there before when you haven’t.
But Shields has done this. Heck, he’s done exactly what the Royals hope to do.
And he has some advice.
“September baseball is playoff baseball,” he says. “Right now, you’re kind of lobbying your place going into that. Obviously you want to win every game, but you’re also seeing where you’re going to be going into September.
“It’s an exciting time. The fans should be excited about what we’re doing. We’re excited here in the clubhouse. But, really, we have to stick to the process of it. We’ve got a lot of games left.”
That’s a good place to start. But maybe we need someone with a more personal connection to Kansas City.
We need George Brett and Frank White. Brett has lived in Kansas City since the mid-1970s. White has been here his whole life. Both men have their numbers retired in the Royals Hall of Fame and have been irrevocably entwined with the team for more than four decades.
They were All-Star players, and now for the last 25 years or so they have been fans like you.
“It’s more nerve-wracking on the outside than on the field,” Brett says.
“If any year they’ve had an opportunity to do it, this would be it,” White says.
White sees a team doing the things he wanted to see earlier. They bunch hits together, which means more big innings, and in the last few weeks have found a home run (or triple) when they needed it. They are winning games 1-0, 3-2 and 3-0.
This is what championship teams do, White says, and he knows as well as anyone how foreign that sounds in describing a Royals team. But what if this is the new Royals?
“You can trust this team quite a bit,” he says. “I just don’t think there’s going to be any better time than now to get on board and get excited. Don’t look at what used to happen. Look at what’s actually happening now.”
Brett sees a team playing loose, with no tension in their bodies. He says this is critical. There is nothing more dangerous than a baseball team playing important games with an easy swagger. There is nothing surer to flop than a baseball team playing important games with a tense panic.
One of the keys is to invite the pressure. If you’re tied on the 18th hole with an 8-footer, you have to find a way to want the other guy to sink his 12-footer. Otherwise, if you’re hoping he misses, you’re fried mentally if he makes it.
“The longer these guys are in a pennant race,” Brett says, “the easier it’s going to be for them to say, ‘We have to win today, let’s go out and win.’”
This transition is probably harder for fans than players, really. The players expected this all along. The fans needed some convincing. Like Brett says, it’s more nerve-wracking in the stands than on the field because you have no control. Alex Gordon is the longest tenured player on the team, and even growing up as a Royals fan, he’s only been in uniform for the last seven of 28 playoff-less seasons.
Fans have been through more years of letdowns than the players, in other words, so it makes sense that they carry more hesitation.
“You have to celebrate it as long as it comes, though,” Brett says. “Just sit back and enjoy it when it comes. If you go into it already thinking bad things are going to happen — if you’re playing and you do that, guess what? Bad things are going to happen.”
That’s great to keep in mind. But Brett and White were such great players. Maybe we need someone who comes at this purely from the perspective as a fan.
We needed Matthew Wein all along. Wein, more than Shields and even more than Brett, has lived what Royals fans are hoping to experience over the next six weeks.
He just did it in Pittsburgh.
Wein is 31 and a lifelong Pirates fan, which means he’s basically lived the life of a Royals fan, just with a different wardrobe. He says that growing up rooting for a loser has shaped who he is as an adult, some of it good and some of it bad. The Pirates are winners now, so to remind himself and others of the Kevin McClatchy years (the Pittsburgh equivalent of the Board of Directors years) he wears a Ryan Vogelsong jersey (the Pittsburgh equivalent of Neifi Perez).
“You did feel like you were in an abusive relationship with the Pirates,” he says. “Like it was really your fault for enabling the Pirates to do this…
“They were so bad, so ostensibly awful, I started saying, ‘I’m just a baseball fan and I happen to live in Pittsburgh.’ But then you realize, ‘I won’t stop watching. I can’t stop.’ Eventually, you accept it, like, ‘Oh, I’m really a Pirates fan.’”
That started to change two years ago, when the Pirates were in first place in July and above .500 as late as Sept. 18. They had a young star in Andrew McCutchen, and enough pitching that the future looked bright.
That’s when the transition took traction, with some bumps along the way that Kansas City can relate to — the football mentality transferred to a 162-game season, the embedded cynicism from a generation of letdowns, and an honest uncertainty about when to really believe.
That 2012 season ended in disappointment, and a 20th consecutive losing record. Not even the Royals can match that. But those who stuck around saw a start-to-finish contender in 2013, 94 wins and then an epic wild-card victory over the Reds in which the fans in Pittsburgh rattled Cincinnati pitcher Johnny Cueto so much he dropped the ball on the mound.
Now, the Pirates are again in position for the playoffs and the team is drawing more fans than any season in its history except for the opening of PNC Park.
“It took a while for people to think it was real,” Wein says. “But now they think about it like it’s nothing but real.”
The adjustment isn’t easy. Nobody likes to admit this, but there is a comfort in the losing. It’s familiar. Wein got used to leaving late for a game, parking close to the stadium, and waving at the nice usher who always let him sit closer to the field because of all the empty seats.
Last year, Wein couldn’t get a ticket to the wild card game. He watched from a bar, and spent the last few innings “sobbing like a child.” Winning brings a sort of first-world problems, of course. Tickets are more expensive, expectations higher, and Wein says he can already feel a sense of entitlement from some Pirates fans.
But this is a lot like romanticizing that dump of an apartment you lived in right out of college. The harder life is much better in hindsight, because the greatest thing in a world for a fan might be your team paying you back for years of letdowns with one glorious stretch of daily joy.
“There’s nothing anyone can tell you that’s going to prepare you for what you’re going to feel, or how you’re going to deal with it,” he says. “You can’t prepare for it. At some point, you’re going to accept that your team is no longer awful. Something is going to click in your brain and you’re going to lose it. You’re just going to lose it.
“If you’re someone who cries, you’ll break down crying. You’ll cease to be gunshy about it. And the payoff is worth it. Allow yourself to enjoy it. Don’t shy away from that. Allow yourself to enjoy it when it happens. Don’t become relentlessly pessimistic just because that’s been your nature the last 20 years. Allow yourself to enjoy it when it happens.”
At least, that’s what people in other places say. But even Pittsburgh is a different place, with different history.
Here in Kansas City, maybe we need to see this for ourselves.