Wednesday night, what happens in a kids’ game played by grown men will be remembered by a city forever.
There will be nerves and screaming and chanting and accelerated heart beats and tears. There will be tears, either way, with the performance of a baseball team Kansas City has grown to love again determining whether they come happy or sad or both.
In front of 40,372 loving strangers who shook this old building one more time, the Royals clobbered the Giants 10-0 in game six of the World Series on Tuesday, gifting the ones lucky enough for tickets on Wednesday all of the euphoric high blood pressure that comes with a game seven.
Professional sports don’t do better than game seven, and that’s especially true in baseball where the outcome of any of the 200 or so pitches thrown can change history.
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The Royals have been so bad for so long that watching them with any sort of regularity over the years has meant dreaming of a night like this, usually without any real expectation of it happening. The World Series? Game seven? At Kauffman Stadium?
Is this real life?
“As kids, what I fall back on is when I was 10 years old, hitting rocks in the back yard, trying to hit it over the fence for a home run,” Royals manager Ned Yost says. “I never one time thought, ‘OK, bases loaded, two out, bottom of the ninth, game five of the World Series,’ you know? Never.
“It was always two outs, bottom of the ninth, game seven of the World Series.”
Over the last month, as this Royals season has gone from fun to storybook to magical to unforgettable, those four words — is this real life? — have been said by little boys and old women and young baseball stars and middle-aged club officials.
Making the playoffs meant a success, and changed the story of a franchise. Winning the Wild Card Game with one of the greatest comebacks in baseball history made it feel a bit like a movie, and sweeping their way into the World Series made them league champions.
Game seven means baseball’s largest audience of the year will watch this group of friends who’ve grown up together try to play their way into the sport’s history through a crazy playoff ride that seems both longer and shorter than 30 days.
They’ll play the most important game of their lives at Kauffman Stadium, in what’s become baseball’s rowdiest scene, by the quirky virtue of Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera leading the American League to victory in July’s All-Star Game, which makes as much sense as so much of the rest of the Royals’ story.
They bulldozed their way into this game seven, too, their rookie with the 100-mph fastball quieting the Giants’ bats while they choked out two accomplished pitchers with dinks and doinks and sprints around the bases in what became a seven-run party in the second inning. These are supposed to be the tensest moments baseball can offer, and the Royals are approaching it with all the subtlety of spring break in Mexico.
“You’re just living and dying on every pitch,” first baseman Eric Hosmer says. “You definitely don’t think you’re getting seven.”
That this is happening here, with this franchise, has turned a nation of non-partisans into adoring fans, even if it’s just for the month. Every day, a Royals player or club official hears from someone with another team rooting them on from a distance.
Royals fans saw baseball’s economics and a rudderless leadership through most of the 1990s conspire to create a force of resistance that took smart men, hard work, a touch of luck and, depending on when you start the clock, two full decades to conquer.
If it’s true that there is no joy without pain, then the Royals are now one win from one of the happiest, most unlikely champagne celebrations in recent baseball history.
“This is a great feeling right here,” Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar says.
Rooting for a team that went 29 years between playoff appearances and 18 seasons with just one winning record means finding ways to cope. So for years and years, the most popular legal aids for Royals fans have been an imagination that’s sometimes felt like delusion.
Kerry Robinson climbs the wall for a ball that ends up bouncing in front of him? Maybe some day the Royals will have an athletic freak from Georgia who came to baseball late in life but eventually learned to glide into the gaps and turn doubles into outs.
An aging Jeff Montgomery and a young group of never-would-be’s blow more saves than they convert? Maybe some day the Royals will build a revolutionary bullpen of men with 100-mph fastballs, insane sliders and nerves coated in ice.
A manager inadvertently stamps an entire generation of a franchise’s failure by promising he’ll never say it can’t get worse? Maybe some day the Royals will turn an elimination game into a laugher with a series of papercuts that included a single on a ground ball hit directly to the first baseman and a double on an infield chopper.
Those dreams felt so impossible for so many years — blown draft pick after blown free agent after blown draft pick — that there can’t help but be a sense of wonder now that it’s here. No team that was under .500 as late as the Royals this year has won the World Series in 50 years, and surely the list of world champions who fired the hitting coach and got critical home runs from a guy they demoted in May is short.
Through it all, Yost told anyone who would listen that he felt a confidence in this group that had never let him down in a long life of baseball. The Royals started slow, were declared a second-half team by Yost, lost their first four after the All-Star break and have been baseball’s best team since.
“Ned’s confident in our abilities,” designated hitter Billy Butler says. “Sometimes, he’s more confident in us than we are.”
It was Valentine’s Day, 258 days ago, that this group first met together officially in a sleepy Phoenix suburb. They played their first real game together in Detroit on the last day of March, looked hopeless in May, unbeatable in August, and like rock stars in October.
They lost a beloved teammate to arm surgery, watched Lorenzo Cain become a star, and Yordano Ventura fit into his enormous talent. They won their first elimination game when their star catcher hit a pitch he’d been striking out on for most of the last month, and they won their second with a riot of bloops and small-ball that pushed what had been a tangible suspense back to a game seven that’s been eight and a half years in the making.
That goes all the way back to the summer of 2006, when the owner finally grew tired of having 100 losses and no answers every season. He hired the wiz-kid general manager who was still in his 30s and talked about the parade going through the Plaza.
By his own admission, Dayton Moore has been humbled through what fans have sometimes felt was a never-ending process. He and his loyal assistants have needed more time than they originally thought, and know they’ve been given more time than this multi-billion-dollar industry usually allows.
All of it — from the Gil Meche contract to the Brandon Finnegan draft — will play out Wednesday, one inning, one out and one pitch at a time. There is no group of fans in sports more deserving of this moment, and perhaps no team that will have more fun with it.
“I know (the crowd) is going to bring it,” Cain says. “We’ve got to find a way to bring it as well.”
This season was already a success, literally a game-changer for baseball in Kansas City, and that’s true no matter what happens Wednesday. The greatest ride sports fans here have had in a generation ends Wednesday, one way or the other, and doing it in a game seven is the only way to match the relentless twists and surges of a playoff run that’s already changed their franchise’s history.
So Wednesday, the most important and dramatic kind of baseball game possible will happen in Kansas City.
Game sevens are gifts, and there isn’t a place that deserves it more, or would appreciate it in a more personal way.