Streak may be over, but this is the best time to be a Royals fan

06/19/2014 11:46 PM

06/20/2014 7:53 AM

Dayton Moore is in his car, on the phone telling a story. It is a simple story about a simple moment. But it also gets to something larger about the remarkable thing going on in Kansas City that’s beginning to be noticed from coast to coast.

This is the other day, when Moore is watching his team play in Detroit from his office on the fifth floor of Kauffman Stadium. It is late in the game, and the Royals can take over first place with a win. We’re so used to the Royals playing glorified exhibition games. This is so different. The Royals haven’t been in first place this late in the season in more than a decade.

A man walks into Moore’s office. He works for the Royals, in the accounting department. He’s not an athlete. He looks at the TV and says how nervous he is about the game. Moore smiles. Baseball people always look at these things differently. More than half the season remains. The real drama hasn’t even started yet.

“Nothing we can do about it from here,” Moore says.

“You don’t understand,” the man replies. “I’ve worked here for 20 years, and I’ve never felt like this.”

Moore sometimes jokes that he is “demented,” but losing baseball games is the most miserable professional experience he can imagine. Winning isn’t a joy as much as it is a relief from the misery. Like he says, it’s a little demented. But he does enjoy seeing the pleasure on the faces of those who don’t have to live this same grind.

Moore is picking up breakfast at a drive-thru as he tells the story. Just after the punch line, he gets to the window. The man on the other side recognizes him. He says something about the first-place Royals.

“Thank you!” the man says. “We’re all watching every game, thank you!”

Moore returns the thanks. Then he smiles, hits the road, and goes back to talking about the Royals and navigating what is already a wild season not even halfway through.

***

How do you make sense of this?

How does a team already walking the tightrope without a safety net find itself wobbling to the point of gasps, with fans and some media calling for the manager to be canned and a fire sale of the best players, suddenly morph from last-place loser to first-place national story?

The Royals lost for the first time in nearly two weeks on Thursday. They have won 13 of their last 16 and on Friday will almost certainly play in front of the first sellout crowd since the home opener.

These past two weeks have been the beautiful symphony of a talented group — the Royals’ best team in 20 years — finding its swagger and catching some breaks.

There is no telling how long these vibes will last, and no fan base in professional sports knows the preciousness of success better than the Royals, but this is the montage part of the season.

This is Billy Butler going from an $8 million anvil in the middle of the lineup to a .375 hitter over the past 18 games. This is Alex Gordon quietly putting together an MVP season, Lorenzo Cain making game-changing plays in the outfield and Alcides Escobar pacing for the year of his life. This is Jeremy Guthrie and Danny Duffy pitching their best games of the season and Wade Davis and Greg Holland making it so that opposing teams only have seven innings to score.

This is also the Royals winning a game on a routine ground ball bouncing off second base, and by their pitchers stranding nine runners in a one-run win and a wild pitch turning into a bizarre pickoff. Easy to forget now, but the run of success started when Blue Jays shortstop Jose Reyes threw what should’ve been the 27th out in the dirt for an error. Jarrod Dyson scored on the play, and the Royals won on Omar Infante’s single in the 10th.

They have gone 15-5 and made up seven games in the American League Central Division standings since.

This would be the platonic dream of Royals executives, except there is nothing platonic about it. The season that Royals fans have been promised for eight years now — since the days when he was Sen. Barack Obama — is finally here. The Process has made Progress.

Royals fans have been let down before, of course. They watched what had been a model franchise turn into an industry joke after the strike, in the rudderless years of being led by the board of directors and the clueless years before David Glass seriously invested in scouting and the minor leagues.

Royals fans filled Kauffman Stadium back in 2003 for a smoke-and-mirrors team that signed a starting pitcher out of an independent league without even scouting him. They filled the K back in 2009 for Zack Greinke and The Heartbreakers, a team that officials quietly promoted in spring training and then called the most disappointing in franchise history in September.

And Royals fans even filled the K last year, as late as August, for a team that stumbled into the All-Star break but recovered enough to win the organization’s most games in a season since the 1980s but never really be taken seriously as a playoff contender.

So you don’t have to tell people around here that a monster may be around the next corner. But there is a feeling that this time really may be different, that none of those other teams had this combination of youth and experience, pitching and defense, talent and confidence.

The larger context has never been better for the Royals, either. Other than Oakland, the American League is chock-fullof teams that are almost good. The AL Central is the easiest of the divisions to take, thanks to the Tigers’ imbalance on offense, uncertainty in the bullpen and sudden vulnerability of former Cy Young winner Justin Verlander.

This isn’t so much a dream as a plan taking hold, in other words, and if the Royals won’t win 10 in a row again, they aren’t a fluke either.

The past two decades of Royals history gives every reason to hide at home under the covers. But the past two weeks of watching this team gives every reason for a long-dormant baseball town to at least dust off the Gordon jerseys and the hope and maybe even some expectation.

***

The rest of the baseball world will just have to understand that people here aren’t exactly sure how to act.

Some 50 or so people waited in line at the stadium box office in the rain Thursday morning to buy tickets for the upcoming homestand. A church is using its marquee to take credit for the Royals’ win streak. Prayers above players, or something.

Most amazingly, there are at least three billboards around town that apparently popped up Thursday morning, vaguely trash-talking the Tigers and bragging about being in first place — and, yes, this is still June. Moore caught a lot of grief for his awkward “in a small way, I feel like we won the World Series” line after last season, but at least he didn’t buy a billboard (and, no, it wasn’t Moore or anyone else with the Royals who bought the billboards).

We are entering a foreign land here, with a baseball team being taken seriously by serious baseball people. Theo Epstein is pointing to the Royals as one of his models for building the Cubs, and Tigers manager Brad Ausmus is expressing a lot of the same frustrations about lineups and underperformance that we heard from Yost a month ago.

The Royals have only been at this point, with hope past Memorial Day, a precious few times in the past generation. It’s been at least 20 years since they’ve been here with this much realism, this much substance. This is the best time in recent memory to be a Royals fan, and there are grown fans who will have to ask their fathers what the rest of this summer will be like if things fall into place.

Nobody can be sure where this will lead, of course. But the Royals are fun again. They are winners again.

For now, that’s all anyone can ask for.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to smellinger@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter at @mellinger.

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