Every Kansas City baseball fan my age has a vivid memory that serves as the rock-bottom moment of their fan journey.
Mine happened on June 25, 2004, during Army officer training at Fort Lewis, Wash..
Weeks earlier, when I reported for duty, the Royals had real hope. They had just come off a promising, winning season (the only of my adult life up to that point), but the drill sergeants kept us closed off from the outside world and I had no idea how the season was going.
My platoon had just been through the gas chamber, which is at least as miserable as you think. I had finally filled my lungs with breathable air when Master Sgt. Williams sapped what was left of my morale with one devastating sentence: “Hey Kander, the Royals are in dead last and yesterday they traded Carlos Beltran.”
I am 32 years old. For my generation of Kansas Citians, Royals fandom is advanced, doctorate-level stuff. For my father’s generation, it was child’s play. Dad was at game seven in 1985 among thousands of men and women his age celebrating a championship. I was at Kauffman Stadium in 1993 among thousands of kids my age watching George Brett kneel down and kiss home plate in his final home game. As if we knew what the future held for the team, we were all crying.
It’s just different for our generation. I hate the Yankees because they treat the Royals like a minor-league affiliate. Dad hates them because they were our honest-to-goodness rivals in the ’70s. Dad’s generation remembers summers highlighted by Fred White’s narration of deep playoff runs. My generation’s fondest memories of Kansas City baseball sound like this: “Leemonade Leemonade Leemonade — Woooo!”
So it’s been nearly 10 years since my lowest moment of Royals fandom and now the team is coming off their second winning season of my adult life. We have hope again.
That dangerous, frightening Shawshank Redemption-kind of hope that Red claimed could “drive a man insane.”
So it’s understandable, Royals Nation, that you’re a little scared. But your cynicism isn’t inherent, it’s learned: Who can blame you for becoming more than just a casual St. Louis or Boston fan these last few years? Who could judge you for closing yourself off and protecting yourself from believing the team you love will stop disappointing you?
As a 9-year old Yankees fan from Brookside once said to me, “Every little boy has the right to root for a winning team.”
But something happened last fall: Meaningful September baseball. Your pessimism started to crack and that old flame began to flicker.
You have reason to believe again. And yet, you’re scared all over again. You don’t want to be hurt.
I’ve never stopped believing since that terrible day one decade ago when I resolved to surf the wave of powder-blue disappointment forever knowing it would usually pull me under and try to drown me before the All-Star break.
But I’m writing this column to tell long-suffering Royals fans of my generation that this is not 2004.
This team is for real. Trust me.
I’ve been watching so closely this past decade that my wife instituted a rule prohibiting more than 25 percent of our conversations from being about the Royals and their farm system.
But this is the year we stop talking about the farm system, because the future is no longer in Omaha. It’s in Kansas City and it goes by names like Gordo, Moose, Salvy, Hos, Guts and Esky. You don’t get more KC than a clean-up hitter named Country Breakfast with his own rally-inducing barbecue sauce.
This team truly likes one another, they’re having fun, and it shows. It’s why they win.
Come on, you know you want to fall in love again. Give yourself over to it with reckless abandon like that guy on the Jumbotron with the huge belly and awesome moves. It’s OK.
Really. The wait is over. The Royals are contenders and 2014 is going to be the kind of season I’ll tell my son about.
See you at the K.