James Shields cradled the American League championship trophy in his hands. He gazed into the gold gleaming in the late afternoon light. After nearly three decades in the dark, the sun shined on this ballpark again. Inside a swarm of hugs and tears and joyful Royals, Shields held the hardware aloft.
“Hey,” he shouted to teammate Jason Vargas, “let’s get the whole squad out.”
The trophy acted like a beacon. He marched toward the fans hanging along the railing down the right-field line of Kauffman Stadium. His teammates followed. Shields handed the gold to Billy Butler, who passed it Alcides Escobar, who passed it to Salvador Perez. Jeremy Guthrie corralled the trophy and brought it close enough for the fans to touch.
All around them, the stadium swelled and exulted in a celebration 29 years in the making. The Royals are going to the World Series. Better yet, the World Series is coming to them, with game one on Oct. 21 here, hard by Interstate 70 and the George Brett Bridge, the home of the only team in baseball history to begin a postseason with eight consecutive wins.
The Royals earned their spot in the Fall Classic with a 2-1 victory over Baltimore on Wednesday afternoon, completing a sweep in the American League Championship Series, extending their postseason record to 8-0 and solidifying a late-season hot streak into franchise folklore.
As his players completed a lap around the park, general manager Dayton Moore attempted to place perspective on the dream he envisioned when he arrived here in 2006.
“You never how you’re going to feel in this situation,” said Moore, who witnessed the team’s victory in the seventh game of the 1985 World Series along a highway embankment. “But right now, it’s just a lot of joy. I’m just so happy for our fans.”
Thursday marks the 29th anniversary of this organization’s last pennant, when Jim Sundberg drove in four runs and Charlie Leibrandt logged more than five innings of relief in the seventh game of the ALCS against Toronto. The 2014 version of the Royals opted for their more customary methods.
They scored two runs in the first inning without a ball leaving the infield. Alex Gordon patrolled left field like a spider with an all-encompassing web. He crashed into a chain-link fence for a fifth-inning out and rose to a packed stadium chanting his name. Vargas gave up just one run across 5 1/3 innings before Ned Yost opened his bullpen.
Ah, yes. Yost. He has become Midas in October, weathered by his mistakes during the regular season, willing to adapt to the pressures of this stage. He stayed one step ahead of Baltimore skipper Buck Showalter and leaned on his bullpen to smother the potent Oriole attack. Yost called upon Kelvin Herrera to gobble up five middle-inning outs before turning to Wade Davis and Greg Holland for the final six. Never before has he looked brighter.
“I don’t need validation, man,” Yost said. “If people ask me about it, I don’t need it. I’m real comfortable with myself. I get criticized all the time. I’m the dumbest manager in baseball. I’m OK with that.”
He also has good fortune on his side. Take the first inning. Escobar hit an infield single over the head of Baltimore starter Miguel Gonzalez. Gonzalez drilled Nori Aoki with a 91-mph fastball. Up came Lorenzo Cain, the eventual MVP in this series, in part because he hit .667 in the first three games.
So, naturally, he bunted.
Cain did so on his own. He went hitless in this game, but still collected his trophy. It was an honor he never considered as a child. Cain started playing baseball when he was 15, and only because he didn’t make his high school basketball team. As Cain accepted the trophy after the game, the eyes of first-base coach Rusty Kuntz filled with tears. “The hard work has definitely paid off,” Cain said.
But first, he needed to lay down his bunt. The maneuver flew in the face of baseball’s mathematically oriented wisdom. It also fell within his team’s standard operating procedure. So did what followed.
After Cain advanced both runners, Eric Hosmer hacked at an ankle-high changeup. He tapped a grounder to first baseman Steve Pearce. The throw beat Escobar to the plate. Except as catcher Caleb Joseph pivoted for the tag, he lost control. The baseball trickled to the backstop, and no Oriole was in position to back up Joseph. Aoki followed Escobar home.
The rest was academic. Really. Kansas City possesses a ferocious bullpen and a defense that at times appears impenetrable. “It’s like playing with five outfielders and six infielders,” Vargas said. “Anything that gets put in play, there’s going to be a good chance it’s an out.”
Baltimore looked feeble, save for a solo homer by Ryan Flaherty in the third. After that, the Orioles advanced a runner to third base just once. That was the sixth inning, when Herrera snuffed out the opponent’s advance.
In the ninth, as this park appeared ready to burst, Holland issued a leadoff walk and nearly threw away a grounder back to the mound. But Escobar snagged the throw to settle the situation.
The Royals hung over the dugout railing. Scott Downs waved a towel toward the crowd. After Mike Moustakas fielded the final groundball, the Royals entered the field of play before the ball even reached Hosmer’s glove. They knew. After all this time, they knew.
In the moments after the Royals won the pennant, joy flowed like the fountains beyond this ballpark’s outfield fences. The voices of 40,468 revelers merged with a fireworks display. Holland jumped into the arms of catcher Salvador Perez. Cain flung his glove skyward and skipped like a child. In the center of the diamond stood the conquerors of the American League, ready to contend for their first World Series title since 1985.
And the party? The party was just getting started.
As “We Ready” reverberated off the clubhouse walls, the room reeked of Korbel Brut and Budweiser. The musk has become familiar in the past three weeks, ever since the Royals saved their season at the 11th hour. Just 17 days ago, a few minutes before 11 p.m., the eighth inning of the American League Wild Card Game began.
Kansas City needed to plate four runs before Oakland recorded six outs. With Jon Lester on the mound, the Royals’ probability of victory resided at 3.5 percent.
“It seems like this all a movie right now,” Hosmer said. “Obviously, nobody counted us into October baseball. Nobody counted on us to make it this far. It’s fun proving everybody wrong.”
The rest will be recited for generations. The Royals scored three runs against Lester in the eighth. They tied the game in the ninth. They fell behind in the 11th only to walk off for a victory, racing all the way to a sweep of Anaheim and now another against Baltimore. Kansas City hasn’t lost a game in October, and they appear incapable of wrongdoing – except, of course, misappropriating the alcohol.
“Waste the champagne!” Downs shouted. “Don’t waste the Budweiser.”
Puddles formed on the floor. Players sloshed through corks and foam. Yost found Brandon Finnegan, the 21-year-old rookie from TCU, a first-round draft pick in June and a bullpen staple in October.
“Has anybody ever pitched in the College World Series and the World Series in the same year?” Yost asked Finnegan. “You’re gonna do it, pal. You’re gonna do it.”
Suds dripped off the nose of owner David Glass. He became the owner of this franchise in 2000. Before 2014, he had shepherded the club toward only two winning campaigns. Now he was soaked, and he savored the moment.
“I can’t wait for the World Series to start,” Glass said. “I wish it started tomorrow. And I don’t care who we play.”
Gordon posed for pictures as he pretended to chug a bottle of Muscle Milk. Danny Duffy sported a coat resembling a grizzly bear’s fur and video-bombed an on-field interview with Moustakas. Nori Aoki lay prostrate in center field, without a soul within 100 yards of him. Dyson clutched a silver bottle of Armand de Brignac, the $400 champagne known as Ace of Spades. He handed the bottle to Holland, who raised it to his nose.
“Don’t smell it!” Dyson howled. He turned to a Japanese reporter filming the exchange. “This is our closer. I’ve got to teach him right. He’s been saving all our games.”
Indeed, he had. In this series, Holland combined with Herrera and Davis for 13 2/3 scoreless frames in this series. No Royals starter recorded an out after the sixth inning. It did not matter.
Outside on the field, the sun had at last set. Shields trundled down a set of steps toward a landing near an indoor batting cage. His cheeks were flushed red, and his expression mixed euphoria with bewilderment.
The arrival of Shields two winters ago set the stage for this night. When the team clinched a berth in the Wild Card Game in late September, he informed his team “We are not done.” Yet even he could not have envisioned this.
“Truly amazing,” Shields said. “Truly amazing. The way that we’ve done it – going 8-0. The way that we’ve played. The way that we’ve come together as a team over the last 14 games. It’s been pretty special.”
To reach Andy McCullough, call 816-234-4370 or send email to email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @McCulloughStar.