Yesterday, I walked onto my flight to go write about a story 29 years in the making and saw my friend Art Stewart sitting in the fourth row. He smiled. He was saving me a seat.
“The feeling I have now,” he says, “it’s just hard to describe. It’s the feeling of knowing the season’s almost over and you can win the World Series.”
Art is the only scout in the Royals’ Hall of Fame, and the team’s longest-tenured employee in baseball operations. George Brett is second. He helped build a dynasty from scratch, helped sign Bo Jackson, and then watched it all crumble after the strike. I wish we could all do our jobs with joy Art does his, trying like hell to help the Royals back to moments like this. I’ve known Art for about eight years, and helped him write a book that came out this summer. I cannot even pretend to be objective about Art, and I know that however long and far this wild ride with the Royals goes, Art will be the man I’m happiest for.
There are others, too, many of them who work with Art. Dayton Moore is among those who experienced success with other teams before coming to Kansas City to fix a broken organization. There is no way to measure these things, but turning the Royals into winners has to rank as one of the biggest challenges in major sports. I’ve heard some of these guys — even a few who’ve been a part of world championships with other clubs — say this would be their greatest professional accomplishment.
The players are the ones who make the whole thing go, and Alex Gordon’s transformation from limping prospect to the Royals’ best player since George Brett is a defining storyline of the club’s rise. Jarrod Dyson and Sal Perez and Danny Duffy and others bring this team energy. James Shields and Greg Holland and others bring it belief.
Barring an almost impossible set of circumstances — I know, I know — they will be the group that brings the Royals back to the playoffs, possibly as soon as tonight. For many of them, it will be their best moment in baseball. For many of the fans watching, it will be the greatest feeling they can remember with this team.
And that’s who I think everyone will be the happiest for. Royals fans have been through a lot. Too much. More than a fan base should be asked to go through. They’ve felt neglected and ignored and let down and angry over the years, all of it completely natural and justified. Somehow, enough of them stuck around that the Royals have set all kinds of TV ratings records the last two years and this season had their best attendance since 1991. Brett played on that team, along with Kirk Gibson.
This week, I’ve been calling men who’ve been players, coaches, managers, scouts and executives for the Royals through some of their darkest times. I wanted to see how they felt now, especially the ones who no longer had official ties to the club. Mark Teahen, who played from 2005 to 2009, spoke for many of them.
“There was a part of me that hesitated in calling you back,” he said. “Because I don’t want to jinx it. The fans in Kansas City have been through so much.”
The Royals are on the cusp of doing something many fans had come to think would never happen. One more win, or one more Mariners loss, and the Royals are in the playoffs. Among those watching are boys whose fathers were their age the last time this happened.
There is no telling how far this will go, of course. The Royals will most likely make it as a wild card team, which means a do-or-die game next week, probably against Oakland. The way it stands now, there is a good chance that game will be played in Kansas City.
If it is, it will be a baseball party like nothing since the parade. And across the baseball industry, men who’ve spent their lives in this sport will root for the team and the fans who’ve waited so long. The Royals, and especially their fans, have earned that much.