Gregorian Chants

Wild Card Game vs. A’s transformed Royals franchise

The Kansas City Star

Consumed now with the season at hand and the details of the game ahead, Royals manager Ned Yost all but shrugged and huffed Friday at the mention of The Game That Changed Everything.

He’s rarely one to indulge this sort of psychological mumbo-jumbo to begin with.

And, heck, in some ways, the Royals’ unfathomable rally to beat Oakland in the 2014 American League Wild Card game is mere nostalgia now … just part of a tapestry of the sentimental Friday night at Kauffman Stadium that included Billy Butler returning with the A’s to play against the franchise he’d spent more than a decade with.

But even as in-the-moment as Yost stood, he also couldn’t help himself as he considered the transformational dynamic of the game that proved to be a portal from a bleak recent history to a prosperous and promising today — and was the pivot point for a generation of fans conditioned to defeatism to have every reason to believe.

Even Yost would say there were the Kansas City Royals of Sept. 29, 2014.

And then … everything since, starting with 29 days in October that made a 29-year-wait worthwhile.

“The whole attitude of our club is different than it was the day before the wild-card game,” Yost said. “It’s been like that all spring, and it’s been like that all season.”

The game in itself redrew all boundaries, rewrote all the rules about what could and couldn’t happen in a game and regenerated a spirit that had gone dormant among Royals fans.

To review a few of the stumbling blocks facing the Royals when they trailed 7-3 after seven innings:

No Major League team had ever come from farther back that late in a playoff game to win, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Baseball-Reference.com’s “win probability chart” computed the Royals’ chances of coming back as 4 percent. And Oakland pitcher Jon Lester had been 85-1 in games in which he’d had a lead of three or more runs.

But the best part about this wasn’t just that the Royals — with every player’s “fingerprints” on it, as Yost put it — mustered a three-run eighth to get in range to win in the 12th inning.

And the best part wasn’t the bedlam afterward on the field and all over the stadium, including in general manager Dayton Moore’s suite when George Brett and Mike Sweeney came “breaking down the door,” as Moore put it.

“It was one of the most exciting baseball games maybe … in the history of baseball,” Moore said, adding that the game “exemplified the resilience” of the team.

It was the liberating effect on a core of maturing players led by charismatic veterans like James Shields and Raul Ibanez.

Or as Butler put it Friday: “We only went on to set a record for the most consecutive wins (to start a) postseason, so I definitely would say that gave us come confidence.”

But it was something a little more than that, really.

Something that was a lot more like knowing than hoping.

“As far as adversity on the baseball field goes, that’s probably the most adversity a team can go through in one game,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said. “And I really think after that game it really just kind of made this team just realize how good we can be and let us take a deep breath. And I think from that point on it’s just been a different club. …

“It just created a whole new swagger about us. … I think it just changed a lot of guys in here’s mentality and really changed the whole group as a team.”

It’s “tough to faze a team like that,” Hosmer added.

And the Royals, in fact, proved not just unfazed but remarkably at ease in storming to game seven of the World Series before succumbing to the Giants.

Now, the idea of believing you’ve arrived might be a little worrisome, too. And there’s no assurance of what the Royals will do with this encore season.

But any concerns that last season would breed complacency seems easy to dismiss now, given the top condition Yost says nearly all players were in when they arrived at spring training and the 7-0 start that felt like an extension of October.

Still, the really fascinating thing about this is that if you believe like me that things have changed for the foreseeable future, there’s still no getting past the fact it all hinged on one improbable event that could never be duplicated.

If the Royals had lost that game, something Hosmer didn’t even want to consider, the lingering memory would be the torrents of boos for Yost when his ill-conceived insertion of Yordano Ventura for James Shields backfired.

For that matter, Yost himself wouldn’t even have felt the Royals made the playoffs.

“I wanted to get into a five-game playoff; that’s the playoffs ,” he said. “The wild-card game is the opportunity to get into the playoffs, for me.”

At a more contemplative time and place, in his office in Surprise, Ariz., during spring training, Yost recalled that night with awe and even a certain sense of permanent triumph.

After that game, he said, his job convincing this team to believe was done.

“And belief is not gray. It’s black or white. You either do or you don’t,” he said. “And from that point on, it clicked. And they believed, and it was like, ‘OK, boys, go out and play. Have fun and play.’”

So The Game That Changed Everything is in the past and getting more distant.

But it’s also beyond nostalgia, an ever-present part of the Royals’ DNA.

“That was quite the experience and quite the game,” Hosmer said. “So I think any time from now on you see the Royals and the A’s going at it, especially here in Kauffman Stadium, I think that will be the first thing anyone thinks about.”

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868 or send email to vgregorian@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @vgregorian. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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