A once promising season now circling the drain looks like a half empty ballpark on a gorgeous late summer night.
It sounds like boos for the home team, first just a spatter when the Royals go down by two, more when an A’s rookie hits one over the left field fountains, and finally in undeniable volume when a man who starred in last year’s World Series gives up a ninth run before recording a 10th out.
There were, literally, buzzards circling overhead during Royals batting practice last week, and even as this is just a darkly hilarious coincidence from Mother Nature it is also a coldly appropriate visual for this season.
The defending world champion Royals had a miserable week, low-lighted by being swept by the dreadful A’s and an aggregate score of 43-12. On Friday, Kelvin Herrera lost the lead. By the time the Royals played on Saturday, they were seven games out of the second wild card, eliminated from the playoffs in every way but the mathematical one.
If there was any hope of another late season miracle — and if we’re all honest, there shouldn’t have been — it died a peaceful death this week.
“It just isn’t happening, man,” said Eric Hosmer. “I don’t really know, man. There’s no excuses. Didn’t really feel like their pitching was overpowering, or good enough to hold us, but stuff just didn’t happen.”
These are proud professional athletes, and most of them are accomplished at their sport’s highest level, so most will bristle at what is nonetheless a fairly obvious and noncontroversial observation — they tapped out.
The Royals went quietly, except for some of their fans, who booed, tried out the wave, and a random tomahawk chop here and there.
Hey, people paid good money for those seats.
This should be said: the Royals owe us nothing. Their last two seasons have been the greatest joy ride in Kansas City sports history, a worldview changing payback for decades of disappointments. They changed a franchise’s place, boosted a city’s self-esteem, raised flags and threw an unforgettable parade.
The Royals have made forever memories for fans around the region and beyond. Businesses in town have profited. Friendships have been made, and old friendships renewed. That’s the stuff that lasts, and that’s the stuff this group has gifted to a group of people who’d largely come to expect disappointment.
And the best part may be that it isn’t over. Not necessarily, anyway. Most of the best players — Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, Alex Gordon, Sal Perez, Danny Duffy, Mike Moustakas, on and on — are back for at least one more year. The Royals need starting pitching, and at least one reliever, and for a talented group of position players to be their best selves. But it’s all there. We’ve seen it. Maybe we’ll see it again.
But memories are best with distance, and perspective doesn’t come without time. Right now, at this moment, the Royals stink, and their particular brand of stink is one of the worst that teams can offer — the underperforming stink.
Being a sports fan in Kansas City means being familiar with all kinds of sports stink, and of all the sports stink — the arrogant stink, the clueless stink, and the hopeless stinkamong them — the underperforming stink may be the second worst stink, behind only the the dysfunctional stink.
Kansas City knows it when it sees it, too. Somewhere between the foul ball that took out both Moustakas and Gordon, an August run that gave momentary hope, and a rough September for Joakim Soria and Ned Yost, Royals fans have seen this season for what it is.
You can see it in the crowds. Lately, the announced attendance numbers have clearly included unused tickets. Royals season attendance should end up between 2.5 million and 2.6 million. That would be both the second highest figure in franchise history, and significantly less than what the business side projected. A year ago they drew more than 2.7 million, and that number was generally expected to rise. Some thought the team had a chance at 3 million, with the right breaks.
Teams get the crowds they deserve, and it’s worth noting that the Royals will be only the fourth team in the last 20 years to experience an attendance dip the year after winning the World Series. The others were the 2013 Giants (who went 76-86, and went down by about 8,000), the 2000 Yankees (who won a third consecutive World Series) and the 1998 Marlins (who blew up the team and lost 108 games).
Joakim Soria and Ned Yost’s stubbornness are getting much of the moment’s blame, but the truth is this sort of disappointment required a larger conspiracy. The tab on the energy and emotion of the last two years’ success came due. Perez admitted as much in July, the Royals’ worst month since Trey Hillman was riding a unicycle along the warning track.
Davis, Moustakas, Gordon, Cain and Luke Hochevar have all been on the disabled list after two consecutive years of remarkable health. Edinson Volquez gave up nine runs in 3 1/3 innings on Thursday, his ERA rising to 5.40 a year after throwing a career high 229 innings, many of them high-leverage and highly stressful in the playoffs.
A year after crawling to the middle of the league in runs and OPS, the Royals are now near the bottom. The team that prided itself on putting the ball in play is now striking out, but also hitting for less power.
In the end — and, thankfully, in many ways, the end is coming — this is a victimless crime. The Royals have given Kansas City so much over these last two years. Baseball history is full of teams that fall off the year after winning the World Series. This group, at least, has the benefit of being able to come back largely intact for next year.
For years and years in Kansas City, it was always football season by now. The Royals changed the calendar. That was fun. Maybe next year.