Twenty-nine years of frustration rushing into euphoria transforms Kauffman Stadium to the city’s biggest party in quite some time. Fireworks explode over the video board. Fans wipe away tears and hug whoever’s next to them. When was the last time you saw a game like this? When was the last time Royals fans could feel like this?
It is entirely possible that this old stadium has never rocked like it rocked at 11:53 on a gorgeous autumn night here. Maybe you have to have lived it to feel it, the teary bedlam of watching the team that’s let you down year after year paying it all back in one crazy night that Royals fans will be telling their kids and grandkids about.
Kansas City deserved this, every bit of it, and the tears would’ve come however it happened but who could’ve imagined this? The Royals beat the A’s 9-8 in a 12-inning American League Wild Card game Tuesday in front of 40,502 people, many of whom have invested more emotions and money into a baseball team than would be recommended.
“Epic,” James Shields says. “Absolutely epic. You don’t write a story that goes this way.”
The Royals beat the A’s in their first playoff game in a generation. They tied it on a sacrifice fly, tied it again on a 40-foot ground ball, and eventually won it with a rookie who pitched this summer against Dartmouth getting the money outs and Salvador Perez somehow squeezing down the line a hit that changed a franchise’s history.
That’s when the dugout emptied and the teammates who love Perez so much swarmed him with joy. In the stands, a bunch of maniacs who’ve waited far too long for a moment like this jumping up and down and screaming their minds out and hugging anyone they can find.
“That’s the most incredible game I’ve ever been a part of,” manager Ned Yost says.
Perez is so much of the heart and energy and soul of this team. In recent weeks, he had taken to having some awful at bats, and people who know him well alternated between blaming fatigue and an admirable but counterproductive desire to do something special for the teammates he’s grown to love.
The Royals signed Perez in 2006, shortly after Dayton Moore took the job as general manager based on a promise from owner David Glass that the franchise would be run differently.
The first thing Moore did was hire scouts, lots of scouts, scouts with great reputations throughout the sport and experience building championship teams. He sent those scouts all over the country and the world. One of those men he hired was Rene Francisco, as the director of international scouting.
On the first trip to Venezuela after what we can all now see as a fundamental shift in the way the Royals operated, they signed a 16-year-old with a big smile and a lot of energy named Salvador Perez for less than $100,000. Quickly, he became one of the best-liked and most-respected players in the organization.
On Tuesday, an hour or so before the playoff game they’ve spent the last eight years working for, Francisco stood outside the elevators on the first floor of Kauffman Stadium and said that Perez would do something special on this night.
“I don’t know why,” he said. “But I feel it.”
He could not have known how true those words would become. Perez’s game-winner is on the franchise’s permanent highlight reel, right there with George Brett tipping his cap after going over .400 in 1980 and Darryl Motley’s catch in 1985. For the second time in five nights, the men on this team put on ski goggles and sprayed champagne to celebrate the greatest achievement of most of their professional lives.
This was more than a baseball game, and even more than a playoff game. This was something more like group therapy, Royals fans emptying a generation of angst into Kansas City’s wildest sports night since at least 1985. Cars parked on the side of Interstate 70, just to watch the crowd before being shooed off by the authorities.
Inside the stadium, the crowd gave this the feel of a night 29 years in the making, the LET’S GO ROYALS chants starting well before the first pitch and carrying through the game. Filling 12 innings with noise wasn’t hard for a crowd that included fans whose parents met at a Royals game, parents who were unborn in 1985, and old-timers who had to wonder if they’d ever see anything like this again.
The Royals are not just a playoff team now, they are a winning playoff team, and doesn’t that sound so much better?
There is no telling where this already wild ride will end, and whether it will be with more champagne. They have been lost and winning and buried and then winning again — and that was just Tuesday night.
So very little of what we’ve seen in this Royals season has made even a bit of sense to anyone with whom the franchise’s sorry history might as well be ingrained into their fan DNA. The Royals, after all this time, have a legitimately good baseball team that even seems to be getting good breaks here and there. Up is down. Cats and dogs living together. All of it.
The oddity of a 162-game season coming down to a single do-or-die playoff had turned a fan base’s worst fears wild. But that is all over now. The Royals left in the middle of the night on the happiest flight of the year, taking luggage they packed without knowing for sure whether they’d actually need it. They landed in Anaheim in the dark, ready to prepare for a best-of-five division series against the Angels, who won more games than any team in baseball this year.
It figures that very few people around the sport will expect the Royals to win that series.
But how many people expected them to even be in it?
How many people expected the Royals to be two champagne parties into this season, playing for a third?