They stood and they clapped and they yelled as loud as 40,000 people bonded by what they’ve come to believe might be a once-in-a-lifetime experience can yell.
The people here had been waiting for this moment. They’d been waiting for the party to break out, or at least the moment where the party might break out at Kauffman Stadium, and Billy Butler up in a tie game with two on in the World Series qualifies. Butler and Royals fans have been through so much together.
They are about to have their best moment together, no idea they’re on the brink of what will eventually turn into a 7-2 win over the Giants that evens the World Series at a game apiece.
Jean Machi is in to pitch for the Giants. He’s here because he gets more ground balls than most any pitcher in baseball and because Butler hits into more double plays than most any hitter in baseball. This is only part of what he and the fans here have been through together. Machi’s first pitch is a ball, low and outside.
Butler came to the Royals as an 18-year-old kid with a seven-figure bonus and some immaturity that would take some knocking off. He’s 28 now. A husband and a father. He’s been cheered at the All-Star Game in this stadium, and booed in June. The Royals have made him rich, and they’ve benched him. This is only part of what he and the fans here have been through together. Machi’s second pitch is another ball, lower and more outside.
This will probably be Butler’s last season with the Royals. He has an expensive option next year that will be declined, and the team has long wanted to join the game’s broader trend of moving away from full-time DHs. If that’s the way it goes, it will be weird seeing Butler in another uniform next season. Depending on what happens when the Series goes to San Francisco, this could be the last time he hits here with the Royals.
Machi has to challenge Butler with a fastball, but Butler has made a lot of money hitting line drives when pitchers have to challenge him with fastballs. Machi’s catches too much of the plate, and is too up in the zone. Butler times it perfectly with that toe tap, his bat colliding head-on with the baseball, sending it screaming into left field.
Lorenzo Cain scores, the Royals have the lead, and fans in section 413 are dancing in the aisles. Everywhere else, they scream. The magic is back. There are no sure things in sports, but the Royals with a lead and their cyborg bullpen deployed are as close as it gets.
“Monster hit for us,” manager Ned Yost says.
The fans here are smart. They know what this means, and they continue to chant Butler’s name after he’s pulled for Terrance Gore, the miniature pinch runner. Butler got the first big hit of this game, too, a laced single past the shortstop that answered San Francisco’s early run and tied the score at one. The players and coaches in the dugout understand what this means, too. They hear the chants. They encourage him to take a curtain call. Who cares that it’s just the sixth inning?
“Your teammates say do it, you’re going to get up there,” Butler says. “It’s an exciting time. We took the lead, we know the bullpen’s coming in and we know what type of bullpen we have.”
Butler’s moment sets off the party, all right. Salvador Perez lines a two-run double to left, and then Omar Infante homers into the Royals’ bullpen. That sparks a heated exchange between Giants pitcher Hunter Strickland and Perez.
The benches clear, and parts of the bullpens. This is the part of the game that will play on the highlight shows, and that’s fine. Everyone loves a good drama. But the more important part for a franchise’s most important moment in a generation came on the bat the Royals have put so much time and money into.
He’s been a kid, a prospect, a young player who makes mistakes, a star who carries an offense, and now a proud man with a world of hitting talent focused on making the most of the last decade of his professional life. Butler’s rise has been the Royals’ rise, and if he does leave after this season, it will be a little sad for both sides. It will be the end of something important to both the man and franchise.
Butler was drafted by the Royals back when it was important that Royals draft picks be willing to sign quickly and with little haggling over price. He was one of the brightest hitting prospects in the 2004 draft, but nobody knew if he could play a position.
Three weeks after drafting Butler, the Royals traded away Carlos Beltran. Three and a half months after that, they lost their 104th game. The next year, they lost 106. The year after that, owner David Glass cleaned out the front office and allowed new general manager Dayton Moore to completely change how the franchise operated.
Yes, the Royals and Butler have been through so much together. He was once among the brightest right-handed hitters in the game, and Moore’s plan all along centered around Butler and Alex Gordon turning into stars and then building around them.
There have been rises and dips in both of those stories, of course, but enough rises that both are integral players in this season and the franchise’s more general progress. Butler and Gordon are playing on contract extensions worth more than $50 million combined, and both have dreamed of moments like this. When the Royals clinched a spot in the World Series, Butler said it felt “ten times better” than his dreams.
Butler has been called a baby by older teammates, and told he made the All-Star team by his manager. When the Royals hosted that All-Star game, Butler became the story when fans here cheered him like a boy band and booed Robinson Cano relentlessly for not selecting Butler for the Home Run Derby.
That moment kicked off a round of national stories about everything from whether the booing was appropriate to the silliness of the derby itself, but it meant something very important to Butler. He talked of wanting to “run through a wall” for Kansas City, and of playing his entire career with the Royals if he could.
He’s been around long enough and hit well enough to be in the franchise’s top 10 in virtually every offensive category, but there is a clear feeling among everyone involved that this is probably it for him here. Player and team are each likely to move on, and if that’s the way it happens each side will remember Wednesday night with smiles.
There was Billy Butler, hearing 40,000 friends chant his name, his teammates telling him to go to the top step and wave, the only franchise he’s ever played for winning a World Series game because he got the big hit.
“This is all I’ve ever known,” he says. “I’m proud to be here. I’m proud to be a Royal. I always have been.”