They can say what they want now about believing and never losing faith and all these other cliches, and they should. The Royals are in the World Series now, past the point where they know they’ll be fitted for rings and see a new flag waving at Kauffman Stadium next year. History is written by the winners, you know.
But this Royals team is rewriting history, too, and not just by pushing a once-proud franchise back into the spotlight.
They are three wins from something that hasn’t been done in half a century — forget the 29-year drought, the franchise didn’t even exist 50 years ago.
The Royals — these same Royals — were a game under .500 just three months ago, on July 22. Around Kansas City and increasingly around baseball, the story of the comeback Royals is being told but so far without a delicious detail:
No World Series winner in 50 years has been under .500 as late in a season as these Royals.
So as this Royals season played out — the fired hitting coach, the 10 losses in 13 games, the beatdowns against the Tigers — if the men involved truly always thought this was possible then they truly always thought they would accomplish something no team has since 1964, when baseball had just 20 teams and the one in Kansas City was the Athletics.
On July 22, Brandon Finnegan was in the low levels of the minor leagues. The Royals were hitting home runs at a nearly historically slow pace, which their manager had just tried to brush off by saying they hit a lot of balls over the fence in batting practice. The general manager was on his way to meet the team on a road trip, fueling speculation about whether the manager would be fired.
Since that day, including the playoffs, the Royals are 50-24, which would be a 109-win pace for a full season.
Basically, the Royals played 60 percent of a season like a lemon and the rest of it like a Ferrari, and there hasn’t always been consensus about what’s really under the hood.
They felt sure they were better than their sub-.500, eight-games-out start. But the World Series? At this point, various projections had the Royals’ chances at making the playoffs at 10 percent or less, and their chances of winning the World Series at less than 1 percent.
The line between belief and delusion can be thing.
In the last few weeks, various Royals employees have talked casually of the day they figured the dream was over. The most common milemarker was a sweep at home against the Astros, but others talked about the Jonny Gomes homer in Boston or Eric Hosmer’s hand injury or Danny Duffy walking off the mound at Yankee Stadium after one pitch.
The Royals have done this with a stubborn resiliency to go along with a spectacular defense, shutdown back-end relievers, lots of running and enough offense.
But they’ve also had a tremendous amount of luck, which is not a knock. The men inside the organization recognize this. You need some luck to make it this far, after all.
When people talk about some luck the Royals have received, they almost always talk about how the team avoided major injuries. This is at least in part a credit to the training staff, especially when Duffy (shoulder) and Yordano Ventura (elbow) missed only one start each for what many around the game feared were major injuries.
But it’s also interesting that the Royals have run into some luck even when they’ve had key players get hurt. In spring training, you remember, Luke Hochevar tore a ligament in his elbow and has missed the entire season. Hochevar had emerged last season as one of the game’s best setup relievers, and he is the kind of man for whom an organization felt especially happy to have success.
His injury, as unfortunate for him as it remains, opened the door for Wade Davis to pitch the eighth inning. Davis, somehow, has been even better than Hochevar was last year.
The other injury that felt like a possible season killer was Hosmer’s fractured hand. Hosmer had been hitting .366 with power over the previous four weeks, and looked to be on the same path as his 2012 season, when he was one of the American League’s best hitters the last three months. The injury — originally suffered July 23, and reaggravated a week later — came just hours after the trade deadline.
Some fans had already wanted the Royals to sell pieces for a future playoff run, so Hosmer’s injury was especially inconvenient, because it meant the team was limited in how it could compensate.
The Royals had been actively trying to trade Billy Butler, but the timing of Hosmer’s injury forced them to not only play Butler every day, but to play him at first base. This seemed to unlock something in Butler’s swing or mind (or both), and during the next month he was among the best hitters and the Royals were the best team in baseball.
There were other, smaller, key points along the way. Picking up Jason Frasor strengthened what had been a very weak underbelly of the Royals’ bullpen, saving Greg Holland, Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera from being worked even more.
Also important were some of the deals the Royals didn’t make at the deadline, because for everyone screaming that the Royals had to buy or sell but do something, they would have had to depart with key pieces like Lorenzo Cain, Alex Gordon or even Salvador Perez to get a top starter like David Price or Jon Lester.
Baseball has enough unpredictable variables in the best circumstances, and we haven’t even mentioned the AL Wild Card Game against the A’s or winning four playoff games in the ninth inning or later.
The Royals needed every one of those breaks to go their way, which makes for a string of almost exactly three months of having enough luck to be presented opportunities and enough skill and guts to take advantage.
Which is why it’s been 50 years since a team has done what the Royals are three wins from doing.