Reasonable minds can disagree about the lowest moment in those years when the Royals were closer to a tragicomedy than a Major League Baseball team. The Chip Ambres game. Ken Harvey’s back. Kerry Robinson climbing the wall. Buddy Bell saying he’ll never say it can’t get worse.
There is not enough space on the Internet for all of it, so let’s move on, except to say there is a strong case that the worst moment of them all came Sept. 29, 2002.
That was the last game of another bad season. The Royals had lost 99 games. They had never lost 100 before, and that’s nothing to put on a flag, but that they’d never compiled triple-digit defeats was a small comfort in bad times. Royals management made it clear it did not care. That day, Kit Pellow hit cleanup for the Royals. Dusty Wathan made his only big-league start. The Royals lost, of course, even as the Indians did not particularly care either.
To many of the men who helped build the Royals’ proud past, this was a point of no return. Ninety-nine losses was bad. One hundred was inexcusable. Especially when you go down without a fight.
“No pride,” Frank White said.
Today, the Royals are 180 degrees different, of course. The end of a 29-year playoff drought turned into an epic Wild Card Game comeback, which turned into a magical ride to the American League pennant and the seventh game of the World Series.
The Royals are a model now. No longer mocked.
And, 13 years after their 100th loss served as a public shaming, the Royals enter the season’s final stretch with an honest shot at 100 wins.
“That’s cool, man,” shortstop Alcides Escobar says. “Yeah, always. That’s three numbers. Ninety-nine is two. If you can win 100, that’s good. That’s a great season no matter what.”
Just as the shame of 100 losses is more symbolic than tangible, the achievement of 100 wins is sort of like a vanity plate on an already beautiful car.
The Royals entered Saturday up 13 games in the American League Central Division, and six games ahead of Toronto for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
They will almost certainly clinch the division with more than a week to play. The Blue Jays are charging hard, but it looks like the Royals will have secured the American League’s best record with enough time to rest some guys and set up their playoff rotation.
In real terms, all of that is more important than reaching a relatively arbitrary total of regular-season wins.
But with the important stuff all but wrapped up, chasing 100 victories is the only real milestone left in the standings for fans, and, besides, it’d be pretty cool, right?
“It’s better to hit .300 than .299, you know?” catcher Sal Perez says. “So it’s better to win 100 than 99.”
The Royals will play only one more regular-season game — a makeup at Wrigley Field — against a team above .500. Many of their opponents will be taking looks at minor-leaguers. Sometimes, teams out of the race can find motivation in being the spoiler, but with the Royals so far ahead, even that’s a stretch.
So 100 is a very real possibility. Entering Saturday, the Royals needed 18 wins in their last 28 games to get there. And if it’s true the Royals won’t have the motivation inherent in a typical pennant race, it’s also true that many of their opponents won’t have much to play for.
Winning 18 of 28 is a pace for 104 wins over a full season. The Royals happened to start the season by winning 18 of their first 28, and, depending how you separate it out, have had three distinct stretches of winning at that rate.
If you are more inclusive, in one way or another, the Royals have spent all but 27 games this year involved in a chunk of 18 wins out of 28.
A hundred wins is a rare thing. In the last 10 full seasons, only four teams have won as many. That’s fewer than one every two years, and fewer than 2 percent of the teams involved.
The Royals — or Cardinals, who were 86-48 entering Saturday — could become the first team in four years to win 100. That’s the longest drought since 1955 to 1960, so long ago that those were 154-game seasons.
MLB would not promote it like this, but we may be seeing a byproduct of increased parity here. More money is being passed around to more teams, and more young stars are signing long-term deals to stay with their original organizations.
The Royals have benefitted from both of these factors, of course. Their $112 million opening-day payroll is a club record, and the team is bringing in more money than ever with record attendance. But an archaic TV contract means the Royals are also leaning heavily on the sport’s revenue-sharing plan.
Aside from those comments by Escobar and Perez, the prospect of winning 100 games does not elicit much of a response from those in the organization. Asked last week, both manager Ned Yost and general manager Dayton Moore were convincing in saying they had not thought for a second about it. Moore needed a moment to remember whether the Braves had ever won 100 when he worked in their front office (they did, five times).
This is one of those things that fans and media think about more than players and coaches, something that picks up importance through time and playoff results.
To that point, the 1977 Royals are not an anomaly as a 100-win team that didn’t win the World Series. In fact, that’s more the rule than the exception. Since the 1998 Yankees, 16 teams have won 100 or more games. Only one — the 2009 Yankees — won the World Series.
Last year, the Royals and Giants each made the World Series from the Wild Card Game. It was only the latest in a long line of examples of regular-season records being irrelevant in baseball’s unpredictable postseason.
The Royals have a chance to make a small bit of history in the regular season, in other words. But the far more important part of history comes after that.