Sam Mellinger

Series loss won’t diminish Royals’ magical season

Kansas City Royals left fielder Alex Gordon made a long, lonely walk from third base to the dugout after he was left stranded on third as the possible tying run in the Royals 3-2 loss to the San Francisco Giants in game seven of the World Series on Wednesday, October 29, 2014, at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.
Kansas City Royals left fielder Alex Gordon made a long, lonely walk from third base to the dugout after he was left stranded on third as the possible tying run in the Royals 3-2 loss to the San Francisco Giants in game seven of the World Series on Wednesday, October 29, 2014, at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo. The Kansas City Star

After the last out of the last game of the World Series, the strangers from San Francisco turned an infield 1,800 miles from home into the happiest dogpile in sports. Salvador Perez put his head down and walked back to the Royals’ dugout. Winter was here. The Giants living the Royals’ dream, putting on new championship swag — and that’s when it happened.

LET’S GO ROYALS!!!

You could hear the chant start a few seconds after Perez’s popout ended a 3-2 Royals loss in game seven of the World Series at Kauffman Stadium on Wednesday. Quiet, at first, the noise coming from random pockets of the stadium.

LET’S GO ROYALS!!!

The screams came a little louder, then synchronized as one and even just for a short time — one minute, max — showed what it looks and sounds like when 30 days wipe away 29 years of empty pain. The Royals lost the World Series with the tying run on third base in the bottom of the ninth, but in the bigger picture turned this franchise into winners again, finally.

LET’S GO ROYALS!!!

The clubhouse was quiet. Sad. They had celebrated so many times in this room with a smoke machine and rap music and the neon sign of a deer’s butt. But for now, silence. Mike Moustakas and Alex Gordon stared into their lockers, checking their cell phones. Lorenzo Cain answered questions with glassy eyes. The rest of the world can be shocked they made it this far, but the men in this room wanted more.

“We didn’t get the job done,” Cain says.

That is true in the clearest sense, of course. Nobody makes it to the World Series if they can be satisfied losing it, so for now they will remember the ways they came up short. The most obvious is that Madison Bumgarner went from very good to Sandy Koufax this postseason, but there were other factors, too. At one point, the Royals got the leadoff hitter on base in three straight innings but scored zero runs.

There was some bad luck sprinkled in, a ground ball by Nori Aoki leading Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford directly into a forceout and second baseman Joe Panik turning one of the better double plays in World Series history in the third inning. They’ll remember Gordon making it all the way to third base on a single that was misplayed by the Giants outfield, but staying there as Perez popped up the last pitch of the season.

But there is another layer to all of this, the part that will shine in the light of day after the darkness of the moment fades. The Royals, known for two decades as a punchline, made it all the way to the World Series. This group did that, these talented ballplayers who bonded during bus rides in the minor leagues, then common struggles and triumphs in the big leagues.

They lost in the end, but along the way changed baseball in Kansas City for a group of fans who’ve been waiting through more heartache than should be allowed.

They will have a season celebration at the K today. With a world championship, it would’ve been a parade down Grand Boulevard, just like 1985, and there will always be a tinge of regret about what wasn’t accomplished. But this is one of those times in professional sports where the size of the rings won’t match the size of the achievement.

“We’re definitely going to realize what we did a couple days from now,” says James Shields, the ace pitcher brought in to help change a losing culture. “It brought the city together. This city has been wanting this forever, for a long time.”

This is the team that made baseball fun again in Kansas City, finally, cool enough for kids to wear their gear to grade schools from Olathe to Oak Grove without risking ridicule.

This group embraced everything that comes along with ending the longest playoff drought in North American sports, from the $15,000 bar tab at the Power and Light District to adopting longtime fans as family.

It was never easy, but at least looking back, that’s part of the fun. Firing the hitting coach, demoting the third baseman and going under .500 after the All-Star break feels like that dirty apartment from college.

For a full generation, Royals fans have given more than they’ve received and the payback came over the last month that ended in disappointment but will still be remembered for years.

Everyone remembers the team of their youth. For Billy Butler, it’s the Braves of the early 1990s — Maddux, Glavine Smoltz and Pendleton. For Eric Hosmer, it was the 1997 Marlins — Alou, Sheffield, Brown and Hernandez. For 20 years, kids grew up in and around Kansas City without anything like that.

Reporters love the story about Aaron Crow growing up a Royals fan in Topeka and then being drafted by his team, but they usually leave out the part of him always choosing the Mariners in video games because he wanted to win.

For kids who haven’t known what winning looked like, this is the team of their youth. They’ll swing hard like Hosmer, dream of gliding down balls in the gap like Cain, and want to catch because of Perez.

This is the baseball team that made Kansas City fall in love all over again, one 98 mph fastball or comeback win or selfie on the Plaza at a time. Royals chants have broken out all over this city, from 8 in the morning at a coffee shop to lunch rush at a barbecue spot to late night downtown. Billy Butler got a standing ovation at lunch on Wednesday. One club official has grown used to seeing Royals signs put in his yard by adoring neighbors.

These Royals gave old friends reason to reconnect, and strangers to become new friends. Before game seven, a gray-haired woman held up a sign that she was three months pregnant for game seven in 1985. To her left, her daughter held a sign that she’s three months pregnant now. A woman called in from Iowa, saying her father’s happiest and most alert moments in hospice care the last week have been Royals games.

The Royals pushed this season as far as baseball allows, all the way to game seven of the World Series, played right here at home in what’s become the loudest stadium in the sport. Those are memories that will stick for years, long after the disappointment of losing game seven.

“We can’t thank them enough for the support,” Hosmer says. “They had our backs the whole, entire way. You’ll remember how this whole city came together, and really put Kansas City back on the map.”

The healing begins today. The coming back from disappointment, and the picking up victory out of defeat.

This is the best shape the franchise has been in since 1985, a promising foundation finally built on rock rather than sand. They will almost certainly lose Shields to free agency, and will probably let Butler sign somewhere else. Aoki will be a free agent.

Everyone else who played a significant role in this resurgence is under club control, and this playoff run — particularly because it included a game seven at home — has made more than enough profit to fund a significant bump in payroll.

They will play next season with new rings at home, and a new flag flying above the Hall of Fame building behind their bullpen. The players’ swag will say American League champions instead of World Series champions because the story doesn’t always end like the movie, and because the Giants had Bumgarner.

But the franchise’s greatest season in most of the players’ lives has already changed the future. Kansas City lost so much during two decades of waste. This was once one of the country’s great baseball towns, but that faded as the franchise lost its way after Ewing Kauffman’s death.

Fans here had heard so many promises broken that an honest layer of cynicism formed, and before game seven, one club official was saying it took the last month for him and others inside the organization to understand where that came from. They get it now, just like a burned fan base has felt joy again.

There is no going back to that old way, not now. The Royals have come too far. Their fans have, too.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow on Twitter: @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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