Sam Mellinger

Even by championship standards, this Royals team is special

Royals center fielder Jarrod Dyson lifted the World Series trophy up for fans to see after Kansas City defeated the Mets 7-2 in Game 5 on Sunday at Citi Field in New York to win the best-of-seven series four games to one.
Royals center fielder Jarrod Dyson lifted the World Series trophy up for fans to see after Kansas City defeated the Mets 7-2 in Game 5 on Sunday at Citi Field in New York to win the best-of-seven series four games to one.

The euphoria of a championship years in the making and once so fundamentally unrealistic filled an otherwise quiet stadium. The only noise was from the men who earned this moment, and the fans who waited so long to feel it. The Royals are World Series champions. Is this real?

For years and years — decades, really — this was the kind of thing you could only see in your dreams, and even then, you would wake up and realize how silly that was. The Royals, for so long the picture of failure, are baseball’s champion. How did this happen?

The details will be memorized, about Matt Harvey’s dominance setting up one last wild comeback. Kelvin Herrera’s three innings. Eric Hosmer’s double and then his dash home in the ninth. Christian Colon’s single, Alcides Escobar’s double, on and on it went in a five-run 12th until Wade Davis closed out one more win.

The Royals are World Series champions, finally and again. They beat the New York Mets 7-2 in Game 5. The best team in franchise history will be honored with a parade on Tuesday, along Grand Boulevard, the same route they took 30 years ago.

“Everything’s just perfect, man,” Hosmer said. “This is too good of a group, too good of a team, not to be remembered as world champions.”

They won their championship the only way they should have won their championship, with another comeback in another late inning, a relentless group of friends and teammates who’ve known only success these last two years pushing a franchise that only knew failure for so long.

It was one last comeback for one of the greatest rally teams in 111 years of playoff baseball. The script is so well known by now that Dayton Moore, the general manager who envisioned this long before anyone else believed, turned to an assistant as his team went to bat at the start of the ninth inning, down by two, with nothing but belief in his heart.

“We’re about ready to win a World Series,” Moore said. “I can just feel it.”

Every champion is remembered fondly, but this one is different even by that high standard. Some of that is in wiping away two decades of losing, and some of that is in the way they attacked every day, every game, every inning, every pitch. Kansas Citians bought more tickets than ever before, and spent more time watching on TV than ever before. Following this team became more than a pastime, and more than a habit. It is now an addiction.

This is the team that Kansas Citians will brag on to their kids, to their grandkids, and maybe even their kids’ grandkids. This group has done more than win the world championship. That happens every year, for some lucky city. But not like this.

“You see somebody has a plan,” said David Glass, the owner who changed his ways nine years ago when he hired Moore. “They had a dream. They had a plan. Then they execute it, and you’re just sort of overwhelmed.”

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The Royals have rewritten not just a franchise’s sorry history, but forever changed the way sports are viewed and loved and consumed back home. Kansas City has not had a championship parade in 30 years, long enough that babies conceived and born in the years since have grown up to know sports success only as something that happens in other places. It is long enough that some of those kids are doctors, or war heroes. They have careers and mortgages and marriages. Some have divorces. This is a long time coming.

This group embraced that challenge, too, which is no small thing. In other places, with other men, the pressure has become overwhelming. For 86 years, the talked about the Bambino in Boston. They still talk about a goat in Chicago. The men who chose or were chosen for the Royals put their arms around their task and squeezed. Jarrod Dyson, the former 50th-round pick, an unlikely story on a team full of them, strapped a camera around his head so he could remember every second of the celebration of a lifetime.

“Probably a million,” he said, asked how many times he would watch the video. “I might watch it every day. I’m gonna hook it up, sit back, and probably shed tears watching it.”

These Royals will be forever remembered for the forceful way they sliced through the regular season, and continually refusing to die in the playoffs. Eight of their 11 playoff wins came after trailing in the sixth or later. Six of those comebacks have erased deficits of two runs or more. No team has ever done that. You could live 100 more years and not see it again.

The eighth inning in Houston. Lorenzo Cain scoring the pennant-clinching run from first on a single, and Davis pitching both sides of a rain delay in Kansas City. The ball scooting past Daniel Murphy’s glove and Hosmer’s sprint home here in New York. Baseball’s playoffs create drama naturally, but the sport has never seen anything like this.

These Royals have shown baseball’s hungriest market how to love the sport again, and that wishing for and even expecting good things to happen doesn’t have to end in heartbreak.

Salvador Perez’s relentlessness, Mike Moustakas’ resiliency, Alex Gordon’s determination, Cain’s brilliance, Escobar’s easiness, Davis’ steadiness, Ned Yost’s stubbornness and the patience of Glass and Moore — they are all irreplaceable parts of one of the great long-term turnarounds in professional sports history.

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“They’d beat us,” said George Brett, the face of the Royals’ last great moment. “I really believe they’re a better team. They have more depth throughout the lineup, they have better speed, defensively they’re better. We could beat them in some positions, but they’re a better ballclub. It’s great to be associated with them. It’s great to have them as friends.”

Others have won on budgets, but in modern baseball the Royals lifting the trophy with all those little flags on it is without precedent. The Oakland A’s were celebrated with a best-selling book and a Brad Pitt movie, but Moneyball never played in the World Series. The Tampa Bay Rays may be the closest cousin to what the Royals accomplished, but they lost their only World Series in five games. The Colorado Rockies built a pennant winner almost exclusively through their farm system, but were swept in their only World Series.

This is the lifetime professional accomplishment of so many, starting with Moore, along with all the believers who quit their jobs and moved their families to join this crazy pursuit back in 2006. Close friends told Moore not to do it. The Royals lost 100 games that year, which was actually an improvement.

Moore has said that if he knew just how terrible the organization was, he probably would not have accepted the job. The year before, they skipped the team picture because, in the words of a club official, “who would want to remember this group?” At his introductory news conference, a cameraman congratulated him for taking over the worst team in sports.

Look at them now. Champions. That bleak past is merely the setup for a remarkable rise from baseball’s easiest punchline — at one point, the late night comics actually slowed down, more out of pity than anything else — to one of the great champions in recent memory.

“Isn’t this great? Wow,” Moore said. “It’s a sense of relief, really. Just proud for all of our guys. Words just can’t describe how these guys play.”

They won 95 games in the regular season, more than anyone else in the American League. Seven of them were selected as All-Stars, a few because of overwhelming support from fans, the rest very much on merit. Now, they are eternally bonded as the group of men who gave a starved sports city a championship, finally.

Kansas City is different now, because of this team. Buildings downtown light up in blue. Kids wear T-shirts with “Gordon” or “Perez” or “Cain” on the backs. Conversations begin with, “You watch the game last night?” and in a good way. On any block in any neighborhood back home, you might see two, three, four blue Royals flags out front. Some of the people who drive through these neighborhoods are the men who made it happen. The players. The coaches. The executives.

Nobody knows where the future will take these guys. The business of baseball has a way of breaking up successful teams and even with record attendance the Royals are more affected by rising costs than most.

The same way James Shields and Billy Butler weren’t back for 2015, some from this group won’t be back for 2016. Johnny Cueto, Ben Zobrist and Chris Young are free agents. Gordon is likely to decline an option in his contract.

But no matter what, this will be the team that Kansas City talks about for a generation. Their names and pictures and successes and celebrations will be documented in the team’s Hall of Fame building. Their flag will fly atop, and a few of them may get their numbers retired next to Brett’s, Frank White’s and Dick Howser’s.

“You play so many games, it becomes a dream,” Cain said. “Then you’re in the World Series, and you accomplished your goal.”

They will get old together, the same way Brett and White and Willie Wilson and Bret Saberhagen have grown old together in our memories. They’ll get together at reunions, Hosmer remembering the night they bought a city drinks at a bar, Gordon talking about how standing on third base at the end of Game 7 fueled an unceasing drive in 2015, and, probably, Perez harassing Cain on camera for a new generation of fans.

Fans will have their own memories, from the ones who believed all along to the ones who will claim they believed all along. They used to bond with something that felt a little too much like Stockholm syndrome, with jokes about the throw home hitting Ken Harvey’s back or Kerry Robinson climbing that wall in Chicago for a ball that bounced in front of him to then-manager Buddy Bell, caught in the middle of another long losing streak, muttering, “I’ll never say it can’t get worse.”

They went through some rough times, these fans and the team they root for. For so long, their love was not returned. Their team was unworthy of their time, of their money, of their hearts. For so long, “the process“ looked like another doomed plan.

The signs came subtle, and quiet, at least at first. It says something about just how low the standards were that in the beginning longtime baseball men from other organizations complimented the Royals by saying they were finally operating like a big league organization.

They had to navigate so much to get here. Gordon had to reinvent himself as a left fielder. Perez had to go from being an anonymous, small-money signing as a 16-year-old in Venezuela to one of the game’s best catchers as an adult. Davis had to go from a failed starting pitcher to perhaps baseball’s best reliever.

Zack Greinke became one of baseball’s best young pitchers in Kansas City, but the losing beat him down, and he demanded to be traded. The Royals tried to trade him to Washington, but Greinke didn’t want that either, so they made a new deal with the Brewers for what they thought at the time was an inferior haul of prospects. Except that haul was highlighted by Cain and Escobar — two foundational pieces for the Royals’ rise, the center fielder and the shortstop, the smiling No. 3 hitter and the unconventional leadoff man.

That’s fairly symbolic of their makeover, actually. The Royals have caught some breaks, both in the big picture, and in particular moments during these playoffs. But other teams have breaks, too. The difference is the Royals have made the most of theirs, and minimized their opponents’, exploiting the margins between losing and winning that once buried an entire franchise.

At some point, the men involved began to think of this ultimate goal not so much as a possibility but as destiny. They dreamed about it, but then they planned on it. Maybe that’s the way this had to go, all along. Taking on a challenge this enormous required complete belief.

They were once baseball’s most easily dismissed franchise, an afterthought if they were a thought at all. Look at them now. Baseball’s best story, baseball’s only story, the group that spent nearly a full decade building for this one moment and then a postseason making sure they would never be forgotten.

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Sam Mellinger, 816-234-4365, @mellinger

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