Sam Mellinger

As they chase new memories, Royals recall favorite moments from World Series championship season

Neither players nor Royals staff could believe how many people gathered to celebrate the club’s World Series title.
Neither players nor Royals staff could believe how many people gathered to celebrate the club’s World Series title.

They are a collection of moments. This group, these men, the accomplishment for which they will forever be remembered. They save videos on their cell phones and memories in their heads and go home to see framed pictures on their walls.

Some of them have Googled the same YouTube videos so often that the algorithm fills in Alex Gordon’s home run or Lorenzo Cain’s sprint from first or Wade Davis’ final strikeout with only a few strikes of the keyboard.

The Royals won the World Series on a crisp November night in Queens, the franchise’s first championship in 30 years, completing one of the remarkable transformations in modern sports history. These men are the stars of a legend that will be told in Kansas City as long as any of us live, no matter what happens now. This makes for a different kind of challenge.

Because as the Royals begin their championship defense, they know their baseball careers and lives are fulfilled. Many are not even 30 years old yet, and already they have done more than most in the sport. But they are greedy, they will tell you. They want more.

So they spent their spring here preparing for more moments. Baseball is the most statistically quantifiable of our favorite sports, but those of us who fall in love with it do so in the bursts of color and sounds and joy. That’s what pulls us in. That’s what holds us close.

And that’s what keeps these men working, first here in the desert, and later in front of sold-out stadiums and millions on television. The moments are a drug. They are addicting. They are what this group is chasing — more moments, more joy, more memories.

Alex Gordon’s moment may have been fueled by Red Bull.

He crouched in left field at U.S. Cellular Field when Micah Johnson sliced a fastball toward the wall near the foul line. Gordon got a good jump, which is normal, but then the ball drifted over the wall on a trajectory to the second row, which is less normal.

They say Red Bull gives you wings, so I said, ‘Why not, I’ll fly into the stands.’

Left fielder Alex Gordon, on his catch at U.S. Cellular Field

This is the moment big-league outfielders or anyone else uninterested in risking a femur for a foul ball in the sixth inning of a game in April may slow down, watch fans chase a souvenir, and try to get the next one. Gordon has made a reputation as one of the game’s best defensive players. He has slowed down and tried to get the next one before. Not this time.

“I was fired up,” he says. “They say Red Bull gives you wings, so I said, ‘Why not, I’ll fly into the stands.’ ”

The catch became something like a cult legend. Gordon jumped over a kid in the first row, crashed into a well-padded man in a White Sox jersey in the second row, and settled onto a narrow strip of concrete between the metal seats. The catch has been seen millions of times on the Internet and television. It was the reigning “Web Gem” on Baseball Tonight for 50 days, long enough that the show held a retirement party to make room for someone else.

You cannot mention this play in the Royals’ clubhouse without being met by a smile, a momentary gaze into the distance, then usually a sigh or a chuckle. In this moment, the Royals see their fearlessness.

“I like the pain,” Gordon says.

Wade Davis wanted a day to choose which moment to include in this story. His strikeout of Wilmer Flores ended the World Series, which means he was in the middle of that dog pile, but he declared he would not choose that or any other moment from the playoffs. Too obvious, he said.

So a day later he nods his head to call you over. Remember the series against Oakland, back in April? Well, of course you do: Brett Lawrie’s slide into Alcides Escobar’s knee, the subsequent and strange back-and-forth over an apologetic text message, Yordano Ventura’s disjointed retaliation the next day, Scott Kazmir’s awkward fastball into Lorenzo Cain’s leg, and Kelvin Herrera’s wild pitch behind Lawrie’s back on the third day.

This was the middle of the storm. The Royals invited drama in those early days in April, clearing benches several times and exchanging punches a few. Four different players would be suspended six times by the end of May. Some of it, the Royals were merely pushing back. Much of it, they were swarmed by problems of their own creation. Davis knew at the time the season could turn one of two ways then, and that feeling is only confirmed with hindsight.

“Warranted or not, you can see teams in that spot playing defensive, playing scared,” Davis says. “Whether we were right or wrong in what we did, we had to overcome that nervousness. And it is nerves.”

The Royals won that game like a movie. They trailed into the eighth, until Cain lined a double over the head of Oakland left fielder Mark Canha, driving in the tying run. Two batters later, Kendrys Morales put the Royals up by knocking a 91 mph fastball off the center-field wall.

The Royals started only five regulars that day but secured perhaps their most meaningful of 95 regular-season wins. In this moment, the Royals see their resiliency.

“You almost have this sense of, ‘(Expletive), did we screw up?’” Davis says. “And I felt like, as a team, we were like, ‘It doesn’t matter, we’re still going to come get you.’ That was the coolest moment for me.

“I’ve been on teams where stuff like that happens, you throw at somebody, and people don’t know what to do. You know it’s happening. You get rattled, and the next couple of days it’s a meltdown. In that moment, we were just going to be better than anything said about us or what was going on.”

Oakland’s Brett Lawrie on Royals’ Kelvin Herrera throwing at him 

Ned Yost’s favorite moment pushed him to the edge. He can admit this now: he was not sure the Royals would come back in Game 4 of the AL Division Series that afternoon in Houston.

He had even considered how he would congratulate Astros manager A.J. Hinch, and what he might say to his own team. Oddly, in the middle of the chaos and movement and emotions of a do-or-die playoff game his team was losing, Yost found peace.

“Either way, I was calm,” Yost says. “You win and you lose, right? That’s what sports is. But it’s the way you win and lose. It’s the way you fight until the last out.”

That game played out like 4 hours and 5 minutes of moments to remember, particularly the 42 minutes in the top of the eighth inning. The grounder that turned left and hopped over Astros shortstop Carlos Correa’s glove is the most famous. There was also Drew Butera’s walk, Alex Gordon’s go-ahead ground-out — “best ground-out of my life,” he said — and then in the ninth came Eric Hosmer’s home run that poetically landed in the Astros’ bullpen 442 feet from home plate.

But for Yost, the moment he most remembers is the one that made him confident again. It came when his team trailed by four, with just six outs to go. In this moment, Yost sees his team’s relentlessness.

“It was Alex Rios leading off the inning with a hit,” Yost says. “I’m like, ‘Man, here we go.’ ”

Royals players including Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Alex Gordon, Ben Zobrist, Edinson Volquez and more describe how Moustakas led the charge in the dugout before the Royals scored five runs in the eighth inning and beat the Astros 9-6 on Monday

George Brett’s moment was not a home run or a strikeout. It was not done with a bat or a glove or even an arm, but instead with legs. It was the intersection of athleticism and brains and guts. It was Lorenzo Cain, not running on the pitch, scoring from first base on a single.

Hosmer singled down the right-field line, and the Royals knew Blue Jays outfielder José Bautista is typically aggressive trying to cut off doubles. Cain managed a big secondary lead and sprinted on contact.

Once third-base coach Mike Jirschele saw Bautista throwing to second, he waved Cain home.

Later, it would be measured that Cain made it from first to home in just more than 10 seconds, running faster than 20 mph.

In this moment, Brett sees athleticism and commitment and a pure link back to his own teams of the 1970s and 1980s.

“You can’t help yourself but think of Willie Wilson,” Brett says. “Only, I don’t think Willie ever made that play. Not because he wasn’t fast, or didn’t play hard, because he was and did. But I just don’t think he ever had the chance. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before.”

Here is Denny Matthews' call of Lorenzo Cain scoring from first base on a single by Eric Hosmer in the eighth inning of Game 6 of the ALCS. Audio courtesy of the Royals Radio Network.

Dayton Moore’s moment came in the euphoria of a celebration that was only minutes old but already included tears and hugs and I-love-you-man’s and emptied bottles of champagne and domestic beer.

That moment backed up nearly a decade of Moore’s life. He came to Kansas City a dreamer and now admits he was naive about what type of challenge he faced. He made mistakes along the way, needed more time than he expected, and had to work his way through doubts he heard from outsiders ... and some he felt in his own heart.

But here, finally, he was the general manager of a world champion. There is no direct precedent in modern baseball for what Moore and his people accomplished, pushing a small-market franchise to the top of the sport with homegrown talent and potential sustainability.

In that moment, Moore could have felt anything. He could have said anything. He could have bragged, he could have I-told-you-so-ed, he could have talked about all the people who said this would never happen.

Instead, he slipped away from the celebration and into the dugout, away from the noise, in the beginning just him and a reporter.

“Look at them,” he said. “Isn’t this great?”

Over and over and over through the years, Moore has said the game is about the players. Everything he does is about the players. Same with his coaches, his trainers, his scouts, everybody. Trying to win in Kansas City means trying to win with the deck stacked against you. There is no room for selfishness. No room for ego. In this moment, Moore lived what he said.

“I’m just so happy for them,” he said. “They deserve this. They earned it.”

Chris Young’s moment came after the end, after the chartered flight touched down back home, and two days had passed, and the Royals climbed into cars and pickup trucks that took them from inside the Sprint Center to a victory parade witnessed by the biggest collection of humanity in Kansas City history.

Baseball’s playoffs are an all-encompassing, emotionally draining journey. Sometimes we on the outside wonder how Hosmer can concentrate on hitting a slider on the black with a full stadium shaking and millions on TV watching, and it’s because giving yourself to the instant means blocking all the other stuff out.

You see all the people, and it just kept getting bigger and bigger until we got to Union Station. I expected a lot, but nothing like that.

Pitcher Chris Young, on KC’s title celebration

For a lot of those players, the parade was the first time they fully understood what had happened.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Young says. “You see all the people, and it just kept getting bigger and bigger until we got to Union Station. I expected a lot, but nothing like that.”

Young took dozens of pictures, which he still has on his cell phone. Normally, he notes, it’s the other way around — fans wanting pictures of players. Here, the players wanted pictures of the fans. All of them.

Young calls it the best feeling a human being can have, to finally understand how much joy you’ve helped bring to so many people. This is everything. You play the game as a kid because it’s fun, and you become a professional because you’re good at it. But if you’re talented enough and lucky enough to win a championship, it tends to tilt your perspective about why you continue to play.

“As far as you could see, up the hill, on top of the monument, you look right, you look left, there’s no space,” Young says. “I don’t know how all those people got there. Absolutely incredible. I don’t know if I’ll ever be part of this again, but certainly if we do, the first time feeling that and seeing that is really special.”

Watch the moment the Royals took the stage at Union Station in front of hundreds of thousands of fans in Kansas City following their World Series victory parade on Tuesday in Kansas City. Video by Blair Kerkhoff,

The echo of last year’s accomplishment will continue to reverberate through this season.

The Hall of Fame building at Kaufman Stadium now features that iconic photo of a mass of fans in blue swarming Union Station and beyond at the parade. The Royals’ first two games — coincidentally against the Mets, of course — will follow championship celebrations. Kansas City’s team will be introduced as the world champion Royals. The flag will fly as long as Kauffman Stadium stands.

The chase for more memories begins now. The Royals’ last title defense ended in third place with 86 losses. That doesn’t diminish anything the club did the year before, and the same will be true of the 2015 championship, no matter how this season ends.

“Yes, that’s true,” Gordon says. “But that’s not how you think. You want to do it more.”

That’s the other part of this. Baseball careers are relatively short, and opportunities like this are rare. Like Young says, there is no way to know if any of them will be part of something so marvelous ever again.

But if you’re here, if you’ve come this far, you want to make the fun last as long as possible — moment after moment after moment.

Sam Mellinger: 816-234-4365, @mellinger