- Faith and Fear in Flushing - http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com -

Don’t Sleep On The Royals

Directing 14/15ths of my baseball attention to 1/15th of the National League as I do, I can’t say I’m any kind of authority on what transpires in DH land. But I hear things. I heard, for instance, that the Oakland A’s were putting the finishing touches on a surefire run to the World Series when they traded Yoenis Cespedes to Boston for Jon Lester at the end of July. I heard that this was the move that had to be made, the one that was finally going to catapult Billy Beane’s “stuff [1]” (family-friendly version) over the entangling isthmus of October.

Sometimes you’re not an authority but you have an authoritative sense that something’s a little off. The A’s had already traded for Jeff Samardzija. The A’s were so loaded with pitching that they could cast off talented Tommy Milone, pitcher of record on the winning side of Citi Field’s gloomiest afternoon ever [2]. The A’s were famously (except in the movie version) loaded with pitching in the early 2000s when Beane’s teams went down as the leaves turned brown.

The A’s of today needed that much more pitching? The A’s didn’t need Cespedes, who — granted, in glorified batting practice [3] — once conquered the far, foreboding reaches of Flushing like no man before or after him, save for every Washington National ever? Maybe people who watch the American League regularly know their territory better than I do.

But, it was confirmed Tuesday night, that a situationally unaligned baseball fan’s intuition is not to be underestimated. Actually, it was confirmed in August and September when, regardless of the contributions made by Lester (or Sam Fuld, whom the A’s picked up from Minnesota for Milone), Oakland slipped out of its seemingly secure perch atop the A.L. West and fell a mile below the Los Angeles Anaheims and nearly through the floor of the Wild Card race. The Wild Card, at its most noble, was designed as a safety net for 103-game winning outfits like the 1993 Giants, a powerhouse that had the misfortune of competing in the same division as the 104-game winning Braves when there were but two divisions in each league.

Twenty-one years later, the Wild Card emerged as the last refuge of lost souls. The ultimately 88-74 A’s collapsed like it was 2007 around here, yet hung on just enough to suggest maybe they’d have a little 1999 in them. Our 1999, I mean. Once you’re in what’s become “the tournament,” anything can happen. The Mets lost seven in a row fifteen Septembers ago and lived to play ball for several weeks thereafter as a born again Wild Card. The A’s of Lester and Fuld and Brandon “What’s Your Favorite Kind Of [4]” Moss survived their plunge and bounced back to grab leads of 2-0 and 7-3 in their institutionalized play-in game. If they could nail down six tantalizing outs, they could seek to avenge the Angels the way the Mets long ago got one more shot at the Braves, an encounter that didn’t quite work out, but boy it was fun trying to make it happen [5].

At the wrong end of instant Wild Card history waited another set of lost souls, the 89-73 Kansas City Royals, framed in the Internet age as some sort of unfrozen caveman franchise [6]. The Royals had won a World Series in 1985 and then, apparently, went on hiatus. The brief run-up to this showdown centered on “since 1985 this” and “since 1985 that” because since 1985, the Royals were very absent from games of surpassing heft. The most loyal denizens of western Missouri and eastern Kansas knew different, but save for producing the occasional Carlos Beltran and then sending him out into the world to seek his fortune, the Royals had ceased to exist at the time of year when profiles and stakes grew as high as the sky on the Fourth of July.

The first playoff game featuring the Kansas City Royals since…1985 kept this viewer entranced (the MVP of that World Series, Bret Saberhagen, would eventually pitch against fellow future Met Bartolo Colon [7], who won us a game Sunday, so really, how long ago could have 1985 been?). The principals and the setting alone made tuning in worthwhile, regardless of trajectories to come. The Royals? The A’s? In that ballpark with the fountains and the regal crest for a scoreboard? In prime time? You sure this wasn’t Monday Night Baseball circa 1976?

No sign of Howard Cosell or his yellow ABC blazer, so it must have been current. Moss hit a contemporary two-run homer in the top of the first. The Royals weren’t fazed and took a lead in the third. Lester settled in like the ace he was acquired to be. Big Game James Shields, proprietor of one of your more descriptive modern nicknames, gave his team five innings.

Then two A’s reached in the sixth, the Big Game guy was removed and a generally effective starting pitcher named Yordano Ventura was brought in by Ned Yost or perhaps accident to relieve. That, in essence, is how it got to be 7-3, A’s. (I’m no expert on the Royals bullpen, but if I’ve learned anything watching Terry Collins manage, it’s that you never bring in anybody not named Carlos Torres prior to the eighth.) Moss hit another home run, more A’s reached base and then scored after Ventura was replaced…it was good catching up with you, Kansas City. If you grow another Beltran, be sure to let us know.

As of the bottom of the eighth, this was going to be a great A’s story of redemption. Except for one thing. The TBS announcing crew was patting the Royals on the head and slingshotting them into next season. I’m pretty sure I heard Ron Darling say something to the effect of this Kansas City ballclub isn’t going anywhere, they definitely have a bright future.

Unaligned baseball fan intuition tingled. Announcers throwing dirt on playoff clubs who are still within a couple of swings of changing the conversation can only serve to change the conversation that much quicker. Thus, imbued with the sense that Darling and less listenable temporary buddies had tinkered with karma, I watched Lester not get out of the eighth and the Royals run like artificial turf had been reinstalled at Kauffman Stadium. Three different players stole a base; I’m not sure one of them wasn’t Willie Wilson [8]. Kansas City pulled to within 7-6.

My eyelids lost their will more than the Royals ever did. As I was nodding off in the bottom of the ninth, the Royals tied it at seven. I ascertained it was still tied at seven when my eyelids gave me a reprieve in the eleventh. As bunts and thefts and blue blurred on the television, KC came from behind once more to prevail [9], 9-8, in twelve. I had no idea how it got to be 8-7 A’s, let alone 8-8 or 9-8 Royals (the same score Armando Benitez could not protect in the tenth inning of October 19, 1999), but I assumed Onix Concepcion [10] was involved.

The last bottom of the twelfth this epic I slept through featured Carlton Fisk willing a fly ball over the Green Monster. I dozed that seventh-grade night at 6-6. I woke up moments after to discover there’d be a Game Seven of the 1975 World Series. In this case, there is no figurative tomorrow. It was Game One of one and only. Fine for Kansas City, which packs its magic for Disneyland. Terrible for Oakland, where the fans remain ridiculously hardy in the face of literal raw sewage [11], and the players — decade after decade — continue to undermine their general manager’s reputation at the worst possible moments. Something told me that if our fallen 2007 heroes and somehow landed in a hypothetical do-or-die Wild Card game that was five years from being invented, this was the outcome that would have awaited them. So thank you for that much, T#m Gl@v!ne, wherever you are.

What will happen over the rest of this postseason? My intuition isn’t saying just yet.

Meanwhile, as a Kansas City-based band [12] we like would say, Jason’s got something to show you on the other side of the world [13].