When I was much younger, my father took me and my brother to a the last game of the season for the Kansas City Royals.
We went to a lot of games when I was a kid - one summer, it seemed like we were out at the ballpark every other night - but this game sticks in my mind. It was the the late 80’s or early 90s. Back then the Royals were pretty good, posting a winning record most years, but the MLB structure of the time lumped the Royals into the huge American League West division, which featured seven teams and only one playoff spot each season. They were never good enough to break through and make the playoffs.
That year, the Royals were well out of the race, and the final month of the season was meaningless in the grand scheme of things. The last game of the season was especially pointless.
But we had an absolute blast that day. The stadium was on the verge of being empty. The orange seats of the Royals Stadium (yes, this was in the pre-Kauffman Stadium days) upper deck were a vast sea nothingness, and they belonged to us. The players were having fun down there on the field, looking forward to their pending winter vacation, and it rubbed off on the handful of us in the crowd. After the game, we waited outside the stadium and collected autographs. All the players were signing that day. All of them were happy. One of the players (Danny Tartabull, maybe?) left the stadium in a huge fur coat, a woman on each arm, and climbed into the back of the biggest limousine I’ve ever seen.
As for the game itself? I remember nothing. I just remember the atmosphere that day.
Flash forward twenty or so years to Sunday afternoon. The 2013 version of the Royals were playing their last home game of the season. That game was much different. The Royals were in the midst of a Wild Card race, the first time they had been playoff contenders for a decade. After battling the Texas Rangers into extra innings, Justin Maxwell blasted a walk-off grand slam for the win.
And it was arguably the most important moment in Royals history since Game 7 of the 1985 World Series.
Yes, the Royals were sadly eliminated from contention a few nights later. But when this season started, could you have imagined the Royals competing for a wild card spot?
This team was written off multiple times during the season - even before the season began.
When the team traded top prospect Wil Myers to Tampa for James Shields, they were written off as an organization with its head placed firmly up its butt.
When the Royals lost on Opening Day, they were written off as a team that couldn’t even win with Shields, a legitimate ace, on the mound.
When the team went 8-20 in the month of May, they were written off as the same old Royals, with no hopes for postseason play.
When the Royals lost 10 out of 12 after a stretch where they went 17-3 spanning late July and early August, they were written off as a team that couldn’t stay on a roll.
And in the heat of the playoff race, every time the Royals lost a game, they were written off.
But the truth is, the Royals were contenders through the first 158 games of the 2013 season. And this season was no fluke; the 2014 Royals should be just as strong, if not stronger. They won’t be written off so quickly in the future.
Which makes last Sunday’s home finale that much more important.
It wasn’t just an amazing, walk-off, extra-innings win in front of a sellout crowd. Sunday’s game was a message to the rest of Major League Baseball: The Royals are not a joke anymore. The Royals are for real. They may be eliminated in 2013, but any opponents who write off the Royals in the future will regret it.
- Matt Kelsey