The Last Game

In all those trying years when the Kansas City Royals were but a blinking, barely visible blip on the Major League Baseball radar, old baseball fans around town would sometimes talk about the old days. “You wouldn’t believe it,” the conversations would begin, “but Kansas City used to be a baseball town.”

Nobody did believe it … well, nobody too young to remember believed it. For almost a quarter-century, the Royals slogged and wheezed through forgettable year after lamentable year. From 1990 to 2012, 23 soul-crushing seasons, the Royals never won even 85 games in a season. Eight times they lost 95 games. Ten different managers piloted the team to 442 more losses than victories; two of those managers were of the interim variety because a manager was fired midseason. One, the loyal Bob Schaefer, served as an interim manager twice.

The litany of crimes the Royals committed against baseball over those years was staggering. As a columnist for The Kansas City Star, I used to get almost daily requests to list them off the way Elton John might get requests to sing “Rocket Man.” There was the time two outfielders converged on a fly ball and upon arrival of the landing spot looked at each other and, fully satisfied, began to jog in toward the dugout … the ball landed behind them.

There was the time a runner took a lead off first base, safely returned to the bag when the pitcher threw over and then, somehow, the runner lost his balance and fell slowly, like a statue being toppled over, until he was on the ground and off the bag and tagged out.

There was the time a shortstop lost a ball in the sun because his prescription sunglasses had not yet arrived, and another time that an outfielder without sunglasses also lost a ball in the sun and got hit in the face with a fly ball. He did wear his sunglasses on the plane home that night to shield the shiner.

There was the time the Royals considered signing a softball pitcher who balked on every delivery, and another time they thought of hiring a sketch artist to draw paintings of pitchers in motion for the coaches to analyze. There was the time, during a 19-game losing streak, when the Royals were one out away from finally winning but the left fielder dropped a routine fly ball and the Royals ended up losing. The drop is not even the story. The story is how Royals longtime announcer Denny Matthews called the play: “Fly ball to left and … he dropped it. Yes he did.”

I used to think of that call as the Royals version of “The Giants win the pennant.”

There are more, so many more, like the time the Royals lost when a ball was hit into a flock of seagulls, and the time a pitcher threw the ball 20 feet over a catcher’s head to lose another, and the time a different pitcher slipped on the rosin bag to lose another, and the time a Royals first baseman acting as a cutoff man was hit smack in the back with a throw from an outfielder, and — my favorite one of all — the time a Royals centerfielder climbed the centerfield wall to try and rob a home run only to watch the ball drop 10 feet in front of him, bang off the warning track and bounce over his head.

These ridiculous, silly, painful but funny moments were all Kansas City Royals fans had for a very long time.

And then this group came along, this remarkable group that gave Kansas City baseball back.

Sunday was the end, though, In truth, the end had been coming for a long while. The Royals won back-to-back pennants in 2014 and 2015, they won the World Series in the second of those years, and that team had already scattered to the wind. The Royals unhittable bullpen, featuring Wade Davis and Greg Holland, had broken apart. The Royals starting pitchers in the 2015 World Series were Edinson Volquez (Marlins), Johnny Cueto (Giants), Chris Young (trying to get back to the big leagues) and the much-missed Yordano Ventura, who died tragically at age 25 this offseason.

The versatile Ben Zobrist was a key part of that team; he is with the Cubs now. The speedy Jarrod Dyson is with Seattle. Scattered to the wind.

But Sunday marked the real end because Sunday was perhaps the last Kansas City game for three Royals who changed the entire tone of Kansas City baseball.

Those three players: Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain.

All three are free agents. All three will probably sign somewhere else.

There are others who played a significant role in the Royals turnaround, and I do not mean to dismiss them, particularly shortstop Alcides Escobar, who is also a free agent and is often mentioned with the other three. Escobar has unquestionably been an important part of the Royals run as an indestructible shortstop who plays everyday and is a solid defender.

There are others who are staying — catcher Salvy Perez and outfielder Alex Gordon among others — who also played important parts in the Royals turn.

But I think Moose, Hos and Cain played a unique role in making Kansas City baseball marvelous again. They did it with their spirit as well as their talent.

In those trying years, the Royals were always starting over with new plans. For a couple of years, they would try to win with young players. Then they would bring in a few veterans. Then they would go back to youth. They paid too much for free agents who were almost but not quite washed up. They rushed some prospects because they needed help, and buried others because some semi-pricey vet was already filling the spot. They had good ideas that fizzled because of bad luck, and bad ideas that fizzled because they were bad ideas. And, always, ringing in the background, the money problems of the small market team echoed.

Then the Royals drafted Moustakas and Hosmer in back-to-back years, not only because they both had the precious talent that Kansas City lacked (power) but because they seemed confident, cocky even. That cockiness was what Royals general manager Dayton Moore wanted more than anything. He wanted players who would not be drowned by the overwhelming weight of the Royals’ longtime awfulness.

“Guys,” Moore told them after they were drafted, “this is YOUR team. I don’t want to put pressure on you, but that’s how it is. The Royals will go as far as you carry us.”

They had their good seasons and their bad ones. Moustakas just set the Royals record for home runs in a season but there was a time when he struggled so much that the Royals sent him to the minors and just hoped SOMETHING would click. Hosmer, too, is coming off a superb offensive year, but throughout his years in Kansas City he would go through bizarre and prolonged power outages when it seemed he could barely hit the ball out of the infield.

Through it all, though, there was something sturdy about Moose and Hos. No matter how well they were playing, they had this boldness. They LIKED being Kansas City Royals. They BELIEVED the Royals were going to win it all. Nothing, it seemed, could shake their confidence or darken their optimism. When the various prediction systems had them finishing in fourth or fifth place and out of the running, they were not offended. They loved it. They wanted to prove people wrong. If along the way they could prove wrong a few prognostication formulas with names like PECOTA, well, even better.

When I think of the Royals run, I think first of Eric Hosmer’s mad dash home against the New York Mets in the decisive game of the World Series. He once told me that as he started down the line, he had a brief but utterly clear realization that breaking for home might not be the most sensible of plays. “Then I thought, ‘Well, I guess I’m doing this,’” Hosmer said, and he beat a poor throw home, and the Royals won, and the play became a part of baseball history. The uniform of that slide is in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Lo Cain’s contribution was different. I once made the observation that — though you have to mess around with the spelling a bit — Lo Cain in Hebrew means No (Lo) and Yes (Ken). And for years, Lo Cain brought out that combination of words from Royals fans.

“No,” they would shout when the ball was hit.

“Yes,” they would shout when Cain somehow ran it down and caught it.

He played centerfield with astonishing brilliance. It wasn’t just that he made all the plays. He made all the plays look easy. Yes, on the surface it seems crazy that Cain never won a Gold Glove. But then you think about it: Cain doesn’t make the diving, leaping, scrambling plays that so impress the masses (no matter how roundabout the route or how poor the jump). Instead, because of his unparalleled instincts, his long stride, his perfect routes, his fluidity, he made impossible caches look like nothing.

The Statcast™ people once showed me a video of Cain and Mike Trout chasing almost identical fly balls — they balls were so similar that each outfielder had to run exactly the same distance. Trout (one of the most athletic players of our generation) didn’t come close to catching the ball; it flew over his head. Cain caught it in perfect stride, as if it was just one more errand to run on the way to the grocery store.

When Cain was at his best, it was all but impossible to hit a fly ball for a hit against Kansas City. Alex Gordon was terrific in left field too, so that helped. That outfield defense was, in many ways, the very heart of those Royals teams. The stole doubles. They threw out adventurous runners. They made good pitchers better.

Those three players as much as anyone lifted Kansas City; not just the team but the whole city. Royals flags began flapping the MIdwestern wind. Royals hats popped up everywhere. Malls went Royals blue. Royals television ratings blew up; at times it seemed like everyone in town tuned in. It did not matter where you went within a 100-mile radius of Kansas City, people were talking Royals baseball. When the Royals won the World Series, the parade boggled the imagination. Crowd estimates varied, but the point really was that there was no way that the parade could have been any bigger. No city could fall more madly in love with a sports team.

Now the Royals will try to go on, and there will be those who question the wisdom of Dayton Moore and his staff for hanging on to those players, not dealing them off for prospects as the end so obviously approached. Moore considered it but ultimately decided to hold on. He wanted to give Moose and Hos and Cain one more chance to pull off a miracle. He thought they deserved that. He thought Kansas City deserved that too.

It didn’t work out, not really, not as far as the playoffs go. They did have Sunday, though. On Sunday, Hosmer and Moustakas, Cain and Escobar were all taken out of the game at the same time. The four embraced as the ovation overwhelmed them. Moustakas wore sunglasses because, as he said, he was a wreck. Escobar wore sunglasses too. Cain was stoic, as always. Hosmer took off his cap and waved to the crowd; you sense that, like the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz, Hosmer is the one Kansas City will miss most of all. He homered Sunday, and that led to one final glorious cheer.

When Hos when got to the dugout Moose grabbed him and said in his ear: “You’re what legends are made of.”

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