The Royals Brought Out the BEST In All of Us

On Tuesday, September 30th, the Kansas City Royals hosted their first postseason playoff game in 29 years… On that night, history was made, but it wasn’t the only incredible thing that happened…

On Tuesday, Sept. 30th, the Kansas City Royals hosted their first postseason playoff game in 29 years, defeating the Oakland Athletics 9-8 in the AL Wild Card game, before a capacity crowd of more than 40,000 screaming, win-hungry fans. In a game that lasted 4 hours and 45 minutes and ending well after midnight, the contest featured 7 lead changes, 2 monster home runs (both by Oakland), questionable managerial moves, and a city being rewarded for waiting an entire generation for their beloved ball club to advance into the post season. It was one of the most incredible games I’ve ever witnessed, both as a former player and an avid baseball fan, and I’m still not sure I’ve ever seen a team with more grit and resolve than these Royals. On that night, history was made, but it wasn’t the only incredible thing that happened. It’s funny how the crescendo of 29 years in waiting can turn a 1 game, must-win night into something so much more. Baseball has a way of bringing out the best in humanity, and on this magical night, with my 13 yr. old son in tow, I saw beyond the game, beyond the stadium, beyond the mundane effects of everyday life. I saw the human spirit, and it was good.

My boys have never seen me play a major league game for 2 reasons. First, because they aren’t old enough, and second, because I didn’t play long enough to allow a person to blink and still remember my name, number and position (Norman, 16/25, outfield). As sons of a former big leaguer, they are unimpressed that I wore that uniform. Not because of my lack of quality statistics, but because I made it not a big deal. I’ve raised them to measure a person by their character, not what they do, to focus on what a person is like when they are squeezed, since it’s at that particular intersection where pressure and emotion collide that the mark of a man is truly revealed. Their Dad has an air of “cool” to him when he gets mentioned on the airwaves, but it’s the Eric Hosmers and Billy Butlers of the world that receive their biggest sports attention. Since this Royals game was do-or-die (not sure I like this 2-team wild card setup) and it might be they only one they play, I left it to my bride and boys as to who would be my lucky companion this night, and the overwhelming choice was my oldest son. He’s 13, loves baseball, and most likely the only one that could stay awake that long and wouldn’t want to leave early, even though he does have to pee more than my bride does. We left early to tailgate, and by tailgate I mean that I ate while he did his homework. Upon completion of meal and mathematics, we entered the stadium shortly after the initial throng of early birds burst upon the gates, and after a brief cruise through the Hall of Fame, we found our seats (and they were awesome!) at approx. 1 hour before first pitch. We saw some friends, grabbed yet even more food from the concession stand, and talked baseball. I had been looking so forward to this night for the opportunity to cheer on the one MLB team that gave me a chance to realize my boyhood dream as a pro player, and to have my son with me was the cake, the filling, the icing and the ice cream all in one. An incredible rendition of the Star Spangled Banner echoed through the almost full stadium, followed by an even more glorious fly-over by 10 jets in the shape of a B-2 Bomber, then an honorable first pitch and starting lineups to close the pregame, and it was time to watch the boys in blue do their thing…and then it happened. At about 7:05pm on Sept. 30th, 2014, sitting in section 214, row CC, seats 1 and 2, my son turned to me and said something I’ll never forget: “Dad, win or lose, this will be an awesome game because I’m here with you.” My heart melted. My too-cool-for-school, drop-me-off-a-block-from-school-so-nobody-sees- me-with-you son peeled back a layer of his onion to say thanks, and ‘I love you’. There are many reasons I love the game of baseball, but that was a big one. It can bring loved ones closer together, and just when you think it’s about the score and the homers and the strikeouts, you realize it’s about the time you spend with your loved ones enjoying the greatest game ever invented.

If there’s one thing I’ve always noticed when finding your seat at an MLB game, it’s the angry, ‘Who are you and how did you get those seats?’ look most people give you. We all seem to have that protective barrier that we won’t let strangers past, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for just the simple defensive mechanism of not letting anyone close in on us. My son and I like to get to our seats early (A trait my bride does NOT share) so we can watch batting practice, avoid long bathroom and food lines, and have some breathing room before the big crowd hits. I’m a big people watcher, so seeing the families, couples, prospect-adoring teens and first game rookies find their way is extremely entertaining for me. I’m a firm believer in the phrase ‘behind every face there’s a drama unfolding’, and this night was no different. Grown-ups wrestling kids for BP foul balls (we were on the third base line), moms corralling 3 kids under the age of 6 while dad stood sipping his beer and explaining to anyone who would listen why the Royals just can’t beat LHP John Lester, is all part of the experience. And then, the game starts. I’ve been to games where the electricity seems palpable, but this was beyond the normal shockwave. Every pitch, every out, every hit had meaning, and when something went well for the home town team, bitter-looking faces showed release. Life’s issues weren’t so big anymore. There really was joy in Mudville, and it wore white and Royal blue.

By the 8th inning, the Royals had not only erased a 4-run deficit, but tied the game with a combination of stolen bases, bloop hits and a few well-placed laser beams. Fans were now jumping in the aisles, and 3+ hours into the game, we all knew who to go to for a high five. What began as an aura of ‘don’t invade my space’ turned into an ‘I’ll catch you if you fall’. There were no bad jobs, or lack thereof. No bad relationships, no sickness or death, no addictions. There was just baseball. And joy. Indescribable joy. After the Royals half of the 9th, I remember noticing that nobody had left. The clock was pushing 11pm on a school night, and as the camera panned the crowd for fans’ homemade signs in between innings, there were many kids that you just knew would struggle the next day. Then, there was the 91 year old woman who held up a sign begging for a Royals win because she wouldn’t be around another 29 years. Or the man telling his wife to let the kids stay up and watch, jumping wildly as he discovered he was on camera, which caused me to laugh out loud upon realizing that the man was my urologist. I even witnessed a sign held by a man which read “Alex Gordon, will you marry my wife? I’m ok with it!”. A scoreless 10th & 11th. In the 12th, the A’s pushed across the go-ahead run, leaving the weary, yet hopeful crowd wondering if the gas had officially run out of all of our tanks, including the players’. With one out, Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer hit a triple off of the left field wall, and the place came unglued. These guys just wouldn’t give up, and even if they tried, these fans wouldn’t let them. Utility inf. Christian Colon plated Hosmer with a high-chopping infield single to tie it, and 80,000 feet danced gleefully in unison. Colon stole second, then with 2 outs, the hitless and struggling Salvador Perez hooked a slider down the left field line to plate Colon with the winning run as pandemonium ensued. The team celebration, which usually starts at first base and ends somewhere in the middle infield, culminated in deep center. Closer Greg Holland grabbed the giant Royals flag from Slugrrrr the Mascot and ran around the infield, wavy it wildly, most assuredly causing heart palpitations for pitching coach Dave Eiland. Reporters began their foot race to catch quick sound bites with Hosmer, Shields and Perez. The camera caught George Brett brushing back his thinning, golden hair with 2 hands, sporting a look as if to say “These ****ing guys did it!” The stars aligned. The Mojo was back. The champagne corks popped once again, while the scouts jumped cabs to the airport to catch a plane to LA to prep for the team with the likely MVP and the best record in the AL. And everyone was happy…

They say that the best players in the world can slow the game down under pressure. I felt that once, but only for about a 30 at-bat stretch in the minor leagues. You can’t describe how you are doing what you are doing, you only know it’s comes slowly and easily. You feel every body part, know exactly what each will do, and sometimes, you feel as though you know the outcome before it happens. When the final run scored, my wonderful son jumped into my arms and yelled with what was left of his fading voice. The 240 lb. man behind me picked up his 185lb father and hugged him, yelling “Thank you Dad! I Love You!” The couple in front of me kissed, combining their steady in-game diet of pizza and popcorn. The group of 5 heavily intoxicated men in front of them, all around age 65, stumbled to attempt just one successful high five. The frumpy man next to me waved his rally towel, and the two 20-something girls to my back left cried. The 3 kids behind them were now shirtless, screaming, and hurdling over people like Edwin Moses in his hey day, and everybody loved everybody. In that amazing moment of unscripted chaos, I paused, watched my son high-fiving the young man next to him, then looked to the sky as light raindrops pattered my silky-smooth bald head, and I remembered why I love this game so much. Baseball brings people together. It takes us to places where, for just a short time, our troubles are put on hold. Our natural tendency to judge and hate erodes, slowly, but surely. It no longer matters how we speak, what we say, what we wear, where we work, who our friends are, or why we think the way we do. It’s just baseball, and it brings out the human spirit…and on this day, it was good…

While exiting ‘The K’ amid the cacophonous sounds of honking horns and “Let’s Go Royals!”, I pulled up slowly to the parking attendant waving his airport-like flashlight, haphazardly directing traffic as if we didn’t know where to go. “Long night for you!”, I commented in an attempt to show compassion. He would respond with the sentence that capped one of the best nights of my sports life. “On a night like this, it don’t matter.”, he uttered. “As long as these fans see a winner, I’ll stay out here all night.” By the looks of my rear-view mirror, he may very-well have stayed there all night, exhausted, but selflessly doing his job with a smile, so others could enjoy their night. I couldn’t see his name tag because it was too dark, but whoever you are, thank you. To all the fans that sat around me, thank you. And to my son, in whom I am attempting to raise to appreciate his gifts and be in service of others, thank YOU, and you were right. It was the best game ever, but not because of the score. It was because I was there with you.