The 2013 Royals season has been described on Twitter, in the papers, and by word of mouth as a roller coaster of a season. For a team that has spent the better part of almost three decades languishing in irrelevance and embarrassment, I picked an interesting time to become a fan (summer 2012) because of all the attention the 2013 team got. The 2012 team performed below fan expectations but right about at the expectations of the rest of the country, and aside from the long and embarrassing 12-game losing streak in April 2012, nothing happened to the team that year that was really worth noting. (Side note: If you google "Royals losing streak" without tagging on a year, the number of results that come up is horrifying.) So in other words, it was the perfect time for a gal to become a fan. No fanfare, no relevance, no bandwagon accusations could have possibly been leveled at me in 2012.
The 2013 season, however, has been entirely different. In my opinion, the season itself can be summed up with a series of capital-letter terms that mark key events and turning points throughout the year.
And, despite being the 2013 season, it all truly began in 2012, on December 10, with The Trade. I remember this clearly because on December 11, I was tasked with the purchase of a newspaper for my brother, whose firstborn daughter had arrived that day, and I was pleased to see that my niece's front-page day-of-birth story was none other than a full-page devotion to discussion of the blockbuster trade that sent Wil Myers (and other young prospects) to the Tampa Bay Rays for James Shields (and Wade Davis and a PTBNL, who turned out to be Elliot Johnson). The Trade sparked a flurry of discussion, speculation, outrage, and delight, all surrounding the Royals, the likes of which hadn't been seen in Kansas City since at least the previous summer with the All-Star Game hullabaloo. And before that? Who knows. It was intense, and whether one loved or hated it, everyone - even casual fans, even my Boston Red Sox fan, new-daddy brother - had an opinion about The Trade. And we still had to wait three whole months for spring training to begin to even see a glimpse of what Shields would bring to our team. So we waited. And we discussed. And we speculated. And we feared.
And then spring training came. And the Royals breezed through spring training without a hitch, playing some of the best - and most meaningless - baseball the city had ever seen. Hopefuls like myself took it as a good sign that the team had figured things out, that Eric Hosmer would return to his fabled 2011 form (fabled because I never saw it, not being a fan back then), that Mike Moustakas would also break out as the star he had once been projected to be. Casual fans were mildly interested in the spring training success, and skeptics were, well, skeptic, of course. And the rest of MLB and its fans looked on and laughed. "Look at the Royals; they're doing so well in spring training, and it's making their fans hopeful. Isn't that cute?"
And then April came, and the Royals came out of the gate hot, marching their way to a winning first month, and causing local sports radio to spend hours on end each day discussing them. Even the non-sports stations threw in mentions every now and then. The general notion was surprise with a hint of, "But it's only April; can it last?" And, of course, the rest of MLB and its fans looked on and laughed. "Look at the Royals; they're doing so well in April, and it's making their fans hopeful. Isn't that cute?" Even so, the Royals weren't without their struggles in April. They battled through every kind of delay possible in both April and May. There were rain delays, snow delays, manhunt delays, you name it. (Yes, a Royals game scheduled in Boston was actually postponed because the city was on lockdown while the police hunted for the Boston Marathon terrorist - whom they found that same day, just about an hour before it would've been game time.) The number of off days - both scheduled and unscheduled - that the Royals had in April and early May had many wondering if baseball season had actually begun. We were deprived of everyday baseball for so long that it was painful, torturous.
And then, the month of May happened. There was an 11-game home losing streak as well as a straight-up 8-game losing streak. The Royals only won 8 games in the month of May, compared to 20 losses. The month of May contained such capital-letter incidents as The Pull, The New Hitting Coach, and The Rain Delay Win. May is the month that everyone points back to now that the Royals have lost out on the postseason. "If only it hadn't been for May..." It's always something with the Royals, it seems. Each year, though, there are so many "if onlys" that listing them becomes ludicrous. But this year, with the Royals having a winning month in every single month except May, that terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad month of baseball really is the one culprit keeping us out of playing October baseball this year.
May started out just fine. The Royals won their first three games of the month. And then they began to lose, starting with The Pull. I'm not about to get into the details of whether Ned Yost should've pulled Shields from that game. It was a surprise to me, and the loss that resulted was certainly heartbreaking. Did Yost make the wrong call? Probably. Is hindsight 20/20, and am I great at pretending I know something about baseball from my couch? Absolutely. The superstitious (and even the little stitious) among us will point to that date as the reason the horrendous month of May happened. It's true that there's a correlation, but I don't think it's true that there's a cause and effect relationship there.
Something else that manifested in the month of May was the fact that Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas sucked. Of course, that was true in 2012 too, but for some reason it just became extremely noticeable and embarrassing in May. And nobody knew what to do about it. Nobody had any explanation for it. So, in an act of desperation that also served as a PR stunt, the Royals fired their hitting coaches and named George Brett to be the interim hitting coach. This appeased and excited fans and made it look like the organization was doing something. There was so much buzz around George Brett wearing a uniform and being in the dugout again. Even though I wasn't a Royals fan as a kid, I did grow up in the metro area, so I've long known and understood the reverence with which Kansas City views George Brett. So even I got excited about what it might mean for him to be part of the team staff.
And then, of course, to cap off the month and end the losing streak, the Royals ended up powering through The Rain Delay to beat the Cardinals in what will for sure be one of the most remembered games from 2013. So many crazy things happened that night, including a clutch home run from Jeff Francoeur that kept the Royals in the game before the four-hour delay began; Jeremy Guthrie and other Royals players helping prepare the field for play after the long delay; and Mike Moustakas handing out snacks to the few fans remaining in the stands, to name a couple.
The brave, the committed, the few stayed awake in Kansas City to see the Royals hang on to get that win against the hated Cardinals. Except for the fact that the umpires knew the Royals had already had a lot of games canceled due to weather, I can't imagine why Joe West insisted the game be played that night. Waiting out long rain delays seems like something you would do at the end of the season, in a postseason push, or in the postseason. It must have been abnormal for the crew to decide to wait out the delay, but that's what they decided, so that's what we did. And things felt especially emotional that night. We had just lost three in a row to St. Louis, and two of the losses had been at home, in front of near-sellout crowds that contained more Cardinal red in the stands than Royal blue. Jeremy Guthrie had been out-dueled that night by rookie Michael Wacha making his MLB debut. We were still trying to shake off the irregularities in our schedule, the insane number of scheduled off days and unscheduled postponements we'd already had on the year. Our hearts were breaking from a month of bad baseball after two months of hope and promise. That win meant so much to so many, and those of us who stayed up together on Twitter to await the final result will be forever bonded by the memory of that game.
Following the craziness of May, June was relatively quiet, except for the fact that it seemed George Brett had magically fixed Eric Hosmer, and there were hopeful signs with Moustakas too. The Royals started winning again, finished June with a winning record, and headed toward the All-Star Break having renewed fans' hope. And then, on July 3, The Collision happened, and Kauffman was quiet and fearful for what seemed like an eternity as Alex Gordon - toughest of the tough - lay on the ground in left field after colliding with the bullpen wall, and didn't get up. I've seen other players get hurt and take awhile to get up. I was there when Jose Reyes messed up his ankle at second base and had to be carried off the field. I've seen both Cain and Lough take outfield spills and take some time to get up. But this was Alex. Alex, who, when he collides with a wall, you hear the wall complain. Alex, who dives and rolls and slams then pops right back up immediately. Alex, who hits things twice as hard as Cain and gets up twice as fast. Alex, who never even shakes off a rough collision, just comes up smiling and blowing bubbles with his gum. That same Alex lay, hardly moving, in left field, and my heart was in my throat. I was sitting in the upper deck along the first-base line, so I couldn't see much of anything. All I knew for sure was that the minutes were passing, and Alex wasn't getting up. Eventually, of course, he did get up, and he walked off the field on his own, which was a relief. But he looked more shaken than I've ever seen him, and I've never been more scared about a possible DL stint. If this team needs anybody to stay healthy, it's Alex. I couldn't begin to imagine what the outfield would look like without Alex standing out there every day (or most days). Relying on Jeff Francoeur even more heavily? I didn't even want to consider it.
Luckily, Alex didn't go on the DL and was only out a couple of games (fewer than he later took off for paternity leave), so it was a moot point, and then Frenchy himself was released just two days after The Collision. The Release was a day of mixed emotions for almost everyone. We were all happy for the indication that management recognized that Francoeur wasn't a solution for right field. But everybody likes Francoeur (me most of all, as you doubtless recall). So, while we were happy to be losing a huge liability in RF, I do think most of us were also pretty sad to be losing the personality and congeniality that came with RF. And, of course, we all miss his throwing arm. But we've survived.
The Royals dashed fans' hopes again by going on a skid right before the All-Star Break. Luckily, however, the disappointment that should've pervaded through the break was dissipated by the news that three Royals players - yes, three - had made the All-Star team. Fans who are smarter than I am (or like spending time searching for that stuff more than I do) would be able to tell you when the last time was that three Royals players were named to the All-Star Game, but just know that it's been many years. It came down to the wire too. We knew immediately there were two (Alex Gordon and Salvador Perez both got voted in as reserves), and we were excited enough about that, since it had been years and years since the Royals had had more than the token player required from each team. And then, shortly before the game, we found out that Greg Holland had been named to the team as well, and we all got drunk on the excitement. And the game itself was special. My eyes teared up when I watched Alex jog out to left field, when I watched Sal stalk out in his gear to the plate. And then they brought Holland in to pitch during the same inning that Perez and Gordon played, which meant that, for a moment in baseball history, Royals players comprised one-third of the on-field American League All-Star Team. It was an emotional and proud moment in Kansas City.
And then, of course, after the All-Star Break, all hell broke loose when the Royals embarked on The Streak. The nine-game winning streak was the first time that I noticed people begin to say "If only..." about the month of May. For me, the most exciting part of The Streak was the fact that, post-ASB, national media and other fanbases were still talking about the Royals. And they weren't laughing anymore. Yes, they were all surprised, and the discussion wasn't without its sarcastic jabs, but that comes with the territory of a losing legacy like the one the Royals have created, and everyone had begun to recognize that the Royals were doing something that might be worth watching.
The Royals cruised to a winning July, and then things got really exciting. We had reached August 1, and the Royals were above .500. Twitter was abuzz, radio was abuzz, the Kansas City Star was abuzz. Everyone was so excited that we were about to play some relevant baseball in August. Historic! Hasn't been done in a decade! Chiefs training camp had begun by this time, and people were happy to have the problem of wanting to discuss both the Royals and the Chiefs on August 1. And, on August 1, Lorenzo Cain amped up that excitement by making The Catch. The Catch is arguably my personal favorite moment from 2013, although what I'm about to describe from September certainly competes. But someone from the Star (probably John Sleezer, but I'm not sure) took the picture that made the front page the day after The Catch. It is a picture that shows the pure delight of the Royals bullpen pitchers, in front of which Cain happened to make the Game-Saving, Trevor-Plouffe-Home-Run-Robbing Catch, and no fan can look at that picture and not smile. August was another winning month for the Royals, and in great ways. (My birthday also occurred in August, and brought a 13-0 win against the Twins, as well as the Fountain Mom excitement.)
And then we rolled into September, above .500, playing relevant baseball, and with an outside shot at a wildcard spot. By that time, the fanbase was out of control. A commonly trending hashtag on Twitter was #TheHuntForBlueOctober, and people started discussing how they would finance postseason tickets. I never got that crazy because I know I'll never in a million years be able to afford postseason baseball tickets for any team in any city, but especially since the Royals themselves, once things got into mid-September and it became clear we were still in the race, invoiced season ticketholders with one of the highest postseason markups in the history of baseball. Of course, if the Royals didn't make the postseason, then that money could be applied toward 2014 season ticket costs. But to hear some of the numbers season ticketholders quoted, it sounded to me like it would finance 2015 and 2016 season ticket costs as well! (They denied that it was that bad, but I'm still unsure.)
The Royals, hesitant to disappoint an ecstatic fanbase, certainly made September an exciting ride. Our proximity to the wildcard made every win exhilarating, but the number of teams we had to overcome to achieve a wildcard spot made every loss heartbreaking. In the span of a few short days, we experienced the extreme high that accompanied The Throw, the extreme low that accompanied The Mismanagement, and then another high from The Double Steal. Alcides Escobar has been the target of some vitriol from fans this year, based on his poor batting average, and also the fact that it has become clear that 2012 was a career year for him defensively, and he has showed some regression in range, skill, and basic baseball smarts this year. But, as the middle man in The Throw that Alex got in from the outfield that Alcides then relayed from third base to Sal to get Prince Fielder at the plate and save a very important game against the Tigers, Escobar vaulted himself into esteem with the fans. And then he increased it a few short days later against the Indians, when he and Alex executed The Double Steal, which put them both in pickle situations that they both miraculously got out of, allowing Escobar to score and Alex to take second base. I'm not sure how many times a steal of home plate has been attempted this year, but the only other success I know of is the rookie from the Astros who did it earlier in the summer. I was at the game where Escobar did it, and I was screaming my head off at Alex because, since Bonifacio (who was at the plate) missed the sign and didn't swing at the pitch, the play looked unplanned and bone-headed. I only found out later, listening to Ned on the post-game show, that the play had been called for, and Bonifacio had screwed up his part. If you haven't clicked on any other links in this post thus far, The Throw and The Double Steal are worth a watch. I promise.
Between those two highs was the game where Yost so obviously mismanaged Jeremy Guthrie that even I, listening on the radio during a 17-mile run, knew that Yost was making a bad call. To sum up, Guthrie had been getting knocked around all game long by the Tigers. He spent the entire game working himself out of jams. He should've come out around the 6th inning or so, and many were surprised that he was left in for 7, but everyone knew he wouldn't come out in the 8th. After all, the game was tied, 2-2. The Royals actually had a chance to win, and Guthrie had been getting lucky. The game was relevant and important. No manager in his right mind would bring out his starter for yet another inning in that situation, especially with Avila, the guy who had already hit a home run off that same pitcher earlier in the game, coming to the plate; especially when his team is armed with the best bullpen in the American League; especially when there are just six outs to go, assuming the Royals could rough up the Detroit bullpen and take the lead (which they've proven all year they can certainly do). I was running downhill, heading north on State Line Road, near 47th St, when I heard Denny say that Guthrie was coming back out to the mound for the top of the 8th inning. I screamed, "What?!" And then the next thing I said was, "Please, Jeremy, do NOT give up a home run." And, well, the rest is history. Guthrie gave up that home run, to Alex Avila, and the Tigers won that game. I had to spend the final two miles of my run listening to Josh Vernier yell angrily in my ears on the post-game show. I wanted to cry. I was already beat from the 14-15 miles I'd run up to that point. That loss made me want to crawl the rest of the way home.
Lots of people will arbitrarily assign a number of games that Ned Yost is responsible for us losing this year. I do not pretend to know how to manage a bullpen or any other aspect of a major-league ballgame. I will confidently blame Ned for The [Shields] Pull and The [Guthrie] Mismanagement, and that is all. Of course, we have no way of knowing how it would've turned out. Maybe Shields wouldn't have been able to finish out his game with a win. Maybe the bullpen wouldn't have bailed Guthrie out, and maybe the offense wouldn't have stepped up to break the tie in the Tigers game. But, with the knowledge he had at the time of each decision, Ned Yost made the wrong call both times. And that is certainly infuriating. Would two games make a difference today? Maybe. We might still be fighting for the wild card. I don't know (mainly because I'm not good at math). But, even with the right call made, there's still no guarantee we would've won those two games. So we just have to let it go, heartbreaking as it is.
Finally, last week, the Mariners showed us no sympathy at all, and spoiled our playoff hopes for good by handing us two losses at Safeco Field. We kept things alive for a short while by winning our first game against them in 12 long innings (I was on the west coast and dealing with jet lag, in a bar I'd never been in before that had generously agreed to put the Royals game on - since the Giants had an off day - and let me sit there drinking water in excess and almost falling off my stool from weariness). By the time the Royals won in the 12th inning, I was too tired to even cheer. And then, the following night, because I'm ridiculous, I chose not to go out and see the city I was visiting but rather to sit in my hotel room and watch the Royals lose. Although, tired as I was, I didn't do much watching, because I fell asleep in my bed, with the game playing in my lap. By Wednesday last week, my hope for the Royals was gone, and it was a good thing, since I wasn't going to be able to watch Wednesday night's loss anyway (occupied as I was by a different game, at AT&T Park).
And so the roller coaster ride has come to an end. Yes, there are two games left in the season, and yes, the Royals may make some spectacular plays such as Alex's last night at U.S. Cellular Field. But the journey, the hunt, the ride, and the excitement are over, and we're now looking at 2014 possibilities and potential off-season moves. As heartbreaking as it has been to ultimately lose out, we knew it was more likely than not to happen sometime. After all, it does happen to 29 of 30 teams every single year. The Royals took us on a wilder, longer ride than many expected this year, and I hope they do it again next year. It's been fun to be a Royals fan in 2013. And now, as the season winds down and we choose our postseason alliances, I say with all sincerity, in solidarity with the fanbase that is closest to feeling our pain, "Go Pirates."
*Acknowledgment to my friend David Lesky (@DBLesky) for coining the word Royalcoaster.
(By the way, what moments did I leave out? Feel free to share in the comments any capital-letter incidents you remember from 2013.)