The year was 2009. It was Dayton Moore's third full season as General Manager of the Kansas City Royals. Barack Obama was inaugurated as President of the United States for the first time. The combined service time of Billy Butler and Alex Gordon was four years. The top grossing movie was the vanguard of 3D in cinema, Avatar.
In 2009, the Royals were looking good - Billy Butler and Alex Gordon were the future, young players at 23 and 25 whose potential was very high. The rotation, though without depth, featured Zack Greinke, the 25-year old homegrown starter who had figured it out, and Gil Meche, the extremely effective free agent who was under contract for a few years to come. Mike Aviles was a revelation at shortstop, putting up an amazing rookie season the previous season. The Royals had a few other solid starters in David DeJesus and Alberto Callaspo, had acquired a solid outfielder in Coco Crisp, and sported the dominant Joakim Soria as their closer. Kansas City shot out to an 18-11 start and then faltered as key injuries to Gordon, Crisp, and Meche were punctuated by poor performances by a supporting cast that saw major regression to Aviles, continued disappointment in Mark Teahen, and a nightmare season by Luke Hochevar.
Even so, 2009 was an amazing year for one reason and one reason only. Zack Greinke threw his first game on April 8, allowing no runs and striking out seven. Five days later, he did not allow any runs. Five days after that, he did not allow any runs, throwing a complete game shutout with 10 strikeouts. Five days after that, he did not allow any earned runs, (one scored on a error) but tossed a complete game regardless, also with double-digit strikeouts. Five days after that, he finally allowed an earned run, but struck out 8 batters in a dominating performance anyway.
Greinke's season, by the numbers, was absolutely amazing. His ERA didn't reach 1 until May 31 and it never once got above 2.50. He threw six complete games, five with double digit strikeouts, set the Royals record for strikeouts in a game at 15, and won the Cy Young award. His final ERA was 2.16, and he accumulated a stunning 9.1 fWAR.
Beyond the numbers, Greinke's 2009 was something transcendent. Baseball at its best contains a subtle beauty, ebbing and flowing as the evening fades to night. Greinke's pitching was beautiful. He could overpower a hitter with a 97 MPH fastball, could tear a hitter out of his shoes with a slicing slider, could freeze a hitter with a looping curveball, could deceive a hitter with a changeup that wasn't quite what it looked like. Every start was an event, and there was an electricity in Kauffman Stadium when he pitched that I haven't felt since. Even though the Royals fell down with 65 wins, that season was magic.
Magic is what drives the love of sports. Sure, winning is in and of itself a type of magic, but it is not pure winning that draws fandom. At the end of the season, only one team is left standing. In the past ten years in baseball, 24 teams have yet to be the last one standing. In the past twenty years, 20 teams have yet to win the World Series. Even going back thirty years, there are 13 teams who have yet to win the World Series once. It is not the end result of a championship that drives fandom, as only one group per year achieves the right to be happy.
No, it is magic which drives the bus. It is the thrill of getting an important hit in little league, the pure joy in witnessing a walkoff grand slam in an afternoon at the ballpark with someone you love, the stunned happiness of watching a team play way over its head to make an improbable run. It is also the chance that your team might be the one that could win it all and the nervous energy of a tight playoff game against a rival.
LeBron James, if you have not heard, is going back to Cleveland. Born and raised in Akron, a nearby city to Cleveland, James is a local. Cleveland is his home. He had the choice to go anywhere in the NBA, but willingly decided to go back to his place of origin, to attempt to bring a trophy to a place that desperately deserves one. The Cavaliers may not ever win a championship with LeBron; that's just how things go. But LeBron is the epitome of magic, and his mere presence will transform the city's interest in the team as well as the team itself. Sure, he'll make the team better, but any number of other factors could theoretically make a better team without him. Even if the Cavs lose, a game watching LeBron is a game watching something that cannot be replicated in any other NBA experience. It is this unique magic which Kansas City seeks.
The year is 2014. It is Dayton Moore's eighth full season as General Manager of the Kansas City Royals. Barack Obama is in his second year of his second term as President of the United States. The combined service time of Billy Butler and Alex Gordon is 16 years. The top grossing movie, so far, is Transformers: Age of Extinction. For the first time, Moore's Royals are going into the All-Star break with a winning record.
And these Royals are devoid of magic.
So far, these Royals have been the best Kansas City team in over a decade, and the second best going back two decades. They enter into the break at 48-46. They have a positive run differential and have, for three years in a row, played better in the second half of the year. They've positioned themselves for a run and are, stunningly, buyers at the trade deadline.
And yet these Royals are far from magic.
Nobody on this team is exciting enough on his own. Hosmer has been bad, Moose worse, Butler is having the worst season of his career, Gordon is in the midst of an excellent but unassuming year. Perez, arguably the Royals best player, has been great but has hit no better than his career line and has yet to grab attention of the average MLB fan. Yordano Ventura has been a joy to watch but won't even win AL Rookie of the Year. There are no superstars on this team; no Trout, no Longoria, no LeBron, no Messi, no Greinke.
This team, as a whole, lacks the special ingredient either. In fact, they have done everything possible to break the hearts of Royals fans. They went on a 15-4 run, including 10 straight, only to drop 4 in a row and 6 of their 9 game homestand. They have won a single game at home when more than 30,000 fans attended, and are three games below .500 in Kansas City. They have choked their way to a 10-18 record in one run games with two of the best relievers in the AL, withered against their two main divisional opponents with a combined 7-14 record against Detroit and Cleveland, and have won only once via walkoff. They have walked fewer times than every team in the league and have hit for less power than every team in the league, possess precious little pitching depth, and their closest real prospects are doing poorly in AA.
Equally damning to Dayton Moore is that he has crafted teams that possess no magic in addition to crafting teams that lose. It is 2014, and the most fascinating season in his tenure has been his worst due to the tenacity and skill of one man. Yes, Kansas City is starved for a truly good, playoff team. But, most of all, Kansas City is starved for their own brand of baseball wizardry, a compelling team that, even though it might not win, demands to be watched.
This is not that team.