For the Kansas City Royals, 2014 was as magical as it gets. From a 29-year playoff drought ending to a stunning walk-off Wild Card win to capturing the AL pennant to being 90 feet from a World Championship at Kauffman Stadium, the Royals' season was extraordinarily memorable.
In this weekly series, I will interview a fan, writer, or member of the Kansas City community about their thoughts regarding the Royals' 2014 and their place in it.
Today's interviewee is Sam Mellinger, @mellinger. As a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, Mellinger writes about all things athletic in and around Kansas City. Mellinger also runs a more informal blog called Don't Kill the Mellinger where your thoughts can be answered in the weekly Twitter Tuesday feature in addition to learning about wings and beer.
How did you become interested in the Royals?
My earliest sports memory is the 1985 World Series. I remember Saberhagen's brilliance, Brett's greatness, Denkinger's call, and Motley's catch. I grew up in a small town about two hours from here, and like a lot of kids my age, vacations in the summer meant a road trip to Kansas City for Royals games and Worlds of Fun. I loved baseball (all sports, really, but baseball in particular) from the beginning, so the Royals were the team.
Bo Jackson was the athlete of my youth, and I think more than anything or anyone else, captured my imagination about what sports could be. I don't remember seeing him hit a home run in person -- maybe I did, but I can't remember it -- but have these vivid memories of him breaking the bat over his knee after a strikeout, or stealing second even when the pitcher threw over for a pick-off. Covering them for the paper is obviously a different thing, but having my job in Kansas City has been even more fun for me than it would somewhere else because I know what it's like to follow these teams for so long.
What was it like for you during the 29-year playoff drought?
The Royals sucking has been such a part of life for a sports fan in Kansas City, I think it's just part of the soundtrack. It's background music. You don't question it any more than you question the summer humidity. It just is. I guess I always figured it would end sometime, because, jeez, it just had to, but when something is than ingrained in your daily life it's sometimes hard to imagine it being any other way.
What did the AL pennant and World Series appearance mean to you, personally?
Most fun I've had working, by far, and I've had a lot of fun in this job. I'll never forget it. The Royals could -- and I'm not saying this will happen -- win the 2015 World Series and I don't know that it would be as fun as October 2014. It was that sort of rare time when you were going through something you'd always remember, and something that would change how sports are viewed in a city for years and years, and you knew all of it was happening in real time.
The cars parked on the side of I-70, just so people who couldn't get a ticket could watch or listen or take pictures, spoke so much to me. The $15,000 bar tab at McFadden's, the way they made a guy like Tim Grimes part of the team, the way that James Shields said the ground shook -- and he meant that literally, like an earthquake -- before he threw the first pitch in the Wild Card game, I mean, it was just incredible. There is a generation of frustration, anger, sadness pouring out in every game. I came to think of those home playoff games -- as loud an atmosphere as any baseball game has been -- as group therapy, where people let out all their angst from the last 29 years into this party with 40,000 friends. I know I'm repeating myself, but like a lot of people, I'll never forget it.
In your interaction with players, coaches, and front office members, what sorts of changes in demeanor and approach have you witnessed these last few years?
The biggest change happened after they clinched a playoff spot. They were uptight before that, and they played like it at times. But I think once they broke that barrier -- once the "29 years" thing became an accomplishment, rather than this anvil hanging over their heads -- they played so loose and free and fun. I don't think they could've won that Wild Card game any other way. I know Sal Perez could never have PULLED that pitch down the third base line any other way.
You asked about the front office, too. There's a conversation I had with one of them that I thought was telling. He said that for as long as he'd been in Kansas City, he'd always been skeptical when hearing people call it a great baseball town. He didn't see it, didn't feel it. He heard a lot of criticism, and defeatism, and negativity. More than he expected. But after the breakthrough -- this particular conversation was either during the ALCS or World Series, I can't remember for sure -- he said he saw everything in a completely new light. He understood why there was a lot of negativity, and for the first time understood that it came from a place of hope and love -- not a place of cynicism and hate. He said the experience changed everything for him, that he better understood the toll that such a long run of bad baseball takes on a place that knows better, and that the previous anger really did come from wanting success.
Which player did you enjoy watching most on the 2014 AL Champion Kansas City Royals?
Lorenzo Cain or Sal Perez. They both play with so much joy and energy. I also love where they came from, Cain not playing baseball until high school, Perez signing for relative peanuts and capturing the imaginations of a franchise that had more high-profile prospects.
Do you think the Royals can sustain this energy going into 2015?
Nobody knows, of course, which is part of the fun. But I'm optimistic, probably more optimistic than most. I think they addressed their needs in the offseason -- even if I would've preferred a few different signings -- and still have some room to grow internally. Perez will be a much better hitter if Yost can resist the temptation to turn him into the catcher's version of Cal Ripken. Hosmer can hit much better. Moose, too. I think Cain is a star. Infante had an awful year, and if that was just health, he should be better. They're a good bet in the most obvious ways, because they're still a group that hasn't accomplished what they want, still a group that for the most part isn't making huge money, and still a group that really seems to like each other.
Also, yes. I'm entirely aware that if they start 1-6 we're going to be hearing the same old crap.