Baseball is cruel.
There are 30 teams in Major League Baseball. Each team sets out on an adventure through 162 games across six months of the year. Injuries and heartbreak lurk in every corner. Disappointment is common and expected. The best, or the luckiest, make their way to a grueling arena where they face the other best or luckiest teams in baseball. Only one team ends the season with a win. One team out of 30. The next year, only one team leaves the season with a win. So it goes. Misfortune befalls some teams and not others. Such is the way of baseball.
For years, the Kansas City Royals suffered, stumbled, tripped, and wandered through years of lonely, awful baseball. It was an inevitable part of life: the Royals were terrible. They would always be terrible. Misfortune and incompetency called Kauffman Stadium home.
And how could they not be terrible? After the 1994 strike, the Royals had a losing season in 1995. Their next winning season was 2003, a fluke of a team that did not deserve what little success it achieved. It took until 2013 for the next winning season to come along. The owner was uninterested in spending money to make the team better, the front office unable to overcome that restraint.
Teams should not have a winning season once per decade.
Statistics can only inform you so much about sadness. Obviously, a 29-year playoff drought and only one winning season in 18 consecutive chances can give great context and inform what emotions were going on at that time.
Sometimes, you need something more visceral to truly describe how lost the Royals were. Something like Ken Harvey hitting Jason Grimsley in the face with a baseball.
Picture things like that happening, repeatedly, for years and you've got a picture of how bad the Royals were. It wasn't that the Royals were only bad. It was that they were often aggressively horrible. Mediocrity gets you fans. Stylish poor play gets you fans. Consistent failure gets you nothing but pain.
But it started changing. Slowly.
Then a little faster.
And then all at once.
Last night, the Royal clinched the American League Divisional Series against the Houston Astros in a must-win fifth game. It was an emphatic victory, and it results in a second consecutive American League Championship Series appearance for the first time since 1984-1985. The Royals have a chance to win their second consecutive American League title for the first time in franchise history and a chance for their first World Series victory since 1985.
Looking back at the lean years isn't nearly as fun as participating in the present success. But it's ceased to become depressing, instead turning into something resembling nostalgia. Remember when the Royals sucked? Yeah, that was terrible; are you going to Game One on Friday?
In fact, the awful years serve to give Royals fans a unique perspective. It's standard for teams to struggle. But the amount of baseball atrocities witnessed by the Royals in the previous 30 years is something else entirely. The oppressive sadness of knowing that the Royals were bad, knowing that it would not change for years, and knowing that you were helpless about it all is something that can't really be matched by the vast majority of sports franchises.
This success is so very sweet. It's made sweeter by the fact that this it is a decades-long payoff for our endurance. The New York Yankees haven't had a losing season since 1992. The St. Louis Cardinals have been to the playoffs 13 times since 1996. The San Francisco Giants have been to the World Series four times since 2002, winning three of them. The Boston Red Sox have been to the playoffs 10 times since 1995, winning three titles.
These teams, among others, have loyal fanbases that celebrate each playoff appearance enthusiastically. But few of their fans truly understand why playoff baseball is so great. They haven't endured true baseball hardship.
Obviously, fans of successful teams can still enjoy success. Claiming otherwise would be ridiculous. But just as a hungry man can appreciate a meal on a deeper level than a satiated one, so do Royals fans have the ability to soak in this success in a unique manner.
It will not always be this way. The Royals have already seen repeated success, and the core of this team will remain for two more years. If leadership continues their competency, the next generation of Royals fans won't truly understand why or how winning is such a fresh and amazing experience.
And that's ok. Though baseball is cruel, teams like Kansas City's were never meant to go through the hell that it did for so long. A winning season shouldn't be an accomplishment to celebrate.
But we know. We've experienced both feast and famine. And we should treasure the perspective that it gives us.