The Old Royals were a disgrace, worthy of nothing more than a trip to the ballpark because that's what you should do for your kids.
Fans can step away. You don't have to follow sports. It's not in the human DNA, at least not specifically. You don't even have to follow the sports team of your hometown. But fans can step away, divert their time to something else, or to simply allow apathy to take over. So it was with the Old Royals, a team so pathetic that it depressed an entire generation of Kansas City fans' connection to what following baseball should be. It took two consecutive World Series appearances to fully resuscitate the life back into the fans.
It's easy to fail to comprehend the players, coaches, and staff of a sports team as fully-realized human beings. We see them through the television, see them interviewed, and see their raw reactions as they go through a lengthy season together as brothers in arms. But there is a physical and metaphysical screen between them and us; we will never understand the journey it took to get where they are, or the intense effort it takes to compete at the highest level, or the pressure of (perhaps unreasonably) representing millions of individuals' hopes and dreams.
But they are just like us.
At the end of a hard day's work of preparation, mental execution, and physical exertion, their efforts may or may not have been utterly wasted in a brutal loss or a stunning victory. The 25 men drive home from Kauffman Stadium to their houses and apartments around the Kansas City metro, often late at night, many to wives and children. A young son cries in the night, waking up his father. A rookie, alone and stressed, drinks at a bar. There are bills to pay, needy family members and friends abroad desperate for any help. A girlfriend has the flu and is miserable and justifiably cranky.
The New Royals could enjoy themselves on the field, reveling in their fantastic relationship with each other and the fans as they make experiences they could never forget. Maybe they have issues at home. But on gameday, they are in their element and loving every second of it.
The Old Royals were miserable, as insults and frustration poured on them as losses piled up and futility reached greater and greater heights. Unimaginable, laughable events kept happening, and there was no way to stop it. "Never say it can't get worse," because it usually did.
Surely, not everyone hated participating in Old Royals baseball. Scores of non-prospects received extended playing time, as management squinted and hoped and yearned that yet another nobody might be something more. Sometimes, they were. But many times, they were not. And, of course, a few legitimately good players were able to claim all the love from a city that desperately wanted to love baseball, all the while crafting a resume that would net them millions in greener outfields.
How would that feel? To be a great player at the top of the game, but to play for crap year in and year out, without any help and without any relief? What would you feel? If you made millions doing it, maybe you wouldn't care. But baseball is a competitive, results-driven sport. Players care. They care more deeply than we can ever know. Ninety feet at the end of 2014 will haunt dozens of men for the rest of their lives.
Joakim Soria is a tragic figure. His brilliance was wasted at the back end of a bullpen whose other members leaked runs like the Titanic leaked water, wasted behind such terrible starters that giving up a septuplet of runs in the first inning of opening day was an unsurprising event. General Manager Dayton Moore never traded Soria, who, for all his excellence, functioned as the diamond necklace in a tornado-destroyed house. Soria underwent a second Tommy John surgery in 2012, and never pitched another inning for the Royals. He bounced around multiple teams and watched the Royals achieve the greatest possible success without him. He would never experience it.
Except that last part is not true. Soria re-signed with the Royals this week. There is no telling how good he will be, or how good the team will be, or if his signing was a good idea at all.
But I can set that aside. Though we can't truly empathize with baseball players, we want to. That's why we follow sports, the only true reality television in existence. Soria's return to Kansas City is eminently rewarding on a core level and for reasons we can't really explain.
So welcome back, Jack. This is not the team you left.