For the Kansas City Royals, 2014 was as magical as it gets. From a broken 29-year playoff drought to a stunning walk-off Wild Card win to the AL Pennant to 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 Rany Jazayerli, aka @jazayerli. Rany runs the blog Rany on the Royals, where he has regularly posted in-depth thoughts about the Royals since 2008. He has been writing about baseball since before that, though; the progenitor of Rany on the Royals was a collaboration called Rob and Rany on the Royals with ESPN writer Rob Neyer (who is now with Fox Sports), and Rany was one of the founding members of Baseball Prospectus. Rany is an accomplished writer whose works have appeared on ESPN, the Kansas City Star, the Wall Street Journal, and Grantland. By day, he protects his identity by working as a dermatologist in the Chicago metropolitan area. By night, he remains one of the most reliable Royals fans on the internet.
How did you become a Royals fan?
I was born in 1975 and grew up in Wichita, so the combination of geography and chronology made it sort of inevitable that I'd be a Royals fan. I have no memories of 1980, but George Brett was the biggest story in sports for a few months and the Royals went to their first World Series, which I'm sure sealed the deal. My earliest memory of watching a Royals game was the Pine Tar game in 1983, actually.
But in the summer of 1984 my dad, a cardiologist, took a position as the head of a new cardiac center in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and from 1984 to 1991 I spent 9-10 months a year living there, returning to Wichita only for summer vacation. So I have no memories of the playoff runs in 1984 and 1985, except watching the World Series on VHS tapes that friends mailed to us weeks later. Until last September, I had never seen the Royals play a meaningful game live. I'm 39 years old, by the way.
I was a huge baseball fan as far back as I can remember, but I didn't live and die with the Royals specifically until the summer of 1989, when they were the third-best team in baseball but had the misfortune to play in the same division as the Oakland A's. The Royals won nine straight games in August before I headed back to Saudi Arabia, and that month I discovered listening to the Royals on radio, when Denny Matthews and Fred White were at their peak. I was hooked, and never looked back. Despite plenty of incentive over the years.
What was being a fan like for you during the 29 year playoff drought?
In retrospect, it was one long episode of denial, of lying to myself to get through the pain. The early years weren't so bad - they were competitive, and if there had been eight (let alone 10) playoff teams in the 1986 to 1993 span they would have been in contention a lot more than they were. And they *were* in contention in 1994 until the strike hit. But from 1995 on, it was a lot of paying attention to the farm system and hoping for better days ahead. Some years they'd go into the season with some promising young players and some veterans who weren't too far past their glory days, and you could convince yourself that they'd have a shot...at least until the end of May. And then some years they'd go into the season with Scott Elarton and Joe Mays as their top two starters and you wondered why you'd even bother.
What got me through the lean years was that at least by then I was writing about the team, first for Baseball Prospectus and then with Rob Neyer on his site and then from 2008 onward on my own site. So no matter how bad things got or how terrible their moves were, at least I had an outlet for expressing my frustration. I have no idea how the average fan maintained their loyalty for all that time.
What did the AL Pennant and World Series appearance mean to you?
I ended my Grantland column
after the Wild Card game with these words, which I wrote at around 5 AM
: "[I]t vindicated everything I’ve been through as a Royals fan. All the threads of my life make sense now. I wouldn’t wish the last 29 years of misery on anyone. But right now, at this very moment, I also wouldn’t change those years one bit."
And that was after ONE GAME. The best game I have ever seen in person, granted, but I had no idea what was to come. Those words remain true today. Yeah, the last 29 years sucked, and if you told me I'd have to go another 29 years to see the Royals play a meaningful game, I'd get off this ride right now. But for it to happen the way it did, at a time in my life when I was able to appreciate it, and fly down to Kansas City to watch the Wild Card game and all four home World Series games in person, in what I had already planned to be my final year blogging about the team...it was pretty damn special. It's the most fun I've ever had as a sports fan. And honestly, even if they win a World Series again in my lifetime, I'm not sure it will be more fun in its totality than this was. The Royals were the biggest story in American sports for a whole month, and pretty much the entire country was behind us every step of the way.
How did your interactions with fans and readers change compared to previous seasons of coverage?
Well, the biggest difference is that I got to see so many of them in person, not just at the playoff games but even in the playoff-clinching win here in Chicago in September. My connection to Royals fans has always been a little unusual because I've never lived in Kansas City, but the internet is a wonderful invention and Twitter has been an amazing tool for connecting with others. But in 2014, I finally got a chance to be a part of the crowd instead of just observing it from afar.
On top of that, there was the ultimate fan interaction, which was the Sung Woo Lee story. While I understand that some people are tired of hearing about it or think it was overplayed, for me personally, Sung Woo had everything to do with me shedding my jadedness and embracing the team wholeheartedly. I mean, this
is the column I wrote immediately before this one
. In late July, I felt a mixture of bitterness and despair about the team. I had closed my heart to the Royals; I wasn't going to let them break it any further. But at some point in the first week of August, I just said screw it, win or lose I'm going to enjoy this ride whole-heartedly. I don't know whether Sung Woo's appearance had anything to do with the Royals winning or not. I do know that without Sung Woo, there's no way in hell I would have enjoyed the last three months of the season as much as I did.
Which player did you enjoy watching most on the 2014 AL Champion Kansas City Royals?
What made watching the 2014 AL Champion Kansas City Royals so much fun is that there *wasn't* a player I enjoyed watching most. I love watching Alex Gordon excel in every facet of the game, knowing how far he's come from reaching rock bottom. I loved watching Danny Duffy overcome injury, his own doubts, and the Royals' track record with young starters to emerge as a possible front-of-the-rotation guy. But at any given moment, the guy I enjoyed watching most could have been one of a dozen guys. I fell for Salvador Perez almost as soon as he was called up, and his energy and loyalty to the team make him impossible to dislike even when he's swinging at sliders three feet off the plate. (Who knows, maybe he'll even hit one
Nothing was more exhilarating then watching Yordano Ventura hit 99 on the gun - unless it was watching Kelvin Herrera follow him to the mound and then hit 101. But when a ball was in the gap in the postseason, at that moment the player I most enjoyed watching was Lorenzo Cain. Then again, watching Wade Davis carve up hitters was literally a laugh-out-loud moment at times. I'm not sure I've ever been prouder of a ballplayer than watching Brandon Finnegan walk off the mound after the top of the 10th and 11th innings in the Wild Card game. Hell, there were a few moments in September and October in which the player I enjoyed watching most at that exact point in time was Terrance Gore.
The 2014 Royals were a team effort to the very end. When I think of the season, or I think of any specific playoff game, I don't think of one specific player. It's appropriate that the Wild Card game was made possible by the contributions of half the roster, and if you take any one of those contributions away the Royals would have lost.
Do you think the Royals and their fans can sustain this energy going into 2015?
The latter depends on the former. It would be very much in keeping with the Royals - the 1995-2012 Royals, at least - to start the year 17-35 and destroy all the goodwill that they built last season. But these aren't the 1995-2012 Royals anymore, are they? I think the AL Central will be very competitive this year, and I could easily see any team but the Twins winning the division. But as long as the Royals are competitive, as long as they're above .500 and in sight of a playoff spot all summer, I suspect the crowds will dwarf anything we've seen during the summertime since at least 1989.
I've always believed that Kansas City was a baseball town. I've always felt that their fans were there, just waiting for the team to give them a reason to show they cared. Last October the Royals and the rest of America finally learned what us die-hards knew all along. As long as the Royals hold up their end of the bargain, I have little doubt that their fans will do the same.