With the exception of 2003, a season equal parts magical and ludicrous, September baseball was irrelevant in Kansas City from 1995-2012. Each successive Kansas City Royals team seemed determined to prove that they were the worst squad, and there was not an inkling of drama anywhere on the diamond. The closest finish to the American League Central winner was in 2008, when the Royals finished in fourth place at 13.5 games behind the Detroit Tigers. Kansas City finished over 30 games behind six times in that sad era. That is impressive.
In the aforementioned 2003 and 2013, the Royals fought valiantly, and September was filled with hope even as the color began to drain from the leaves. In 2003, the Royals were tied for first place as late as August 29, and in 2013 the addition of the second Wild Card spot gave the Royals a legitimate dream until the last week of the season.
Last year's September was the most exciting September of them all, as the Royals were tied for first place as late as September 11. They would clinch their first playoff spot in 29 years in their final road trip to Chicago, and they ended the season behind the Tigers by one measly game for the AL Central crown. Then, the Wild Card Game happened on September 30.
This year's version of September baseball is dull, boring, and ultimately inconsequential. It is Christmas morning, and we have examined the biggest present addressed to us. We have shook it and know it is the Lego set with which we yearn to play and construct. But we have to sit through Aunt Audrey opening her third set of cat-themed kitchenware. We get it. Just let us open our prize.
Unfortunately for us, other teams don't know that they are getting that perfect, beautiful Lego set of the Millennium Falcon. Some just want some new fuzzy socks because it's cold, damn it, and are sick of wearing the chewed-up ones that Aunt Audrey's evil cat, Dr. Fuzzball, got to that one time. Others are also seeking Lego sets, but don't yet know to expect the beautiful clinking of colorful plastic or the gentle tinkling of crushed dreams.
As Royals fans, we have to come to terms with being so far ahead of the pack that the team's place in the American League Divisional Series is all but assured. Consider this: if the Royals lose their next 11 games and the Minnesota Twins win their next 12 games, the Royals will still be in first place in the AL Central. The Royals have 30 games left. This race is over. The Royals have successfully invaded Normandy and, yes, the opponent still technically has a chance, but they are fighting a losing battle against a vastly superior force.
We have witnessed plenty of scorched-earth September baseball, but never quite like this. This year is a paradigm shift, as the process feels the same but the results are completely different. Instead of September not mattering because the Royals are too awful, September doesn't matter because the Royals are too good. This is an uncomfortable feeling.
As with the terrible Septembers, there are still things to look forward to. In the bad years we looked to Kansas City's eventual draft spot; this year, home field advantage is still available for the claiming. In the bad years, we looked to new and shiny prospects getting their first glimpse of Major League Baseball; this year, we look to new and shiny prospects getting their first glimpse of Major League Baseball.
In addition, there are other features we can examine this September. Alex Gordon's return will be heralded, bullpen chess will be played, right field has yet to be solidified, and we get to see a unique audition process for the postseason roster.
It is that last part that should be remembered. The Royals are playing a September curiously devoid of interest, but they are doing so because they will play in October. Anyone who followed the Royals knows how different, how exciting, and how important every microcosmic moment is in the playoffs.
September should be an audition and a preparation. Yes, the Royals are winning by a huge amount, but if Ned Yost, Dayton Moore, and the rest of the coaches and front office don't make the ideal decisions, then it will hurt them in the playoffs. This team is not immune to criticism. In fact, it should be more susceptible to criticism. There are no excuses. The Royals ought to have laser focus, keep their strength and endurance, and put the right players in the best position to win.
Last year's success took the fandom by surprise, creating a hurricane of fervor that hasn't been seen in Kansas City for decades. This year, we can see the excitement coming. That is amazing--and also annoying. Bring on October.