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Mental Ward: Ruminations on luck and the Royals

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Calling the Royals lucky discredits what they have accomplished.

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

When you get hit by a truck, you gain a new perspective. Mostly about chaos, and chance, and to a certain extent the inevitability of things colliding. In October of 2015, I was crossing the street when a vehicle struck me. I went flying about twenty feet from the crosswalk, and then slid along the asphalt for five or six more feet before friction countered the inertia. An ambulance ride and a terrible emergency room experience later, I found myself with two broken ribs and a lot of scrapes and contusions, sitting in a car at a pharmacy waiting for painkillers and muscle relaxers to help me sleep that night.

It gave me some time to think, mostly about the events leading up to the incident. I was late for class, so I drove instead of taking the bus, which I had not done before. There was construction around my flat, so I had to double back and make a couple of extra turns in order to get to where I needed to go. I hit every red light on the way. What should have been a five or six minute commute ended up taking nearly twenty minutes.

Somewhere in those fourteen minutes, in that random assortment of stories—the oversleeping, the construction, the parking available on the street—was a different path that led to me not getting hit by a truck. A green light here, less sleep there, trying to park closer, or further away, not waiting for the green light to cross. Fourteen minutes, and all I needed was fourteen seconds either way.

Some people have a tendency to refer to my story as being unlucky, or that the result of getting hit by a truck was somehow coincidental, but in looking back, all I can see is the vast causation that brought me into the grill of a pickup. Moving to Savannah, Georgia, changing majors, going to college, graduating high school, my parents moving, and on and on and on.

I don't know the driver's story, save for the fact that he got off work early that day. He has his own background, though. Twists and turns of life unceasing, governed at once by forces so seemingly random that contest and control each moment and movement. It was more than an accident. It was two stories colliding, if only for a brief moment, that oscillate the trajectory of both particles involved.

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The Royals have similar protestations of luck, of folly, of chance, and to an extent of being undeserving of what they have earned. And part of that is true. Baseball is a game that appears to be governed by the same faculties as life. There's only so much you can control, so much you can impact, and the rest is just collisions of variation.

And it is hard to deny the serendipity of fleeting success, particularly in the face of contradictory evidence. When you are slated to perfom X, but instead perform Y, the deviation gets noted and filed. But when you consistently outperform what is expected of you, how long until that consideration of luck becomes invalidated by results? Two seasons? Three? Four?

Confirmation bias is a hell of a thing. When we establish perceptions that are then challenged by new events, we often right them off as discrepancies. When those events keep reoccurring, the tendency is to shelve them as outliers, waiting for them to return to their perceived normality.

It is a natural tendency. Life is governed by assumptions and modes. Driving on a highway is nothing if not the tacit belief that most people will do the rough mean of what you are also doing. Some will move slower, others will move faster, but most will fall into a neat middle ground of speed and awareness. By that same token, the natural response when we see someone speeding thru traffic is to say that they are lucky that they don't get into an accident, or get a speeding ticket, or any number of negative outcomes. No one extols the virtues of doing things differently, particularly when it confronts our notions and expectations.

The truth is, though, speeding can be as calculated as driving the limit. After all, you are expecting the vehicles around you to go at a certain pace, a certain velocity. The Royals, for a shade under three years now, have been speeding through Major League Baseball, and everyone is still waiting for them to crash or slow down.

And most of that comes out of a perceived recklessness, or even a perceived lack of a plan. But it is fairly obvious that the Kansas City Royals have a plan, and they have been executing it for a while. In a period where teams value getting on base at the expense of defensive acumen, wouldn't it make sense to take advantage of those defensive shortcomings by putting the ball in play more? When starting pitchers are being observed and handled on pitch counts and days off, wouldn't it make sense to have a bullpen that can give you three dominant innings every night? And when other teams crave power and walks, wouldn't it make sense to limit those two weapons by utilizing an outfield defense that lets nothing drop in a ballpark designed to keep hits inside the walls?

It would be easy to write all of that off as coincidence, as subject to the natural order, as luck and variance and illusory. The Royals are a speeding car destined to stop at some point. But they haven't. Not yet, anyway. Soon, and sooner than you might desire, this period of success will come to a halt, but what others might see as a crash, the Royals would just as soon call it a destination, another page in a continuing story, subject to something greater than the randomness of a chaotic universe.