As you’re probably aware this year’s Royals’ motto is, “Raised Royal”. Which is - well the nice way to put it is that it isn’t the worst motto the Royals have ever used. The classic example, of course, is 2012’s “Our Time”. What a terrible motto that ended up being. At least they’re not declaring victory before the season even starts.
But one of the old mottos that almost accidentally speaks to me is 1998’s, “This is Hardball” Lately, nostalgia for one of my favorite old baseball games returned to me. I don’t remember how or why but in late summer 1997 I got a copy of Hardball 5 to play on my home PC despite previously showing little to no inclination toward the game of baseball. If you can’t remember it, I managed to find a YouTube clip of the opening with a little gameplay:
Hardball 5 was a terrific baseball game. It had up-to-date MLB rosters complete with digital baseball cards carrying bitmap likenesses of the guys they represented - at least from before the start of the ‘97 season. It even had a 15 slot minor league roster, albeit with made-up names - but it allowed you to promote and demote guys as necessary. It was also hugely customizable. You could change player’s names, their pitch types, hitting skills, even their handedness! And even from the late 90s and early 2000s it had a thriving mod community that constantly produced up-to-date rosters or even classic rosters that you could download for free off the internet. They even went so far as to create their own images to replace those used on the existing player cards.
I played the heck out of that game all that summer, fall, and winter. And since I lived in Kansas City by then, it only made sense to me to play as the Royals. That’s how it was that the first Royals I ever fell in love with were guys I never actually watched play for the boys in blue. I was a sucker for guys like Chili Davis, Jay Bell, and Craig Paquette.
Now that I had fallen in love with the sport of baseball while listening to Al Michael’s artificial echo-y voice it was a no-brainer to start actually following the real Royals when their season started in 1998. That was when I learned of the annual tradition of Joe Posnanski writing an article about why the Royals absolutely had a chance to make it to the playoffs that year. The thing is, I couldn’t catch the sarcasm or innuendo in those pieces. I believed with everything I had that 1998 was the year the Royals were going to make the playoffs. I had no idea that they hadn’t been to the playoffs since I had been born, all I knew was that my avid Cardinals fan mother and avid Royals fan father still had VHS recordings of all seven games of the 1985 World Series and that Joe said they could do it. I assumed both clubs were perennial winners and armed with my knowledge that they played in two different leagues, never to face each other until that fateful 1998 world series, I picked them both as my teams to root for, that season.
The Royals, of course, were eliminated early. But Carlos Beltrán made his debut that September, and boy was he an exciting player. He was gonna take us all the way to the World Series in 1999, I was sure of it! Meanwhile I would bet most of you are familiar what happened on the other side of Missouri, that season. I don’t care if Mark McGwire took steroids. That man cemented the love of baseball in my soul with his tree trunk arms, monster home runs, his relentless scowl for the opposing pitchers, and his huge smiles for the fans.
Year after year I chose and lost new favorite ballplayers. Jeremy Giambi had my same name, I patterned my tennis backhand after Johnny Damon’s awkward left-handed swing, Mark Quinn hit beautiful home runs and didn’t bother taking those boring walks, Raul Ibanez was an underdog success story on a team that was in need of an underdog success story. Aaron Guiel, Mark Teahen, John Buck, Jeremy Affeldt, Billy Butler, Jeremy Guthrie, Mike Moustakas. And every year I never stopped believing in Posnanski’s or later Sam Mellinger’s articles about why this was the year the Royals might make it.
During all of this I also realized that my dad and I finally had something to talk about in the way I talk about things. I’m rarely content to just watch a thing. I have to study it and over-think about it. Baseball is a great sport for that. There’s always another layer to peel back. I have always over-analyzed my video games, books, TV shows, etc. But now I could do it with baseball and my dad could participate in the conversation with me instead of just patiently listening to me ramble and rant. Even better, as more and more advanced statistics have become more and more mainstream we’ve been able to learn about them together.
I don’t live in Kansas City anymore. It has been more than a decade since I saw a Royals game from inside Kauffman Stadium. I no longer blindly believe any sports columnist who says the Royals are definitely going all the way, this year. I had more doubt before the magical 2015 season started than at any point during the mid-2000’s. So I guess maybe I’ve grown up now.
A lot of us here were “Raised Royal”, I’m sure. Some of you have been growing up Royals fans since they club was founded in 1969. Maybe some of you have only been at it since the 2014 Wild Card game. Some of your stories we’ve heard before, some we haven’t. But now at the beginning of a new year, with the smell of fresh cut grass and the air so full of optimism that even Shaun Newkirk might sound a little like Yoyo at times, now seems like the time to tell these stories again.
So tell me, how were you Raised Royal?