Darryl Motley. I carried that name around like a passport—a sign that no matter where I went, I was still a Royals fan. Darryl Motley, because that’s the name of the right fielder who caught the final out in the 1985 World Series, transporting me to little-boy heaven in small-town Kansas. And Darryl Motley because before Google, that fact used to be an obscure bit of trivia. It showed I knew my Royals history. Or better, my Royals lore.
Because around the time I left for college, the 1985 Royals became mythical. And not necessarily in a good way. They seemed like something I’d imagined, in all those Seasons That Shall Not Be Named. The Royals weren’t just bad. They were hopeless, battered and rudderless and adrift in an era that was landing one truth like a cannonball: if you didn’t live in New York or Boston or another big place, your team didn’t have a chance.
In the meantime, I was living in some big places of my own. Basketball adventures took me to Athens and Atlanta and Barcelona and Chicago and Phoenix and the truth is, I pretty much gave up on being a Royals fan. Oh, I still had my hat. And sometimes I would go to a game with friends. But even that was to see who else was in town. Pedro Martinez. Randy Johnson. Those damnable Yankees.
Then the basketball adventures came to an end courteous of the relentless nature of time and the finite nature of bones and ligaments. I came home to a house in Kansas City where, you might think, I picked up the thread again—where I regained my status as a Royals fan. But I wasn’t ready. Or the Royals weren’t ready. Or some combination thereof. It didn’t help that I’d spent the previous fifteen years of my life around sports and its players and its poseurs. I needed a break. I wasn’t missing much. The Royals were still bad. But they were about to get better, way better.
Paradoxically, I found my way back to the Royals in Los Angeles. It didn’t hurt that I’d moved to a town with no discernible soul or sports culture. And it didn’t hurt that the Royals were—get this—winning almost as much as they were losing. So maybe it was just that the timing was right: I was missing home and the Royals got good and pretty soon I was watching World Series games in a bar in West Hollywood, flying home to watch away games, watching another final out. Drew Butera, this time.
But I suspect something else was at work, as well.
Like a lot of people, I spent part of my twenties and thirties play-acting—trying out different personalities while on a search I wasn’t aware of. And during those decades, baseball seemed insufferable. Its games were too long or too slow or any of the other things people say. It was on its way out, a third-rate sport after the NFL juggernaut and the NBA’s social media-ready personalities. It wasn’t cool, man.
But here’s a little thing about me that’s also a little thing about a lot of people I know - it all started with baseball. Pee Wee games, Little League games, batting practice with my father and brothers in the backyard as the sun set over northeast Kansas. And as I returned to Earth after those tumultuous twenties and thirties, there it was again - baseball. Still long, still slow, but now meditative and reflective of our lives because of it.
And so here we are, with a version of the Royals that isn’t very good again. But with a version of me that’s OK with that, because this version is a little older, a little more patient, with a little more faith that the game that started it all is back in his life for a reason.
That’s why I’m planning my life around Opening Day’s Pacific start time. That’s why I’ll be writing in this space all season long. And that’s why I’m back in on baseball, the summer, the Kansas City Royals, and whomever the next Darryl Motley (or Drew Butera) will be.
Paul Shirley is a former NBA player who played collegiately at Iowa State. He was a contributor to ESPN.com and is the author of Can I Keep My Jersey?, about his stop-and-start basketball career, and Stories I Tell On Dates, about his stop-and-start dating career. A Kansas native, he now lives in Los Angeles where he runs a co-writing space called Writers Blok.