Tonight is the first game of the World Series. Let me clarify. Tonight is the first game of the World Series, which for the second consecutive year, includes the Kansas City Royals. To the untrained eye that may not be of significance, but to a lifelong baseball and Royals fanatic, it’s a scenario that has been, for many years, beyond comprehension. Last year’s trip to the World Series was like a dream. Now it just feels like a long, soothing drink of cool water after an exhausting drought. In short, amazing.
Despite years of measured optimism by some sports media, it was impossible to bank on the Royals’ unparalleled farm system eventually paying dividends. We watched too many homegrown prospects turn into elite players, even superstars, only to be traded or outright released when keeping them around became too expensive for the Royals meager pocketbook. Carlos Beltrán. David Cone. Danny Tartabull. Johnny Damon. Jermaine Dye. Zack Greinke. Bitterness and cynicism smothered hope.
For someone who grew up listening to the perpetually contending Royals as a kid on a transistor radio before going to bed on many a summer night, culminating in a glorious World Series win in 1985, the long slide into oblivion has been a decades-long exercise in frustration. So many Royals moments are lovingly stored in the scrapbook of my mind, and were taken out periodically to review lustfully when watching an endless string of losing records and mediocre talent. Anyone remember Sal Fasano? Gil Meche? Pat Tabler? Wally Joyner? Bob Hamelin? Jimmy Gobble?
Those snapshots are what sustained me as a Royals fan. My brother and I were watching the game on TV on the hot July afternoon when George Brett came tearing out of the dugout like a freight train when his seemingly game-winning home run was recalled after Billy Martin and the evil Yankees complained about a little known rule about pine tar on a bat.
I worked at my small hometown radio station in high school, a Royals broadcast affiliate, and loved game days when I’d put the game on the air from pre-game through the scoreboard show, recording promos and post-game wrap-ups. Sometimes when listening to announcers pause for a station identification, I reflexively recite, “You’re listening to Royals baseball on KRSL/KCAY, Russell, Kansas.” Admittedly though, there were more than a few Saturday night shifts during the regular season when a long-running or extra innings tilt pushed past my normal 10pm sign-off, cutting into the time I’d be able spend with friends until my midnight curfew, and I’d root for just someone to win in the name of finishing the damn game so I could leave.
George Brett has been my baseball hero for as long as I can remember – the day he retired was essentially the day my childhood ended – but Bo Jackson was simply the greatest physical specimen of an athlete I’ve ever seen. When he announced he was undergoing treatment for a hip injury I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, as if I knew it marked the beginning of the end. In college I worked at a hospital where the orthopaedic surgeons who handled sports medicine for the Kansas State University athletic teams were always doing rounds after a full caseload of routine hip replacements and knee scopes. That evening I was working in the admissions office, and stopped one of them on his way back from the surgical floor. I asked him if he’d explain Bo’s injury to me. From what he’d seen in news reports, he said even with the best possible surgical outcomes, that a return to the MLB as the same unstoppable force he’d been seemed unlikely. It didn’t matter. The organization wasn’t going to wait around for him and pay his salary to rehab. Bo Jackson did return to baseball, but the doctor was right. He wasn’t the same player during two partial seasons with the White Sox.
There were some high points during the long wait for the return to the post-season. I was at Kauffman Stadium for the Major League debut of Brian McRae, son of 1980’s great, Hal McRae. He hit a double. My friend, Terri, and I waited around like groupies after a game watching ESPN interview Mr. Brett after an exceptional day at the yard, and swore he was looking right at us the whole time. And when Johnny Damon was called up in 1995 at age 19, I knew he’d be a superstar when I first saw him go from first to third with the graceful speed of a greyhound. That 1995 season they played pretty well. I spent a lot of time at the stadium, heading there after work, buying a ticket for a crappy seat and scampering down lower after the first few innings when it was evident that there would be plenty of empty space. By that time Kansas City had bailed on the Royals, which for me was sad. This is when I grew to despise the Kansas City Chiefs. Kansas City had been taken over by a sea of obnoxious red and yellow. Royal blue was nowhere to be found. I enjoyed watching former Minnesota Twins Greg Gagne and Gary Gaetti play outstanding baseball for KC, to the chagrin of my Minnesota friend and die-hard Twins fan, who later became my husband.
When I moved to the Twin Cities it was before video on demand or satellite radio. I missed the familiar voices of Denny Matthews and Fred White, and struggled to adjust to baseball in a new market. We returned to Kansas City for games periodically, and I’ve remained true blue, but have raised four boys who have grown up in Twins Territory. I can’t fault them for being Twins fans. They’ve had Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Joe Nathan, Torii Hunter, and Johan Santana. Not to mention some winning seasons. All I had was fond memories of Willie Wilson, George Brett, Mark Gubicza, and Dan Quisenberry. Ironically the Twins have had their own struggles with losing players who’ve gone on to tremendous success. And now when my 15-year-old cheers for the Royals, he’s accused of being a “bandwagon jumper.” To silence his detractors, he proudly posts photos of himself at the K as a five-year-old.
There was a point in time, maybe during a brief Twins play-off run, perhaps after Joe Mauer personally answered letters that two of my kids wrote him, which I thought was an incredibly kind gesture, that I almost picked up a Twins t-shirt for myself. It was right there in my Target cart. And I walked maybe an aisle or two with it in there when I stopped, and thought, this is not who I am. And I returned it to the display. My kids can wear their Twins gear, and I’ll support them, but I couldn’t turn my back on the Royals after all this time.
It’s odd to be invested in October. I’m not used to the butterflies. But whatever the outcome, this team is just so much fun to watch. All year. Not that I wasn’t proud to be a Royals fan before, but when someone notices the signed Eric Hosmer card on my desk at work, or comments about the blue KC visor that I wear when I walk my dog, or shouts out to my sister and me while we were wearing Royals gear in New York during the ALCS, I smile a little bit bigger these days, not sheepishly, and say, yeah, that’s my team. Always has been, always will be.
© Jennifer Alys Windholz 2015