I was six when the “Swingin’ A’s” won the first of their three straight World Series, and that club was the first great baseball team that I remember. They endeared themselves by how anti-authoritarian they seemed to a little kid with a stubborn streak, during a very anti-authoritarian time. The gaudy green-and-gold uniforms, the white shoes, the facial hair, the superstar lineup, even the clubhouse drama and the attention-grabbing owner earned the A’s a place in my heart.
So much so, in fact, that when the A’s visited County Stadium for the opener of a three-game weekend series in 1974, and the seven-year old me couldn’t go, I threw a hissy fit. The Brewers won; my parents went, and I got to spend the night with my grandmother. Listening to Bob Uecker and Merle Harmon on the radio lessened, but didn’t completely erase, the pain of not being there.
My affinity for the Royals began a couple years later.
In the small town in which I grew up, there were two distinct youth baseball leagues. One was called, colloquially, “sanction” – it was affiliated with Little League, or “sanctioned” by the powers that be in Williamsport. The other was the “Rec” league, run by the city Parks & Recreation Department.
Any aspiring ballplayer worth his cleats wanted to – HAD to – make a “sanction” team, which required performing well in an open tryout in front of the knowing eyes of the town’s coaching community.
But the incentive was clear. “Sanction” teams had full uniforms (from hats to stirrup socks) and the best players, played at the best kids’ ballpark in town, and had their own coaches. “Rec” team players got a t-shirt for a jersey and were coached by, as far as we could tell, college kids goofing off on a summer job.
I made sanction.
I was assigned to the Royals.
The Royals were coached by the father of one of my best friends, and a bunch of other friends were also on the team. We weren’t that bad and it was fun to play. Even though most of us loved the Brewers, being “Royals,” we adopted Kansas City as our “other” team.
Nice timing. Those were the Royals of George Brett, Frank White, Freddie Patek, Amos Otis, Hal McRae, Paul Splittorff, Dennis Leonard, and former Brewers Darrell Porter and Marty Pattin. (Also, Al Cowens, who later found wider fame elsewhere.)
Those Royals, unlike the Brewers of the time, won a lot, and were a nice “other team” to have. As I grew up, my “sanction” days ended, by my fondness for the Royals never did. I celebrated the 1985 World Series championship, and bemoaned their descent from baseball’s elite.
Flash forward to 2014. By the time of this writing we know the Royals have won the American League pennant, but to get there, they had to get past Oakland in the Wild Card game. I couldn’t lose in that matchup, but I have some friends who would. On one side was Paul, a Royals fan I knew from working in college athletics; on the other was Rick, an A’s fan I knew from working in radio.
Here are their perspectives as events unfolded during the Wild Card game in Kansas City on September 30th:
What went through your mind when Brandon Moss hit a two-run home run in the top of the 1st?
Rick: I thought that this is our game. Two runs is a good start, and with (Jon) Lester on the mound we wouldn’t need much more.
Paul: I believe it was an expletive. Seriously, I always think if you are an underdog, you need to strike first.
What did you think when the Royals got on the board in the bottom of the inning?
Rick: OK, it’s a long game. They’re probably going to score, but with Lester on the mound….
Paul: I was so relieved, especially in getting the crowd back in it.
The Royals got big two-out hits from Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer to take the lead in the bottom of the 3rd. Your thoughts?
Rick: I thought that things were starting to unravel, what with Oakland’s lack of offense of late.
Paul: I was quite happy and honestly believed it was going to be enough for James Shields. I thought he’d take the 3-2 lead into the seventh, when the lights-out bullpen would take over.
It appeared the A’s had blown open the game with a five-spot in the top of the 6th. Moss hit another homer, a three-run shot; the A’s later put together three straight two-out singles to go ahead 7-3. Were you feeling that the lead was secure?
Rick: Yes. I was feeling pretty secure at that point.
Paul: Having watched the Royals this year, I’ve seen them rally after they seemed down. In fact, my brother, who lives in Topeka, texted me, “I still believe.” I thought if they could get two in the 8th, they had a chance for two more in the 9th. I saw later that the odds of them coming back from that deficit were 4.4 percent. I’m glad I saw that the next day.
The Royals played small ball to score three times in the bottom of the 8th, aided by Luke Gregerson’s shakiness. Oakland still had the lead going into the 9th. What was your confidence level at that time?
Rick: By that point, I had zero confidence. I’ve seen them get beat like that too many times this season and K.C. had the momentum and the crowd.
Paul: I was actually pretty confident in a comeback at that point, especially with the method they were scoring. They put the pressure squarely on the A’s.
More K.C. small ball tied the game in the 9th. A single, a sacrifice bunt, a steal of 3rd (!). How hard was it to watch?
Rick: It was brutal.
Paul: One forgotten detail here is that the A’s had a chance to break the game open again by loading the bases in the top of the 9th. Once Holland worked out of that jam, I couldn’t wait for the bottom of the inning. When Aoki hit the sac fly, I thought it might go out for the second.
Kansas City had chances to win in the 10th and 11th, but the A’s kept them off the board. When each inning ended, did you feel relief? Fear? Confidence?
Rick: At that point, I was not confident at all. Just the opposite, in fact -- I had a feeling we were going to lose.
Paul: That I didn’t have enough beverages in the house! I wished they had put some better swings on the ball, but it just added up to what was becoming one of the most epic playoff games I’ve ever watched. I wore out a space in my living room pacing back and forth.
Oakland went small ball itself to take the lead in the top of the 12th. What were you feeling going into the bottom half?
Rick: Still not confident, pretty much waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Paul: Not with the way the Royals were putting runners on base. I returned the text to my brother, “I still believe.”
How much of a concern, or how thrilling, was Hosmer’s one-out triple in the bottom of the 12th?
Rick: It was the beginning of the end.
Paul: Here’s a story that says a little bit about my baseball beliefs: One of my sons and I were in KC to watch the Brewers-Royals series two years ago. With two outs in the ninth, Escobar hit a shot to left. Me, being a Royals fan, thought for sure Braun was going to catch it. My son, a Brewers fan, thought for sure it was gone for the game-winner. It was a game-tying triple, but it shows how long we’ve had disappointing teams. We haven’t exactly come to expect the best.
So my first thought was Hosmer’s drive would be caught. Then he made it to third, and I darn near broke my hands clapping so hard.
Rick, when Christian Colon got sawed off and still somehow drove in the tying run, did you feel there was a chance to get to the 13th or did it feel like the game was slipping away?
Rick: By that point, it wasn’t “slipping away.” It had already slipped away.
What about when Colon stole second?
Rick: Where there’s smoke there’s fire.
What were your emotions when Salvador Perez hit the game-winning single?
Rick: Very sad. We went from the best team in baseball at the All-Star break to barely making the Wild Card game to getting eliminated in a one-game play-off. It was a tough pill to swallow.
Paul: The rest of the 12th inning was tense, to see if they could finally get that run home. When Salvy hit the game-winner, it was such a combination of happiness and relief.
Rick, have you gotten over the game? Do you think you ever will?
Rick: I have gotten over the game. After all, it’s baseball and the Royals earned it. Hats off to them.
Paul, have you come back to earth yet?
Unfortunately, a heavy work load brought me back to earth, but it sure was tough getting to sleep Tuesday night/Wednesday morning. I wish I would have purchased stock in Diet Coke before I began work Wednesday.
Rick, was this Oakland’s last best post-season chance for a while? What do you think of Billy Beane?
I think Oakland will continue to contend, as long as they continue to develop strong pitching in their farm system.
Billy Beane is a master. He made good trades for Lester and Jeff Samardzija, and looking back on the last two post-season series against the Tigers, Oakland was out-pitched both times. The moves he made were to insure that would not happen again. But injuries, bad relief pitching and soft bats ALL AT THE SAME TIME devastated us.
Rick, not to be too glum, but do you think the A’s have a long-term future in Oakland, considering the stadium issues, small-market status, etc.?
Rick: Well, I don’t think we’ll ever be anything more than a small market team. Moving to San Jose or Fremont would be OK, I guess, but they obviously need a baseball-only stadium (eliminating a lot of that foul territory might finally help us have a .300 hitter). I think the fan base is passionate enough to sustain the A’s, provided they keep putting a winning team on the field. Is there a long-term future IN Oakland? I think so, but mainly because options such as moving the team and/or building a new stadium, be it in Oakland or elsewhere, are such expensive options.
Paul, what does the Wild Card win mean to you as a Royals fan? Does it finally erase the adjective “long-suffering?” How much does it take away the sting of 29 years in the baseball wilderness? Is it a harbinger of better seasons ahead?
Paul: Watching the Royals celebrate (clinching a playoff spot) in Chicago on Friday, September 26, took all those frustrations away. I’ve just wanted to see them get to celebrate something. It was especially meaningful because my wife and other son had seen the regular-season home finale just five days before that. On that Friday, we went online right away and ordered the playoff hat and shirts. I wasn’t going to wait to see how far they were going; I just wanted to celebrate that they were finally going. To win the Wild Card game was complete icing on the cake. I was a little worried early on that they would get blown out (like Pittsburgh did the next night) and people would say they weren’t good enough to be in the playoffs. The Wild Card win validated everything, and beating the Angels and Orioles just added to it. Now I can’t wait for the World Series to start. They may get beat, but I don’t doubt they will compete. It’s been an awesome ride!
The ride resumes when the Royals host the San Francisco Giants when the World Series begins October 21st.