My favorite moment from the most fun I’ve ever had working was looking past Alex Gordon in left field and past the fans behind him and to Interstate 70 behind them.
The feeling of singular importance at Kauffman Stadium when playoff baseball returned after nearly three decades is impossible to explain.
Nothing else seemed to matter. Around Kansas City, at least, nothing else seemed to be happening. There wasn’t time. Or energy. Just baseball. Just the Royals.
Those of us lucky enough to watch those games can remember the noise, the joy, the way the stands filled with more blue than ever and the way the old concrete beauty below our feet shook in the biggest moments.
Forty thousand people, mostly strangers, but on those nights it felt like the best kind of reunion. If the guy next to you was a stranger when you sat down, that didn’t last long, because here comes Wade Davis.
A friend tells a story. This is from Game 1 of the 2015 World Series. The guy in front of him bought a Miller Lite he no longer wanted, but it was the ninth inning, and the Royals were losing, so my friend passed. Then, Gordon hit that homer off Mets closer Jeurys Familia, the concrete beauty started shaking again, and Gordon pointed to the sky as he rounded first base.
“Hey, bro!” my friend yelled. “You still got that beer?”
Thousands of people have thousands of stories like this. But I always think of I-70. Tickets were hard to get. They were expensive. The Royals had been so bad for so long, and their fans so starved, that the cost of playoff tickets broke records on the secondary market. You could’ve been a lifelong and loyal Royals fan, tried to save money after they got hot, and still made a logical decision that you could not afford $1,000 for two tickets.
Some of those people parked on the shoulder of I-70. I looked at them, through binoculars. They got out of their cars. Sometimes, they just stood. Sometimes they took pictures. Once, a man just held his phone up, presumably so the person on the other line could listen. He couldn’t get inside. This was the next best thing.
I hope I live to be 150 years old, with memories worth cherishing, and if I do I’m certain I’ll never forget what we all saw and heard and felt in 2014 and 2015.
Already, those nights feel like so long ago. Life moves fast. Sports can move faster. Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, and Alcides Escobar are now about to play what everyone involved understands will be their last games at Kauffman Stadium together.
The best times were as unforgettable as any of us could’ve expected, maybe more. The last two years have been disappointing. For some, that’s what matters most right now.
For the rest of this column, the best times are all that matter.
Eric Hosmer’s best moment was the triple. Maybe I’m the only one who believes this. Overwhelmingly, Royals fans would talk about the dash home in Game 5 against the Mets and you should not listen to anyone who says that wasn’t magical — a very Royals mix of speed, brains, guts and timing.
But for me, it will always be the triple. You might forget that when he walked toward the batter’s box in the 12th inning for the 2014 AL Wild Card Game’s 104th plate appearance, the Royals were just two outs from losing.
They trailed 8-7. Jason Frasor had allowed an inherited runner to score in the top of the inning and told a teammate in the dugout, “Wow, I just lost the Wild Card Game for us.” When Cain led off the bottom of the inning with a soft grounder, he thought the game was over.
Hosmer could not think that way. He walked to the plate wanting a fastball he could hit over the fence. The sixth pitch fit the description — near the letters, and over the outside corner, enough that Hosmer could extend his arms.
The ball soared to left-center field. Hosmer has always been his best hitting toward left-center field. Two Oakland outfielders collided, with each other and the wall. The ball bounced back toward the infield. Hosmer had a stand-up triple. He screamed toward the dugout, and punched the air, the at-bat he would later call the biggest of his life turning into the moment of his life.
He then scored the tying run, when Christian Colon bounced it off the plate and into the sky, enough time for Hosmer to sprint toward the plate, slide head first, and punch the air some more.
That night, he invited all of Kansas City to McFadden’s for a drink. The next year, he would make another sprint home in extra innings of an elimination game.
Mike Moustakas’ best moment was the catch. He had others, too. He won Game 1 of the 2014 AL Division Series against the Angels with a homer in the 11th. As he ran between first and second base, he was so excited he slammed his fists together, the right crashing down on the left. He’d never done that before. He’d do it so many times after. He is now the Royals’ single-season home run leader.
But he’ll always be best remembered for the catch in Game 3 of the 2014 AL Championship Series against Baltimore. He covered 40 feet or so in exactly 15 steps, a sprint against time and gravity, a tied playoff game hanging in no small part on whether Moustakas could beat the ball to its landing spot.
Only, it wasn’t that simple, because the landing spot was deep in the Kauffman Stadium dugout suites behind third base. On another night, the ball would’ve been a souvenir, the reward unworthy of the risk. But the wind blew back toward the field and the ball hung in the air a few seconds, enough time for Moustakas to decide whether to dive over the railing, at what angle, and exactly when.
He fell over the railing, and a blink before he lost his balance, the ball settled into his glove. A fan in the suite leaned over, and screamed, “HOLY (EXPLETIVE)! HE CAUGHT IT! HE CAUGHT IT!”
Moustakas never hit the ground. He caught the ball, and the fans caught him. He was crowd surfing, like a rock star. They pushed him back over the railing, and when Moustakas retook his position at third base for the next batter, he pointed back to the suite. The fans pointed back, and screamed.
Lorenzo Cain’s best moment was the sprint home from first, on a single, the decisive play as the Royals won Game 6 of the 2015 ALCS. Two-thousand four-hundred and fifty-four games had been played that year, including the playoffs, and not once had anyone scored from first on a single with less than two outs without running on the pitch.
Mike Jirschele, the Royals’ third-base coach, had noticed that Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista tended to go for the hero throw on balls hit to the right-field corner — over the cutoff man, directly to second base — even with a runner on first.
Jirschele told his guys the tip before the series, making sure they ran hard all the way through, because that’s the only way it would work. Even with all of that prep, Cain was surprised to see Jirschele windmilling his arms.
Cain made the sprint in 34 steps, and 10.47 seconds, his maximum speed of 20.7 miles per hour just over the limit for a school zone. He leaped in the air after he scored, the moment captured on the cover of the next issue of Sports Illustrated.
That was the Royals, too, right? A pennant won on base running. But that’s even truer the more you think about it, the more you know about the play. The Royals scored the winning run in an elimination playoff game because the guy at first was exceptionally fast, and given a razor-sharp tip from a coach, the combination producing a gutsy and remarkably rare play in the biggest moment.
Yes, that was the Royals.
Alcides Escobar’s best moment was the home run off the outfielder’s foot. It had been 30 years to the day since the last game of the 1985 World Series at Kauffman Stadium, so long ago that back then it was called Royals Stadium, and the field was AstroTurf.
It made no sense that Escobar was the Royals’ leadoff hitter. Nobody in baseball had more plate appearances and a worse on-base percentage that year. In September, as the Royals began their dress rehearsals for the postseason, manager Ned Yost tried a more sensible lineup with Escobar at the bottom.
But that coincided with some losses, so after a few weeks, Yost put Escobar back at leadoff. The Royals won that day. The next day, Yost put Escobar back toward the bottom, and the Royals lost. The day after, again Escobar was at the bottom of the order, and again the Royals lost.
Five games remained in the regular season. Escobar batted leadoff in each, and the Royals won each.
“I don’t know why it works,” Yost would say. “It just does.”
#EskyMagic had become an undeniable Thing, but it wasn’t just that. Escobar had taken a habit of swinging at the game’s first pitch, no matter what, and at first it was something like an inside joke around the clubhouse. But at some point it became so obvious and successful — he hit .364 on first pitches that year, compared with .239 on all other pitches — that it was hard to miss.
For some reason, opposing teams didn’t catch on, and they kept throwing Escobar first-pitch strikes. The first pitch he saw in the 2015 World Series was a strike, a fastball, and Escobar hit it hard to the gap. Mets outfielder Yoenis Cespedes misplayed it, the ball bouncing off his foot, and Escobar scored without as much as a throw home.
Magic isn’t real, except when it’s there, right in front of you.
Maybe some of this feels like the balding, pudgy, former high school quarterback talking about those old touchdowns to distract from the disappointing life in front of him.
The Royals will not be in the playoffs this year, same as last year, and same as every year between 1985 and 2014. Who knows how long it will be before the Royals again pop champagne?
Hosmer is finishing up the best season of his professional life. He will be one of the premier free agents on the market this winter, and the Yankees are among the teams in need of a first baseman. It seems unlikely the Royals will be able to sign him, or Cain, or Moustakas. Escobar could be back, but the magic is gone. Nothing lasts forever.
There is no right or wrong way to approach this. The bond between this team and this city’s fans has always felt a little different. Some of that is by circumstance, some a direct credit to the players, some a direct credit to the fans.
It will never be like that again, it can’t be, and nobody can blame you if you’re checked out on this team and season.
But it will never be like this again, either. After this week, these men will almost certainly never again play together for the Royals. The ending isn’t what they hoped. But the best times were better than anyone could’ve expected.