In 1976, Kansas City Royals infielders Cookie Rojas and Freddie Patek – honoring a pledge Rojas had made several years earlier – celebrated their team’s first-ever trip to the postseason by stripping to the waist and taking a swim in the fountains beyond the right field wall of Kauffman (then Royals) Stadium. Luckily for them, a quick-thinking member of the team’s grounds crew averted a potential tragedy by shutting off the water feature’s electricity before the two men jumped in.
Wednesday night, when the Royals celebrated their first American League pennant since 1985 at “The K,” the team – unlike Rojas and Patek, or the fan who unwisely dared a dive into the left field fountains on Tuesday – confined their festivities to the field and the clubhouse. Meanwhile, many members of the Baltimore Orioles looked as if they might actually regard the combined effects of water and electricity as a welcome relief to their suffering.
Who could blame them, really? The O’s had come into this best-of-seven American League championship series as the heavy favorites, having steamrolled the AL East during the second half of the season and swept the favored Detroit Tigers in the ALDS. They had possibly the best manager in baseball in Buck Showalter, they boasted a potent and well-rounded roster and they were going up against a Royals team that barely squeaked into the postseason to begin with – a small-ball-centric squad led by manager Ned Yost, whose love of the bunt and rigidly defined bullpen roles had made him the laughing stock of the Internet even while the Royals were busy sweeping the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in three straight ALDS games.
Kansas City would certainly put up a fight, so the conventional wisdom went; but when the dust settled, Baltimore would surely be representing the American League in the World Series for the first time since 1983.
Four games later, conventional wisdom has dutifully packed its bags and – along with the Orioles – headed home to wait until next year. O’s outfielder Adam Jones rightly described his team’s season as “fucking awesome,” but the Royals’ playoff run has been more fucking awesome still. They’ve now won eight straight contests, the most by any MLB team in a single postseason, and at this point Vegas is probably offering even odds that they’ll run the table.
There’s no question that the Royals deserved to win this series. They beat the Orioles with small ball, scoring two runs in the bottom of the first in Game 4 without hitting the ball out of the infield – both runners were put in scoring position by a bunt from Lorenzo Cain, the hot-hitting outfielder’s first sacrifice hit of his entire friggin’ major league career – and then making those two runs stand up for the rest of the game with brilliant pitching and defense. They beat the Orioles with the long ball, out-homering them four to one at the launching pad known as Camden Yards. They beat the Orioles with their bullpen, which gave up only two runs in 16 innings of work. They beat the Orioles with their outfield, which put on a three-way contest in each game to see who could make the most clip-worthy play. (Alex Gordon’s face-first fifth-inning meeting with the left field wall was the clear-cut Game 4 winner.)
Their DH, Billy “Country Breakfast” Butler, out-hit Orioles DH Nelson Cruz, who’d come into the series looking like the 21st century postseason equivalent of Babe Ruth. Their Greek guy, the ninth-hitting Mike Moustakas, out-produced the Orioles’ Greek guy, Nick Markakis; the former clubbed key home runs in the first two games, while the latter blew Baltimore’s last chance to get to struggling KC starter Jason Vargas in Game 4 by striking out with a man on in the sixth. And on it went…
Not even a couple of silly controversies could derail the Royals from their quest for the AL crown. Jarrod Dyson’s politely smack-talking response to a reporter’s question about the possibility of returning to Baltimore for Games 6 and 7 stirred up a minor media firestorm, and possibly earned him a knee in the face, but it didn’t exactly come back to bite Kansas City on the ass. Jeremy Guthrie’s choice of T-shirts at the post-Game 3 press conference provoked enough howls of Twitter outrage that he felt compelled to call a press conference before Game 4 to apologize for offending O’s players and fans, when he really should have expressed contrition for falling far below the standard of clubhouse T-shirt awesomeness previously set by Dave Parker and Bert Blyleven. Any folks waiting for the Royals’ low-grade cockiness to trigger some sort of karmic payback are still, well, waiting.
They might well continue to wait. Regardless of who makes it out of the NLCS alive, it’s hard to imagine that Ned Yost’s merry men – decided underdogs up ’til now – would be considered anything less than the favorites to win the World Series. They’re healthy, they’re functioning on all cylinders and they’ve just handily taken down two of the toughest teams in the game. There’s an ineffable whiff of blue magic in the air, and we may yet again see some Royals in those ballpark fountains before this October is over.
Dan Epstein’s latest book, Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of ’76, is now out via Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press. He’s on Twitter at @BigHairPlasGras