Stories For Sunday is lucky to have a guest post from Joe Valentine. Read it, share it, find him and tell him it’s good so that, maybe, you’ll see his stuff here again sooner than later.
I knew my girlfriend, Linda, was a Kansas City Royals fan before we started dating; it’s one of the first things she tells people when she meets them for the first time. The George Brett pine tar incident and the ’85 playoff run were her bedtime stories, and she still complains about the decision not to re-sign Johnny Damon in 2000 (who even knew Johnny Damon played for the Royals?). So I knew even before she asked that we’d be taking the 10-hour overnight Megabus ride from Chicago to KC, to be there, amongst her people, when the Royals played Game 7 against the San Francisco Giants in 2014, even though we didn’t have tickets.
After an especially wild wildcard comeback, the team had gone on a tear, demolishing better-on-paper teams with a Murderer’s Row-like batting order, fearless small ball base running, and a lights-out bullpen that genuinely believed it could hold any team scoreless in innings 7-9, and often did, all the way through Game 6 of the World Series. Linda, who had, in years past, proclaimed, “If the Royals win the World Series, I will burn my own house to the ground,” could not miss their coronation or the celebration to follow.
In a bar in Kansas City’s Westport district, I watched Linda and her brother shed unabashed tears after Salvador Perez took a clunky, uncommitted hack at a high fastball in the bottom of the ninth inning, resulting in a routine popup that ended the most entertaining playoff run I’d witnessed. The 2014 Royals created a compelling Cinderella story, only it ended with Cinderella getting caught in the rain, splashed with muddy gutter water from a passing car, and then mugged on her walk home because her carriage had turned back into a pumpkin before she could leave the ball.
“It was ours,” Linda said. She was in pieces, and she wasn’t alone; it felt like the entire bar was weeping into Boulevard beers.
And then, over the next few weeks, those same sad fans seemed to come together to form a citywide group hug, like Whos after the Grinch stole their Christmas, both grateful to have had a chance to win it all and universally willing to live and die by the immediately created “unfinished business” tagline, simultaneously licking their wounds and licking their collective chops for the start of the 2015 season.
The next month, locally-owned Boulevard Brewery released a limited edition beer–“Crown Town”–to commemorate the Royals’ playoff run, and it had officially ceased to matter that they hadn’t won. Linda’s dad waited in line for multiple hours multiple times to make sure each of his children had a bottle. Linda’s family is a microcosm of a community in which Royals baseball matters. Like, really matters. It’s annoying until it’s inspiring. It’s corny until it’s enviable.
I remember feeling impacted by that passion: a genuine, authentic love for a game and a team. It stood in stark contrast to my own depleted interest in my hometown team, the Chicago Cubs, who had, in two decades, provided me with precious few incentives to continue expending effort on fandom. Until very recently, existing as a Cubs fan required a skin of cynicism, a laugh-at-yourself mentality, and an obligatory sheepish smile after proclaiming, “Next year will be our year.”
Sure, there were signs of life during seasons leading up to 2015: an ownership and management change, planned renovations to the dilapidated (though admittedly still endearing) Wrigley Field, whispers of mythically talented prospects panning out, including now-superstars Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant. My dad, after a lifetime in want, finally became a season ticket holder while I was living just a few blocks from Wrigley Field.
Still, requiring an excuse for your loyalty is taxing and, for me, the inevitable result of so much laughably poor baseball was that I simply stopped caring. I stopped investing energy into hope and expectation. Over a series of annual closet cleanouts, I donated all my Cubs shirts to Goodwill. In two seasons spent living within spitting distance of the stadium, I didn’t attend a single game. I stopped being a baseball fan.
Writing this, I realize that Cubs purists do exist (including my own cousin, a golf course greenskeeper who spends full days on a riding a lawnmower dreaming about the champagne he’ll pop when the Commissioner’s Trophy is finally ours), diehards who would label me a bandwagon fan. To them, I’d simply contend that sports are pain. God forbid I opt out of voluntary sadness.
It wasn’t that I didn’t remember the sheet of loose leaf I’d pinned to my bedroom wall and used to keep a running tally of Sammy Sosa’s 1998 home run count (innocently oblivious to the 40+ pounds of pure muscle that differentiated that version of Sammy from the guy in the rookie card I kept in a protective case and mounted on the same bedroom wall). It wasn’t that I threw away the Cubs hat I’d slept in for weeks during the summer of 2003, sweating and itching and afraid to take it off and jinx a streak. It wasn’t that I didn’t miss having something to talk about on the phone with my dad. It was just that sports are pain, and after I stopped blaming Steve Bartman for all my problems, after several seasons without a pulse, after an increasingly snide, hip young demographic had successfully overrun the Lakeview neighborhood where I lived, I tapped out.
Linda and I moved from Chicago to Kansas City in July, a change that coincided with a lot of really good baseball. Shortly after we moved, we bought $10 tickets (ludicrously inexpensive relative to the cost of living to which I’d been accustomed) to a packed Friday night game and, even in 95-degree heat, the energy of the Kauffman Stadium crowd was palpable. That night’s win saw the Royals extend their division lead to a comfortable 12 games.
Back in Chicago, a buzz was beginning to burgeon about the way that Brawny Man/Yukon Cornelius-hybrid Jake Arrieta was routinely making the NL’s best hitters look like beer league softball dads in the batter’s box, and about how the North Side had its own lights-out bullpen and a succession of swingers who were putting bat to ball seemingly on command.
Still, I maintained a practiced degree of ironic distance from the suddenly-fun-to-watch Cubs. Fandom requires vulnerability––as I’d witnessed firsthand after last year’s World Series––and I wasn’t ready to put myself back out there following the slow, miserable decline into irrelevance I’d experienced over the previous half-decade. Now that I lived in the Kansas City, a town so fully committed to its baseball team that it supports an entire industry of clever custom Royals-related t-shirt printers, I felt that if I were to commit myself to the Cubs and mean it, they’d better not embarrass me. If I were going to talk the talk, Kyle Schwarber had better walk the walk.
Then, on September 28th the Cubs played the Royals. As a result of my fringe fandom, I was unaware that the Giants’ loss two days prior had helped the Cubs secure a spot in the NL wildcard game and was still under the impression that a win mattered. I’d never taken so much as a controversial step onto Linda’s sacred turf before, and so after a routine groundout resulted in my yelling “Suck it, Lorenzo Cain!” and her throwing the remote at me, we finished watching the game from separate rooms. I couldn’t lose my Joker grin after Chris Denorfia’s pinch-hit homer in the 11th inning sealed the game, and it occurred to me that I couldn’t remember the last time Cubs baseball had made me smile. It made Linda miserable, and that in and of itself made me happy, not because I find joy in my girlfriend’s sadness, but because she actually feels this stuff. The Cubs made her feel something, and I know that’s real.
The next day, my barber said to me, “The Cubs are the Royals of 2015.” Linda’s dad asked whether my dad could secure any extra tickets at Wrigley in the event of a Cubs/Royals World Series. A co-worker came by my desk to tell me, “Your Cubbies are looking good this year.” My Cubbies? In a town where baseball is talked about seriously, people were seriously talking about the Cubs, who finished the regular season with a better record than the Royals.
Jake Arrieta was terrifying and unstoppable in the wild card win over the Pirates. In a particularly satisfying Division Series, my Cubbies laid waste to a Cardinals team whose fans never resist an opportunity to stick up their noses at any mention of their division rivals to the north (If I had a dollar for every time I heard “Oh, you’re a Cubs fan? Why?” in my four years at Saint Louis University, I’d be losing a lot less sleep over student loan debt). “The Royals of 2015” was looking more and more like an accurate prediction.
Inevitably, the Royals were the Royals of 2015. I mourned the sweep and elicited extra boo’s toward a Mets team onto whom I’d projected a totally unwarranted villainous persona as I sat in right field for all 14 innings of the Royals’ victory in Game 1 of the World Series. And on Sunday night, I put on a clever custom Kansas City t-shirt (the impeccably classy “Turn Your Head and Kauffman”) and jumped around amidst a champagne shower in the streets of Westport, showing up to work two full hours late the following morning wearing sunglasses and chugging Alka-Seltzer from a travel coffee mug.
In 2015, I enjoyed the MLB playoffs for the first time in a long time, maybe ever.
It felt good to watch every game, to have an opinion on every player. It felt good to realize that I still remember the rules, the strategies. It felt good to achieve what I’d recognized in Linda’s family, and perhaps what I’d coveted all along: a comfort in saying, “Next year will be our year,” totally non-ironically. It felt good to celebrate in a city that was so ready to celebrate, to take care of unfinished business. And it felt good to watch the Kansas City Royals absolutely dismantle the New York Mets, whom I’d grown to despise, because there’s only one kind of person who vilifies an opposing team: a fan.