Just a few months ago, there was a real and strong backlash to the possibility of the Kansas City Royals taking over the All-Star Game with as many as six starters for the American League. After all, the team may have been on top of the standings as the defending AL champion, but nothing about its players screamed out “superstar”. In the end, it may all have been just a premonition for what was to come. Ladies and gentlemen, the same Kansas City Royals are now World Series champions.
These words have to begin with the disclaimer that I picked the Mets to win the series, but also with the realization that we have witnessed one of the most improbable and special championships in recent history. The indelible moment from the clinching Game 5 may come from Eric Hosmer's gutsy slide to tie the game in the ninth, or the pinch-hit single from the little-used Christian Colon to take the lead in the 12th, or maybe just the untouchable Wade Davis striking out the side to finish the game. But anyway you want to remember this title, it all comes down to how the Royals were able to overcome adversity time and again to get to this point.
Going by win expectancy, the Royals won seven games this postseason in which they held a 25% or lower odds to win. This includes the catalyst, which came in an elimination Game 4 of the ALDS when they trailed by 4 runs in the eighth facing the Astros in Houston. It also includes the three separate occasions in the World Series in which the Royals trailed in the eighth inning or later, where shaky defense and a probably tired Jeurys Familia managed to blow games in painful fashion. While it could be assumed that history will mention how the Mets collapsed, I think that Kansas City's resilience should remain the bigger story.
After all, this is a franchise that endured 29 years between postseason appearances only to painfully lose a Game 7 of the World Series at home. Against all odds, they persevered to return with what seemed like a lesser cast of players, only to take it a step further and earn the second title in its history. That same spirit of never-ending effort traces back to the last decade in Kansas City's story, where the franchise was slowly shifted from laughingstock all the way to the top.
When Dayton Moore was hired to become the team's GM in 2006, the Royals had only enjoyed one winning season in 13 years, and were well on their way to lose 100 games for a third straight year. The same Moore was endlessly question for what he still calls “The Process”, a model that was mocked to no end only to now become the latest trend among franchises that wish to rebuild from the ground up.
The same GM that gave away big free agent money to the likes of Jose Guillen and Yuniesky Betancourt also presided a strong scouting group that landed Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, and Greg Holland in the draft. With limited resources, the Royals were also able to spend wisely in international free agents, such as Salvador Perez and Yordano Ventura, while Moore became better at his job with time. The trade that brought James Shields and Wade Davis turned out to be a game-changer, while that kind of aggressiveness was evident mid-season as the team mortgaged a bit of its future and picked up Ben Zobrist and Johnny Cueto.
As a fitting parallel, the manager hired by Moore also has become a model of redemption. Ned Yost arrived in 2010 and promptly led his team to 95 losses. He'd lose at least 90 the two following seasons as many people called for his firing. It all seemed warranted, as Yost always appeared overmatched when it came to lineup construction and especially in bullpen decisions. Instead, he also learned to get better and better at his job, winning more games than the year before for the past 5 seasons. Even as this October still showed a couple of questionable decisions, it became clear that Yost is a good manager, and now a championship manager.
The redemption stories abound in this Royals team, who took Alex Gordon and Luke Hochevar from busts to heroes, and who saw the full rise of Hosmer and Moustakas to superstar level. The same goes for Salvador Perez, who became World Series MVP just a year after being the last out of the Fall Classic as he represented the winning run. The Royals have Edinson Volquez, who faced a painful personal tragedy and came out a winner, and they also have Cueto, who pitched the worst start in Royals history in the ALCS only to then deliver the best performance ever by a Royals starter in the World Series. This Royals team has also ensured that Lorenzo Cain's name becomes a fixture, and that Wade Davis has a touch of Mariano Rivera in him. It is the team that made Alexis Rios a champion after more than 1,600 games with no postseason, while handing Raul Mondesi Jr. a ring without having played a regular season contest.
In the end, there is just so much about this Royals championship that serves as a reminder to baseball's greatness. They've done it with a bottom-half payroll in one of the league's smallest markets, focusing on smart free-agent signings and strong draft picks. They choose contact over power, and thrive on defense without shifting too much. They have a passionate fan base that waited too long for this, and who also deserves a ton of praise. And so the Royals found ways to come back again and again, and now we only get to witness a champion that redefines clutch and seems like it was built for another time and place.
Congratulations, Kansas City Royals. The thirty years were worth the wait.