KANSAS CITY, Mo. – It is written in indelible ink both in the record books and in their collective memory. So it’s best dealing with it honestly.
“That’s just something,” Eric Hosmer said, “that you don’t really get over.”
Tuesday night, the World Series opens here at Kauffman Stadium, the same place it ended last October. There are still 90 feet between third place and home, the same 90 feet that stood between Kansas City Royals left fielder Alex Gordon and the tying run in the seventh and deciding game. And even with the Royals back to try again, there’s still that same hurt.
“It definitely wasn’t fun,” Royals center fielder Lorenzo Cain said Monday. “It definitely was a few weeks, maybe month into the offseason. It didn’t sit well. Not only me, but teammates. It was definitely hard to deal with at first.”
Back then, on Oct. 29, 2014, the Royals were newbies, in the midst of a charmed run in which they rallied from four runs down in the eighth inning of the American League Wild Card game, then swept the Angels and Orioles to win the pennant. Here, though, they were down by a run to San Francisco Giants lefty Madison Bumgarner, who had twice beaten them already. Now, he was on in relief. Entering the ninth inning in a game San Francisco led 3-2, he had allowed only one hit in four innings of work.
What happened defined this 2015 Royals team, to an extent. Remember that Kansas City, in 2014, didn’t make the playoffs till the final weekend. In breaking a 29-year postseason drought, they averaged 24,154 fans per game – 25th in the majors. The glory days of the Royals were in the past, embodied in George Brett and Frank White and others, guys who still hung around town. The present never overtook the past.
“Throughout the losing years that we had, it was like all the highlights that we saw on the big board or the TV was all about the ’80s,” Gordon said. “And we really didn’t have anything to celebrate until now. It’s good to make your own history and your own memories that maybe they can look back on.”
The month that led to Game 7 changed Kauffman Stadium as a venue and Kansas City as a baseball town. Despite widespread suspicions among prognosticators that the Royals, who lost starting pitcher James Shields to free agency, would struggle to return to the playoffs, the city responded. Attendance rose to 33,438 nightly, 10th in baseball. No regional sports network had higher rated baseball broadcasts than Fox Sports Kansas City, which announced earlier this month an all-time high rating of 12.3 – highest of any RSN this season, and an 84 percent increase over 2014.
“Last year we didn’t really get those crowds toward the end of the year when we started making that playoff push, and then this year was just every night sold out,” Gordon said. “I just remember during the year looking at guys saying, ‘You know, this is great. It’s like a Tuesday night and it’s sold out and the atmosphere is unbelievable.’ The crowd really has been a big factor for us all year as far as pushing us.”
Last Oct. 29, the crowd tried to push in that final inning against Bumgarner. When the bottom of the ninth opened, Bumgarner had sat down 12 straight Royals. He then struck out Hosmer for his 13th straight victim. Billy Butler, then the designated hitter, popped up to first. Gordon was all that was left.
Gordon managed to scald a single to left-center. He began running, and there was confusion between left fielder Juan Perez and center fielder Gregor Blanco. Blanco had trouble picking the ball up, but against the backdrop of the lighted scoreboard along the wall, Gordon couldn’t read it well, either. He motored around second and into third. With the ball just arriving to Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford, Royals third base coach Mike Jirschele put up the sign: Stop.
This move was debated some over the winter, but all parties involved – Gordon, Jirschele and even Crawford – believe stopping Gordon gave the Royals their best chance to win, even if it left catcher Salvador Perez to hit against Bumgarner. Crawford has a superior arm. Gordon was running out of gas. Perez had delivered big hits before, most notably the game-winner in the AL Wild Card game against Oakland.
Everyone who will file into Kauffman Stadium Tuesday night remembers what happened next. Perez worked Bumgarner to 2-2, and then popped one up along the third base line, not far from where Gordon stood. Gordon never got to cover those last 90 feet, because the ball settled into the glove of Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval, and San Francisco had its third championship in five years.
The next day, the Royals came back to Kauffman, not just to clean out their lockers and collect their thoughts, but for a pep rally with their fans.
“It was actually kind of tough for me to come back here and face the fans a little bit,” Cain said. “It was tough. It was tough to deal with, losing that game.”
So a year later, that loss still stays with the Royals who will take the field Tuesday night. Gordon said it caused him to “run a few more wind sprints” in the offseason. Cain said he watched the tape of every postseason game from 2014, and he didn’t stop when Bumgarner took the mound in Game 7. Hosmer returned home, where friends wanted to ask about it.
“It’s always going to be difficult,” Hosmer said. “It’s one of those things where, honestly, even if you go out and win this year, and someone two-three years down the road asks you [about] last year’s World Series, it’s going to be tough.”