The 2015 Royals: A Baseball Team for Baseball Fans

I watched the last Super Bowl in Seattle. It was a hell of a football game. It followed what had been, for the Seahawks, a miraculous conference championship game, and in the Super Bowl itself, another miraculous event put the Seahawks on the verge of a title. And then, in the dying seconds, a controversial play was called, and they threw an interception from the one-yard line. That quickly, everything that happened before was erased. A feeling crept into the fans around me, and collectively they refused to feel it. Instead, they felt confusion. Why pass? Why not run? What if they had run? The real heartache did sink in in time, but still the confusion lingers. Why not run? Would they have won if they had run? As far as the sport is concerned, it’s the greatest unanswerable question imaginable. There is no closure to be found. The closure doesn’t exist.

I also watched the previous Super Bowl in Seattle. They say people were nervous about it, but the game was shockingly comfortable. On the very first play, the Seahawks recorded a safety. The eventual celebration knew nothing of the horror that was to come. It knew nothing of the fact that a year later, that celebratory feeling would be impossible to remember unblemished.

I’ve asked myself a hundred times what it would’ve felt like if the two Super Bowls were reversed. Seemed to me, it would’ve felt perfect.

By necessity, every baseball season ends with a champ. That’s precisely how the whole thing is designed. Every baseball season, then, ends with a party, and it ends with one team partying, and it ends with one team writing a good story for the people who follow it. Every season, 30 groups of mostly grown men show up to spring training and tell people they believe in themselves, and every season, one group has its confidence rewarded. When 30 different teams declare that the mission is winning the World Series, then in the end, you’re guaranteed one team that you could say knew all along.

Every champ has a good story. Every champ has its surprising moments, every champ has its surprising contributors, and every champ has overcome its own adversity. As baseball goes, there’s nothing real special about the fact that the 2015 Royals just won the title. Somebody had to. It’s not just that the Royals won that makes them so deeply fulfilling. It’s everything. It’s all the context. The Royals have authored one of the great baseball stories, a story that elevates them above some run-of-the-mill other champion.

A year ago, the background was: it’s the Royals. The pathetic, forgettable, good-for-nothing Royals. The laughingstock Royals, the sad-sack Royals, literally in the playoffs, literally in the World Series. They were fresh in the same way the recently successful Pirates had been fresh, only the Royals took it further. The Royals nearly won.

This year, the background was last year. It had to some extent helped to erase the misery previous, so the Royals didn’t feel like a pushover anymore, but the year ended with such a hollow feeling. You can watch Alex Gordon get held at third. You can read that it was smart for Alex Gordon to be held at third. You can believe that it was smart for Alex Gordon to be held at third. But there’s no knowing. There’s no knowing what could’ve happened, what would’ve happened, so there’s no closure. No way to fully come to terms. No way to help the fact that ending like that would just gnaw at you, for months, and beyond.

Sorry, I’m wrong. Not “no way.” It’s not that there was no way to come to accept the crushing defeat. There was one way. There was one way to achieve perfect closure, and the Royals just found it. The demons of uncertainty have been vanquished. The angels of certainty dance in their stead. There’s no more opponent for the Royals to rally past — they’ve accomplished the last of the accomplishments.

Adversity makes triumph feel more triumphant. The Royals overcame the agony of finishing last. And the Royals overcame the agony of finishing second. From that perspective, their story covers several bases, but there’s still so much more, the little details that give the Royals ever more color.

For the fan experience, it’s crucial to have a team with a lot of personality. The Royals just ooze it, from their catcher, from their center fielder, and they’re led by a village idiot who seems to never get anything wrong. There’s a clear sense of the Royals’ team character, and it can easily sweep you into its current. Another element the Royals have had is a lingering air of being an underdog, even though they finished with the AL’s best record. A part of that just carries over from the Royals being godawful for a couple of decades, but it’s also the improbability of so many of their wins. It feels like the Royals should lose a lot more, at the same time as it feels like the Royals might never lose again. This speaks to maybe the most appealing thing about the ballclub.

The 2015 Royals were clutch. That’s it. The book’s closed. They weren’t clutch until they lost Game 7 to Madison Bumgarner. They weren’t clutch until they lost Game 7 to Noah Syndergaard. They were clutch and they won a World Series in which they were clutch in their last game, a game they trailed 2-0 in the top of the ninth. We’re programmed to roll our eyes at the notion. We’ve all learned not to trust these things. And when 2016 rolls around, a lot of us will again be skeptical. But there’s no arguing what the Royals did. They did succeed more often when it mattered most, and while they didn’t do it every time, they did it enough. It became their identity, and the last game of the year was as Royals as it gets.

After any comeback, any player on any team will say his teammates share a never-say-die attitude. And as fans, that kind of nature, that refusal to give up taps into something deep within us. Most teams don’t come back very much. The Royals seemed to prefer it. During Game 5, when the Mets went ahead 2-0, people tweeted that the Royals had the Mets right where they wanted them, and I’m not even sure those were jokes. The Royals made you feel like those deficits just stirred something inside them. Nothing would be too much for them to overcome. These things are almost sickening when you hear them about other teams, but I know what I’ve watched.

Fans love for their teams to be clutch. It’s because it makes the team feel in some way special — sure, maybe the other team has as much or more talent, but this team can dig deep. This team can put forth more effort. Clutchness makes you feel like it’s about more than just raw ability. People like that in baseball. People like that outside of baseball.

During the regular season, you could say the Royals won more games than they were probably supposed to. And during the playoffs, they again won more games than they were probably supposed to. They had the advantage of an incredible late-inning bullpen. They had the benefit of dozens of late-inning hits. And then there were the misplays. The misplays, that have commanded so much of the overall attention.

The Royals might not make it out of the ALDS if not for Carlos Correa fumbling a potential double play. The ALCS brought us Ryan Goins leaving a blooper un-caught. In World Series Game 4, Daniel Murphy committed a crippling error. In World Series Game 5, the mistake was Lucas Duda’s. Duda’s mistake was unbelievable, but for it being completely believable, because it was the Royals, and we’d already seen that.

The temptation is to call it luck. If not for an unlucky Correa error, maybe the Astros kill off the Royals then and there. That doesn’t do it for me, and it doesn’t do it for me because baseball is about more than just pitching and hitting. Defense is a part of it. Royals opponents committed some crucial mistakes. Those mistakes were made because the Royals put the ball in play, or because the Royals acted aggressively on the basepaths. Forget whether Eric Hosmer breaking for home was “smart.” Here’s what happened: Hosmer broke for home, and Duda threw the ball away. Each misplay was a case of the Royals outplaying their opponent. Maybe not because the Royals played well — maybe just because the opponent played worse. Playing well is always relative. Usually, defenders make those plays. Usually, Jeurys Familia throws Alex Gordon a better sinker. One time, he didn’t.

Seemingly a few times too often for coincidence, the Royals had things go their way. It’s fine to be a skeptic. It’s okay if you don’t want to buy what the Royals are peddling. But there’s a reason why, every time we write about clutch, people push back. What a lot of analysis shows us is that, generally speaking, baseball is a game of dice. It’s a game of numbers and matchups and probabilities, something you can run through a simulator. History suggests we shouldn’t believe these Royals were special; we should just think an inordinate number of special things happened.

Here’s the thing: even if that’s true, it isn’t fun. Baseball is a game played between humans, and people would prefer to see the players as human. People want for some players and teams to respond differently to different situations, because the alternative is math, and most people don’t like to watch math as a hobby. You want for some narratives to be true, even if the media picks some stupid ones. You want the game to be influenced by human behavior, beyond just overall human ability. It makes the product more interesting. I can tell you this much — every time I’ve written something about a failure to uncover evidence of clutch performance, I’m kind of disappointed. I want this stuff to be real. I want to believe in the influence of pressure. I want to believe in resolve.

If any team could make you believe it could make good things happen at the right times, it was these 2015 Kansas City Royals. From the team perspective, and from the fan perspective, you couldn’t want anything more. Those Royals fans got everything. They were given a storybook kind of team, with a storybook timeline. Every World Series champion gets some books written about it in the aftermath, but these have a chance to be classics. It’s a book you can’t make bad. It’s the story of the unkillable Royals, who suffered the most agonizing defeat and decided then and there that wasn’t how they’d be remembered.

I’m not a Royals fan. I’m someone who had fun watching the Royals. I don’t get to join in on the celebration. But that’s okay, because I have my own thing to celebrate. The Royals have convinced me there’s so much still left to learn. As stale as baseball analysis can sometimes feel, the Royals have been something so fresh, a reminder there’s more than you can imagine left to figure out. It would’ve been neat if all the Royals criticism we published in the past proved to be valid. This is no less neat.

Congratulations, Royals. You’ve made a lot of people happy.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Noah Baronmember
8 years ago

Great article. Perfect amount of credit to Royals for playing the best while still acknowledging the inherent randomness that comes with a short series. Also you explained clutchness perfectly.

The only thing I’d note is that the Mets winning would have made a whole lot of people happy too 🙁

8 years ago
Reply to  Noah Baron

“the Mets winning would have made a whole lot of people happy too”

But no one outside of New York.

I'm sure the Royals made so many fans this year...
8 years ago
Reply to  swyck

Remember when they were throwing at the Jays and Athletics? Who can forget them also starting fights with the White Sox and Angels for no reason? How about that time their fans tried to ruin the all-star game because they’re perceived as a small market?

Go underdog team that accuses everyone of stealing signs when they lose. I love the Royals if you can’t tell.

8 years ago

I remember these things distinctly. I also remember a take out slide leading up to the A’s debacle and if the Jays can’t handle being pitched inside they should meet up with Noah Syndergard at 60’6″ to settle it. I also recall the white sox clearly instigating the dust up. Are they Royals supposed to take this laying down?! Like their the first team to be targeted due to their new found success?! And as far as the all star game thing goes, get your fanbase motivated and go vote dummy.

Cool Lester Smooth
8 years ago

Oh, the Royals made a shit-ton of fans.

Anyone who doesn’t love watching them play doesn’t like baseball.

And I don’t know anyone who didn’t think the Royals fans’ ASG shenanigans were awesome.