When fans—and the organization as a whole—have been so beaten and battered with perpetual disappointment, sole possession of first place on June 18th feels like a major triumph.
I’m sure you’ve heard the scathingly depressing statistic by now, but in case you missed it, the last time the Royals were in first place at this exact point in the season, it was 1980. I was a year away from being born. The Blues Brothers, starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, was a week away from its theatrical release. Ian Curtis of Joy Division had only killed himself the month prior. CNN, the first 24 hour news station, was launched. Richard Pryor set himself on fire trying to freebase cocaine. Jimmy Carter was doing Jimmy Carter Things.
And yes, the Royals have been in first place later in the season—obviously. They won their only World Series in 1985. They were in first through much of 2003.
But this feels… different.
In 1985, Kansas City was still a perennially contending team. The fact that they won a championship that year wasn’t necessarily shocking.
But this year… this year was supposed to be different. Having jettisoned their best potential prospect in a decade or more for an ace pitcher, and having all of the other pieces in place, this was their window. Instead of throwing a leg over the sill, however, they started off down in the bushes, throwing rocks up at the glass.
The cornerstone third baseman was demoted. The slick fielding first base prodigy got lost at the plate and starting swinging at everything but the ball. The stalwart designated hitter—paid handsomely to do one thing, and one thing only—could no longer do that thing.
But then, as things are wont to do in the course of a marathon, things started shifting. They reshuffled the seating arrangement on the Titanic, moving the third base coach to the hitting instructor’s spot. The maligned first baseman started putting the ball in the seats with confident regularity. At least two of the three outfield spots continued being really, really good. The second starter in the rotation—who I scoffed at wildly upon acquisition—continued to surprise. The back-end of the bullpen continued to be the best tandem in all of baseball. One starting pitching prospect started actually living up to his bountiful potential by pitching aggressively and efficiently; another young arm surprised.
This is the team that people had expected to see heading into the season. A team that has now reeled off 10 straight wins for only the ninth time in club history. A team in steamroller-mode.
A team with pitching and defense this good should never LOSE nine straight games; but with an appropriate amount of offense—and 11 runs in back-to-back games is certainly more than appropriate—they should be able to WIN in bursts like this. And though they’ll assuredly backslide at some point (nothing gold can stay, Johnny), anything short of hovering in and around first place for the remainder of the season just won’t walk the dog.
The window of immediate-contention could easily be closing at the end of this season—James Shields will be gone, too many guys are making too much for what they do (as much as I love Greg Holland, I don’t believe in paying closers truckloads of money), and players like Lorenzo Cain are playing themselves out of KC’s price range on a daily basis—but for now, that window is still wide open. The Royals have 91 games left to make sure they don’t get caught with one leg in before it slams.
I’m willing to bet that, no matter what else happens in the coming months, we’ll all have a good time on the roller-coaster. If the Royals contend, so be it. And if they fall to the cellar, I will personally murder everyone responsible. (J/K, FBI! LOL.)