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Thursday, October 2, 2014

These Royals Make You Believe in God

Big Game James sat on the bench in the dugout. He hadn't taken his glove off yet because he was trying to pretend it wasn't real - that manager Ned Yost hadn't taken him out of the game at the biggest moment of his life, winning 3-2 against the Oakland Athletics in the first postseason appearance for the Kansas City Royals since Color TV was a coup in motel rooms, and phones were attached to cords.

Twenty-nine long, aching years - and now the Ace was on the bench, watching rookie Yordano Ventura, in just his second career relief appearance, give up a 3-run homer to A's designated hitter Brandon Moss. Two more runs would score before the disastrous inning was over, and James Shields just kept staring at his hand, wondering how the dream had died so easily and without him in it.

He had led this team all year: 14 wins and a 3.21 ERA that made Kansas City a contender in a league that long ago had written off the Royals as rejects.

Wal-Mart executive David Glass brought a "save money" philosophy to Royals baseball, but the Royals weren't "living better." Kansas City hadn't had a winning season in a decade when they finally burst out in 2013, rallying despite Glass, a paltry payroll, and second-tier status in a league where cash is king.

Cash was king, and as the Dodgers and the Yankees and the Red Sox and the Tigers shelled out tens of millions for marquee free agents, the Royals kept building their farm system and rushing players to the big leagues too soon, watching prospect after prospect either bust or leave for greener pastures when they finally matured.

Royals. The name itself became a mockery, the crowns at the K overlooking a shadowy downtown with no mass transit system and few skyscrapers, a Midwestern cow town with a newly built arena where no NBA team would come to play.

They got their name not from royalty but from a Kansas City livestock show that started in 1899. Royals, rising from manure and hay and cud. Somehow it was fitting.

Baseball fans around the country didn't even know what state the Royals played in, or where Kansas City was.

"Oh I like Kansas," said many a well-meaning American, hearing of a pending trip to Kansas City, Missouri.

As playoff hopes started to become real again in 2014, behind an impenetrable bullpen, the Ace Shields, and clever, improbable baserunning - the Royals took on a new anthem, a new slogan. The song, written by New Zealand teenager Lorde, was inspired by Lorde's viewing of a photo of George Brett. The lyrics could have been more optimistic, but again somehow they fit a team full of heart that was winning against all odds:

I'm not proud of my address ... in a torn-up town ... no postcard envy
And we'll never be royals ...

We'll never be Royals. The song blared over the sound system at the K and even though they were the Royals somehow it made sense because they never would be Royals, like the Yankees or Dodgers. They didn't have the cash, the clout, the history, the famous fans and luxury boxes for the stars. 

They had barbecue: brisket smoked in basements on 18th and Vine, cooking skills honed by African Americans who took the trials of slavery and segregation and gave America barbecue, jazz, and a rich soul. Kansas City has a barbecue soul within, a tangy sweet flavor that's better cooked slow, hidden beneath two innocent-looking pieces of cheap white bread, served by a surly line cook: Can I help you? Hey, can I help you!?

We'll never be royals.
We crave a different kind of buzz.

It was a different kind of buzz all right, when a boneheaded call by Yost decided to attempt a double steal with lightning steed Billy Butler playing Pickle in the Middle with a man on third in the American League Wild Card game.

Butler flubbed the play, first baseman Eric Hosmer got tagged out at home to end the inning, and as Oakland scored its runs in pristine fashion, with two home runs by Moss and textbook hitting and baserunning, the Royals scrapped hits, bunts, wild pitches, and base stealing together like a homecoming dress made of duct tape worn by a homecoming queen who took her tractor to the school dance.

Royals catcher Salvador Perez was ugliest of all, chasing pitches in the dirt, a foot outside, contorting his bat in the air like an old man trying to swat a fly. Royals legend George Brett had tried to get Perez to take a pitch every once in awhile, but he was like an overeager puppy - so sweet was his desire that even in a Major League game that was all about business, you couldn't help but love his heart even as Perez struck out twice in the Wild Card game, leaving three men on base.

Then it was the bottom of the 12th and by the grace of Hosmer the game was tied, somehow, magically - with bunting and stealing and wishing on a prayer - the Royals had come back and the fans could taste the win on their barbecue-stained fingers. 

The Hope of the Franchise was up to bat with Christian Colon on first. Alex Gordon was born for this moment, in this stadium. He grew up a Royals fan in nearby Lincoln, Neb., and was the second-overall pick in the 2005 MLB draft. If the Royals were going to have a Welcome to the Big Boys Club moment, if they were about to be inaugurated into the ranks of the MLB's finest, this was it. 

If they were the Yankees or the Dodgers, and their star was up to bat, he would've homered. The crowd would've erupted and the team would win games how you're supposed to win games, with money and solid fundamentals.

Gordon popped out. The crowd at the K sighed, and somewhere across the Missouri-Kansas border, a group of young teenagers tipped over a sleeping cow. 

Anyway this wasn't Big Boys Club baseball, it was Royals baseball. They have to make you think they're going to lose before they win in the most impossible way imaginable.

An overly eager Perez came to the plate. The count was 2-2 and Perez had already swung three times. Conventional wisdom said Jason Hammel would throw another nasty slider and Perez would reach for it, stupidly, then head back to the dugout, head down.

But this was Royals baseball, where even a misguided manager and a team searching for a slugger would find a way to win in October. It was almost October, and a 2-2 count to the one player Royals fans hadn't been able to count on all night at the plate.

The camera cut over to the bench and there he was, the Ace who'd been de-aced too soon. Big Game James was smiling. 

We're bigger than we ever dreamed
And I'm in love with being queen

The slider came. Low and 84 mph, fast enough to earn you a ticket driving through the Grandview Triangle from Overland Park to Lee's Summit; slow enough to catch Perez's anxious bat.

It ripped down the third-base line, right where it had to go to score Colon; and George Brett, in his box, was smiling, too. He'd never given up, on this team, on this town, and for a moment: they were Royals, in their own way.

***

People say that professional sports fuel what is worst in us. Our greed, our impatience, our willingness to ruin our bodies for the sake of fame. Our glorification of the worst human impulses, our blindness to the crimes these athletes sometimes commit.

Many a minister laments the confirmation student absent again for basketball practice or baseball practice; the Sunday School student whose hockey practice always comes before Sunday worship; the church member who watches their ESPN Gamecast during the sermon.

It's been said that Baseball, or Football, is America's religion and because of that we've lost our footing.

Maybe that's true when the Yankees win the pennant, or the Patriots take the Super Bowl.

But when the Royals win the Wild Card and play in October for the first time in 29 years, Jesus smiles back at George Brett and James Shields.

Jesus won like the Royals win. He rose like the Royals rise, when everything seems impossible and people don't even know what state you're from or what the Bible even says anyway.

Jesus was King like the Royals are King. He was a small-market franchise, loved by a small but devoted group of followers who took a risk on a long shot because We Believe.

Being a fan of the Royals is different than being a fan of the Yankees or the Dodgers. Most of the time it's worse. You lose and lose and lose again and players never want to stay. 

Being a follower of Jesus is different than being a follower of consumerism or fame. Most of the time it's worse. You're compelled to give your money away, you have to forgive people even when they do terrible things, and even though you follow the Savior of the world, you and your loved ones still die.

Sometimes, though, and ultimately, being a fan of the Royals is better. On Sept. 30, 2014; being a Royals fan was better. They won with heart, with tenacity; when they were down they were really down but when they were up they brought their city up with them, and this flyover cow town was filled with immense pride. All of a sudden people were saying We and hugging and thinking that maybe just maybe there was a God and good really could win in the end.

Sometimes, though, and ultimately, being a follower of Jesus is better. He won with truth, with love; when he was down he was really down and he died on the Cross and for three days the dream died with him. And then he rose again and when he rose he brought his world up with him, and this broken-down world was filled with immense pride and faith and hope and love. All of a sudden people were saying Grace and hugging and thinking that maybe just maybe He really was God and good really could win in the end.

Maybe sports are America's religion right now. And maybe sometimes Jesus takes on sports and uses America's religion to remind us that We Believe - the sixth inning and ill-advised Ned Yost and the Cross and ill-advised human beings are not the end. Most of us, especially those of us in those states the news forgot, will never be royals like the song says. But Jesus says in the end we will all be a Royal Priesthood. 

And in the meantime, he'll give us his Royals to remind us We Believe.

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