The Kansas City Royals are in the middle of an ALDS matchup and the Boston Red Sox aren’t. So what’s a Sox fan to do? Jimmy Wulf explains why he’s become a Kansas City Royals convert… at least for now.
Enough ink to fill a lake has been spilled over How Things Changed For the Boston Red Sox and Their Fans in the wake of their 2004 (and 2007 and 2013) championships. However looking around at the discourse today, it’s not hard to feel like every drop of it was wasted effort. On the tail end of three last-place finishes in four years (even with the 2013 miracle sandwiched in between), frustration and angst were prevalent and loud in 2015. A regime change and promising youth-fueled stretch run have blunted the negativity somewhat, but if the Red Sox Nation of June 2015 was singing any different of a tune in the early aughts, the nuance escapes me. I’ve become forced to conclude that my own increasingly-mellow approach to baseball fandom isn’t a result of the championship binge or simple aging.
Part of it may have been learning to love losing from the empty bleachers of Kaufman Stadium, a hidden gem of a ballpark with a vast emerald outfield and eye-pleasing curves to the upper deck. It has neither the history of Fenway or Wrigley, nor the polish and swank of any post-Camden stadiums, but deserves unique credit simply for being a baseball stadium built in the ’70s that didn’t completely and horrifically suck. The decision to hitch wagons with the AFL’s Chiefs enabled both that feat and a shared parking lot that fairly screams “baseball tailgating”. Unfortunately, it also brought Kaufman’s defining downside of an ultra-suburban location almost totally inaccessible without a car.
My father tells me that in my early youth the Red Sox were a rather easy ticket to get, but my memories are of Nomar, Mo, Pedro, and the sellout streak, with entrance to Fenway being only one step down from Wonka’s Chocolate Factory (at least as far as my meager high schooler’s budget was concerned). I then spent my college years marooned in Columbia, Missouri, without local baseball but with the AL two hours drive west and the NL the same distance east in St. Louis. Arriving at Mizzou in ‘01, the exotic appeal of NL baseball initially pulled me east, but the Cardinals were also a relatively pricy and in-demand ticket. Eventually, I instead became drawn to this strange, almost alien concept in Kansas City of being able to walk up at any game, and get in the park for $20, no matter the time or opponent. For that pittance, your group could probably spread out across your own row in the bleachers while alternating between trading insults with the left fielder and stuffing your face with pulled pork from the Gate’s BBQ stand.
There’s something different about low-intensity baseball, something unique to the individualism of the sport that makes it bearable as an everyday event over 162 games. If there’s one thing I wish I could have brought back from Kaufman after college to the Fenway Faithful (besides the prices), it’s the security of knowing that the enjoyment gap between a 78-84 season with some late glimmers of promise, and a 97-65 championship season, is only what you allow it to be. Following the Red Sox rarely provided me with the kind of experiences that force you to learn that. Sitting among fans who lived that sad reality every year, I found the combination of MLB rosters with an almost minor-league vibe that make up meaningless dog-days games in Kaufman were like baseball in pure morphine form.
Over five years, I saw my share of high-intensity baseball played in Kaufman as well. I saw a ball go through Nomar’s legs for a walk-off win on manager Tony Pena’s “Nosotros Creemos” night. We splurged for box seats to see close-up the landing of an international phenomenon on American shores, when Daisuake Matsuzaka made his MLB debut.
A decade after my departure, there’s no shortage of high-intensity games being played at Kaufman, as the 2015 Royals have flipped double freedom-rockets at the sabermetric community by not only repeating their improbable 2014 season, but so far surpassing it. While I could never, ever, stoop to having a ‘second’ AL team, I’ve kept half an eye on the all the ‘local’ pro teams that hosted me during my college exodus, and if you haven’t been paying close attention I’m here to catch you up: this Royals team is pretty darn fun.
Yes, Ned Yost, when it comes to the nuts and bolts of baseball strategy, either is, or strongly resembles, an idiot. Yes, Sal Perez has an OBP that would have been an unpalatable batting average in 2004. Yes, they got a wee bit carried away at the start of this season ‘Proving They Belong’, and didn’t come down on what I consider the right side of the side on throwing-at-hitters protocol. Yes, they gainfully employ one Justin Louis Chamberlain.
But wait! They play fast-paced, pressure baseball that’s pretty to watch even if it doesn’t conform to the percentages all the time. After the early headhunting idiocy, they have thankfully settled down and let the standings do the belonging-proving for them. With the Red Sox defensive outfield of Bradley, Betts, and Castillo, Sox fans are currently salivating over having the potentially best defensive outfield in the AL in 2016. However, they’ll have to pry that title from the Kansas City trio of Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain and Jarrod Dyson.
Even with closer Greg Holland suffering a torn UCL, the Royals continue to hang their hat on a bullpen which exemplifies the modern baseball blueprint of how to shorten a game to six innings when sitting on a lead. Human Swiss Army knife Ben Zobrist continues to do his thing with a .389 OBP, and his thing is just SO much easier to appreciate when he’s not doing it in Tampa Bay.
Speaking of ex-Rays, and speaking as a big fan of this man’s 2013 efforts, Jonny Gomes’ 6th OF / pep rally bro / wise veteran high-wire act feels like a perfect fit for their clubhouse, even if his batting woes lead to his being left off the ALDS roster. And for the discerning Sox fan shopper who won’t stand to come away from the offseason free agent market without a bona fide ace, one of the most intriguing overall storylines down the stretch is whether windup wizard Johnny Cueto (4.76 ERA in KC) will return to form in October and justify the high price paid by KC to acquire him.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably tuning into October baseball anyways because it’s baseball and it’s the playoffs and after this it goes away until March (again!). But if you need a rooting interest to whet the appetite and care for something easy on the eyes, and doubly so if one is looking for names and stories that might interest a New Englander, you could do far worse than hitching a short-term ride on the Kansas City bandwagon.
On behalf of Kaufman’s left field, and Rickey Henderson’s incredible, insane, supernatural ability to turn around and face the plate at the exact right moment (no matter how engaged he was in insulting a bleacher bum), I have only one thing left to say: