Maybe this is what a playoff celebration would look like. Photo Credit: Denny Medley-US PRESSWIRE

Hungry For More

As the playoffs march on and the weather turns colder, it’s easy to be jealous of the teams still playing. I have only vague recollections of the Royals in 1985 from first-hand experience (I was all of five years old). I can piece it back together now with the help of stories that have been written, clips produced, and the DVD boxset of the series, but that’s all I have.

The closest I’ve been to a true playoff race may be 2003 when the Royals led the AL Central as late as August 29th. Or 1994 when the strike pulled the plug on one of the hottest stretches of Royals baseball in history. Or 1989 when the Royals had the third best record in baseball, but happened to be in a division chasing the team with the best.

That’s three years out of 27 where there was a chance – just a chance! – of a playoff run. It pains me as much as any other Royals fan.

So we turn to other teams that we see who are close to our own. In the 2012 Divisional Series, that means a lot of cheering for Baltimore, Oakland and Washington. Teams who fight against similar market problems (like Oakland) or have been in the cellar consistently like the Royals (Baltimore and Washington). Seeing their success can give us hope that maybe our chance is coming too.

Those storylines are over now and it’s easy to be disappointed. Does anyone other than their fans really want a Yankees/Cardinals World Series? Where’s the intrigue in that? Give me an upstart Oakland team or an odds-defying Orioles club or team of sudden dominance like the Nationals. That’s who we want to see. Of course, it’s too late for that now, but those are more fulfilling choices.

While watching these teams face elimination, I was taken by the reactions of their fans.

They realize the special situation they’ve found their teams in. Oakland fans embraced their team, joining together to go crazy as Grant Balfour entered a game. Orioles fans were able to savor the tension of so many one run games, so many walkoff wins that it wouldn’t have been surprising to see them go into Yankee Stadium and come away ALCS-bound. The bubble burst, the clock struck midnight and Jim Johnson turned into a pumpkin and the Orioles lost – but their fans were grateful for the amazing year. The Nationals fans took the loss the hardest, and it’s easy to understand why. A 6-0 in a deciding game should stand, but a 7-5 lead late should be protectable too, and if general baseball fans were shocked by the outcome, Nationals fans have to be distraught.

And yet, there’s optimism amid the disappointment:

The title of this post says the upside of losing. It always comes in patterns. The upside of losing in the regular season brought Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper to Washington. The upside of losing in the playoffs brings experience and humility. That ultimately brings championships. Teams need both to succeed.

Waking up this morning and having to wait four months for baseball is cruel. But think of the Nationals players. They wake up this morning hungry. They wake up this morning wiser. They wake up never wanting to feel like this again. They wake up motivated. – District on Deck – The Upside of Losing (or Why Today is Just the Beginning)

Or there’s great appreciation:

The third stage: Appreciation.  As everyone knows, this team was expected to lose anywhere from 90-100 games by most experts (79-83 was my prediction) and shocked everyone by winning an amazing 94 games.  It was easily the most fun I’ve had at the ballpark over the course of a season, and I’ll never forget it. – Swinging A’s – The 5 Stages of Playoff Loss Grief

Or dogged determination:

Many naysayers are still saying that the 2012 Orioles were lucky, and that their appearance in the postseason would be a one-and-done kind of deal in that they’ll go back to mediocrity next season. It’s up to the 2013 Orioles to continually prove those people wrong. But that’s another story for another day which we’ll cover this winter. We all know that the mojo of the 2012 Orioles was to never say die and to play until the final out. Thus without advocating or opposing any political stance or figure, I feel that the closing lines of Senator Edward Kennedy’s concession speech (at the 1980 Democratic National Convention) are fitting at this moment in Orioles’ history:

“…the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.” - Birds Watcher – The Dream Shall Never Die

Imagine if the Royals had had a wild season like any of these. What if Luke Hochevar had turned that corner, or Bruce Chen continued to baffle the opposition, or if Eric Hosmer had taken his first steps towards superstardom instead of chasing the down-and-away slider. At one point, Royals fans thought .500 was realistic and that it wasn’t a guarantee that some kind of run was out of the question.

What if this was a walkoff homer for a playoff clinching win? Photo Credit: John Rieger-US PRESSWIRE

On June 29, they were four games under .500 and 5.5 games back. Maybe Justin Verlander gets hurt and the Tigers fade, while the Royals keep up their dominance of the White Sox and some other close games go their way. What if? What if Felipe Paulino and Danny Duffy don’t get hurt or Johnny Giavotella does turn into the poor man’s Dustin Pedroia?

The loss would sting. God, would it sting. I’ve discussed the hell of expectations before and it’s easier to get around a losing season when you expect it in a way. While Oakland and Baltimore fans were obviously hurt by the losses, in a way, the surprise of the success made it a little better. They seemed happy to be there and their expectations were just for a good season and a hope for more. They got that and then some. Nationals fans came in with higher expectations after acquiring Gio Gonzalez, signing Edwin Jackson, getting a full year (kind of) out of Stephen Strasburg and seeing Bryce Harper debut. To lose in the way they did has to sting more because merely being better wasn’t enough but losing at all had to hurt a little more.

As a Royals fan, I don’t have a parallel to that. There was disappointment in a bad 2012 after 2011 raised our hopes, but there wasn’t a true expectation that the playoffs were in sight.

As an alumnus of the University of Kansas, though, I can recall the run last March the Jayhawks went on. Entering the year it felt like a rebuilding year. There were key players who might perform well, but it was a tough team to figure out. They made a lot of mistakes, played out of control, but they put together enough to get by. By the time they’d even reached the Final Four, it almost felt like enough. They’d already surpassed expectations. Escaping from Ohio State brought some hope and despite a terrible game in the championship, there was some fight left and they kept it close. Despite missing the final goal, it was a satisfying season, even in defeat.

Someday, the Royals will be playing in the middle of October. At some point, it just has to happen. We’ll all be invested. We’ll all cheer. And while only one team can hoist the trophy, we’ll hope it’s ours. Odds are it won’t be. We all know that going in.

But you hope. And you anticipate, and you dream.

I hope when that time comes that Royals fans will appreciate the journey like A’s, O’s, Nats and Reds fans have this year. We all know the opportunity doesn’t come up often.

 

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