The Oakland A’s have been the darling team of Sabermetricians since Michael Lewis’s Moneyball was first printed ten years ago. On a shoestring budget, A’s General Manager Billy Beane and his organization have assembled some the best teams the game has ever seen with unorthodox, untested strategies that exploit undervalued player attributes. None of those great teams could ascend the playoff ladder to a World Series, which subconsciously persuaded baseball fans all over the world to pull for the A’s in the playoffs.
Until this year.
This year, the A’s played the Kansas City Royals in a one game, do-or-die, wild card game. Nearly everyone outside the bay area in California cheered every Royals hit, every Royals stolen base, and every A’s strikeout.
Like the Cleveland Indians of the 70s and 80s, for two decades the Royals proved to be the most inept and helpless organization in the world. From 1992-2011, they set a record for the worst winning percentage in baseball over a 20 year period since the inception of the 162 game season. Yes, even worse than the Pittsburgh Pirates during that same period. They were even worse than the hapless 60s-70s Mets.
They hardly got a whiff of playoff contention during a period highlighted by four hundred-loss seasons in five years, buttressed by 90+ loss seasons on either side (The only thing close to that level of wretchedness during the expansion era is the recent self-inflicted suffering of the Houston Astros and, of course, the Kansas City Athletics (1961-1966). These Royals were the butt of jokes on the Simpsons and Jay Leno monologues until everyone was just too sad to laugh at them anymore. An entire generation of Kansas City baseball fans had only known a tortured existence caused by perpetual losing.
As the losing seasons piled up and, whether because of unconscious sympathy for downtrodden fans or simply rooting for the underdog, people all over America pulled for the poor, beaten, and sad Royals to experience some the playoff joy that all other fanbases enjoy from time to time.
The Royals paid America back with the scrappiest, grittiest, most intense, small-balliest win of the past 29 years. Kansas City clawed and stole and bunted their way to a 12-inning marathon win.
The crowd lived and died with every pitch in a passionate atmosphere that channeled a football home crowd during crucial drives. The screaming and yelling didn’t stop, not after James Shields allowed a line drive by Coco Crisp, not after he gave up a two-run blast to Brandon Moss in the first, not in a devastating 6th inning, not even after everyone started losing their voices.
One memorable event was chased by another over the next five hours. After taking a beating in local and national media for his poor production at the plate this season, Billy Butler approached the batter’s box and all was forgiven. The crowd chanted his name as he singled in the Royals’ first run.
The standing ovations continued. Mike Moustakas was the fan favorite golden child again. Chants of “MOOOOOOOOOOOSE” thundered through the stadium during his every at-bat. The cheers crescendoed when Moustakas hit an opposite-field line drive in the third inning to beat the shift.
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Eric Hosmer‘s heroic performance surely created a demand for #35 jersies across the country. His twelfth-inning triple may have been the highlight of his evening, but when he sacrificed his body in an all out effort to beat an infield single in a 10th-inning slide, it was nearly as memorable.
After the Royals took a five-run drubbing by the A’s in the sixth inning, they put on a track & field showcase. They rallied in the eighth inning to pull back within one run on three up-the-middle singles, three stolen bases, including one from the explosive Terrance Gore, a walk and a wild pitch.
Fan favorite firethrower Yordano Ventura had a chance to contribute his own heroics, but was bashed by another Brandon Moss home run. Instead, Brandon Finnegan would become the pitcher of the game. Finnegan gutted through 2 1/3 innings pitched despite being used exclusively in short bursts this season. He struck out the invincible Brandon Moss in the tenth inning and matched the crowd’s roar with his own.
With the game on the line in the bottom of the twelfth, down by one, the young and recently injured former first round draft pick Christian Colon stepped to the plate. Colon had a tumultuous experience through the minors, developing slower than expected, struggling, getting passed over. Always showing calm nerves under pressure, even when feeling a moment’s weight, Colon made poor contact on a sinking fastball. Contact so poor, in fact, that no one could get to the ball in time. Eric Hosmer contributed to his legend and slid head first across home plate to tie the game.
Down to the last out in the twelfth inning, Christian Colon stole second with the hitless, free-swinging Salvador Perez at the plate. Perez swung at slider after slider. He fouled off a few and everyone waited for the moment his bat couldn’t quite reach one. The A’s Jason Hammell threw a perfect out pitch, a slider low and three inches outside. Salvy bent low and ripped it hotly down the third base line, only an inch beyond the glove of a diving Josh Donaldson. Salvy hurled his arms into the air as Donaldson lay his head in the dirt, as if his neck muscles had given out. In a balcony suite, George Brett grabbed his hair and exhaled. A’s Left-fielder Johnny Gomes trotted over to the ball rolling slowly through foul territory. Rookie Christian Colon crossed the plate.
Royals win 9-8.
In that moment, a generation of Royals fans discovered the pride of playing meaningful innings, the stress of facing elimination, the elation of a playoff victory. They discovered the pure childish joy of winning a game against a tough opponent. The Royals got a respectful smattering of praise from all over America, from fans who often experience the emotions brought on by playoff baseball. Royals fans knew about other teams’ tight games, proud moments and amazing comebacks. But knowing is not feeling.
Grown men cried. Little boys with brand new Royals caps and rally flags cried because their dads cried. Strangers high-fived and hugged. A huddled mass of Royals players stumbled and jumped around the free-swinging Salvador Perez, their momentum carrying him to center field. All those men in the stands, all the boys and girls watching one of their first games, and all those players jumping up and down like madmen will look back and have to agree that it was the greatest game of a generation.
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