I may or may not need to write about Games Six and Seven on Monday. The way the Kansas City Royals are playing baseball, this series could be wrapped up by Saturday night. Or I could be back here on Monday talking about the resurgent New York Mets, their ability to overcome the odds, and their triumph in the face of a growing cultural consensus that this year is KC’s year.
Instead, let’s talk about the despondency of being a fan, and of what it means to be a sports fan.
Exuberance and Exhaustion
Game One of the World Series is roughly akin to my High Holy Days. I have several days throughout the year that I hold in special reverence – Christmas Day, friend’s birthdays and anniversaries, my mother’s birthday, my father’s birthday, and my brother’s birthday. Opening Day is another – and Game One of the World Series is an occasion of annual magnificence. It’s a culmination of everything that has happened throughout the year – the trades, the rises and falls, the spectacular and the momentous. We saw a legendary hitter strike his 500th home run, and we watched an ascending legend strike out 300 batters for the first time since the early 2000’s.
I won’t lie – I didn’t pick either team in this year’s World Series to do much. Neither the Royals nor the Mets seemed to have it in them to get this far. And then the Royals picked right up where they left off last October, while the Mets seized the advantage of both a Washington collapse and the rise of a trio of uber-dominant power pitchers. They caught breaks and made savvy trades, and have reached the postseason, gunning for their first titles over thirty years.
And on Tuesday night, neither team believed that they would lose. For every Mets rally, the Royals staged one of their own. For every defensive lapse by the Royals, the Mets made one of their own. For every key hit in a key situation, there was another by the other team. Back and forth for five hours. Five hours I sat in a bar around the corner, talking shop with some woman who started out the night as a casual English football fan and ended the night gunning for the Royals.
There have been story lines enough written about this game, and more can be written. The death before the game of starting pitcher Edinson Volquez’s father. The technical snafus. The Buckner-esque error at first by Eric Hosmer. That stupid ass bunt attempt by Lorenzo Cain. The Gordon home run. The 14th inning redemption of Hosmer. This game had everything, and lived up to all of the hype. The Royals might be seen as persevering through the tumult, but they won it with the same power that led them to rally from 4 down against the Astros and led them to victory against the Blue Jays, possibly the best offensive team of the year.
And the Mets hung in it, too. To date, their power pitchers have not gotten the same strike-outs against the Royals hitters that they were collecting in droves against the Cubs and Dodgers. That trend probably won’t change, as the Royals are too good at hitting hard fastballs, but Harvey hung in the game for a good long time, and while deGrom’s command was spotty in Game Two, these pitchers are too good to keep trying the same damn thing over and over again. Curtis Granderson has been rejuvenated this postseason, and Yoenis Cespides is as dangerous a hitter as can be found (though I would definitely argue the point that his defense compares to that of Willie Mays, as that first inning home run by Alcides Escobar would attest).
It was a fantastic game, and at the end, both teams might be able to take heart that they gave it their all – the Royals just outlasted the Mets.
Redemption and Rejoicing
Johnny Cueto had not pitched especially well since coming over from the Reds. The Royals thought they were getting an ace, and instead got a serviceable number three starter. Something might be off with Cueto – his velocity and strikeouts have dipped, and he’s prone to being rattled, something that had reared its head at times in Cincinnati. (See: Wild Card Game, 2013)
And there he was on Wednesday night, throwing the first complete game by an AL pitcher since Jack Morris in Game Seven of the 1991 World Series. He didn’t have especially dominant stuff – but he didn’t need to. He swaggered his way through his pitches, never once appearing in doubt at any moment. It was a masterful performance, and the kind of pitching display the Royals traded away the farm for back in July. They needed that kind of game to have a chance – as of this moment, any Kansas City fan in existence will tell you that the trade was worth it.
I’ve been a Reds fan since I was a child, and I followed the rise of Cueto very closely. I saw him pitch with the Dayton Dragons back in Single-A ball. I watched his debut with rapt attention. I followed him during the Dusty Baker years as he became something of a pitcher’s barometer for the team – as Cueto went, so went the Reds. He might not have been my favorite player (Bronson Arroyo holds that distinction for me), but he was up there.
So when the Reds went to pot this year, I hoped that he would find a good home, if only for the Reds to start their rebuilding anew. And then he went to the Royals, and the idea that Cueto could pitch in the World Series seemed more plausible than ever.
And then he struggled, and his starts seemed less and less Cueto-esque. He had a great performance in the ALDS to clinch the series, but struggled in the ALCS. He was bumped from a Game One start in favor of Volquez. Things seemed dark.
And now? Now, I am as giddy as anybody. Because Cueto still has it. He’s as good a pitcher as can be had, and he just threw a complete game victory on the biggest stage in baseball. He’ll get paid over the offseason, I’m sure, but for the moment, he is a Royals legend.
And I’m ecstatic. Every player in baseball wants this to happen – to rise to the occasion at the biggest moment of their careers. And while it’s not for the Reds, it’s a culmination to see it happen for Cueto with the Royals. It’s as though a piece of those great Reds teams lives on (let’s not forget that Volquez and break-in-case-of-emergency-bench-player Jonny Gomes are all ex-Baker-Reds), and as they stand two games away from victory, I can relish the victory a little more than I normally might. Baseball players are expected to change teams in this day and age – it’s their right and privilege – but team loyalty lives on, and for those Reds who tried to reach this point but failed for one reason or another (Roy Halladay, Cody Ross, Pittsburgh going bonkers, etc), it feels particularly good.
That’s why I’ll be pulling for KC – because they’re the team that Cincinnati fans almost had, and now might get the chance. The Royals were an afterthought for years; the Reds never got that low, but boy did things get dark. Kansas City is a great baseball town – it’s home of the Negro Leagues museum, and the team of Brett, Saberhagen, and Quisenberry. I don’t need to mention the credentials of Cincy as a baseball town. The Royals are my surrogate, and for anywhere from two to five games, every victory of theirs will feel almost as good as a Reds win.
Almost, but not quite.
But a Cueto victory? That’s just a sight to see all around.