KANSAS CITY, Mo. — First, a quick story. It was a Saturday in late April, sun-kissed and bright blue, a golden reprieve after a winter that had hung around like a bad penny, refusing to take the hint.
And yet the little bar was packed, and the closer you got to a television, the more packed it got. It looked like a college football or NFL crowd, with fans huddled tightly to their respective tables or booths, clutching nervously to their libation of choice.
It was the damnedest thing: Collectively, they would lean forward, pumping their fists or high-fiving their neighbor — probably a stranger — after every positive moment, then lean back and grimace after every gaffe.
What could bring people together like this, you wondered, searching for a seat among the din. Replays of a recent Kansas basketball win? A Bill Snyder documentary? The Mizzou spring game?
Finally, the commercial block ended and the action returned. It was a telecast of Royals versus Red Sox, live from Fenway Park. And all the screens in this particular watering hole had the game on.
But more than that, every single soul in the place seemed to be living — and dying — with each pitch.
Here stood Kansas City, reclaiming a bit of its roots. Here stood Kansas City, united.
Here stood Kansas City, a baseball town.
The marquee snapshots of summer 2012 largely went into someone else’s scrapbook, didn’t they? Chipper Jones at the All-Star Game, Miguel Cabrera clinching the Triple Crown, and on down the line. But 2013 … 2013 was different: The Royals grabbed center stage and never let it go. The Rally Sauce. That crazy win on the Fourth of July. Justin Maxwell’s glorious walk-off grand slam on Sunday in the home finale, the one that broke a 0-0 tie and kept the postseason flame burning into another week.
Me? I’ve got that spring afternoon in Overland Park, watching 100-odd souls in a bar try to will a beloved bunch to victory from 1,442 miles away.
The Royals have won 82 games with seven left to play, having already sewn up their first winning season since 2003. They head into the final road trip of the season, which begins tonight at Seattle, 3 1/2 games out of the final American League playoff spot.
Mathematically, it’s … still … within … reach, albeit barely. The Local 9 probably will have to win out (or take six of the seven from the Mariners and White Sox) and hope there’s a Gene Mauch in front of them in the line. Multiple Gene Mauchs, now that you mention it.
But they’re there, playing honest-to-God meaningful September baseball for the first time in a decade. They’re a fixture on the ticker now, firmly on the national radar instead of flying below.
And it’s been fun, hasn’t it? Damn, it’s been fun. That’s what you’ll take away, long after the leaves have browned and gone, when the snow returns for a crushing encore. The Royals’ home record of 44-37 was the franchise’s best since 1992. They won 11 of their last 15 at Kauffman Stadium.
They won your heart back.
But know this, too: None of this happens — not this year, not quite this way — without James Shields.
It was vogue to bash general manager Dayton Moore for the trade last December that sent uber-prospect Wil Myers and three fellow minor leaguers to Tampa for righty Shields, righty swing man Wade Davis, and what eventually became infielder Elliot Johnson.
Myers was believed to be the best hitting prospect in baseball, a franchise bat to build around; Shields was under contract only through the end of the 2014 season.
It was a gamble, a trade made by a club trying to “win now,” the skeptics howled, and the Royals were coming off 72-90. On paper, they carped, the swap probably made them only seven or eight games better.
Well, in actuality, it made them a hell of a lot better than that. The Royals start the week nine games over .500 and — postseason or no postseason — are on a pace for 87 victories, the most in Kansas City since Bo Jackson, George Brett, Danny Tartabull and Bret Saberhagen and company went 92-70 in 1989.
Even the metrics haven’t been as unkind as the pro-Myers crowd would lead you to believe — at least, not at first blush. As of Monday afternoon, the site Baseball-Reference.com decreed Shields to be worth 3.7 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) in 33 games; Johnson, meanwhile, contributed 0.9 WAR in 79 games; and Davis -2.3 WAR (counting batting/fielding) in 29 games. That’s a net of 2.3 WAR, compared to 1.8 WAR that the Rays have gotten so far this season from 80 games of Myers (1.7 as of Monday) and six games of Jake Odorizzi (0.1).
And yet the Shields/Myers trade wasn’t strictly about sticking a bona fide, proven No. 1 at the top of the rotation — although at 12-9 with a 3.21 ERA in 33 starts, Big Game James more than filled the bill there, too. No. This was about something bigger.
This was about changing perceptions, changing cultures.
About a player telling other players that they should expect to win, not just hope it.
About leading by actions and words, or both.
About spectators coming not just for the gorgeous ballpark, the fountains, the endless ancillary entertainment options, but for the actual baseball itself. About a town falling head-over-heels in love with a team again.
Television ratings on FOX Sports Kansas City, through the month of August, were up 69 percent from a year ago, breaking viewing record after viewing record. Overall home ticket sales increased from 2012, and without the bauble of All-Star Game seats dangled in front of the local fans, either.
Myers in right field doesn’t do any of that. Not this summer. Shields did.
The journey isn’t complete, of course. The goal isn’t just playoff contention; it’s playoff appearances. It’s becoming Tampa North or Oakland East or Pittsburgh West, or whatever label floats your boat. The roller-coaster ride of 2013 was marked by massive streaks, some good, some bad, and jarring mood swings by the fan base, which is what respectable, almost-there clubs tend to do. One fortnight you embrace them, the next you want them all trucked to Siberia, the next you embrace them again.
Either way, it beats the living pants off of apathy.
For decades, Royals fans said “wait ’til next year,” rolled their eyes and got on with their lives. Suddenly, this team is central to that life again. And next year?
Next year can’t get here quickly enough.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.