Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Kansas City Royals give fans something to believe in... for one Sunday

Posted By on Wed, Jun 6, 2012 at 7:00 AM

The Royals fan base is just hungry for wins.
  • The Royals fan base is just hungry for wins.
"I just want to see a win," Ken Wharton of Emporia, Kansas, tells me when I ask what has brought him to Kauffman Stadium this past Sunday.

His fingers scratch an itch not far from his heart, under the light-blue Royals jersey he's wearing. He thinks for a second about what he has said.

"Just a win," he says again, trailing off and raising his shoulders slightly.

Wharton gets swallowed in the pregame crowd as the smell of roasted nuts and Papa John's pizza wafts over the concourse. The allegiances worn on fans' backs is spread among the Wildcats, Tigers and Jayhawks, but there's also a small contingent of men wearing the other light-blue jerseys: Sporting KC. (The soccer club has a prominent billboard along Interstate 435 North on the way to the K.) Fans creeping to other franchises has to be a concern in a year that has seen the Royals move to demand-based ticket prices, even with the early season attendance numbers up.

Despite a 7-18 home record after Sunday's game, the team is averaging an additional 5,000 fans this season (for a total of more than 23,000 per game) with Major League Baseball's All-Star Game only a month away. Those numbers are a surprise in the wake of criticism that the franchise has drawn for "Our Time," this year's official slogan.

These days, the Royals don't win easily. Fans watch with stomachs in their throats and, like geysers, erupt in yells when a Royal flashes the athletic talent that slumbers within. This is a team that makes fans anxious and frustrated and hopeful - all in the same half-inning. Yet, the fans keep showing up at the stadium.

Wharton and the other 21,110 people in attendance Sunday got their wish. The Royals beat the Oakland Athletics 2-0 behind six scoreless innings from Vin Mazzaro (formerly of the A's), a 413-foot home run by Eric Hosmer, and a brilliant catch-and-throw double play by Alex Gordon to preserve the shutout. On a day when drizzle never turned into a full rain, the Royals showed that they could be the team the city needs, rather than the team the city currently has.

Baseball analysts say a franchise needs three things to be a playoff contender: talent, effort and chemistry. Against the A's, a small-market opponent that mirrors Kansas City (only two games separate them in the loss column, and the season series is knotted at three wins apiece), the home team showed flashes of promise. Hosmer hit a ball to the Isle of Capri. Jarrod Dyson stole second with ease before Johnny Giavotella singled him home. And Billy Butler ripped three singles to the exact same spot in left field like he was facing a pitching machine.

As for effort, Gordon made a jaw-dropping grab in the top half of the fifth inning. He made a basket catch in foul territory up the third-base line before nailing the A's Adam Rosales by three steps with a laser to catcher Brayan Peña.

The Royals seemed not only to be enjoying the game but also one another. Mike Moustakas, whom manager Ned Yost had given the day off, greeted Hosmer's return to the dugout, after his home-run trot, with a joking flex in what looked like an homage to "the beach is that way."
Of course, those moments were surrounded by the kinds of plays that have too long defined the Royals. Butler struck out with Gordon at third and one out in the third inning. Three innings later, Yuniesky Betancourt was caught stealing at second after he broke for the bag when pitcher Tommy Milone threw to first. Hosmer, 2-for-2 at this point in the game, could only stand at the plate and watch.

In a loss, those mistakes feel like the reasons that the Royals never consistently win. But in a win, they're forgotten, overshadowed by those little bursts of talent, effort and chemistry. Wins erase that hopeless feeling that makes September feel like a lost month.

Fans need to believe that the Royals can contend or that it's in the realm of possibility. And for fans such as Wharton, it can be as simple as thinking that the Royals have a chance of winning the game they're at the ballpark to see. This is a team only two months removed from a 12-game losing streak. Fans know better than to fall for a Cinderella story, but that doesn't mean they want to stop dancing.

The most plausible explanation for the upswing in attendance is Royals fans wanting to believe: in the crack of Hosmer's bat, the glove of Alcides Escobar, the possibility of a five-man rotation in which any of those men could go six innings, and Jonathan Broxton being a much larger version of Joakim Soria. Hope, even misguided hope, is a good thing for fans. Because with a little hope, it can feel like it's "our time," even if it's just for one Sunday.

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