In 1985, it seemed as if the Kansas City Royals would win forever.
Steve Egan’s dad would get him out of school to watch afternoon playoff games. Greg Sanderson would need to tone down his celebrations so he didn’t stick in his hand in the ceiling fan like he did during Game 6. Jay Sanderson, his son, would grow up with plenty of memories to add to his faint ones from the win over St. Louis. Nobody would laugh at Todd Novascone for wearing a Royals jersey.
In the following 28 seasons, the Royals produced plenty of memories — for anyone chronicling how to ruin a baseball team. The once-proud franchise descended into ineptitude, slowly at first, and hit the 100-loss bottom in 2002.
Some fans stuck with them. Tuesday night is their night.
“It’s either stubbornness or idiocy,” Greg Sanderson said. “I’m loyal. Probably, the day after I die the Royals or Chiefs will win another championship.”
On Tuesday, the Royals return to the playoffs for the first time since 1985. The fountains are still in the outfield. The big scoreboard is still topped by a crown. Almost nothing else is the same.
A generation of Kansans raised on George Brett’s home run at Yankee Stadium, Frank White turning the double play, Willie Wilson’s black bat and the radio voices of Denny Matthews and Fred White can celebrate again. A generation of traitorous Kansans who learned to root for the Yankees or Red Sox and ignored the talents of Ken Harvey, Paul Byrd and Ricky Bottalico can come home to the boys in blue.
“I think it will bring back all those memories and all those feelings,” Egan said. “George Brett was my guy. I loved Frank White for his defense. Back then, I thought they were the biggest thing on Earth.”
The 2014 Royals aren’t there yet. They don’t hit much. Their manager is thought by many to be a bumbler. They needed the modern convenience of the wild-card round to make the playoffs and their postseason run might end by 10 p.m. Tuesday.
“I feel so much more angst than I do joy because it could be done in three hours’ time,” Jay Sanderson said. “It’s hard to think about, because I’ve often called my dad and said, ‘Curses on you for making me a Royals fan.’”
What is harder to contemplate is another season without the playoffs. The Royals ended the longest postseason drought among major-league teams in baseball, basketball, football or hockey by clinching a spot in the wild-card game at Kauffman Stadium. So Royals fans will celebrate and pray for the spirit of manager Dick Howser to get this team past Oakland and into the next round against the Los Angeles Angels.
Then it will feel even better. Maybe even a little like 1985.
“It’s a good feeling to at least be in the playoffs,” Novascone said. “It sounds weird, but it’s very, very emotional in a good way. When I wear a Royals jersey, I get laughed at, literally. Now we finally have a chance to show what we can do.”
Novascone, 42, is chief of staff for Sen. Jerry Moran and he will watch Tuesday’s game with a few friends in Washington, D.C. Around 20 people work in Moran’s office and about half are Royals fans, Novascone said. Talking baseball is one way to stay connected to Kansas and a relief from the grind of political life. On Sunday, he went to a park and wore his powder-blue Brett jersey. People complimented him on the Royals season and his sense is baseball fans are rooting for the underdog.
“I always think our year is next year,” he said. “Finally, it’s this year.”
Greg Sanderson will be at the game. Jay Sanderson, age 5 when the Royals won it in 1985, Egan, Greg Mudd and several others will watch their phones for his text updates from Kauffman Stadium. The group stays connected through the Royals, celebrating each Greg Holland save, bashing Yost’s decisions and deciphering TV announcer Rex Hudler’s goofy analysis. The messages are especially important to Jay Sanderson, a Wichitan and former radio voice on KGSO who now does play-by-play for Montana State football.
“It’s a nightly gripe session,” Jay Sanderson said. “We are not huge fans of Ned.”
Jay Sanderson subscribes to MLB Extra Innings so he can watch every Royals game in Montana.
“The kids quit hanging out with us,” he said.
Egan didn’t force his three children (one son named Brett) to root for the Royals. He did forbid them to root for the Yankees.
“It’s good for them to see some positive energy coming from Royals Stadium,” he said.
The past 28 seasons laid a painful beating on those fans who remembered the 1970s and 1980s with the Royals.
Egan, 44, grew up driving with his family from Derby to the stadium for games each summer. Like many, his summers weren’t complete without a trip to Royals Stadium, perhaps with a stop at Worlds of Fun and barbecue from Gates or Arthur Bryant’s.
The Royals, born in 1969, captured fans quickly and passed the 2-million mark in attendance in 1978. When teams needed a model on how to build a franchise, they looked to owner Ewing Kauffman and the Royals.
The Royals won 85 games in 1971 and 91 in 1975 to finish second behind Oakland. They won the American League West in 1976, 1977 and 1978, only to suffer cruel defeats to the New York Yankees. In 1980, Brett’s home run helped vanquish the Yankees and send the Royals to the World Series. They returned to the playoffs in 1981 and 1984.
In 1985, they rallied from a 3-1 deficit to beat Toronto in the American League Championship Series. They did the same against St. Louis, happily watching the Cardinals lose their composure in an 11-0 rout in Game 7, and celebrated a World Series title at Royals Stadium.
Outfielder Darryl Motley caught the final out. Winning pitcher Bret Saberhagen hugged Brett.
Wait until next year. And the next. The Royals know how to win.
Bo Jackson wanted to play for the Royals. So did Mark Davis, the 1989 Cy Young winner. Brett kept hitting, winning a third batting title in 1990. It wasn’t enough and a slow decline turned into a freefall after Kauffman’s death in 1993 left the franchise without direction.
Fans waited for another championship, another pennant, another Game 7. The Royals drew 2-million fans every season from 1985-91 before the losing took hold and fans took their passion across the parking lot to Arrowhead Stadium and the Chiefs.
Now the Royals are back, at least for one night. James Shields, renowned for his ability to pitch in big games, will start for the Royals and the fearsome bullpen trio of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Holland is waiting for its moment.
So are thousands of fans. They’ve been waiting since 1985.
Athletics at Royals
What: American League wild-card playoff
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday
Radio: KFH, 1240-AM, 98.7-FM
TV: TBS (Cox 29, DirecTV 247, Dish 139, U-Verse 112)