It was the last gasp of an extraordinary baseball season for the Kansas City Royals, and the tying run stood 90 feet away. Kauffman Stadium was jammed with over 40,000 fans decked in blue and rocking, waving, screaming, hoping.
A 25-year-old cyborg creature masquerading as a San Francisco Giants baseball pitcher was staring down a 24-year-old catcher armed with a bat that a month ago had salvaged an improbable wild card game and launched the Royals into a mystical, magical playoff run--the first such appearance of any kind in Kansas City for a generation.
All kinds of history, records, and personalities populated this single moment. Las Vegas had figured the odds. Pundits had fingered the key players and made their predictions of potential stars. And there had been whispers, hushed only by the audacity of the claim, that perhaps the Royals were (Shhhhh!) a Team of Destiny. They had won eight straight in the playoffs against teams with superior records. They had taken the Giants, seeking their third World Series win in five years, to a rare seventh game, one of the most exciting of all events in sport. And now, in the 177th game of the season, it all came down to this single, very pregnant, moment.
In a matter of seconds it all wilted--the pitch, the swing, a pop-up on the infield gathered in routinely by the third baseman, who then flopped down on his back as if he had caught a cannon ball.
The crowd that had for three hours cheered as one suddenly cheered as none. The quiet was deafening. That lost moment had sucked the air out of the stadium. Even the people who hadn't been to a baseball game in ten years but were sitting in $1000 seats stopped networking for a bit, recognizing that something untoward had happened out there. The focus of attention immediately shifted to the victors converging on the field. Microphones were pushed into the faces of the celebrants, most of whom served up the platitudes typical of post game interviews. There were only a few exchanges with the losing team--"How does it feel to spill out your guts every day for seven months and then lose it with the game standing just a few feet away?"--sensitive questions like those.
The magical, improbable journey of the decades with its last minute comebacks, its startling catches, stolen victories, and inspiring drama had fallen one run short. And that made all the difference. There will be no appearances on Letterman, no ticker tape parade, no visit to the White House. The record books will be altered by this series and this game, but most of the big ones will have "Giants" beside the numbers. If a new face appears on a Wheaties box it will not be topped by a blue cap with KC above the bill.
And worst of all, we will all have to start hearing "wait till next year" way sooner than we're ready to hear it, embrace it, or comprehend it. It is like asking a woman who moments ago gave birth after a long labor if she planned to have any more children. Not the right time to ask.
That said, my lament for the fact that my team had scratched its way to the top only to fall a fingernail short is injected with an undeniable sense of joy that is not measured in baseball terms although it is prompted by this baseball story with its sad/happy ending.
My feelings are not from thinking about the team that will take the field next year, although I am heartened by the returning core players and the minor league prospects who are on their way to the Big Leagues. They are not really about the fascinating personal stories in the clubhouse, although I have been inspired by many of them. They aren't about the national and international goodwill enjoyed by the team as well as the city of Kansas City and its environs, although it warmed my heart to see our town and team in that positive light.
Rather than those probable sources of joy, mine came out of a feeling I have been experiencing for over a month, but of which I never spoke. I have been immersed in this playoff run, thought about it every day, listened to sports radio, read the thorough coverage by the Kansas City Star and other publications, managed to see one of the ALCS games in person with my son, and did all the other things one might expect of a lifelong baseball fan after a 29-year October baseball drought.
I had a general sense of what was going on in the world, but was far less focused on that than I usually am. I knew there were awful beheadings in the Mideast. I heard the reports of the scary Ebola virus killing thousands of Africans and beginning to threaten this country as well. I was saddened by a senseless shooting in the capital of the peaceful country of Canada, the place of my birth. I saw that more children had died from the senseless gun violence that is so pervasive these days. I was assaulted by tasteless and deceptive political commercials from both sides of the shameful political divide in this country. I was saddened by the untimely death of a friend. And in the midst of all of this the game played on.
So yes, in my preoccupation with men playing baseball games I began to feel some uneasiness prompted, I guess, by guilt. How can we devote so much time and energy to entertainment which, despite the outlandish salaries and misplaced priorities, it still is? How can we spend thousands of dollars for a seat at a three-hour game when that same amount of money could feed a starving Third World village for months? And on and on.
Life is about imagination and hope. Both of those things have to be carved out of real experience. I think that is why this amazing journey by a baseball team caught the attention of people literally around the world. The team and the game transcended baseball and embodied hope.
I'm trying to understand why I am not in more pain over losing it all in the last out of the last inning of the last game. I feel empty, but not profoundly sad. This story strained for ninth inning heroics, for David slaying the Giant (get it?), for the satisfying sense that all is right in the world.
But perhaps that is the joy embedded in my lament. It is not a perfect world, and not all endings are happy, but they can be joyous. That happens in the deeper sense of the word when something occurs that is so good, so real, that it is etched forever on our hearts. That has happened to me during this glorious month of October.
And as to next year, I'm not ready for that. This World Series isn't done with me yet.