A Night To Remember, Beyond Baseball – 2014 AL Wild Card Game

Nearly 5 years to the day after the game, I laid in bed awake with this in my head. Not the first time. This time I got up and typed it out. A few months after that I recorded it. I was surprised how often I got choked up, even on the 3rd attempt. It was a special night.

Perhaps it’s just easier to hear me read it.

It was September 26th, 2014 I was, as I had 100s of times over 9 years in that house and in many houses and from many couches for the 35+ years that preceded this night, watching the Royals game.  I’m not sure I knew it at the time, though deep down I was perhaps daring to dream it, but many things were about to change.  A pop foul behind home plate would settle into the glove of Salvador Perez for the final out of that game, clinching a postseason baseball game for the Royals for the first time in 29 years. 

I had heard the term “overcome with emotion” many times in my life; I’m not sure I ever knew what it was…. on June 11, 2003 I learned.  My son was born and the emotion that overtook my body at that moment was overwhelming and unexpected.  A truly remarkable and powerful feeling.  It happened again on July 17, 2006 with the birth of my daughter.  So I knew what it felt like to be overcome with emotion, certainly those two instances make sense to be overcome by emotion.  Watching a baseball player catch an exceptionally routine pop up on television as a 44 year old man seems a less sensible time for this feeling but there it was – I was overcome with emotion.  

Over 5 years later as I write this on paper (well electronic paper as we do today) and not just in my head I am brought to tears remembering it – even rereading it for some semblance of editing brings the tears of joy.  I’ll skip the part where the Royals still had a chance to tie for the division and force a one-game tiebreaker game and only casually mention a rather important element to this story – the Oakland A’s finished blowing a large lead for home field advantage in the MLB AL Wildcard game meaning this game so long overdue wasn’t just happening it was happening in Kansas City; no small part of the story but on to the really good part.

The few days of anticipation was a blur but the build up and hype were, to say the least, a bit intense in Kansas City.  I recall few specifics after all that I would come to experience in this realm over the next 13 months but excitement and anxiety both reached their limits for me.  I tried to convince myself that just having this game was enough, the result didn’t matter, the Royals had finally gotten back here.  I think I did a pretty good job.  Then the game started.

Backing up just a bit, because I’m a blogger at best not a real writer, back in 2003 the Kansas City Royals had a large (maybe 7.5 games) lead on the division at the All-Star Break.  Yes, really.  The team that had failed so miserably for so long spent 93 days in 1st place that year.  And if the Kansas City Royals were going to make the playoffs I was going to be there and according to all the commercials and the Royals website the only way to guarantee that was to buy season tickets for next year NOW!  So I did.  A 21-game package.  That’s a really long way of saying I had season tickets to the Royals in 2014 so I was always going to be at Kauffman Stadium for the Wildcard game.  They were right back 2003, just 11 years early.  

It was the perfect night – crisp and cool just like postseason baseball was supposed to be.  

I was 15 years old when the Royals won their first World Series and although I vividly remember watching with my Mom and Dad (sorry Kim, I assume you were there too but I don’t remember that part) and freaking out from my spot on the living room floor as Game 6 ended in dramatic fashion and Game 7 a wonderful thrashing of the Cardinals to cap it off I wasn’t lucky enough to go to a game in person back then and how much does any 15-year old truly care about anything.  I had found memories of 1985 but had more memories of the 70s and losing to the Yankees.  1985 felt more like that was overdue – more of a relief perhaps than a seemingly impossible dream.  This was different.  This felt different, I was long past the spoiled childhood of a stunningly successful expansion baseball team that won a lot of games.  I don’t know if I just never thought about it as a kid or a young adult or just didn’t care or just didn’t understand but as a middle aged man I knew this was special – even before I knew how special it was about to be.  Getting here was hard, really really hard; especially for the Royals.  I truly appreciated that.  I was truly grateful that I was in that stadium that night.  So the fact that it was cool and crisp just like I imagined postseason baseball to be for all these years was not lost on me.  The energy was indescribable and I think in this case, not because I’m not a real writer, but because it’s one of those things in life where the phrase “you had to be there” really truly applies.  I had been to a great number of sporting events in my life: a few Chiefs games, Sporting KC including playoff wins, NHL games, 100s of Royals games – many very exciting regular season games, great comebacks, heartbreaking losses, Allen Fieldhouse is an amazing venue and I’ve seen 100s of games there.  This was different.  I had seen postseason baseball on TV many times, seen the towels waving; the living and dying on every pitch for 9 (or more) innings. Heard the crowd behind the announcer’s voice rising and falling moment by moment.  Every single thing big and small meant something, good or bad.  The crowd knew it and certainly the players knew it.  We all felt it.  It was awesome. Nothing matches it.  I’m sorry, it simply doesn’t (and a few months after writing this I was at the Super Bowl rooting for my team and an even longer layoff – watching them win the Super Bowl!  I stand by my statement, nothing matched that night.  If you’ve never been to a postseason baseball game of your team – the team you grew up rooting for, the team you waited for 29 years to get back to a postseason game then you don’t get it.  Remember the best, most exciting game you were ever at for that team.  Maybe it was a late inning comeback, a walk-off win, or maybe both on Opening Day.  Remember that feeling, remember that energy, that crowd.  Pretty awesome isn’t it – now amp it up tenfold.  Ten times the energy, ten times the excitement for the entire game – not just that moment.  And tenfold would just be the beginning.  

First pitch from James Shields – strike one.  Tenfold just amped to 15 fold (I don’t even think that’s a thing) but I’ll stop trying to describe what I called indescribable.  It was awesome.  Pretty sure I said that already.  But then a single, crap.  No problem.  Lineout.  Strike Out (and the crowd goes wild!).  We’re fine.  We aren’t fine.  Two-run homerun.  Ugh.  Lots of baseball left no problem.  Didn’t take long for the crowd to be right back in the game, full throat as many great announcers have said most notably I believe Mr. Al Micheals.  The Royals also get a leadoff single, yada yada yada, the Royals get a very Royals run and despite being down 1 run after 1 inning things felt a lot better than down 2-0.  Quick side note in a game that would be remembered at least in part for the Royals run game (7 different Royals stole 7 bases that night) the first inning ended with a poorly executed double steal shenanigans that officially went into the books as a caught stealing at home by Eric Hosmer.  

Two innings later the excitement had not died down and if it had dropped even the slightest it came back quickly as the Royals scored 2 and led 3-2.  

And then the 6th inning arrived.  

A single by the A’s, a walk and Ned Yost emerged from the bullpen to pull his pitcher.  It was most certainly a topic of discussion but much less so if you know how this story ends because after all in sports winning solves everything.  What you need to know, at least in my version of retelling this night this time was the indescribable energy and excitement that was pulsating throughout the crowd was gone.  In one swing of the bat, then another swing 5 batters later, and another 2 more batters into the game…. the impossible had happened.  After 29 years of postseason silence, a stadium that for 5 innings was the heartbeat of a great baseball town awakened from a 29 year long coma had again come to a stop.  It was silent.  Even the smattering of A’s fans sprinkled throughout The K couldn’t break the deafening sound of nothingness.  All of us who had convinced ourselves, no doubt as a defense mechanism against the worst case scenario of a one-game series, that being here was the prize – that this night was our reward to be cherished with friends, family, loved ones no matter the result had over 5 innings allowed ourselves to believe that maybe, just maybe there was more.  That perhaps our reward was greater than just tonight, maybe there would be more, tried to quickly once again believe that losing this game was okay.  It got harder and harder as the Royals went quietly in the 6th, now down 4 runs against not just one of the best pitchers in baseball but a pitcher that was always just a bit better than that vs the Royals for many years.  Leading up to the game the media loved to tell the stories with impressive stats to back them up about how Jon Lester had so often dominated the Royals.  It felt like the 3 runs the Royals did manage was more than they should have expected and right now as a 2 out single in the 7th brought a flicker of hope, it was short lived when a 2 pitch AB third out meant just 6 outs left for the Royals and fans everywhere still working on being satisfied to have made it to this game.

To quote Crash Davis (look it up in the unlikely event you don’t get that reference) Alcides Escobar started the 8th by hitting a “ground ball with eyes” up the middle.  Now it seems only fair at this point in my little tale to mention that I don’t really remember 5 years later if that ground ball did in fact just squeeze between 2 fielders but it was a ground ball and I got to use a reference from one of my all-time favorite movies so just go with it.  With nothing to lose, down 4 in the 8th, Escobar took advantage of one of Jon Lester’s few weaknesses – he simply did not throw to first base.  He did nothing to control the running game as a left-handed pitcher.  It’s likely because he knew the odds favored him simply striking out the next 3 batters so who cares if you steal.  Well the Royals did steal.  Esky stole 2nd.  Not sure we were back to the off the charts (or tenfold) level of excitement just yet but we had certainly exceeded a glimmer of hope as even though it took an out to get it done the Royals had inched a run closer, and then had stolen another base.  The 7th pitch to Eric Hosmer was Jon Lester’s last pitch, it was also ball four and put runners at 1st and 2nd.  The Royals nemesis was out of the game.  Was this the turning point or were they too far down?  The crowd didn’t care – we were back baby.  The energy was back, the energy hit an all-time high (for now) as single by Billy Butler scored another run, the lead was now just 2.  Another SB and then a wild pitch – a wild pitch of all things (again skipping some very interesting side stories with backup catchers, injured during the game catchers, etc… because this is already too long and I’m still not a real writer) scored another run and with just 1 out the tying run was only 90 feet away. Another walk, another stolen base and the go ahead run was at second base.  Screw that just being here is the reward crap, we’re going to win this game!  7 pitches and two strikeouts later the inning was over.  Was this it?  Was this how it ends?  It wasn’t even October (at least not when the game started – and wasn’t just yet), it couldn’t end now, not this way.  Of course it could.

In the 1970s and into the mid 80s the Kansas City Royals were known as the most successful expansion franchise in any sport.  For those not old enough to remember those days it is certainly hard to believe.  The previous 29 years with very little winning and very little hope made it easy to forget. Surely our comeback wasn’t going to come up one run short.  

The Royals bullpen did what they did – kept the score the same.  Although not so easily, the top of the 9th ended with the bases full of A’s but end it did still just a one run game. So you’re sayin’ there’s a chance.   

Ned Yost retired from baseball in 2019 (just a few weeks ago as I write this) as the winningest (and losingest) manager in Royals history.  He had put a young, inexperienced, volatile, sometimes wild starting pitcher into the 6th inning of arguably the biggest game in team history and had it blow up in his face just a few innings earlier.  

With a month to go in the 2014 season I believe a poll of Royals fans would have likely gone 80-20 in favor of firing Ned Yost right then and there.  I was probably in the 80.  

Mike Moustakus was most certainly one of the biggest reasons the Royals were in the postseason, he was among the few who you would describe as the face of the franchise, a crowd favorite no doubt.  But not one of those “isn’t he cute, he tries so hard and is so nice” crowd favorites he was one of the best players on this team.  An All-Star, not a token every team gets one snowflake rule All-Star, a true All-Star third baseman that would a few years later break a long standing (albeit pathetically low in today’s game) single season record for HRs for a Royal. He was MOOSE, he was the Royals.  

Josh Willingham had 11 years of MLB experience, 8 as a mostly everyday player.  He had some nice years that peaked in 2011 and 2012 with 64 HRs and 208 RBI’s balanced nicely over those 2 seasons.  He had 40 and 122 total in the 3 years following. 

Jason Adam was a 5th round draft pick in 2010 by the Kansas City Royals.  He had a 4 something ERA in the minors. On August 11th, 2014 the Royals traded Jason Adam for Josh Willingham.  Most people didn’t even notice. 

On September 30th, 2014 Ned Yost removed Mike Moustakas from the AL Wildcard game and inserted Josh Willingham to leadoff the inning against A’s closer Sean Doolittle.  Sean is a left-hander pitcher.  Mike is a left-handed hitter.  Josh is a right-handed hitter.  

As the season wound down in August and September of 2014 Josh Willingham would have 86 plate appearances for the Royals with 17 hits and 24 strikeouts.  Most people didn’t even notice.  

On a 1-2 pitch Josh Willingham hit a blooper into right field that found green grass.  Everyone noticed.  He was at the plate for probably 2 minutes and on first base for about 9 seconds when pinch runner Jarrod Dyson entered the game. Everyone noticed that too.  

Escobar bunted to get Dyson to 2nd. 1 out.

Jarrod Dyson stole third base in the bottom of the 9th of the biggest game in Royals history (arguably) – just barely.  Nori Aoki hit a deep fly ball to right field – that for a moment looked like it might just find it’s way over the wall in the very small corner of Kauffman Stadium that doesn’t take a monster blast to be a homerun but never was an out so exciting.  The crowd went wild as they say, Dyson tagged up from that base he had just stolen and scored easily to tie the game.  From down 4 in the 8th (that statement would come to mean SO much more in the next 13 months) against Jon Lester to a tie game.  Surely the rest was just a formality.  We had all the momentum, we were at home (remember how the A’s blew a big lead for the #1 WC spot?), the crowd was back and louder than ever despite the late hour.  It was just a matter of time before the Royals actually won this game, the A’s should probably just go on home, this is our night.  Some guy named Brandon Finnegan who had just pitched in the College World Series 3.5 months ago was in the game now – clearly it didn’t matter now, the Royals were going to win this game.  That guy named Brandon something needed just 8 pitches to mow down the A’s in the 10th including a strikeout to end the 10th – energy level ratched up again if that was even possible.  Hosmer leading off the 10th, surely a walkoff homerun was about to end this glorious night.  Just a single, but okay, here we go – leadoff man on.  Sac bunt, winning run at 2nd Gordo and Salvy coming up.  Get the champagne ready.  Gordon grounds out but Hosmer does move to 3rd – wild pitch anyone?  Perez grounds the second pitch he gets weekly to second, inning over.  Those that know how this story ends have certainly taken note of who made the last out in the 10th.

Quite possibly the fastest ever cult hero formation is continuing as Finnesomething gives up a 2 out hit but a second strikeout in the 11th and the crowd has regained any lost energy as midnight is either coming up soon or had just past – who remembers at this point but it was very late and few cared.  

Although I will again spoil the build up of excitement to continue my attempt to make this telling of a story nearly anyone who would bother to read already knows the ending to my own with 3 quick anecdotes.  My wife and I were lucky enough that night to be sitting in the Diamond Club at a table in the first row that seats 4, the other 2 seats were occupied by a couple (there that night with his son as I recall) who along with another couple had purchased several of my season tickets from me over the years.  In the 7th inning they commented, and this I do remember clearly, “we may miss the greatest comeback in Royals history but we have to call it a night” and then something about an early surgery and school the next day.  To his credit he acknowledged his poor judgement in leaving but I’ve often wondered how he feels thinking back having missed the conclusion of that game – surely it haunts him to this day.  As I finish typing anecdote 1 I realize this probably is a terrible place for this so in a final edited version this may appear much closer to the front of this story but for now it leads into anecdotes 2 and 3.  At some point during the night the wonderful 3rd base side Diamond Club Tables usher/hostess Betsy had noticed the 2 empty chairs at our table and at a perfectly timed moment as I recall sometime around the 10th or 11th inning asked if an older gentleman could take a seat next to us.  We of course said no problem.  I’d like to think I recognized him before seeing his name on his very official looking credential but my only regret from this night was not talking more to this gentleman who seemed friendly enough in the few interactions we did have.  I hope to edit this rambling of an article someday when his name magically and randomly at the strangest moment pops into my head because for whatever reason the detail of his name eludes me.  Perhaps it’s my old(er) age or the fact that the sensory overload from that night and the many to follow only allow for so many details in the human brain but we were sitting for a few innings next to one of the most famous umpires in baseball history.  I can assure you that any fan of baseball even close to my age (do the math from early mentions in this story if you really want to know, or just reread the part I tell you my age at that time) would absolutely recognize his name.  It’s not Joe West, and certainly I would have remembered Don Denkinger, what was it……ugh, still not coming.  Anyway, the ump left after just a few innings later and anecdote 3 begins with Betsy again asking if someone could sit with us, this time press credentials.  A Kansas City Star writer in fact.  Turns out he wrote a pretty good story equating what I’ve been calling energy, noise, excitement to actual measurements – decibels.  I’m quoted at the conclusion of that article. You can read that here (at the link in the description) – SPOILER ALERT it does mention how the game ends: https://www.kansascity.com/news/local/article2375811.html

Speaking of the game ending, it was never going to. We had moved on to the 12th inning now and although this seems like an utterly ridiculous place to try and not make this story too long but let’s just try and say the A’s scored a run.  A rather uneventful, walk, sac bunt, wild pitch, single kind of run.  Nothing fancy, very Royals like in fact, a bit ugly but worth 1 nonetheless.  And with a strikeout and pop foul out ending the inning it was 1 more than the Royals had again.  Of course it was, of course, this is how it ends – an amazing comeback that seemed to have come up 90 feet short only to get that last 90 feet an inning later to get more chances.  But now in the 12th inning nearly 4 hours after the game started (not quite midnight by the way, correcting an earlier guess of the time) the stupid A’s scored a run.  The once proud expansion franchise ending our 29 year drought of no October baseball was going to lose a one-game playoff wildcard game in the dying minutes of September??  We weren’t even going to actually play in October – we were going to lose a postseason game in September, in 12 innings?  Of course we were, the lovable losers had long since beaten down the 70s American League just good enough to lose the Yankees every year powerhouse franchise.  The roller coaster ride always ends, but was it going to end like this?  This seems as painful as something like losing a World Series by having a guy thrown out at the plate trying for an inside the park homerun.  Too soon? A leadoff ground out to start the Royals 12th certainly pointed to a cruel ending.  Then Eric Hosmer changed (again) the course of Royals history.  He launched a high fly ball deep to left field, very deep, way back – could it be, could it tie the game?  No.  But it did bounce off the top of the wall and Hosmer ended up at 3rd with a triple.  90 feet away.  I feel like we’ve heard that before and I feel like we’ll hear it again – just not in this article.  But there he was – the tying run, let’s play all night – why not? It’s been 29 years what’s a few more hours and innings? 

Christian Colon at the plate, and you’ll recall not that many words ago I used the phrase a Royals like run – those that lived with this team in 2013, ‘14 and ‘15 know what I mean.  Just put the bat on the ball, and run like hell, maybe something good will happen.  Those kinds of hits.  Ground balls with eyes look down on these types of hits, they are often ugly but they count just the same.  Christian Colon, a disappointing 4th overall draft pick in 2010 in his rookie major league season, pounds a pitch straight down.  It launches into the air a mile high. Eric Hosmer assumes the role of run like hell and scampered (a word we just don’t use enough these days) home to tie the game (once more I feel like this narrative comes up again in the future….).  And the crowd goes wild.

So here we are again.  Was just being here enough – had we all again convinced ourselves of that?  I know I went through most if not all of the 5 stages of grief.  Including acceptance a few times tonight. But here we were again – it wasn’t over yet.  A foul pop out by Alex Gordon for the second out of the inning and the calls to babysitters had started again – it wasn’t over yet.  Still.  Again.  

Salvador Perez came to the plate for the 6th time on the night, he had struck out twice already. 

Christian Colon (remember him, he’s still on first base) had 2 stolen bases during the 21 games he appeared in as part of the 2014 regular season.  He would have 3 stolen bases in the next 129 games of his career.

Christian Colon stole second base. 

Josh Donaldson hit 164 home runs between 2013 and 2017.  That’s a lot.

In 2014 Josh Donaldson played 1,320.2 innings at third base.  He made 23 errors for a .952 fielding percentage.  There are lots of numbers that try to define defensive players, his in 2014 were average-ish for the most part.  He was a good third baseman.  

Salvador Perez, not known for taking pitches (he had seen 18 pitches in 5 ABs so far tonight) had fouled off a few pitches and worked the count to 2-2.  

Salvy liked to swing the bat and though there is probably a stat on it somewhere I don’t have it but any Royals fan of this era knows Mr. Perez thought his bat was 44 inches long and swung at more pitches outside than any player in baseball history.  Please note that previous statement is unofficial.

Knowing this, seeing how his pitcher was pitching Salvador Perez and knowing that the SS now in the game didn’t have the greatest range, Josh Donaldson took a few steps to his left.  A few steps towards second base, a few steps (just two steps in fact) towards the hole between him and the shortstop to cut off a ground ball in the hole.  There was no way any hitter, much less one 0-5 on the night was going to pull the steady diet of low and outside pitches he was getting, no way.  It simply wasn’t possible.  So he took a few steps to his left.  

Then in what can best be described as a lunging motion Josh Donaldson was about a split second away from being wrong. So very wrong to have taken just a step or two to his left.  Salvador Perez not only somehow reached the 6th pitch of the AB that was low and well outside, Salvador Perez not only somehow hit this ball fair, Salvador Perez not only somehow hit this ball hard, Salvador Perez actually pulled this pitch down the third base line.  Josh Donaldson dove.  The ball hit off the tip of Josh Donaldson’s glove and continued into left field and after nearly 29 years and 5 hours “just like that” the Royals rewrote their story.  The stuff of bobbleheads was made, Salvy with two arms in the arm (to this day I guess I just assume he made it to first base to make it official), Colon around third to score (I feel like he has another big moment at some point?) and the Royals win it 9-8 in 12 innings.  29 years of waiting was worth it.  Now it really didn’t matter, it wasn’t going to get better than this game, this night, this ending, this moment.  

Many will argue that it did get better.  Perhaps it was a year and a month later, maybe only the next series but for me this was the best night (my kids were born during the day, I was married during the day) this was the best of my life.  I was at every postseason game in Kansas City in 2014 and 2015, even 2 World Series games in San Francisco but I was not in New York on November 1st, 2015 – I was back on the couch in front of the TV and was once again overcome with emotion when it ended but it wasn’t the same as that night, the night that reminded me why I love sports, why I love the Royals, why I love Kansas City.

I have pointed out (unnecessarily to be sure) that I am not a professional writer but I did intentionally break up the drama of this account of a night many of us lived, many of us loved, many of us will never forget because this wasn’t about what happened on the field that night it was about how it felt to a fan of his team. How it feels 5 years later, how it will always feel. It had its ups and downs, often not separated by much.  It had anxiety, hope, joy, pure elation, heartbreak, sadness, anger, frustration – again not separated by more than a few deep breaths at times.  The cliche ending here is a metaphor for life.  I suppose that works almost perfectly.  Not just this one game, not just this one night. But any game or any season, in any sport.  Most not this extreme of course and never life or death as sometimes, or better said, all too often real life brings us; but I do believe what we can learn from sports is that you never know what’s next.  You think you know, you can even be really sure you know, but you don’t know.  The truth is when I started writing this in my head, laying in bed not able to sleep, and even as I started to type it out I had no idea how it would end, or how it should end.  Did I mention I’m not a real writer?  And frankly I think I’m ending kind of crappy at 5 in the morning sitting in the dark on the couch, to paraphrase a line from Daniel Tosh’s standup I am aware I could end the article at the good part.  I choose not to.

Maybe it doesn’t end (don’t worry it does) because sports never ends – it’s another great thing about sports.  It starts and stops, yes but it doesn’t end.  Kansas City had hope for 29 years that this night would come, I suspect nobody dared to dream of it going exactly like this, but we believed it would come.  This night was just the beginning, an amazing ride did come to a painful end a magical month later but we got back on the ride the next season and it ended better.  Now we are back to hoping, dreaming, believing it can happen again.  Feels like another life metaphor should eloquently be rolled in here but it will not be happening.  Instead the article will end abruptly like it should have when Salvador Perez hit an impossible to hit pitch to an impossible to hit spot on the field that just a few pitches before would have resulted in an easy out and the end of that night would have not yet been written.

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