KANSAS CITY – They don't forget here. Sporting disappointment turns memories long, and however many more years Zack Greinke pitches, here he will be a traitor, fair or not. He owns the worst quality possible for someone in an untenable situation: honesty. And even though his sentiment echoed that of every person who has spent almost 30 years waiting for the Kansas City Royals to play in a postseason game – tired of waiting – their truth is different than his. Fandom is eternal. Careers are finite.
What Greinke couldn't have known when he told the Royals to trade him in 2010 was the butterfly effect his deal would have on the franchise he forsook. Greinke is in a different place now, a better place, more than $150 million richer and playing for the most expensive team in sports history. The Royals, too, are in a different place, a better place, and for that they have the turncoat to thank.
Among the 11 hits and five runs the Royals hung on Greinke in a 5-3 victory against his Los Angeles Dodgers at Kauffman Stadium on Monday were four hits, two runs and a pair of RBIs from Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar. Cain is the Royals' .314-hitting leadoff batter and a Gold Glove-quality outfielder. Escobar is the Royals' .291-hitting base-thieving kickstarter and a Gold Glove-quality shortstop. Both came from Milwaukee in the trade for Greinke, along with starter Jake Odorizzi, who was the second chip in a mega-deal that landed the Royals ace James Shields and All-Star-caliber setup man and future closer Wade Davis.
Turns out Greinke's desire to win actually helped the Royals achieve the very same. The $235 million Dodgers are 42-36. The $92 million Royals are 40-36. The Dodgers would be in the playoffs if they began today. The Royals sit half a game back after a recent 10-game winning streak thrust them into first place in the American League Central for two days of unadulterated bliss.
The first-place Kansas City Royals are an oxymoron. They are a hallucination. They are the very thing Zack Greinke, a studied, measured, blunt-and-brutal tactician whose mouth always excretes what his mind conjures, tired of dreaming about and wanted to witness. He was 27. He'd spent more than half a decade suffering through the bleakness of 100-loss seasons. So, in his words – the exact ones he used in 2012 – "I was pretty rude on the way out."
"I don't want to be rude," Greinke said. "I feel I had to in order to get traded. I wanted to get traded. I've said all this dozens of times in the past. They're playing good now. You knew it was going to take time, and now's the time, it seems like."
Perhaps. The 10-game winning streak that led to a sellout upon their return home – well, that and fireworks and dollar hot dogs – birthed a four-game losing streak that exposed all of the Royals' worst qualities. Maybe quality is a better way to put it, because Kansas City's starting rotation sports the fourth-best ERA in the AL and its bullpen features the best setup-closer combination in the major leagues and no team can compete with a set of fielders that could easily claim five Gold Gloves among them.
The flaw is in the bats, and even in this era of depressed offense the level of Kansas City's futility at points reached desperate depths. This isn't San Diego bad – nothing is – but at one point earlier this season, the Royals as a team barely were outhomering Nelson Cruz, who is a person. This is not the sort of comparison a team welcomes.
When the Royals started hitting finally, it wasn't just a revelation. It was like a season's worth of awfulness broke down the dam with which they'd surrounded themselves. The deluge took out Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, among others, and after vanquishing Greinke, the Royals' last three wins have come against former Cy Young Award winners.
"We've got to do it against everybody," Cain said. "You can't just do it against Cy Young guys."
Tuesday night happens to present them with another: Clayton Kershaw, in his first start since his incredible no-hitter. The Royals aren't exactly seeking a statement – "Ten straight," first baseman Eric Hosmer said, "did that" – though a bullet point on the résumé that they beat four Cy Young winners over an eight-day span will at least quell the idea that the Royals are incapable of hustling runs against the best.
Cain is comfortable atop the lineup, Billy Butler looks more like his old self, Alex Gordon is sneaky elite and Salvador Perez is the best catcher in the league. And while that isn't enough – the Royals need a third-base bat if they're going to go with an outfield of Gordon-Jarrod Dyson-Cain that is peerless defensively but power-challenged – it's certainly in the ZIP code.
And perhaps it's what emboldened the 21,615 here Monday night to scoff at Greinke upon his exit. He didn't quite understand. Upon his return with Milwaukee in 2012, fans cheered, even when he pitched well. Same when he came back as a Los Angeles Angel. They even huzzahed upon his introduction Monday. Then he went out and got pummeled, and on his 37-step walk back to the dugout, overwhelming boos.
"I don't know," Greinke said. "… I'm not a psychologist."
A psychologist might posit that winning emboldened Kansas City to do what in years past it wouldn't have dared – that this bit of winning instilled enough dominance and authority to remind Greinke of what he's missing. The likelier explanation: the whims of fans make absolutely no sense, and nobody from Freud to Pavlov can fully comprehend the emotional toll sports exacts on a body of people.
Especially in a place like Kansas City, which may not go tit for tat with Cleveland or Buffalo in the annals of tortured sports towns but grasps that bronze with aplomb. And Kansas Citians may argue, with merit, that their teams haven't even been good enough to get their hearts broken like Cleveland and Buffalo, and the exhilaration of at least being on the cusp far exceeds the perpetual loneliness of losing.
Greinke represents that to Kansas City. Not only was he the one who asked out, he was the one who got out, who escaped the melancholy to which those here resign themselves annually. With the Chiefs a playoff team and the Royals maybe, just maybe, the same, the ones who know no better are wondering whether the cloud that chases Kansas City sports as though magnetized to misery may have run into teams reversing the polarity.
They don't forget here, not yet. They won't forget until they have something else to remember.
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