KANSAS CITY, Mo. – There is always a payoff. That's why we're addicted to sports. No matter how ugly it gets, how miserable the team, how long the skid, how abhorrent the owner, how dreadful the management, how unlikeable the players, the payoff exists, somewhere in the future, at some random juncture, like on a Tuesday in the middle of America at a baseball stadium that for 29 years waited and waited and waited for such a night.
The noise here – the noise will forever sear itself into the minds of those who heard it, because it's not the sort of thing that can be captured and retransmitted in its full glory by technology. Photographs can encapsulate the moment in which the bat hit the ball, the man lifted his arms, the team spilled onto the field. And video can illustrate the desperate dive and the kid running harder than he ever has around third base and the dust that kicked up when he stomped on home plate. Nothing can do justice to 40,502 people with three decades of pent-up frustration and sadness and losing unburdening themselves with a simultaneous scream, primal and redemptive, beautiful and bestial, proper.
The Kansas City Royals beat the Oakland Athletics at Kauffman Stadium on Tuesday night 9-8. The game lasted 12 innings, featured two desperate comebacks by the Royals and ended with a single down the third-base line off the bat of Salvador Perez, whose first five at-bats were as feckless as they were fruitless. The ball scooted inches past the glove of A's third baseman Josh Donaldson, who lay prostrate on the ground as Royals rookie Christian Colon dashed home and set off the sort of celebration reserved for championships, not play-in games where most of the dramatics come from a manufactured conceit.
And yet it was that very format – the one-game, win-or-go-home nature of baseball's wild-card games – imbuing this night with even more meaning, as though that were at all possible. Already this was the payoff for Kansas City, for its patience – its penance – since the 1985 World Series. Were there statutes of limitations on suffering for sports cities, Kansas City's would have expired long ago and given it more. Only sports don't work that way. Nights like this are gifts rationed out irrationally.
"They've waited for this moment 29 years," Perez said. "And they got it."
Twenty-nine years. It's almost a rallying cry, a badge of honor, a token of survival of something that should mean far less than it does. Because if it were just a game, were just something to shrug off, there would be no noise like Tuesday – not the deafening one that accompanied the winning run nor the millions of other individual chirps that married to cacophonous splendor nearly all night, or at least during the parts of the game when the Royals weren't busy reliving the worst of their foibles.
The imperfections made this game perfect, or at least as close to perfect as baseball has seen since Game 6 of the 2011 World Series. Every element existed, from the comebacks to the flubs to the second-guessing to the drama to the crowd that lived and died and lived and died like they were cats pushing the bounds of their theoretical nonet of existence. This game struck like a heart attack, chests tightening on every pitch, the upstart Royals against the go-for-broke A's, who by the end were simply broken.
All that amid the dunderheaded moves of Kansas City manager Ned Yost, whose tactical buffoonery warranted mid-game jeers from those who saw the salvation of their wait floating away via plumes of managerial arson. Yost yanked his ace, James Shields, following his 88th pitch in the sixth inning. He inserted Yordano Ventura, a rookie starter, for his third relief appearance over the past four years. Brandon Moss walloped the second of his home runs that traveled a combined 850 feet-plus, plated three runs and gave the A's a 5-3 lead, which they extended to 7-3 by the end of the inning. The stadium turned into a Chaplin film, not just silent from the shock but faces contorted and speaking to every sort of emotion.
On the bench, Kansas City tried not to panic. The Royals surged midseason, fell back, reasserted themselves toward the end of the year. They believed, perhaps more than they deserved to, though arrogance is the least of athletic sins. It beats the opposite. And in a game like this, where soon-to-be $150 million ace Jon Lester stood atop the mound with a four-run lead, it is imperative.
Lester shut down Kansas City in the sixth and seventh innings. Come the eighth, the Royals manufactured three runs with singles and stolen bases and the sort of offense a team with 95 home runs on the season needs. The ninth inning was much of the same. Single, bunt, third base swiped by Jarrod Dyson, tie the game 7-7 on a Nori Aoki sacrifice fly.
"That there's the zoom, baby," Dyson said. "Take a bag when they least expect it."
The Royals stole seven bases, though the previous six paled to Colon's in the 12th inning. Kansas City squandered opportunities in the 10th and 11th after Yost donated Oakland an out with a bunt in both innings. No such opportunity presented itself, not with the A's having captured the lead in the top of the inning with former Royal Alberto Callaspo tomahawking a Jason Frasor fastball to left field to score Josh Reddick from third. Frasor had relieved Brandon Finnegan, a left-hander who in June was pitching in college and had not just ascended to the major leagues but done so in the Royals' pecking order. The one baserunner he allowed came in on Frasor's watch.
"I thought I lost it," Frasor said.
Then Hosmer tripled off the left-field wall, missing a home run by a foot, and up stepped Colon, who missed almost all of September with a broken finger, returning only for the season's final day. On Monday, Yost pulled Colon aside and told him: "You're on the roster. Let's get it done." Apparently, he wasn't kidding, and Colon did, with a chopper off a Dan Otero sinker that bounced right in front of the plate, perhaps a dozen feet in the air, and deadened about 30 feet from home, in front of Donaldson, who couldn't field it cleanly. Hosmer scored. Colon stood on first. Tie ballgame. Again.
In came Jason Hammel, the A's 20th player to the Royals' 21 used, the pitcher who accompanied Jeff Samardzija in the A's trade that sent top prospect Addison Russell to Chicago over the summer. Between that and the Lester deal that sent Yoenis Cespedes to Boston, Oakland sacrificed so much for this year, this chance, knowing the whims of baseball can indeed be cruel enough to crush a franchise's will for decades on end. Hammel retired Alex Gordon, and with Perez at the plate, Colon took off for second base. The A's called a pitchout, their scouting acumen working to perfection, only catcher Derek Norris didn't catch the ball cleanly, and Colon slid in safe.
With two strikes, Perez reached for an 84-mph slider on the outside corner, the exact sort of pitch Luke Gregerson made him look silly on earlier in the night. Somehow the 24-year-old catcher, one of the faces of Kansas City's new generation of homegrown talent, yanked the ball down the line, an impossible swing that managed to do the impossible, too: help the Kansas City Royals win a playoff game.
"I didn't put my head down," Perez said. "I just felt bad a little bit. But in the last inning, God sent me another opportunity. And I took that one."
Royals third-base coach Mike Jirschele, a longtime minor league manager, wheeled his right arm three times before aborting a fourth. Colon wasn't even looking. He knew to go home. Perez took four steps out of the batter's box before raising both hands as he saw the ball slink past Donaldson. In the on-deck circle, Omar Infante leaped in the air and started sprinting toward second base. Seconds later, more than 30 white jerseys would join him in the pile surrounding Perez, trampling the spray-painted letters on the field that spelled out a word so foreign to those here: POSTSEASON.
"You couldn't ask for a better game for a one-game play-in game," Lester said. "I would imagine the fans got what they paid for tonight."
Two of the best seats in the house went for $150 a pop, and Mary Oades and Erin Powell considered themselves the luckiest women in the stadium. They'd scalped tickets right as the game started and ended up in dugout suites because, Powell said, "We just knew we couldn't miss it." And as they tried to find their ways through the catacombs of Kauffman Stadium, they somehow ended up near the stairs down which Royals players bound toward the dugout. Up and down the players went, and the women asked them to stop, to take a picture maybe, and though some ignored the calls others obliged happily, because those were two voices among the 40,000 that made the noise none of them ever would forget.
One of those who stopped was Billy Butler. He's among the longest-tenured Royals, maybe the most popular, and the women wrapped their arms around him and leaned in.
"He's sweaty," Oades said.
"It's not sweat," Butler said. "It's Champagne."
Prior to the Royals clinching the wild card this year, the last time they celebrated with bubbly was in 2005, two years before Butler arrived. They lost 19 games in a row, the worst losing streak in nearly two decades, before toppling the A's 2-1. Jose Lima, one of the sport's all-time characters, brandished a case of Dom Perignon and declared: "This win is like winning a playoff game."
Perhaps now it's easier to understand why the noise was so resounding, why people stuck around for nearly an hour after the game, why Dyson leaped on top of the dugout high-fiving fans, and Shields chugged beers to their delight. It was almost 12:30 a.m., officially October, and the Royals were still alive. Rain beat down on the stragglers, and it was almost as if they were like Butler, like the rest of the Royals, soaked and absolutely loving it.
Back inside, the clubhouse started to clear out. All the bottles were popped, all the beers cracked, all the congratulations given. The celebration would be finite, because a flight to Los Angeles and the team with the best record in baseball beckoned. Though the Royals couldn't get rid of a moment like this that fast. They chewed on what happened, on the improbability of it all, on Kansas City finally getting what it wanted, and getting it in that sort of fashion, and they still couldn't quite believe it.
"What the [expletive] was that?" Hosmer said.
That, sir, was the payoff.