The epic story of the 2015 Royals and their World Series championship

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Jeff Passan
·MLB columnist
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NEW YORK – Next to the Kansas City Royals’ dugout sat Dayton Moore, the man who made his city love baseball again. Moore grew up a Royals fan, and when he accepted the job as the team’s general manager in 2006, he inherited the worst franchise in the sport, a team two laughable decades separated from relevance. His chief commodity, as he built the Royals into the juggernaut that blitzed the 2014 postseason and returned in 2015, was belief, the sort so many mistook as misplaced optimism. And Dayton Moore, a man certain the Kansas City Royals someday would win a World Series under his watch, never believed in something so bold as he did Sunday night.

Out of the New York Mets dugout sprinted Matt Harvey, ready to make World Series history, eight shutout innings behind him, three outs from a complete game, a two-run lead in hand. The crowd of 44,859 at Citi Field caterwauled as Harvey leapt over the first-base line, ready to conquer Game 5 and save the Mets’ season. Moore, calm as ever, turned to his game-watching partner, Royals special assistant Jason Kendall, and did something positively out of character.

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Nobody in baseball, a sport imbued with conservatism, is more conservative than Moore. Flashiness bothers him. Boldness unsettles him. His pants are pressed crisp, his shirts starched stiff, his demeanor buttoned up. He does not make predictions; they’re for people who don’t understand how hard the game is. And yet in that moment, with all of New York and the world ready to lionize Harvey, Moore turned to Kendall and broke his own rule.

“Get ready,” Moore said. “We’re about to win a World Series.”

Kansas City Royals' Jarrod Dyson holds the World Series trophy. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Kansas City Royals' Jarrod Dyson holds the World Series trophy. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Ninety-seven minutes later, three innings later, one patented Royals rally later, Moore’s prophecy came true. For the first time in 30 years, the Kansas City Royals were champions of the baseball world. Their 7-2 victory validated Moore’s long-maligned plan, vindicated manager Ned Yost from years of abuse and vanquished decades of suffering in Kansas City. The authors of eight come-from-behind victories in the postseason – including a record seven from deficits of two or more runs – were a force not even Harvey could stop.

Moore said he had a feeling about this game, much as he had a feeling all season about this team, the natural scout doing what he was taught and trusting his gut. He built the Royals in his image, scrappy and smart and aggressive, certain that in an era increasingly guided by numbers that a place for instinct remained in baseball. And while Moore embraced statistics, he never forsook the maxims of scouting, one of which was to focus on people, trust them and bask in their success.

“You believe in ’em,” Moore said. “You knew they were going to battle, to put ourselves in a position to win. And they did it.”

– – – – – – – – –

The first batter of the ninth inning was Lorenzo Cain. Moore traded for him when Zack Greinke, the best player he inherited, asked to be dealt in 2010 because he thought the Royals never would win. Cain should finish somewhere in the top five of the American League MVP vote this year. He shrugged off Harvey’s hypnotizing fastball and slider and turned a 1-2 count into a walk.

Next came Eric Hosmer. Moore drafted him with the third overall pick in 2008 and watched him blossom into the face of the Royals. Women in Kansas City want to marry him; men in Kansas City want to be him; children in Kansas City get their hair cut into his fauxhawk. He came to the plate with two hits in the World Series. He proceeded to send a Harvey fastball over left fielder Michael Conforto’s head to score Cain, halve the lead and make Mets manager Terry Collins rue sending Harvey back to finish the game.

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After that was Mike Moustakas. With Moore’s first draft pick, he chose Moustakas. The success of the new Royals – the ones with the skinflint payroll and inability to attract free agents of any luster – depended upon draft picks panning out. The Royals’ roster is stocked with homegrown players. Moustakas stepped in against Jeurys Familia, the closer Kansas City had beaten in Games 1 and 4, called upon again to clean up a mess of the Royals’ making. Moustakas grounded out to first. Hosmer advanced to third.

And it was there the chaos truly started to unfold. Familia’s 96-mph sinker turned Salvador Perez’s bat into kindling. The ball came off his bat at 43 mph, the single slowest ball in play in the series. It bounced in front of third baseman David Wright, who corralled it. He looked at Hosmer to keep him at third before throwing to get the out at first. As Wright pivoted to make his throw, Hosmer started to run.

It conjured memories of 2014, of the seventh game in the World Series against the San Francisco Giants, when with two outs in the ninth inning Alex Gordon stopped at third base on a misplay. Even a halfway decent relay home would have nabbed him by 20 feet. It was the right play. That didn’t lessen the pain when Perez popped out.

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Deep down, Hosmer remembered this. And he knew that despite the Royals touching up Familia twice, banking on Gordon, standing in the on-deck circle, for a two-out, game-tying hit, was folly. And he’d heard, before the series began, that Wright’s arm is weaker than it used to be and that first baseman Lucas Duda was susceptible to aggressive baserunning. As Yost said: “Make them beat us.”

Really, though, this was Hosmer’s instinct. He grew up in a Royals organization that preached aggressiveness. Kansas City talked about pinch running for Hosmer with the speedier Jarrod Dyson but trusted Hosmer to make the right decision. As he left, Hosmer feared he hadn’t.

“When I first decided to go home, I thought it was a big mistake,” Hosmer said. “But I couldn’t turn back at that point. You’ve got to just figure out a way to get there.”

Gordon saw the play unfolding and thought to himself: “Crap.” A great throw from Duda nails Hosmer, ends the game and sends the series back to Kansas City. A good throw is a bang-bang play, a 50/50 proposition. The throw from Duda was neither. It sailed out of catcher Travis d’Arnaud’s reach and to the backstop, and the headfirst-sliding Hosmer tied the game. He popped off the ground, his uniform dirtied just as his coaches like it, and emitted a giant, “Wooooo!”, audible even amid the boos of a deflated, disconsolate Citi Field.

“That’s just the way we’ve been doing it all year,” Hosmer said. “We’ve been taking chances.”

– – – – – – – – –

One of the first chances actually came last year. On Dec. 17, 2014, the Royals signed right-handed pitcher Edinson Volquez to a two-year deal worth $20 million. It was part of a piecemeal offseason in which they let go of their best pitcher, James Shields, and filled in the gaps with Volquez and designated hitter Kendrys Morales and outfielder Alex Rios. Late in free agency, they signed pitcher Chris Young. Reliever Ryan Madson came to spring training having not pitched for three seasons due to complications following his Tommy John surgery.

This was not the classic recipe for improving upon a team that ended its season 90 feet short, and yet convention never suited Moore. It wasn’t that he zagged when others zigged; he didn’t care about the others. He saw life in Morales’ bat and was rewarded with an All-Star-caliber season. He hung with Rios during a rough regular season and watched him awaken in the playoffs. He wouldn’t be in the World Series without the contributions of Young and Madson, two vital cogs in the pitching staff.

And in Volquez, he got the soul of Game 5. Hours before Volquez’s start in Game 1, his father, Daniel, died. As the rest of the world mourned the news, Volquez pitched unaware of it at his wife’s request. His mourning began the day after the game and continued through Sunday, when he stepped on the mound and allowed a home run on his third pitch.

After that, he matched Harvey almost pitch for pitch, his second run unearned, the Mets mustering two hits off him. At 32 years old, with two awful postseason starts to his name coming into this season, Volquez wasn’t the classic shutdown ace. He was typical Royals, solid but unspectacular, more concerned with results than process. With his dad’s initials scrawled into his cap and drawn into the dirt on the pitcher’s mound, Volquez pitched the most important game of his life under the worst circumstances.

“I was trying not to think about it,” he said. “It’s hard. It’s hard to do. But I did a pretty good job of it. I started to think a little bit more when they took me out. And I was hoping to make people proud. I think my dad is very proud right now.”

In August, Moustakas lost his mother after a long battle with cancer. A month later, Young’s father died of cancer. And now Volquez’s dad. It could have felt like too much, burdened the Royals. It bonded them, and when Volquez returned to the team Saturday and found its warm embrace, he knew he needed to start the game. He wouldn’t be alone on the field, either.

“Coming from the dugout, before warm-ups, before the game started, I was walking to the bullpen,” Volquez said. “And I feel like he was right behind me.”

– – – – – – – – –

The spirits were everywhere this October, holding the Royals’ hands, guiding them to win after improbable win, none more than the one Oct. 12, Game 4 of the division series.

Eric Hosmer #35 of the Kansas City Royals scores a run. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
Eric Hosmer #35 of the Kansas City Royals scores a run. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

“That Houston series …” said Alex Gordon, the longest-tenured Royal and quiet conscience of the clubhouse. He, more than anyone, knew what it meant to be a Royal, not just because he grew up in Nebraska rooting for the team but because he witnessed some of the worst years and worst games imaginable on a baseball field. The Royals weren’t bad; they were revolting, and Gordon was among the nauseous.

So he understood when they were bad off, and this qualified: eighth inning, down 6-2, trailing two games to one in the series, six outs from elimination. Then came a single. And another. And another. And another. And another. Five straight, hard and soft, not that it mattered, because a single was a single, and the Royals were in no position to get greedy about their hits. This was scuttling Yost’s previous plans.

“I was thinking how I was going to congratulate the Houston Astros in my press conference,” Yost said. “I really was.”

He sat on the bench, barely moving, not getting up when the Royals scored their first or second or third or fourth or even fifth runs, the latter on the most satisfying groundout of Gordon’s career that drove in a run to put Kansas City ahead 7-6. They won that game, and the next, and four more against Toronto, and they were headed to extra innings against the Mets in Game 5 because of Hosmer’s crazy dash.

“You kind of get a feeling when you tie the game,” Gordon said. “They’re pretty dominant the whole game, and to have something like that happen in the ninth inning, it’s like, here we go again.”


– – – – – – – – –

This started last September. The Royals snuck into the 2014 postseason with a wild-card berth and began this habit of comebacks with a gonzo 9-8 victory against the Oakland A’s in which they twice stared down defeat and told it to go elsewhere. The game ended in the bottom of the 12th inning when a rookie named Christian Colon crossed the plate thanks to a ball yanked down the third-base line by Salvador Perez.

Nobody exemplifies Dayton Moore’s Royals quite like Perez. Hosmer and Moustakas were about as sure things as a team could draft out of high school, each paid millions of dollars to sign. Perez joined the Royals’ organization in 2006 for $65,000 as a 16-year-old from Venezuela. When Moore left the Atlanta Braves, with whom he’d spent his entire career, he agreed to do so only if owner David Glass promised to beef up spending in Latin America, where the Royals had fallen woefully behind.

A few months after he turned 21, Perez joined the Royals as their everyday catcher. They signed him to a long-term contract and immediately watched him outplay it. Three All-Star Games later, he’s considered the best catcher in the AL. He influences every facet of the Royals’ game – the pitching staff, the defense and the offense – and even with that the Royals called upon him to do more Sunday night.

Just get on base. That’s all they wanted, and it felt like a lot to ask, though Perez had something of a history with 12th innings. He stroked the second pitch he saw from reliever Addison Reed down the right-field line and just inside, stopping at first base with exactly what was asked of him. Off he jogged, replaced by Dyson as a pinch runner, greeted with handshakes and huzzahs in English and Spanish.

Few clubhouses boast such a United Colors of Benetton roster. The Royals have Americans and Dominicans and Venezuelans and Puerto Ricans and a Cuban and even a Brazilian. They are exactly what Moore envisioned nine years ago, and if Gordon is the Royals’ conscience and Hosmer their face, Perez is their most beloved player, the clown who records videos of himself messing with Cain on Instagram and dumps Gatorade coolers on the game’s hero after every Royals victory and takes shots off his chest protector and mask and throwing hand and plays through it anyway.

That’s the sort of player people in Kansas City love. It reminds them of someone they know well.

– – – – – – – – –

George Brett loves baseball the way everyone else loves ice cream and pay raises and puppies, so thoroughly and wholly and intractably that nothing ever could change his mind. He spent 21 years playing it, all of them with the Kansas City Royals, a California boy heaven sent to the Midwest. He never left. Win a World Series in Kansas City and there isn’t much reason to.

The Kansas City Royals celebrate defeating the New York Mets. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
The Kansas City Royals celebrate defeating the New York Mets. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

The 1985 Royals weren’t like this incarnation. There wasn’t a single Dominican or Venezuelan on the team. The bullpen, even for its era, didn’t frighten opponents. The ’85 Royals weren’t even the best during Brett’s prime – that honor belongs to the ’77 Royals who lost in the ALCS – but that didn’t matter. Even if champions aren’t their best, they’re still champions.

Brett joined the Royals as a temporary hitting coach in 2013 after they slumped to start the year, hopeful his presence would juice their bats. By 2014, they matured enough for a World Series berth, and this year, their danger stemmed from their preternatural ability to make contact, something even more crucial in the playoffs.

Coming into Game 5, the Royals’ had outscored playoff opponents 44-11 in the seventh inning and beyond because they put the ball in play and others couldn’t against Kansas City’s vaunted bullpen. This was the formula. It worked. It’s why, as Jarrod Dyson stole second base and moved to third on a Gordon groundball to first base in the top of the 12th, Brett turned to Royals assistant GM J.J. Picollo and scouting director Lonnie Goldberg and told them everything was going to be fine.

“Christian Colon,” Brett said, “understands how to play his role.”

– – – – – – – – –

The last time Christian Colon swung a bat in a live baseball game before Sunday was Oct. 4, nearly a month ago, in the Royals’ final game of the regular season. For 28 days, Colon marinated on Kansas City’s bench. He studied the opposing pitchers every game. Yost didn’t want to burn Colon, his backup infielder, unless absolutely necessary. Dyson standing on third as the go-ahead runner and the pitcher due up to hit qualified as necessity.

“I was ready,” Colon said. “With my family, my dad, my wife, everybody, we just kept talking about: ‘Hey, be ready. It’s gonna come.’ And I knew it would come at some point. I wanted to be ready for it.”

Never was Colon anything flashy, not when the Royals took him with the fourth overall pick in the 2010 draft ahead of a pitcher a number of scouts insisted they take: Chris Sale, today one of the game’s best. It was a rare Moore whiff, though he wouldn’t dare categorize it as that, not with Colon spending 2015 in the major leagues, not after his contributions last October.

He was a forgotten man, and then Game 5 arrived and he dug in against Reed and stared at an 86-mph slider for a strike. He swung and missed at another for a second strike. Colon tried to calm himself, put up a firewall against doubt. He took a slider in the dirt, fouled off another. After throwing Gordon seven straight fastballs the at-bat before, he offered Colon a fifth consecutive slider. He did not miss.

All he needed was a well-placed groundball or a medium-deep flyball or anything, really, to allow Dyson’s speed to take over. Colon lined a single into left field. He played his role, like George Brett said he would, and as the Royals’ dugout came unglued and Dayton Moore smiled the smile of a man who knew, Colon retreated to first base and played two-word celebration with coach Rusty Kuntz.

“Gimme some!” Kuntz yelled.

“Let’s go!” Colon responded.

“Hell, yeah!” Kuntz said.

Now they knew, too. It didn’t matter that Daniel Murphy kicked another ball and Alcides Escobar drove in Colon with a double and Ben Zobrist took an intentional walk that allowed Lorenzo Cain to clear the bases with a double, blowing up the lead to five runs.

All the Royals needed was one. All they ever need with Wade Davis is one.

– – – – – – – – –

No move in Dayton Moore’s career compares to the James Shields trade. That’s its unofficial name because that was its intention: to get Kansas City a frontline starting pitcher and transition from the building phase of the plan into the period of winning. To get Shields, Moore gave up outfielder Wil Myers, one of the game’s best prospects, as well as three young players, including Jake Odorizzi, today among the top young starters in the AL.

Moore wouldn’t do the deal unless Tampa Bay included Wade Davis. He stood 6-foot-5 and weighed 220 pounds and looked as though sent from the pitching factory. He was also terrible in his first season with the Royals as a starter, so they converted him to a relief pitcher in 2014. In his last 140 games, Davis has allowed 16 runs.

The Mets hadn’t touched him during the series, just as the Blue Jays hadn’t the series before, which mimicked the Astros’ performance against him prior to that. Davis has been untouchable this postseason. A five-run cushion felt to the Mets like a million.

And down they went feebly, the last batter of 2015 Wilmer Flores, who stared at a 95-mph fastball that tickled the inside corner and set off a celebration. On the mound, Davis whipped his glove into the air and embraced catcher Drew Butera. The rest of the Royals, ready to pounce all inning, joined them in a mosh pit. The Champagne came out. The beer flowed. Yost pronounced himself “half-hammered.” As much as life soon would go on – “All right,” said Davis’ wife, Katelyn, “you’ve got to do the laundry tomorrow” – this was a moment they would try to savor. Because the reality about which Davis spoke still seemed surreal.

“It’s all over,” he said. “We won it.”

– – – – – – – – –

For so long, it looked like this day wouldn’t come, that Kansas City would be doomed to sporting mediocrity, to relying on its MLS team to bring championships to the city. Kauffman Stadium spent summers empty on account of apathy toward the Royals’ substandard product and disdain toward a man named David Glass, the former president of Wal-Mart who bought the team on the cheap and was forever saddled with the reputation of a carpetbagger without the willingness to spend what it took to win.

Last year changed that. The run to Game 7 of the World Series emboldened Glass. He raised the Royals’ payroll well over $100 million. He authorized late-July trades for starter Johnny Cueto and second baseman Ben Zobrist. Forget the future, the beacon about which Moore spoke so much during the lean years. The present was worth chasing. It led to the party out of which Glass slipped, lest he find himself soaked with booze.

He snuck by a group of employees and through the doors into the hallway at Citi Field, where he stopped to compose himself. Standing alongside him was Art Stewart, 88 years old, spry as ever, a Royals employee since the team’s expansion season of 1969. He is the organization’s institutional memory, forever telling stories about 1985, forever waiting to tell new ones.

“It’s been a long time, David,” Stewart said. “You brought it.”

“Mr. Stewart has seen everything,” Glass said.

“This is so perfect,” Stewart said. “Thirty years between rings.”

“Well, let’s cut that down and do it again, Art,” Glass said.

Cueto will leave via free agency. Zobrist is likely to. Gordon could return, though Kansas City is loath to spend the money it would take to re-sign him. Young and Madson should receive giant raises from their scant pay this year. That’s five big contributors, pieces not easily replaced, and yet enough talent remains for Glass’ aspirations to be realistic.

After all, the heartbreak of Game 7 – of Madison Bumgarner’s legendary performance – didn’t prevent the Royals from returning this season. It incensed them, served as a rallying cry, gave them something to erase.

“The only way to fix it,” Glass said, “was to win it all this year.”

– – – – – – – – –

At the end of last season, Ned Yost gathered a giant stack of fan mail. He tries to answer every piece he receives. He assumed somewhere between 150 and 200 of the letters contained baseball cards, which he would sign and return to those who asked. Opening the letters shocked him. Just three asked for him to sign something.

World Series MVP Salvador Perez poses with his prizes. (AP)
World Series MVP Salvador Perez poses with his prizes. (AP)

“All the rest of the letters were thank yous for a great year,” Yost said. “I thought that was really, really special. That impressed on me how much Kansas City appreciated what we accomplished last year. And they’re going to appreciate this even more.”

To the victors go everything. Perez won a bright-red sports car with his World Series MVP award. Yost won his 22nd game in 31 playoff chances, a .710 winning percentage, the highest of any manager in history during the playoffs. The fans who traveled to New York won the right to chant, “Let’s go, Royals!” so deep into the night Citi Field shut off its overhead lights, like a bar past last call looking to disperse its patrons. And Dayton Moore won a modicum of redemption.

He likes to tell a story, rather sheepishly, about the first time he came into Kansas City as the Royals’ GM. He and his wife, Marianne, were riding in a car into the city, and Moore wondered aloud where the parade might be if ever the Royals won a World Series. It was so presumptive, so against type, that it ashamed him he would even say something like that.

Well, the answer is Grand Boulevard, between the Power and Light District and Union Station, a 2.3-mile stretch of downtown into which hundreds of thousands of people will jam themselves hoping to get a glance at Salvy and Lo Cain, Hoz and Moose, Ned and Dayton, everyone with whom Kansas City feels like it’s on a first-name basis. Over the last two years, this team became this city.

The Royals reminded Kansas City that it’s a baseball town, and a damn fine one at that. Nine years it took, nine years of tinkering and toying and finding the closest thing to a perfect team Kansas City ever has seen. It was a team worth celebrating, a team worth loving, a team worth placing atop the mantel alongside 1985.

And, more than anything, a team worth believing in.