There’s a new contender for the title of “America’s team”. Not the juggernaut New York Yankees, whom every one knew about, even if you didn’t like them. Nor football’s once mighty Dallas Cowboys, all Texas swagger and hype. No, it is a modest little franchise from the edge of the prairies called Kansas City Royals.
The first round of baseball’s ever-unpredictable play-offs is done. The Washington Nationals, this year’s cognoscenti pick for a World Series title, were bested 3-1 in four razor-close games by the San Francisco Giants. The LA Dodgers, with the biggest payroll ($235m) in the major leagues went down, inevitably, to the St Louis Cardinals, who every year are there or thereabouts.
And so this time, amazingly, are the Royals. They won the American League wild-card game over the Oakland A’s in a 9-8 extra innings nailbiter. Then in the division series they swept the talent-laden Los Angeles Angels, owners of baseball’s best regular season record, rounding matters off with an 8-3 rout before their own delirious, scarcely believing fans at Kauffman Stadium. Last night they began the AL pennant series against the Baltimore Orioles, just four wins away from the World Series.
And suddenly, every neutral wants the Royals to win it all –at least if you believe a couple of idiosyncratic surveys out this week. ESPN somehow computed that inhabitants of 47 of the 50 states wanted the Royals to beat the Orioles; then The Wall Street Journal came out with its unabashedly subjective baseball “Hateability Index”, which concluded that Kansas City was the least hateable of the 10 teams that made it to the play-offs.
The finding was no surprise. Their first three post-season wins were thrillers, all going to extra innings. Everyone loves an underdog, and few dogs have been more lowly than the Royals, suffering losing season after losing season since they last made the play-offs in 1985. They do not pay their players ridiculous salaries. They have an unassuming Midwestern-ness, with none of that East or West Coast big-market glamour and sense of entitlement. They did not get mixed up in scandals.
But as the World Series beckons, the celebrated Paul Newman line from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, as the pair watch their relentless pursuers far away in the valley, resurfaces: “Who are those guys?”
This team, whatever the name of the franchise, is not made up of baseball royalty. Until last week, ask the average fan about the likes of infielders Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer, outfielders Lorenzo Cain and Jarrod Dyson, or designated hitter Billy Butler, and the answer would surely have been: “Never heard of them.” Yet here they are, eight wins from a World Series ring, baseball’s version of immortality.
In fact, despite the anonymity, the Royals have a lot going for them. The signs were there already last year, when a young team compiled an 86-76 record; 2014 was better still, as they finished 89-73, even though some of their “stars” regressed year on year. But for Kansas City, conventional signs of baseball prowess matter less.
Take home runs, the headline measure of a hitter. In 2014’s regular season, the Royals hit fewer of them – just 95 – than any team in baseball (the power-packed Orioles had the most, with 211). Their starting pitching has not been that great either. But they are perfectly tailored for this post-steroid era, when average runs per game are way down, and pitching is at its most dominant in decades.
What they excel at, in baseball parlance, is “small ball”. They may not smash moonshot home runs but they are terrific at the little things: drawing walks and stealing bases (the most in the majors in 2014) and making the very most of opponents’ errors. Manufacturing runs that way isn’t sexy. But they all count, and it works.
Ask the Angels, their line-up laden with mighty sluggers like Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton. Yet they were as nothing compared to the Royals’ turbo speed on the bases, which upsets the defence and drives pitchers crazy. Kansas City has 12 stolen bases this post-season already, more than the other three surviving teams combined.
Three of them belong to Terrance Gore, in just three pinch-running appearances against the Angels. He can’t hit, but boy can he run – as his college baseball coach said: “I’d never seen a human being move that quick in my life.” Just one more reason why this October, America loves the Royals.Reuse content