Keeping it realm

The Mets pushed the Royals to the brink of defeat in Game 1, but Kansas City found a way

Getty Images

KANSAS CITY —  Long after this exhilarating and extraordinary and exhausting World Series game ended, the huge video board in center field at Kauffman Stadium flashed a message again and again and again. “Royals WIN!” it blared. Then there was a blinding yellow light. “Royals WIN!” it said again. More blinding light. “Royals WIN!” It was as if the video board was trying to convince itself that it actually happened that way.

The Royals lost Game 1 of the World Series to the New York Mets many times on Tuesday night. They lost it when two-time Gold Glove first baseman Eric Hosmer could not decide whether to charge or back off a chopping groundball. They lost it when their No. 3 hitter Lorenzo Cain inexplicably tried to bunt the tying run from second base to third with nobody out. They lost it when manager Ned Yost decided to pinch run for the team’s best slugger Kendrys Morales, leaving the team with the punchless Jarrod Dyson in the middle of the lineup. They lost it when the Mets sent their unhittable pitcher with his Hollywood name — Jeurys Familia — to close things out.

The Royals lost it and lost it, but in the end, as, the video board boomed, “Royals WIN!” because … well … they did. There’s a story about Stanley Ketchel, a staggeringly tough early 20th century boxer who was murdered a few hours up the road in a farm town called Conway, Mo. When his manager and New York man-about-town Billy Mizner was told that Ketchel had been killed, he shrugged. “Tell ‘em to start counting to 10,” Mizner said. “He’ll get up.”

So it goes with these Royals. They kept losing the game but every time the Mets started counting to 10 … the Royals got up.

* * *

There is too much to explain, too much even to sum up. World Series. Game 1 went 14 innings, which tied a record, and it lasted five hours and nine minutes, which made it the second-longest World Series game by time. But even these numbers do not capture the epic scope of the game. It was an emotional wrecking ball of a game.

It began in sadness. When Kansas City’s Edinson Volquez threw the first pitch, the story had already broken that his father had died. Daniel Volquez had been a driving force in Edinson’s baseball life in the Dominican Republic. “My mom and dad always took care of me,” Edinson once told a reporter. “It was easy for me. I never had a job. The only thing I did was go to school and play baseball.”

It was gut-wrenching to watch Volquez pitch; he apparently did not know. His family had wanted to keep the news of Daniel’s death from him until he finished pitching.They obviously wanted him to be free to pitch the most important baseball game of his life with clear mind and a full heart. He pitched six strong innings and left with his family before the game ended.

The Royals’ leadoff hitter, Alcides Escobar, hit an inside-the-park home run on the first pitch he saw, the first of those in the World Series since 1929. He was the first person ever to lead off a World Series Game 1 with an inside-the parker, though the details of the home run itself are less exciting. He hit a catchable fly ball to left-center, but there was miscommunication in the outfield, and the ball ricocheted off of Yoenis Cespedes’ leg. Escobar scored without a throw.

The Mets took a 3-1 lead in the middle innings, boosted by a Curtis Granderson home run and a couple of one-run rallies. The Mets are not at all like the Royals in style, but they play baseball with a similar sense of destiny. It is striking to watch two teams that seem absolutely certain that they will win. The Royals immediately rallied for two runs to tie the game.

* * *

The most famous play in New York Mets history is almost certainly, in the words of the incomparable Vin Scully, a little roller, behind the bag, that got through the first baseman. It happened at the end of Game 6 in the 1986 World Series, the last time that the Mets were on top of the world.

Tuesday, in the eighth inning of a tie game, with the go-ahead run on third, New York’s Wilmer Flores hit a little grounder, behind the bag, that got through the first baseman. This time, though, the first baseman was not the fossilized remains of Bill Buckner, who was so helpless physically that he should not have even been in the game, but instead a vibrant young Eric Hosmer, who is celebrated for his defense and ability to perform under duress. The grounder was an awkward one, and Hosmer uncharacteristically seemed frozen by it. He made a last second charge and swipe at the ball, but it skipped by him and the Mets led.

There was a certain finality about the play. The Mets, as mentioned, are on their own magic carpet ride. Broadcaster Keith Olbermann would tweet the classic line, saying the Mets are the only team in baseball to have other team’s first basemen in their own Hall of Fame.

CALCATERRA: How does Game 2 top that? Here’s how

The finality trebled in the bottom of the inning when the Royals failed to score the tying run after Ben Zobrist’s double. The key at-bat in there was Cain’s; the Royals No. 3 hitter decided to bunt Zobrist over even though he has not had a successful sacrifice bunt in almost 2,000 career regular season at-bats. In a way, this reflected the pure unselfishness of this team — the Royals did not ASK Cain to give himself up, he did so on his own.

In another way, though, it reflected a strategic void that so often is part of the Kansas City story. The bunt there is a terrible move for any number of fairly obvious reasons. Cain failed twice to get down the bunt, putting himself into a deep hole, and then he struck out. Hosmer followed with a feeble strikeout, continuing his agony and seemingly inextricable path to Game 1 goat.

Two batters later, with the Royals still threatening, the Mets put in the indomitable Familia, who coaxed a sickly ground ball that ended the inning. Now there was only the ninth, and Familia had not given up a run in the entire postseason. He had not blown a save of any kind in more than two months. The Mets were counting to 10 and had reached seven or eight.

* * *

Alex Gordon is the one player who remembers. He more than remembers: He lived the nightmare that was Kansas City baseball a few years ago. He was called up to Kansas City in 2007 to be a savior. The Royals did not put it in those terms, of course, but what else could he be? Gordon was the game’s best prospect AND he was a Midwestern boy who swung the bat like Royals legend George Brett (his brother had been named for Brett) AND he was joining a Royals team that had lost 100 games three years in a row. He might as well have had “Savior” written on the back of his jersey.

He seemed exactly the type to handle it. Gordon had a confidence about him, a sense of his own place in the world, and that year just about every baseball analyst in the country predicted he would win the Rookie of the Year Award and lead the way to a moderately better Royals future.

Two months into that first season, Gordon was hitting .172 and playing a frightened third base and there was an almost awestruck reaction to it all, something that might be loosely translated to mean: “Wow, the Royals are SO bad they even broke Alex Gordon.”

It took a long while for Gordon to find his way. He had to leave third base for left field, where he would become a transcendent defender. He had to figure out how to compensate for a giant hole in his aesthetically beautiful swing, and he became one of the game’s great mistake hitters. He had to accept his place not as a dazzling star who makes all the magazine covers but as a quietly wonderful player who does all the little things at the plate, on the bases and in the field that are so easily overlooked.

When he stood in the on-deck circle in the bottom of the ninth inning, he studied Familia. He had never faced the man and, to his recollection, had never even seen him pitch. He knew the situation. He was the Royals’ last, best hope. Royals catcher Salvador Perez, who was at the plate, had been so beaten up this whole postseason that he surely had nothing left to give. The man who followed Gordon, Paulo Orlando, was a 29-year-old rookie who had come in as a replacement. The game rested with Gordon and Gordon alone.

He watched Familia quick-pitch Perez and took special note of it. Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn once said, “Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing.” Nothing upsets timing more for a hitter than not expecting the pitch. After Perez grounded out, Gordon stepped into the batter’s box fully determined to be ready if Familia quick pitched him.

On the third pitch, Familia did just that. He quickly threw a 97-mph sinker that didn’t sink.

And Gordon did not miss it.

“He doesn’t give up home runs,” Mets manager Terry Collins would say of Familia. No, he does not. Gordon hit it out anyway, over the centerfield wall, a massive blast that sent Kauffman Stadium into convulsions of joy. The Royals had gotten up again.

Afterward, someone asked Gordon if Hosmer had said anything about getting him off the hook, and Gordon’s disgust was palpable. The question cut against every single thing this Royals team — HIS Royals team — had become.

“No, absolutely not,” he said with an edge in his voice. “We don’t do things like that. We pick each other up and don’t hang our heads when stuff like that happens. We understand that baseball is about adversity. And overcoming it.”

In other words, it was just Gordon’s turn to be the hero. And when it’s your turn on this Royals team, you shut up and be the hero and you certainly don’t expect anybody to thank you for it.

* * *

Art Stewart is 88 years old, and he has been scouting baseball for more than 60 years, more than 40 of those for the Kansas City Royals, and when the game finally ended, after midnight, he slowly shuffled down to the clubhouse to get his hugs. “Can you believe that?” he said. “I mean, can you believe it? Hosmer ends up winning the game? Did you ever see anything like that?”

He smiled a little bit. “I mean, since last week.”

Yes, Eric Hosmer ended up hitting the sacrifice fly that won the game in the bottom of the 14th inning. There was something poetic about that, though this Royals team isn’t really about poetry. The Royals are about survival. The Mets are also, which means that this World Series could have many more games like this, if baseball fans’ hearts can take it.

No music played in the Royals’ clubhouse after the game, and no depression swirled in the Mets clubhouse either. Both these teams still seem certain they will win because they cannot imagine their seasons ending any other way. And by the time Stewart worked his way down, the emotion of this overwhelming game was already beginning to fade. It was only Game 1. Back outside, the scoreboard was thundering, “Royals WIN!” while dozens of people wandered the stands, clearing trash and memories.

“What do you think will happen tomorrow?” Stewart said, and then he stopped and corrected himself.

“I mean, what do you think will happen later today?”