Long may they reign

After three decades, the Royals are the champions of baseball

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NEW YORK — This will be a story about luck and magic and the Kansas City Royals, but why don’t we start with Art Stewart? That’s him over there by the wall, yes, the little guy, the scout with tears in his eyes. He’s 88 now, and he has been in this game long enough that he timed a young Mickey Mantle running to first base. Positive? Nobody has ever been more positive. One time, after the Kansas City Royals drafted a young outfielder named Chris Lubanski, the Royals brought the kid to Kauffman Stadium to take batting practice.

“Men,” Art told us all. “You will remember this day for the rest of your lives.”

Lubanski didn’t pan out; few Royals prospects seemed to pan out in those years, but we all remembered the day because of Art Stewart’s unquenchable and untouchable and unreasonable faith in baseball and promise and the Kansas City Royals turning it around someday.

“Dayton,” Art Stewart says now. The sickly sweet smell of champagne pervades every corner of the packed clubhouse, and happily soaked men and women walk by laughing, and the Royals’ World Series Trophy is carried past, and Art sees Kansas City’s general manager, Dayton Moore.

“I told you only one thing, do you remember?” Art half-whispers into Moore’s ear. “I told you that I just wanted to be here when you win. I told you that I just wanted to be a part of this team when we won it all. Because I knew we would. I knew we would. I knew …”

MORE: Royals win World Series with stirring late rally

His voice breaks apart, like a dry snowball thrown into the wind, and the tears now pour down his face, and he hugs a little tighter. “I knew.”

“I know you did, Art,” Dayton Moore tells him. “I know you did.”

* * *

Do you remember the time James Bond escaped from a chateau because he happened to have a Bell Rocket Belt that allowed him to fly away? A Bell Rocket Belt. “No well-dressed man should be without one,” Bond said to the beautiful woman waiting for him with the getaway car after he landed in a whirlwind of dust.

Then, there was the time Bond was surrounded by man-eating crocodiles … so he waited for them to arrange themselves just so and then ran across the water on their backs to safety.

There was the time he happened to have a little saw inside his Rolex that cut through the ropes that bound him, and the time his car had the hard-to-find, but crucial, “turns into a submarine” accessory, and the time he happened to be wearing a parachute when his car went off a cliff and the countless times when a million bullets missed him.

There is this exchange in the movie “Dr. No.”

“I admire your courage, Miss …”

“Trench. Sylvia Trench. I admire your luck Mr. …”

“Bond. James Bond.”

CALCATERRA: The indefatigable Kansas City Royals

Luck, you see, is James Bond’s trade. Luck is his business. There are no accidents, no coincidences, no unexpected breaks. He has developed luck with his coolness under duress, his bravery when in danger, his deep preparation and, finally, his audaciousness when the critical moment arrived. Yes, audaciousness often leads to luck.

And the Kansas City Royals are James Bond.

“Admit it, you sent (Eric) Hosmer didn’t you?” baseball Hall of Famer George Brett is now saying to the Royals’ third-base coach, Mike Jirschele. They are talking about the Royals’ latest impossible escape, ninth inning of Sunday’s Game 5, the New York Mets leading by a run, when Royals catcher Salvador Perez dribbled a grounder to third base. The Mets’ David Wright fielded it cleanly, looked back toward Hosmer who was on third, and then flipped his usual underhand throw across the infield.

The instant Wright let go of the ball, Hosmer took off on a kamikaze mission for the plate.

“Admit it, you sent him!” Brett insists.

“Are you kidding me?” Jirschele says. “As soon as he took off, I thought, ‘Oh (bleep!)’ But Eric, you know, he read it. He felt it.”

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Hosmer’s mad dash home surely would have been doomed had Mets first baseman Lucas Duda made a good throw to the plate. Alas, Duda’s throw, like the bullets aimed at Bond, sailed high and wide. Hosmer slid headfirst across with the tying run. And the New York crowd was silent..

Brett nods at Jirsch. Many times in his own bold career, he would take those risks to turn around a game — try to turn that single into a double, turn that double into a triple, lay down a bunt when least expected. His philosophy on the luck involved remains. “You can’t be afraid to make that out,” he says. “If you’re afraid to be out … you will be out.”

* * *

This will be the last time (probably) to write about a Royals outfielder named Kerry Robinson, who climbed the center-field wall for a long fly ball and found himself sheepishly hanging on that wall when the ball landed 10 feet in front of him and bounced off the warning track and over his head. This will be the last time (probably) to write about the Royals losing a game in Cleveland because a baseball hit a flock of seagulls (not the band). This will be the last time (probably) to write about outfielders Chip Ambres and Terrence Long settling under a fly ball, looking contentedly at each other and then jogging happily back to the dugout … only to have the ball plop behind them in the outfield grass, forgotten.

This will be the last time (probably) because those Royals are gone, a relic of another time. Those Royals were impossibly terrible for a very long period of time. It felt like a permanent state. Those Royals had no money, no bright ideas, no luck, no staffing, no conviction and no chance. Darkly funny little stories that happened along the way, like the time the Royals called up a player no one had ever heard of to pitch at Yankee Stadium, or the time they brought in a softball pitcher to camp and stood around the mound arguing if his motion was an automatic balk, or the time they hired a manager who liked to unicycle around the outfield to get exercise. These were all Royals fans had for sustenance. At least they were sometimes good for a laugh.

Most of the time, of course, they weren’t funny at all. They were sad, and they made fans sad. Royals hats gathered dust in Kansas City’s attics. Old Royals jerseys from the good days — George Brett and Hal McRae and Frank White and Bret Saberhagen — shrunk and ripped and went unsold at yard sales. On SportsCenter, the Royals’ highlights and lowlights were routines saved for the rushed final 15 seconds (“And the Royals lost again. Good night!”). Much of the time, it hardly felt like Kansas City even had a baseball team.

But the Royals would argue that all of those dry and unhappy years, in their own odd way, shaped the direction and the luck of this year’s champions. What is luck, anyway? Branch Rickey said it is the residue of design, and Benjamin Franklin called luck the son of diligence, and Frank Sinatra wanted luck to be a lady. Martin Scorsese has called luck an art, and Alec Baldwin would wish you luck but believes you wouldn’t know what to do with it.

In other words, luck is what you make of it. When Dayton Moore arrived in 2006, right as the eye of the baseball hurricane was passing over Kansas City, he asked me two seemingly simple non-baseball questions. I was the local newspaper columnist then.

One, he asked: “What kind of town is Kansas City?”

Two, he asked, “What kind of baseball team does Kansas City want?”

I’m not sure I had a good answer for either, but he nodded a lot as I spoke about barbecue and friendliness and a natural mistrust of nonsense or arrogance, and he said: “It’s our job as an organization to build a team that this town can be proud of. And from what you’re telling me, that’s a team that plays the game hard, a team filled with good character guys, a team that plays good defense, a team that never gives up. How do you think a team like that would resonate here?”

I shrugged. I actually had been trying to tell him that Kansas City just wanted a team that didn’t embarrass itself all the time. But Moore was off in his mind, imagining a team that caught every ball, rallied with two outs, didn’t care who was the hero, imagining how loud it would be at Kauffman Stadium when that team became a contender and where the World Series parade route would go.

“If we do this the right way,” Dayton Moore said at the time, “our luck will change.”

* * *

One of the first guys the Royals signed after Dayton Moore came on as general manager was a big, slightly awkward 16-year-old catcher named Salvador Perez. A scout in Venezuela liked Perez because he had a strong arm, and there was this stability and presence he had behind the plate, and because he had a big smile. The last of these might seem behind the point, but it is not, it IS the point, at least for the Royals and how they build a team.

“We want guys who love to play baseball,” says J.J. Picollo, the Royals’ assistant general manager and certainly a future general manager. “That sounds obvious, but it really isn’t. A lot of players just like this game, or they play it because they’re good at it. Look, talent is a given. You have to have great talent to play this game at the highest level. But if you can mix that talent with a deep love of the game, that’s when you can build something special.”

MORE: Perez named World Series MVP

The Royals constantly followed that theme. When they drafted Mike Moustakas, they talked about his leadership, and when they drafted Hosmer they talked about how he lived and breathed baseball, and when they traded for Ben Zobrist, they talked about what a great guy he would be in the clubhouse. These were the qualities that got them excited. “We wanted to acquire players,” Moore would say, “that we loved watch play.”

And the end result is that the Royals have a team that plays the game with a crazy energy, anyone can see that. Do you know how many records they set with that crazy energy in this wild postseason? They came from behind to win eight times, a record. They came back from multiple-run deficits seven times, a record. They scored 51 runs in the seventh inning or later, a record. They won three World Series games that they trailed in the eighth inning, and yes, this too, is a record.

They won a playoff game when Lorenzo Cain scored from first on a single. They won a World Series game when, in the ninth inning, Alex Gordon homered off previously untouchable Mets closer Jeurys Familia. Sunday night at Citi Field, they trailed by two runs in the ninth, and Mets starter Matt Harvey sprinted to the mound to finish the job, and the ballpark rattled and hummed with expectation. The Mets’ manager, Terry Collins, had pulled Harvey, but then Harvey shouted, “No way! No way!” The crowd chanted Harvey’s name. Harvey raced out.

“I let my heart get in the way of gut,” Collins said sadly.

MORE: Collins accepts blame for ninth inning

“Amazin’ Disgrace,” was the headline in the harsher New York Post.

Lorenzo Cain led off, and he immediately fell behind 1-2, and if anything the crowd somehow grew louder, and Cain laid off a fastball, fouled off a slider, laid off a fastball and slider and walked. And when he walked, the entire stadium’s emotion turned inside out. The Royals’ fans and employees suddenly felt a change in the weather.

“They play with no fear,” Rene Francisco, the Royals assistant general manager in charge of international operations, would say. “When they got on a runner, all of us thought, ‘We are going to win this game.’”

And the many, many more Mets fans and staff in the ballpark felt a shudder.

Cain stole second. Hosmer drove him home with a double. Hosmer made it to third and then raced home and spurred the bad throw from Duda and tied the game, and all of the Mets’ hope was sucked out of Citi Field. In the 12th inning, the Royals scored five runs, and the Mets fans filed quietly for the exits.

“I tell our people all the time, ‘We’re not any smarter than anyone else,’” Dayton Moore said. “There are a lot of smart people in baseball, and we’re just not going to outsmart them. I say, ‘We’re not smarter than anyone else, and we don’t work harder than anyone else either. But we have to care more than anyone else. That’s our best chance. We have to care more.’”

* * *

Maybe you will permit a personal story. My mother-in-law, Judy Keller, lives in Winfield, Kan., which is supposed to be where Mary Ann from “Gilligan’s Island” came from. I can tell you, nobody in Winfield has her tan. Mostly, though, Judy lived in Cuba, a tiny village 30 miles from the Nebraska border famed, if you want to use that word, for its Rock-A-Thon, where the farmers and teachers and truck drivers and everyone in Cuba keeps rocking chairs rocking for 24 hours straight.

Judy has been a Royals fan since the team came to Kansas City in 1969. At first, she and my father-in-law, Cecil, would listen to Denny Matthews and Fred White call the games on the radio in the evenings. Denny, you should know, was just celebrated, if you want to use that word, in the Wall Street Journal for being the “announcer who doesn’t get excited.” Denny is a Midwestern boy who has been calling the Royals’ games since ‘69. He doesn’t believe it’s his job to get excited. He believes it’s his job to tell you exactly what he’s seeing with intensive details about the type of pitch, the type of swing and which way the wind is blowing. He thinks it’s up to the fan to get excited.

In any case, after a while, Judy and Cecil got a giant satellite receiver so that they could reel in the signal from the Kansas City television stations three hours away. This way, they could see some of the Royals’ games.

In a way, talking Royals baseball with Judy is not so different from talking baseball with Art Stewart or talking baseball with my old friend Buck O’Neil. Buck, as you no doubt know, was a great Negro Leagues player and manager and then a brilliant and determined storyteller from that time when so many of baseball’s best players were lost in the shadows. Buck loved those Royals. He used to say, again and again, ‘Did you see the Royals last night?” and this was often in the Septembers of lost seasons or at the end of interminable losing streaks. And then Buck would smile and say, “I think they’re turning things around.”

Buck died in 2006, the same year that Dayton Moore came to Kansas City, but he believed in this team to the very end. So does Judy. A year ago, after the Royals made it to the World Series and lost in seven games to San Francisco, I got the chance to introduce Judy to Dayton Moore. She began crying immediately. “You don’t know what this means to me,” she said. When Dayton asked her how it felt to finally have a winner, Judy cried again.

“But, you know,” she said, “I loved the Royals anyway.”

Sunday night, the Royals became World Series champions after the craziest playoff run, and in the clubhouse the champagne sprayed and the hugs were tight and people were talking about World Series rings and the visit to the White House and the parade that will overwhelm Kansas City.

“Do me a favor, Dayton,” George Brett said.

“What’s that?”

“Don’t make us wait another 30 years for this!”

Dayton Moore smiled and then he tapped my shoulder and spoke in my ear.

“How is your mother-in-law?” he asked me.

“She’s doing great,” I said. “I know she’s very happy tonight.”

He smiled. There will be those who say the Royals got lucky, and they are right, but not in the way they mean. What is luck? Randomness? Karma? Positive energy? Preparation meeting opportunity? Who is to say?

Maybe luck comes from something else.

“You tell your mother-in-law that we did this for her and all the fans who never stopped caring and believing,” he said.

See, the Royals did not get lucky. The Royals, like James Bond, ARE lucky.