The Royal we

Lucky or good? The Royals return to the World Series with both on their side

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Lorenzo Cain hopped off first base as the pitch was delivered. You have probably heard the legend of Lorenzo Cain’s first day as a baseball player. It happened when he was a sophomore at Madison County High in Florida. He only tried out for baseball because he was cut from the basketball team, and his mother wouldn’t let him play football. He did not own a glove.

His new coach, Barney Myers, shrugged. He needed players. He told Cain to go grab a glove from the equipment bag and head to the outfield. Then Myers hit him a fly ball to see what kind of instincts the kid had. Cain wobbled a bit but steadied himself underneath and caught the ball. He looked at the ball in his glove, which he was wearing on his right hand. Then he took off the glove, took the ball and threw it back in with that same right hand. “If I had one of those left-handed gloves,” he shouted, “I could get the ball out way faster!”

There is so much to love about that story — including the pure logic that, of course a right-handed person would catch a ball with his right hand — but my favorite part is that he caught the ball. His road to the Major Leagues wouldn’t be easy, and he was marked by words like “raw” and “crude” and “lacks instincts” all along the way. But in the strangest way, he was destined for all this from the moment he caught that first ball.

Friday night, at the crack of the bat, he began to run.

* * *

Eric Hosmer was the player who was going to turn the Kansas City Royals’ luck around. There were others, of course, but Hosmer was the big one, the force of nature who had the power and presence to halt the team’s tragicomic 20-year plunge. The Royals took him with the third overall pick in the 2008 draft, this at a historic low tide for the organization. And the day they took him Royals general manager Dayton Moore quietly said to me: “He will be the leader.”

Hosmer grew up on the other side of Florida from Cain, and his baseball childhood was very different. He played baseball relentlessly for as far back as he can remember. He was the little kid who never wanted to leave the diamond. It was only when he started to grow that anyone took his dream seriously.

Hosmer had just fouled off Roberto Osuna’s 97-mph fastball. He undoubtedly expected another one. Osuna is only 20 years old. He became the Blue Jays closer because of that great fastball; he throws it more than 70 percent of the time. Yes, obviously, he would throw a fastball.

The most famous Kansas City Royals player, George Brett, was briefly the Royals’ hitting coach — his key task was to help Eric Hosmer escape from the gloom of a dreadful season. He told Hosmer what he has told hitters for decades now: “Wait for the fastball, adjust to the curve.” So simple. Yet, what does it mean? How do you adjust? Hosmer waited for the Osuna fastball. Osuna threw a 87-mph slider instead. And Hosmer adjusted, jumped on it and rifled a line drive down the right field line.

Lorenzo Cain was off at the sound of ball hitting bat. He made it to second base in 11 steps — 3.81 seconds. He rounded the bag and headed for third.

* * *

Jose Bautista is a man of emotions. He feels things deeply — slights, praise, joy, anger. It has always been that way. When he first made it to the big leagues, more than a decade ago, he believed deeply that he belonged, but something always seemed to block him. This manager didn’t believe in him. This coach wanted him to change his style. This team questioned his work ethic. People just couldn’t see him. His first big league year, he was drafted and waived and purchased and traded. His next five seasons were injury-plagued and confidence-plagued, and he hit .240 with 59 homers in almost 2,000 plate appearances.

Then, he started his swing a little earlier, and he hit 54 homers in just one season.

People then called him a fluke, which was bad, or they called him a cheater, which was worse, and this just fueled him. Nobody has hit as many home runs since 2010. He hit each one driven by fury. When the team needed him in the clinching playing game against Texas, the craziest game you ever saw, he unleashed a titanic home run and an even more titanic bat flip and sent Toronto into a frenzy.

And again, when the team needed him Friday while everyone else quietly succumbed to the Royals’ will, he hit an even more titanic home run and then, with his team down two runs, turned on a high-fastball and powered it over the wall for his second home run. This tied the game. And then rain began to fall.

After a delay for the rain, Bautista was in right field when Hosmer hit his line drive. He had only one thought: Cut the ball off and hold Hosmer to a single. It would take everything in his power to do that. He had to chase down the ball, catch it on a bounce, somehow stop his momentum and turn and fire the ball back into the infield. He caught the ball, took four mini steps, whirled and threw toward second base. It was a marvelous throw, and it forced Hosmer to skid to a halt and head back to first base.

With nobody out, Bautista was certainly not thinking about Lorenzo Cain running.

With the ball in the air, Mike Jirschele made some quick calculations.

* * *

Mike Jirschele stayed in the game even after he blew out his knee. He was 23 years old then and playing ball in Triple-A when his ACL snapped. He felt so close to the Major Leagues. When he first returned, he still kept his dreams of being a big league ballplayer, but as time passed and his batting average dropped he began to realize that it just wasn’t meant to be. That’s when the goal changed. He went to play ball in Oklahoma City and Tulsa and Omaha and Memphis and Appleton. He was no longer chasing dreams. He just wanted to be a ballplayer.

When he could no longer play, he coached. When he proved proficient at coaching, he managed. For 20 years, he kicked around minor league baseball during summers, managing in Rockford and Wilmington and Omaha, mostly Omaha. During the winters he worked in a furniture store. It was never entirely clear which job was the real job. Two years ago, the Royals made him a major league coach. Everyone in the family cried with joy. A few months later, the Royals made him their third-base coach. More tears of joy.

If baseball fans have heard of Jirsch, it is probably because he was the coach who held up Alex Gordon at third base in Game 7 of last year’s World Series against San Francisco. It was, by any objective and emotion-free viewpoint, the right call. Gordon would have been, in baseball terms, a dead duck. But such decisions are rarely judged objectively or without emotion, and with Giants ace Madison Bumgarner on the mound, and with the Royals flailing so helplessly against him, people wrote and said that Jirsch should have sent the runner on the slim hope that a brilliant major league shortstop and a brilliant defensive catcher would not be able to complete a basic throw and tag. Jirsch knew he had done right. He still found himself in a small whirlwind.

And now, a year later, he watched Lorenzo Cain running toward him at high speed — 10 steps between second and third, 3.34 seconds — and he saw Bautista’s throw speeding toward second base, and he made the decision, one that comes from a quarter century of watching such plays in every American town you know. He began to wind his right arm like a windmill.

“I got close to third base,” Cain said. “And I saw Jirsch sing to me.”

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* * *

There is a reason, a good reason, why so many baseball experts thought the Kansas City Royals were flukes when they went to the World Series in 2014. They do not do any of the obvious things that people associate with great baseball teams. They do not hit home runs. They do not work pitchers. They do not have even one great starting pitcher.

The wonder of baseball, though, is that there is not just one way to win. The Royals play with this crazy energy. You see it in the brilliant defense they play. You see it in the aggressive base running they do. You see it in the way they refuse to strike out. You see it in the late innings, when their bullpen shuts things down. It’s a frenetic, feverish baseball they play, and they never stop playing it. When Bautista hit the game-tying home run, it could have drained the life out of the Royals. Manager Ned Yost had blundered. He had let 34-year-old Ryan Madson — who had a fine year but also had not played the previous three seasons — pitch to Bautista when the Royals’ terminator, Wade Davis, was warm in the bullpen. It was an inexplicable decision — Yost will have some of those now and again.

Then the rain came and the Royals had an hour to think about how it had gotten away.

Then the rain stopped, Cain walked, Hosmer hit the ball, Bautista chased it down, Cain got to third base, and Jirsch sang to him and windmilled his arms. And Cain kept going. Baseball rarely lets you see players in full stride; that’s why so many people call the triple the most exciting play. Most of the time, speed is measured in bursts, 90-feet sprints.

But Cain ran 263 feet (counting his lead off first base), which is about 88 yards if you want to think about, say, a punt return. But it wasn’t really a punt return because of baseball’s geometry. It was more like the turn of a 200-meter run at the Olympics. Michael Johnson once described that turn as being on a go kart going too fast down a hill. It was like that. Cain never missed stride — the run home was only nine steps. It took him just 3.31 seconds, much of that coming in the long slide across the plate. The throw home never had a chance to get him.

* * *

A few words about Royals manager Ned Yost. I mentioned above that he makes some inexplicable decisions, and he does. But his team consistently makes him look good. Why do you think that is?

It could be luck, of course, though I do believe “The Color of Money” line that luck, itself, is an art. It could be the oft-repeated quote that baseball managing is just not that important in the grand scheme of things — good managers lose and bad managers win based on talent. It could be that each individual managerial decision is just not as significant as talk radio callers and columnists believe. It could also be that a con artist named Applegate came to Yost and made him a deal.

Then again, it could be that there is something Yost instills in his players, something more consequential than the small percentage decisions he must make during a game. People still refer to the Kansas City Royals as plucky or spunky or gutsy or some similar word which makes them sound a bit too much like the cast from “Newsies.” Those words really don’t have the regal tone befitting a two-time American League Championship team, and every now and again you will hear people gripe that those word choices show a lack of respect for what the Royals have done.

But, you know, those words are probably right. Yes, the Royals are a terrific team with the best record in the American League this year. Yes, their best players — Cain, Hosmer, Salvador Perez, Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, Wade Davis, on and on — are no longer underappreciated gems but instead national stars. Yes, Kansas City might be the most passionate baseball town in America now.

Still, it’s the underdog way they play, the James Bond grace when all seems lost, the certainty that they will somehow find a way that marks them as a team. Friday night, in the eighth inning, Cain sprinted around the bases and slid across the plate. In the ninth, Wade Davis didn’t allow a run even though the Blue Jays put a runner on third with nobody out (there was a bad strike call in there that Blue Jays fans will mutter about forever). The Royals won, and fireworks lit up the sky, and Ned Yost jumped up in joy. People can argue about how it happened. But Ned Yost’s baseball team is oblivious to momentum, bad luck or the wind.