Real Life Sports Movie: The 2014 Kansas City Royals

Everyone has their favorite comedies.  Mine happens to be an energetic and formulaic (but surprisingly smart) screwball1 comedy from 1989.  Major League, for the unfortunate few who have not seen it, is the story of a ragtag bunch of baseball players who are thrown together by malevolent Cleveland Indians owner Rachel Phelps with the intention that they will lose enough games to make attendance fall low enough that she can justify moving the team to Miami.  For various reasons, and by way of various dynamic personalities, the team improbably begins to win in spite of (and in order to spite) Ms. Phelps.  The flick culminates with a wild win-or-go-home game against the hated Yankees that involves, in no particular order, an infidelity ruse, a voodoo idol, and a sacrificial bucket of chicken.

One of the unspoken reasons that many comedies, including Major League, are so engaging is that they are not bound by realism or probability in the same way that our lives are.  In other words, Major League neither would nor could ever happen in real life.  Except…it very nearly did.

majorleague

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By now, you most certainly know the story of the Kansas City Royals.  The club was a powerhouse in the mid-1980s, with Hall of Famer George Brett, among others, at the height of his powers.  Their 1985 World Series title over the in-state rivals from St. Louis was and remains a major feather in the city’s cap.  Unfortunately for the baseball-crazy city, that championship, which is the only one in the 45 year history of the franchise, would mark the last time the team would even make the playoffs for 29 years.  Almost certainly, the groundskeepers at Kauffman Stadium would stand around and emphatically curse the ineptness of the franchise each spring as the season would get underway.

groundskeepers

After drafting numerous highly-touted prospects in the mid to late 2000s, the team still wallowed in irrelevance year after year.  The team made a bit of a splash in the 2013-14 offseason by acquiring, for example, reliable innings-eater James Shields and fireballer Wade Davis via trade with Tampa.  Moves like this suggested to some that the team finally was putting its best foot forward, and the season began (like so many others) with some promise and a healthy dose of cautious optimism.  Still, there was the unwavering sense that this truly was an undistinguished crew of latent “potential” that probably never would materialize.  Sure enough, by late July they had slipped below .500 and the postseason seemed like a mirage once again.

This time, though, the team began to pick up a bit of steam on the strength of stellar defense, flashy and timely baserunning, and an unhittable back bullpen.  They went on a 19-6 run through most of August.  Although September was not as kind, the club managed to eke out 89 wins (which included swiping three out of four from the White Sox in Chicago to close the regular season), which was good enough for a tie with the Oakland Athletics for the second and final wild card playoff slot.  This pushed the two teams into a one-game do-or-die playoff battle in Kansas City.

The one-game playoff was an absolute circus.  Not only was the entire Kansas City metropolitan area jazzed for its first taste of the playoffs in nearly three decades, but the game itself was a classic.  After mounting an early lead, the Royals managed to fall behind by four runs in the 6th inning and then surge back into a tie with three runs of their own in the 8th and one carefully manufactured run (single, sac bunt, stolen base, sac fly) in the bottom of the 9th.  In the 12th inning, the Royals fell behind again by one run only to score two in the bottom half of the inning and advance past the A’s in dramatic fashion.

MLB: Spring Training-Kansas City Royals at Milwaukee BrewersPhoto credit: USATSI/CBSSports

This set off a cascade of a record eight consecutive wins to begin the postseason, which took them through sweeps of the superior-on-paper Angels and Orioles.  After six back and forth World Series games, which were essentially comprised of strong Royals play whenever Giants’ dynamo Madison Bumgarner wasn’t pitching, the stage was set for a stirring Game 7 finale.  Both starting pitchers were yanked relatively early in the game, and Giants second basemen Joe Panik managed to turn a stunning double play that kept the Royals in check in the 4th inning.  Bumgarner soon entered the game and began to add to his rapidly inflating postseason legend.  He would end up pitching five scoreless innings on two-days’ rest, much of which was a tense affair with the Giants clinging to a one-run lead.

With two outs and hope nearly lost in the bottom of the 9th, Royals left fielder Alex Gordon dumped a hit into left center and began lumbering along the basepaths.  Giants center fielder Gregor Blanco initially misplayed his angle of approach to the ball, which resulted in him being mired in the unpleasant purgatory between catching it and fielding it cleanly off the bounce.  It skipped past him toward the wall, where left fielder Juan Perez managed to muff his own play as well.  Eventually, Perez scooped up the ball and fired it to the cutoff man.  By that point, Gordon had chugged around to third and had been halted by third base coach Mike Jirschele in what has become a very controversial decision.

Catcher and team anchor Salvador Perez came to the plate and, having been hobbled by an errant pitch to the leg earlier in the game, meekly popped out to end the season.  The Kansas City fans glumly shuffled out of Kauffman Stadium and returned to what I assume are the barbeque restaurants they operate and/or live in.

*  *  *  *  *

The basic narrative — the premise — of the 2014 Royals season was very similar to that of Major League.  That is to say, both feature an underwhelming motley crew of players on a perpetually awful team that is not expected to succeed.  Each team begins to believe in itself and play better and better, leading ultimately to massive culmination games that feature wacky plays and high drama in the team’s respective home stadium (namely, the final one-game playoff against the Yankees in Major League, and Game 7 of the World Series, or even the one-game playoff against the A’s, for the Royals).

While there is much similarity in premise, there is just as much overlap in the personalities at play.  Most classic comedies find their strength in either their memorable lines or their characters, and while Major League has plenty of good lines, its true strength is its characters and their bountiful personalities.  You feel like they are old friends.  You feel like you know every shred of preppy agitator Roger Dorn’s motivations, and you feel like you grew up next door to noodle-armed evangelist Eddie Harris.

Each team is led by a quirky and stubborn manager.  While the Royals’ Ned Yost had some mild success as the manager for the Brewers in the early 2000s and the movie’s Lou Brown was supposed to have been a career minor league manager, the two most certainly share a penchant for the informal, the unconventional, and the strange.2

yostbrown“We’re out of towels.  And I’m too old to go diving into lockers.”

Salvador Perez, mentioned above, is the Royals’ starting catcher and steady presence at the center of the team.  Jake Taylor, the fictional Indians’ starting catcher, is the same for his team.  Both were even suffering from lower extremity injuries in their climactic games — Salvy was hobbled in Game 7 by the errant pitch, while Jake Taylor was in pain due to his bad knees.

pereztaylor“Here in Cleveland?  I didn’t know they still had a team!”  “Yup, we’ve got uniforms and everything — it’s really great!”

Speedster Jarrod Dyson was a terror on the base paths for the Royals, swiping exactly 100 bags in 2012-14.  His movie counterpart is fan favorite Willie Mays Hayes, played by the irreplaceable Wesley Snipes and bearer of the motto “hits like Mays, runs like Hayes.”  Even the numbers match up with Dyson’s stolen base tally — Hayes boasted near the beginning of the film that he had bought 100 pairs of gloves, “one for every base I’m gonna steal.”  Both are fast, light-hitting, brash, and very effective.

dysonhayes“You may run like Hayes but you hit like shit.”

Mike Moustakas was a superbly effective masher in the minors, especially in 2010 when he crushed 36 home runs, 124 RBI, and 156 hits in only 118 games for the Royals’ farm teams.3  Although he was a touted slugger, he could never do anything against left handed pitchers (with a career .211 average and .595 OPS against lefties).  Similarly, voodoo aficionado Pedro Cerrano, played by a young All-State and 24 star Dennis Haysbert, could crush fastballs and sliders but had a very exploitable Achilles heel in the form of curveballs.

moustakascerrano“Hats for bats.  Keep bats warm.”

The Royals’ three-headed bullpen monster of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland, might go down in history as changing the face of pitching strategy and ushering in a new era of multiple/stacked one-inning fireballer specialists.  The movie Indians had their own shutdown closer in Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn, played by a disarmingly lucid pre-#winning Chuck Sheen.

herreravaughn“What the hell league you been playin’ in?”  “California Penal.”

The similarities could go on further, too.  If we loop in Major League 2, we have speedy Japanese outfielders on both clubs (Nori Aoki, acquired by trade before the 2014 Royals season, and the fiery Taka Tanaka in the movie).  Hell, Eric Hosmer’s faux hawk even matches the baseball mascot on the movie poster.  The point, I think, has been made.  The Royals may as well have been conjured up by Hollywood screenwriters as a concoction of lovable losers with hearts of gold.

The connections between the 2014 Royals and the Major League Indians became obvious to me sometime during the ALCS, when the blue crew was mowing down Orioles left and right.  At that point, I figured that the similarities would be limited to the characters and the basic narrative, and I assumed that the one-game playoff with the A’s would be the closest that the Royals would come to the Major League climactic game, which was also a one-game playoff to get into the real postseason.  However, reality would mimic fiction even closer than that, and beyond premise and personalities, the Royals and Major League Indians also nearly shared the same plot.

*  *  *  *  *

The Gordon play at the end of Game 7 could have been the grandest play in baseball history.  That is not to say the “best” play.  There have certainly been better executed plays at the plate, on the mound, on the base paths, and in the field.  That is also not to say the “greatest” play.  The Mazeroski, Gibson, and Carter home runs, to name a few, had such overwhelming power and punch that they will be hard to top.  But the Gordon play definitely could have been the grandest.  It could have been so weighty and unique and with such unfamiliar and clunky style.  It almost showcased one of the most exciting and weirdest baseball plays (essentially an inside-the-park home run4) in the biggest possible moment.  It was almost the equivalent of a 99 yard hook-and-lateral in the final seconds of a Super Bowl.


Video credit: ESPN First Take

Whether the third base coach should have sent Gordon careening around third base toward home has been the subject of a massive amount of argument and speculation over the past few days.  As far as I can tell, there are three primary schools of thought on the subject.  One is championed by Joe Posnanski.  He argues that Jirschele clearly made the right decision to hold Gordon at third base —  clearly, the cutoff man would have thrown Gordon out by a mile (barring a horrible throw), and the failure of the active decision to send Gordon would have been a catastrophe and would have led to an explosion of criticism well beyond that of the failure of the passive decision to hold him back.  The opposite argument was articulated by Adam Carolla.  He argues that Jirschele clearly made the wrong decision to hold Gordon at third base — Gordon’s hit off of the impossibly dominant Bumgarner had been so unlikely that it represented the Royals’ best and only chance (although not a great one) to squeeze out a run, and that hinging their season on Perez getting a second hit was sure to fail.  He analogized to being kidnapped by ISIS militants in a parking lot — for a few seconds when you’re first grabbed, while things are still developing and are a bit chaotic (i.e., while Gordon was still active on the basepaths), there’s at least a small chance of making a run for it and escaping, but once things have settled down and they’ve tied you down inside their van (Bumgarner), all hope is lost.  A third approach was proffered by Nate Silver.  He argues, based on large sample size statistics, that if the odds of Gordon being safe at home were even just 30%, it would have been the right move to send him on.  Unfortunately, he implicitly concludes, there is no way to tell what the odds actually were and it seems we’ll just never know what the right move was.  The first argument discounts the possibility of additional quirks in an already quirky play, the second argument involves too much 20/20 hindsight about Perez’s chances of getting a hit, and the third arguments is probably the best one, but it is deeply unsatisfying.

Let’s just agree that it was a wild and amazing play, one deserving of a Hollywood script.  That’s easy to say because Hollywood has produced this script before, back in 1989, and it didn’t use any of the three theories above.  (Spoiler: turn back now if you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want it ruined).

At the climax of Major League, Willie Mays Hayes stood at second base in the bottom of the 9th, one base off from where Gordon stood after his wild 9th inning hit.  Just as the Royals’ team leader catcher with a bad leg had walked to the plate as the last batter in the real life game, so too did team captain Jake Taylor and his balky knees walk to the plate in the film.  While staring down the dominant Yankees relief pitcher, Taylor dramatically pointed to center field, calling his shot a la the Babe Ruth legend.  As Hayes took off with a big jump from second base, Taylor instead laid down a surprise bunt.  The unsuspecting fielder made a play to first base but Taylor barely beat the throw, and by that time Hayes had rounded third with enough flames shooting out of his chassis that he was able to beat the subsequent throw home for the winning run.

While there’s no way to know what the “correct” call would have been on the Gordon play, we at least know what the most fitting end to the Royals’ season would have been.  Perhaps in some alternate universe, Salvador Perez stared down Bumgarner while calling his shot to center field, and then laid down a suicide squeeze bunt.

Footnotes:

  1. Major League is one of the few movies that is literally a screwball comedy.
  2. Lou Brown’s players famously gathered a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken to placate Pedro Cerrano’s need for a voodoo chicken sacrifice prior to the do-or-die game.  Yost is karmically linked in that he actually credits his work as a pot-scrubber at a KFC as being the reason he built up physical strength for his playing days.
  3. These numbers extrapolate to an absurd 50 home runs, 173 RBI, and 218 hits over 162 games.
  4. The official scoring of the play was a single plus a two-base error, not a triple.  The same would have been true for three bases worth of errors if Gordon had scored.
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