The Kansas City Royals are about to finish their best season in 20 years, maybe longer. One more victory would secure only their second non-losing since the strike year. They're playing relevant games in October. They're actually sort of fun to watch, with young lineup talent, a stable rotation and a lights-out bullpen. This is the highlight. This is as good as it has been in a long, long time.
The question is whether any of this matters.
The Royals beat the Indians last night to keep their head above water in the wild card race, but just barely. Kansas City is 2.5 games behind Texas for the second wild card spot, and 3.5 behind Tampa Bay for the first one, which sounds within striking distance … but probably isn't. The problem is not the distance between the two teams; the problem is the terrain. Specifically, the three other teams between them and the Rangers: the Indians (a half-game back), the Orioles (one game back) and the Yankees (also 2.5 games back).
This is going to be an extremely difficult thing for the Royals to win, even if they play well. The Royals have 10 games left in the season. If they go, say, 7-3 -- which would be quite the finishing kick -- they would still need Texas to go 5-6 just to tie them. If Texas finishes a game over .500, you're looking at 8-2, and then 9-1, and so on. Of course, Texas isn't the only team involved. You also need Cleveland to go no better than 5-5, and Baltimore not to beat 6-5, and the Yankees not to go 8-2, and … you get the point. Two and a half games looks close, but it's so late now. It's not that close, not really. Baseball Prospectus gives the Royals a 2.9 percent chance of making the postseason. This is roughly the equivalent of flipping a coin five times and having it come up heads every time.
It's probably not going to happen. The Royals are (probably) not going to make the playoffs for the first time since 1985. My question is, if you're a Royals fan, whether or not that is OK.
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Whenever a new administration comes into a historically unsuccessful franchise, one of the first things they always talk about is "changing the culture." Every team is ostensibly competing for a championship, but before they can do that, the theory goes, a team must show that it can at least be respectable. A lot of this is rhetorical. If you take over, say, the Cleveland Browns, and start throwing around "We plan on winning a Super Bowl next year!" you look foolish from the start. Tortured fanbases need to tiptoe back to a franchise that has hurt them slowly, carefully, the way a beaten animal is forever wary of humans until he finally knows he has one that won't smack him. (Now that I've typed that sentence, I'm realizing that is what it's like being a Browns fan, or a Royals fan, or a Bills fan. Beaten animals. With wallets.) There has to be a process.
The Kansas City Royals made it clear this offseason that this was the year. With the trade of stud prospect Will Myers to Tampa Bay for starter James Shields, the team -- which has long been predicted, thanks to its once-stacked farm system, to eventually take over the AL Central -- decided it was going to floor it now, no more waiting around. Royals fans had seen enough losing, general manager Dayton Moore seemed to be saying. It was time to go for it.
The question is what it was. The Royals have "broken through" this year, I suppose; as established, it's their best season in 20 years. If you have watched every Royals game this season, you have seen them win more times than they lose, and that is not for nothing: That is the fundamental thing we all cheer for. You are happier when your team wins than when it loses. Basic stuff.
But does that matter if the Royals (probably) aren't going to make the playoffs? It's an important question, and I'm not sure there's a right answer. Does it make a difference that your team is having the best season it's had in 20 years if they don't even give you a postseason game? I think it does, but then again, I cheer for a team that has played a ton of postseason games: I've been spoiled enough that not making the postseason makes a season a failure no matter what else happens.
If I were a Royals fan would I feel the same way? Is it enough to finally have a team that's fun to watch and above average, for the first time in two decades, even if there is no October? Could I convince myself this is some sort of stage in a process? Should I feel grateful? Asking these questions to Royals fans has proven unfruitful so far: Most of them -- understandably -- are too wrapped up in the wild-card chase to give it much attention. But this speaks to the very heart of the fan-organization relationship. Do you want to win a title every year? Or do you just want to be entertaining and competitive, with the hope that one year all the stars will align and you'll break through?
The thing is, the equation changes every year. If the Royals have their winning season this year but don't make the playoffs, next year they'll be expected to improve on that, and then improve on that, until they take a step back and expectations are all adjusted again. You only get one hey-we're-competitive-yay year before fans want more. Look at the Pirates. They're going to make the playoffs this year, or at least make the wild-card game, and just the notion of that makes Pirates fans' heads explode. But next year? Next year they better get a little farther.
That's the thing about the expectations game: You can only surprise us by exceeding them once. Expectations have a tendency to rise faster than the win column does. Once you've snapped a streak of almost 20 years without a winning team, that's it, it's snapped. Then you're like the rest of us. Then you just want to win. It's an improvement, sure. But it's not any less painful, really, until you get that title. You'll still feel like a beaten animal, peeking your head around the corner, wondering if it's safe to come back out.
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