Ninety Feet

 

In game seven of the 2014 World Series, the Kansas City Royals found themselves in as hopeless a situation as you can possibly be when trailing by only one run. The score was 3-2, they were down to their last out in the ninth inning and San Francisco Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner was dealing. Bumgarner had just pitched three days earlier as a starter in San Francisco, completely mystifying the Royals in that game and now in game seven, he’d come on in relief in the fifth inning and was doing it again. The first two outs in the ninth had come easily for Bumgarner and the Royals’ hopes rested with Alex Gordon.

Alex was one of the few players on the 2014 Royals who had been with the team during some of the starving time years. He wasn’t very good in his first couple of seasons as a Royal, although it wasn’t a complete coincidence that the 100-loss seasons that had become a regular occurrence in Kansas City stopped when he arrived. Eventually, he developed into one of the best players in baseball and if there was one guy with the Royals that made you feel like there was at least a little bit of hope in that hopeless situation, it was Alex.

Alex responded by looping a softly hit line drive to left-center field. The Giants centerfielder hustled in, but couldn’t quite reach the ball before it hit the ground. Then he misplayed the hop and the ball slowly rolled toward the fence. Gordon started toward first base at a fast jog, then took off as the ball rolled away. The Giants finally corralled it just as Gordon was speeding past second base and got it to their cutoff man, shortstop Brandon Crawford, who sports maybe the strongest and most accurate throwing arm in the Majors. It looked for a moment like Gordon might try to score, but Royals third-base coach Mike Jirschele decided to hold him at third, leaving the tying run just ninety feet away. It was the percentage move. After the game, a stat guy made some calculations and determined that if Gordon had tried to score, there was only a twenty percent chance he’d be safe.

The next batter, Salvador Perez, popped out to the third baseman to end the game. The tying run and a possible World Series championship remained just ninety feet away.

Ninety feet. For months, the thought of it made me want to gag.

I was watching this drama at home and I remember as Alex was circling the bases saying, “Go, go, GO!” A friend of mine once told me that one of his most important rules of competition was that if you’re going to go out, go out in a blaze of glory. That was also something I learned from my father, although he never quite worded it that way. Don’t be afraid of the risk. It might fail, but so might not taking the risk. So I was dearly hoping that Gordon would try to score, force the Giants to make a play. He didn’t and I understood why, but it still left you wondering what if.

Forty miles away from where I was watching, Dad was watching too, along with my mother, sister, and brother-in-law. Dad was a Yankees fan for at least a few years of his life (they had a farm team in Kansas City up the road from where he grew up) and an occasional St. Louis Cardinals fan. In the ’70s, he switched allegiances to the expansion Kansas City Royals. For several years prior to the 2014 season, he’d been fighting cancer to a near standstill, but now it was clear that the cancer was winning. Over the last couple of months of the 2014 season, Dad would occasionally mention that he didn’t know how long he might live, but he did want to live long enough to see how this Royals team would do and whether they’d break their 29-year playoff drought. I called him a few days after the game and asked him what he thought of that last inning. “Gordon should have tried to score,” he said.

Dad passed away two months later.

Move forward to November 1st of 2015. The Royals were back in the World Series and now had a three-game-to-one lead against the New York Mets, needing just one more win to take the championship. But in Game 5, they found themselves again in a pretty hopeless situation. They were down 2-0 going into the top of the ninth and Mets pitcher Matt Harvey was slicing them up in a way that made you think that the Royals might never score another run. Fangraphs gave the Royals a 5% chance of winning going into the ninth. But in the ninth inning, Lorenzo Cain drew a leadoff walk and Eric Hosmer knocked him home with a double. One out later, Hosmer was on third and Salvador Perez was back at bat against maybe the best relief pitcher in the National League in 2015, Jeurys Familia. Royals fans were feeling a bit of deja vu. Eric Hosmer was ninety feet away from tying it up.

Of course, one big difference was that this time there was just one out and you had to feel like Hosmer’s chances of scoring were pretty good. Then Perez blooped a weakly hit ball that bounced just in front of the third baseman David Wright, setting up an easy out and a likely rally-killer. Wright turned and looked at Hosmer making sure he was staying at third and then turned back toward first base to make the throw there. As soon as he turned, Hosmer tore out for home.

I had a previous obligation that night and missed nearly all of the game. I was listening to the game on the radio and got home just as Hosmer hit his double. I got the television on just before Hosmer made his dash. In the three to four seconds it took Hosmer to get home, I had several thoughts go through my head. I did a quick calculation that told me that Hosmer, not the fastest guy on the team by a long shot, was very likely going to be out. A good throw from the first baseman would certainly get him. Even an average throw would get him. In fact, any kind of throw that wasn’t completely terrible had a good chance of beating Hosmer to the plate. Then I thought about the thin line between a blaze of glory and a blast of stupidity and how Hosmer had finally crossed that line. My last thought was, “What the [bleep] are you doing?”

Hosmer’s dash apparently caught the Mets by surprise as well. Mets first baseman Lucas Duda had plenty of time to make a good throw, but he panicked and threw the ball to the backstop. Hosmer slid safely home. Game tied.

The rest of the game was like reading the last few pages of a murder mystery after the murderer has been identified. It took the Royals three innings to finally score again, but you just never had a doubt that they’d find a way win it. When they did score, the runs came in a torrent, as they tallied five runs in the twelfth, turning that last inning into something of a regional party. The Royals won their first championship in thirty years. I guess going out in a blaze of glory means sometimes you don’t go out at all.

Dad was a World War II veteran (European theater), so ten days later on Veterans Day, I dropped by Dad’s grave. I’m not much into sentimentality, something I inherited from my father. I’d only been there one other time since his death, that being on Memorial Day, but this time I brought something other than flowers. Before I got to the cemetery, I stopped by a sporting goods store and bought a small Kansas City Royals World Championship pennant. I stuck it in the ground next to his headstone.

It was a silly, sentimental thing to do and Dad certainly would have thought it was a waste of money, an indication that I only shared half his DNA. It just seemed like a way of honoring something we shared over the years and honoring at least one of the lessons he’d tried to teach me, but I’d not always learned very well.

Blaze of glory indeed!

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  1. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Bless you and bless your father. 

    • #1
  2. Juliana Member
    Juliana
    @Juliana

    Thank you for this. Funny how we remember the really important things even when they apply to something that is not all that important in the big scheme of things.

    • #2
  3. Dbroussa Coolidge
    Dbroussa
    @Dbroussa

    This reminds me of the 1991 World Series.  As a life long Braves fan, it was so tough watching them be so close to victory and fall short.  Its been 30 years and I still get upset at Kent Hrbek forcing Lonnie Gant off first base.

    1991 WS Gm2: Hrbek lifts Gant off the bag for the out – YouTube

    Then, in game 6, when Lonnie Smith would have scored off a double by Gant, Chuck Knoblach pretended to throw him out at second and his stopped.

    1991 WS Gm7: Smith makes mistake on basepaths – YouTube

    Those two plays, one a blatant violation of the rules where the umpire made a bad call and refused to accept it, and the second where a player gave up as opposed to going for broke…were they the difference?  Its been 30 years and they still stick in my craw.

    • #3
  4. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Dbroussa (View Comment):

    This reminds me of the 1991 World Series. As a life long Braves fan, it was so tough watching them be so close to victory and fall short. Its been 30 years and I still get upset at Kent Hrbek forcing Lonnie Gant off first base.

    1991 WS Gm2: Hrbek lifts Gant off the bag for the out – YouTube

    They’re still crying about that play?  The good guys won, so what’s the problem?  

    Then, in game 6, when Lonnie Smith would have scored off a double by Gant, Chuck Knoblach pretended to throw him out at second and his stopped.

    1991 WS Gm7: Smith makes mistake on basepaths – YouTube

    Those two plays, one a blatant violation of the rules where the umpire made a bad call and refused to accept it, and the second where a player gave up as opposed to going for broke…were they the difference? Its been 30 years and they still stick in my craw.

     

    • #4
  5. David Pettus Coolidge
    David Pettus
    @DavidPettus

    Dbroussa (View Comment):

    This reminds me of the 1991 World Series. As a life long Braves fan, it was so tough watching them be so close to victory and fall short. Its been 30 years and I still get upset at Kent Hrbek forcing Lonnie Gant off first base.

    1991 WS Gm2: Hrbek lifts Gant off the bag for the out – YouTube

    Then, in game 6, when Lonnie Smith would have scored off a double by Gant, Chuck Knoblach pretended to throw him out at second and his stopped.

    1991 WS Gm7: Smith makes mistake on basepaths – YouTube

    Those two plays, one a blatant violation of the rules where the umpire made a bad call and refused to accept it, and the second where a player gave up as opposed to going for broke…were they the difference? Its been 30 years and they still stick in my craw.

    Yeah, the pain when that happens never quite goes away, although I was happy for your Braves this year.

    • #5
  6. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Dbroussa (View Comment):

    This reminds me of the 1991 World Series. As a life long Braves fan, it was so tough watching them be so close to victory and fall short. Its been 30 years and I still get upset at Kent Hrbek forcing Lonnie Gant off first base.

    1991 WS Gm2: Hrbek lifts Gant off the bag for the out – YouTube

    Then, in game 6, when Lonnie Smith would have scored off a double by Gant, Chuck Knoblach pretended to throw him out at second and his stopped.

    1991 WS Gm7: Smith makes mistake on basepaths – YouTube

    Those two plays, one a blatant violation of the rules where the umpire made a bad call and refused to accept it, and the second where a player gave up as opposed to going for broke…were they the difference? Its been 30 years and they still stick in my craw.

    Yes. Yes. Yes.

    Thr MLB has always been anti Braves and anti South

    • #6
  7. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):
    Thr MLB has always been anti Braves and anti South

    One good thing about the 91 world series was that it was between two small-market teams that don’t get enough respect. MLB hates those matchups. I always cheer for the small-market teams. 

    • #7