Three Days At The End Of The World (Series)
The Kansas City Royals won the 2015 World Series in New York by playing merciless, relentless, heartbreaking, beautiful baseball. The Mets lost as themselves.
Photo by Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
1. It is not immediately clear how one would walk across the Grand Central Parkway. Even just a few minutes before 1 a.m. on a Friday night, it is still a hissing exchange of tracer fire east and west. But there is a way over, an attendant locking a gate at the emptied CitiField lot tells me. You go, okay: you see, like, by the stage—which is brightly lit, still, as ESPN's on-air crew talks in perfect circles about that night's 9-3 Mets win and drunks shout "Timmay!" at the back of Tim Kurkjian's head—and then you go onto Roosevelt Avenue, and keep going to the first traffic light and bang a right. So I do that.
It is a weird walk under the 7's elevated tracks, but an intuitive one: walk towards the big green sign for the Holiday Inn and then, at 114th Street, by the metal sign that says COPPER WANG INC WE HAVE MOVED TO THE NEW ADDRESS, down the low-lying Queens block towards the hotel where people in Matt Harvey jerseys and David Wright jerseys and a half-dozen other remaindered or outdated or more obscure jerseys are gunning cigarettes on the curb and talking themselves into things. Keep going.
Ordinarily, Friday night is karaoke night at The Pine, which is just about the only bar in walking distance of CitiField. This is not an ordinary Friday, and so karaoke is canceled. This means that I do not get to hear the version of "Copacabana" that Cowbell Man—a CitiField fixture who is, indeed, a man in a personalized jersey who cruises the concourses banging on a cowbell—performs at these nights. It also means that The Pine's usual karaoke night demographics are swamped. A bar that is usually divided roughly in thirds between flight attendants on LaGuardia overnights, Spanish-speaking people from the neighborhood, and Mets fans who do not want to go home yet is now entirely full of postgaming Mets fans. Among them are some people I know only from Twitter, and who I will be able to identify only because one is dressed as Michael Conforto for Halloween.
The Pine is pretty fucking lit for a hotel bar in far Queens at 1:15 in the morning. The soundtrack is pure 1980's rollerskating jams and there are dozens of baseball caps hung on pegs five rows deep above the bar; I hear more songs by the SOS Band in a span of 15 minutes than I have heard in twice as many years. Baseball bats feature heavily in the decor. Over that soundtrack and the din of a dozen overemphatic conversations, you can hear Cowbell Man getting his picture taken. People line up for the honor in twos and threes, someone else takes the photo, and Cowbell Man rings his bell once, as if to signal that the next customer should step up.
Kevin, a software engineer who lives in Park Slope and who's Conforto costumed down to the baseball pants, comes to The Pine even when he doesn't have tickets. "We basically Googled the nearest sports bar," he says, glove tucked under his arm, of when he first discovered the place. "And it was dreamlike." I give him and his crew some chocolate coins from the press box candy bar, and they give me a Bud bottle from their bucket of beers. I do not argue with the dreamlike part, because I cannot. The Mets have won a World Series game for the first time in 15 years. There is not a better word for it. The Cowbell donks in that goofy way it does from across the room, and the next believers cycle in.
2. People were always going to hug and jump and chant and spill beer and high-five strangers, because it is the World Series, but when things cracked open for the Mets in Game 3, CitiField dissolved. It was an exchange of counterpunches and hard looks—this was the game that began with Noah Syndergaard tucking a pitch under Alcides Escobar's chin, which upset the Royals very much—until a pinch-hitting Juan Uribe poked a hole in its fabric. The Mets scored four runs in the sixth to break the game open, and did it just as the Royals had done to them in the previous two games: just tapping on the accelerator over and over, single, hit-by-pitch, single, fielder's-choice, single, walk, sacrifice fly. On the field level concourse, it was as if the stadium had been flooded with oxygen. I saw grown men with tears in their eyes, and I saw four kids with identical haircuts in Bethpage Football varsity jackets leaping in place and shouting along with a song that, itself, sounded like a bunch of kids in Bethpage Football varsity jackets, shouting.
To some extent, that is just how it goes in late October. But there was a deeper relief to it, the sense not just of fragile belief that had been strategically hidden away finally being let out, but of the possibility that the Mets might be able to play the rest of the series on something like their own terms. Asked after the game about the brushback that started it and the Royals indignant response, Syndergaard answered cooly that "my intent on that pitch was to make them uncomfortable, and I feel like I succeeded in that."
And if this, too, is something like par for the course, there was a deeper resonance here, as well. The Royals win in a number of different ways, but the most singular thing about how they do it—the thing that will be hardest for teams seeking to emulate their example and reverse-engineer what, after their World Series win, looks something like a nascent dynasty—is how incredibly fucking exhausting they are, and how spectacularly uncomfortable they make it to play against them. That night, Mets fans left CitiField singing "Meet The Mets" and looking, mostly, relieved.
I cannot speak for the dozens of Alan Arkin-looking dudes and the kids and the ruddy shouters who left the ballpark grin-singing to beat the band, and it may just be that it is difficult not to smile when singing such a silly song—"it's a really gleeful song," says Heather Cole, a busker who spent eight to ten hours on each game day playing it on a fiddle around the 7 train platform at Grand Central station, "kind of makes you want to cancan." There are many reasons to smile after your baseball team wins a World Series game. But one of those reasons, and probably the most elemental of those reasons, is the belief that the unreason and magic that carried this imperfect Mets team this far actually stood a chance in the colder weather, and against something as implacably reasonable and heavily inevitable as the Royals.
3. After the Mets gave away Game 4 with a series of mistakes—a pitcher left in too long and an easy grounder duffed into shallow right, culminating with Yoenis Cespedes caught way off first in the bottom of the ninth on a humpbacked dorkshot to third for the game's final out—Mets manager Terry Collins said of the Royals, "they truly don't ever stop." He was a grayish pink color as he said it, and his eyes were stuck somewhere in the middle distance between himself and the people arrayed to ask him about the mistakes that he and his team had made.
It is true that the Royals don't ever stop, just as it is also true that they are relentless, as Harold Reynolds said on FOX several hundred times; it is, further, true that they resemble, in the words of a Blue Jays fan I know, "a pack of hyenas." None of this quite seems to get at why or how the Kansas City Royals are the most singularly nerve-wracking World Series champions in recent memory. But Collins seems to be the closest. It is not that the Royals are more talented or luckier than any other team, although they are both of those in the way that all World Series winners are. Neither talent nor luck explains why a one-run lead on the Royals was, this October but also all season long, more stressful than a two-run deficit against most any other team. Neither of those explains why and how the Royals seemed somehow to be authoring the Mets meltdowns that ultimately gave Kansas City the series. Only Collins' statement even comes close.
The Royals pitch well and defend well and put the ball in play fantastically well, and all of this has exactly as much to do with how they melted the Mets as Kevin Long's work with Daniel Murphy on hitting inside pitches had to do with his brief ascent to Olympus earlier in the postseason. Which is to say not very much, or at least not nearly enough to explain what happens. The Royals win by doing reasonable baseball things in a reasonable way—they make all the plays they can make, they take the extra bases they can take, they foul off the pitches they can't hit and hit the ones they can—and doing so without let-up or lapse. But this only gets us some of the way there. The other, alchemical thing that they are doing is outside of all that.
Because the Royals truly do not stop, the team they are playing also cannot stop. Because those opponents know that the Royals truly do not stop and will not stop, they know that any mistake—not even big ones, either, but singles that get back to the infield too slowly or bases covered with insufficient dispatch or should-be double plays that are not turned—can undo them. Small flaws in the fabric of the game are enough; drop a stitch and the Royals will pull threads until everything is undone. This can happen at any moment. It can happen, as it did to the Mets three times in five games, even when it appears the work is complete. You go to raise the flag and it unspools at your feet.
4. Of course, "truly do not stop" is a thing that can be said about pretty much any World Series winner. Teams do not proceed reasonably and directly to ticker-tape parades. These players are humans, and the Royals players are kids—Yordano Ventura, when he met the press after Game 3, looked like a 15-year-old in a principal's office; Mike Moustakas did so after Game 4 wearing a digi-camo sweatshirt, shorts over leggings, American-flag socks and flip flops. They are not only not perfect, they are unfinished; they are baseball players. There is nothing about them, really, that suggests that they should be able to not just shut out but command the chaos that is forever trying the locks in October.
And yet, when the games happened, the Royals mastered not just the Mets but the other unconquerable thing that rides over all these games. They air-mailed throws into the seats in infield warm-ups, but not during the games. They fouled off pitch after pitch, and somehow all of them seemed to reach the seats. They stole bases and games, they made every play they could make, and never evinced much doubt or hesitation about any of it.
They were so reliable, and so reasonable in what they were able to take, that it introduced a strange and merciless ex post facto morality to the Series—everything the Royals did happened because it could not be prevented, which meant every run scored against them had to be perfect, unpreventable. This is harsh, if you are trying to beat the Royals. But this harshness defines the Royals, and the way they turn the small failures that fill out a baseball game into proof of some damning imperfection is a large part of what makes them so exhausting, and so intimidating. On a team like the Mets, which came into the series in a full-on Wile E. Coyote sprint over the chasm of their own plainly visible imperfection—all these misfits on defense and tenuously sustained unsustainabilities everywhere—this created something more than pressure.
What the Mets did to reach the Series felt, even as it was happening, deeply unreasonable. Not in some cosmic or philosophical way, but in a basic baseball sense—most everyone played over the max and over their heads, in ways they never really have before, later into the season than they ever have and at a level they've never visited as anything other than giddy tourists blowing it out on a long weekend. The Royals, by doing everything that they were supposed to do, pretty much all the time, simply kept giving the Mets opportunities to lose.
This, finally, is what made the Royals so scary, and what makes it so easy to imagine that this might be the first World Series title of several for them. They are just so reasonable about taking the chances they're given, and so unyielding about giving them away in return. This can seem hard, if you are on the wrong end of it. If a team can't convert on the fair chance that the Royals give, gents that they are, then it is nobody else's fault. And if the Royals take advantage of the chances given to them—not just the extra outs and extra bases, but the basic slack that exists in the game—that is perfectly reasonable of them to do. That is just how it works.
5. This is not to say that the Royals lack emotion. They do not. A great many of the Royals core stars grew up with each other in the minors; just about every one of them has endured some sort of career setback—not even injury, either, and frequently setbacks of the Just Was Not Very Good For A Season Or Two variety—and the team is clearly stronger and closer for having suffered together. Their belief and their performance of that belief are emotional. But at the same time, the Royals play as the enemy of emotion. The bullpen-management mistakes that Terry Collins kept making at the end of games were the result of malfunctioning intuition; he told himself stories, cut deals with himself, bargained with chaos, tried to get away with things. The Royals do not play this way. Those straggling emotions are their meat.
The people at The Pine and at CitiField were there to believe together, to talk and sing and shout the unbelievable thing they'd witnessed down the stretch into reality. And then the Royals were just more believable, more reasonable. The Royals won the World Series doing what they do: hitting the pitches left for them to hit, in the holes left for them to hit those pitches through; that or at defenders fair and square, who could either make the play or not.
This is what's scariest about the Royals, finally—they do not just punish mistakes. They punish anything that is not perfect, and they find it out as mercilessly as gravity finds out everything that goes up. This is not as cruel as it sounds, or as it can feel if you are on the wrong end of it. It is just the game being played according to the rules, as well as it can possibly be played.