The Time I Lucked Into A World Series Ticket
"You have to go."
Those were the words of my mother Sharon, a native Kansas Citian and generally selfless woman, as I stood in the Power & Light District two hours before Game 7 of the World Series.
People were all around, but I was there alone. During the previous night's seven-run second inning, I made the decision to drive five hours from Iowa to be right where I was standing — in the middle of the Kansas City's celebration epicenter. A month earlier, the Royals played their first postseason game of my lifetime, and I wanted to be around when they capped off the unfathomable run.
"Your aunt has one standing-room only ticket she's not going to use," she said. A friend from college was on his way to meet me, and I hadn't exactly budgeted a game ticket into this trip. "Tim. You have to go."
I paused, thinking of a dozen unanswered questions. How much does she want for it? Would I be able to get back in to PNL if it didn't work out? When's my next paycheck? Is this for real?
"Okay. Let's do it."
* * *
It's a good bet the city didn't have the Royals in mind when coming up with the road construction schedule for October. I found this out the hard way, sitting on the exit ramp of an underground parking garage while a single lane of cars outside barely moved. I wondered if that was where I would be when Jeremy Guthrie threw out the first pitch. Sharon called again.
"I'm not sure she still has the ticket, I haven't heard back." It was well past 5:30 now, and Power & Light would soon be at capacity. "I just don't want to mess up your plans if it doesn't work out."
It was too late for that, of course. I couldn't go back into the parking garage, with no cell service and no easy way out. I also couldn't just head toward the stadium and hope to stumble upon my aunt waving a ticket in the air. Time, like my options, was running out.
Some defensive driving got me out of the garage and away from traffic. I pulled into a nearby street lot with $15 in hand, hoping I could get back into Power & Light. Before I finished the turn, my cell phone buzzed with a Missouri number. "Timmy?"
I hadn't spoken to Aunt Martha in a year or so, but it felt familiar. Like talking with my mom, if my mom were in possession of a World Series ticket. We made plans to meet at the Intercontinental Hotel on the Plaza, mostly because it was a central location for the both of us, but also because I feel like that's where the big transactions would go down if they ever film Ocean's 14 in Kansas City.
We met in the lobby to exchange hugs and pleasantries. My aunt told me how she got the ticket while we searched for a cash machine. A few passers-by shot me jealous looks while we made the trade at below market value. "You're my favorite aunt," I told her. "I appreciate this so much, but I'm going to run to my car now."
While I was leaving, I noticed an elderly couple about to do the same. I had to hold the door — it's how I was raised. Still, the thoughts in my head were far from gentlemanly as they slowly made their way outside. I couldn't help but think of the precious seconds they were wasting, and how it would probably be easier if I just gave them both Stone Cold Stunners and went on my way. Luckily, the man thanked me after passing through, which probably saved his life.
From there, I sprinted to my car, plugged "Kauffman Stadium" into the GPS and squealed out of the lot as if I had just robbed the place.
* * *
When I finally pulled into the famous Truman Sports Complex, I rolled down the windows, hoping my upholstery would soak up the barbecue smell like a sponge. I rounded a corner and headed up a slight hill when Kauffman came into view. Forty-five minutes before the first pitch, hundreds of cars were still trying to park. Two dozen news crews were lined up along the left side of the road.
There was so much to process. An hour before, I was content to stand in a crowded square and watch the game on a lackluster big screen surrounded by strangers. Now I was staring at the stadium that would host the last Major League Baseball game of the season, with a 50/50 chance of witnessing the unthinkable.
The guy who parked next to me commented on my Iowa plates, and we struck up a conversation about the last few weeks and how each of us came to be there. For most of my life I've lived in Iowa, where Royals fans are pretty hard to spot. On the rare occasion I came across one, we would usually talk briefly about a dumb trade, an outrageous signing or how the team would never matter before scattering back into the darkness. The concept of having conversations about the Royals, with Royals fans, about positive things? Still very new to me.
But in this month, as Rany Jazayerli points out, we all had things to discuss. My parking lot neighbor was there for the Wild Card game, in a plane gliding over Kauffman during Game 3 of the ALDS, and here today because of a generous boss.
Even when I've gone to games before, whether or not the Royals won didn't really matter. But here we were, two guys born in the 1980's, walking up to the deciding game of a World Series being played in Kansas City, wondering out loud if it's really going to happen.
The crowd grew thicker as we approached the stadium. MLB Network analyst Matt Vasgersian crossed in front of me, followed by his broadcast partner Sean Casey. Casey was reacting to some fans calling out his name, and would have bumped right into me if I hadn't slowed down.
But I wasn't about to snap a picture. A family member needing immediate medical attention in the middle of the street was the only thing that could make me deviate from this path.
The closer I got to the gate, the more often I would slap my pockets to make sure everything was there: Keys. Wallet. Phone. World Series ticket. One of the security guards was telling people to have their purses open and any metal objects out of their pockets. I grabbed everything I had and awkwardly held it in front of me, unsure of the complete protocol. They could have taken my clothes at that point, I really didn't care.
Plenty of other people had printed-out StubHub tickets like mine in their hands, but I was still nervous. When the moment arrived, I handed over the flattened sheet of paper as if to say, "Do with that what you will, just please let me through this gate."
Beep. The first scan didn't work.
You can imagine what went through my head in that half second. Oh my God it's a fake ticket. I knew this was too good to be true. Here I am on the brink of my first kiss with Sports Nirvana and her mom walks in the room. This is the worst moment of my life, and I hate my aunt.
Beep. "Enjoy the game, sir."
I was in.
A successful bar code scan flipped a switch in my tear ducts, and my eyes quickly swelled with saltwater. It wasn't hard to breathe, but it certainly took longer. One part of me said "Get it together Rim, it's a sporting event. A game." The part of me I like more knew better.
Being a 28-year old Royals fan has reaped almost no return on a considerable investment. There's been more far more aggravation than joy, more busts than studs, and — in recent years — more hype than fulfilled potential. It's an annual enthusiasm graph that peaks on Opening Day and gradually trends downward until Hot Stove season.
The 2014 postseason changed all that. A month earlier, a national TV audience saw the reaction of a starving fan base to the return of meaningful baseball in their city. A wild comeback and thrilling walk-off made it all "worth it" for a lost generation of Royals fans, myself included. Even then, entering the gates of Kauffman Stadium for Game 7 of the World Series was unimaginable.
With just minutes before the first pitch, there wasn't much time to soak in the atmosphere. Head down, I made my way to the outfield concourse, frantically texting friends and family while doing my best to hide two very red eyes.
I passed the Fox Sports tent I had seen so many times on TV that month, walked behind the towering crown scoreboard you can practically see from space, and toward the famous ballpark fountains in a city known mostly for barbecue and outdoor water features.
By the time I got there, there wasn't an inch to be had along the railing. I settled in to a decent spot behind a shorter man and his wife, envisioning the towering Alex Gordon walk-off home run I would surely snatch from just above their heads.
* * *
The game started the way we knew it would, with a called strike from Jeremy Guthrie and a diving stop by Mike Moustakas. When the Giants took a 2-0 lead in the top of the second, there wasn't the feeling of dread you might expect from a fan base that hadn't been relevant in nearly 30 years. The past month had washed away that attitude, which is why there was only excitement — and not surprise — when KC tied it up in the bottom of the same inning.
When Kelvin Herrera came in for Guthrie in the top of the fourth with two on and one out, it felt like Han Solo had just picked off the last TIE fighter at the end of Episode IV. San Francisco would be done scoring now, thank you very much, and the Royals would have six innings to plate one or two or ten more runs and whatever number that ended up being would be the difference in the game.
Herrera was the first member of a fearsome cavalry that refused to give up runs, home runs, or contact of any kind I'm pretty sure. Here was a man who threw so hard he didn't bother straightening his hat, since it would just be violently dislodged during delivery anyway.
The parade usually went like this: Kelvin would throw smoke, then Wade Davis would take the mound and throw poisonous smoke, followed by Greg Holland and his endless supply of tear gas. It almost always began in the seventh inning, so to see manager Ned Yost start the party early was a welcome development.
Except the human blowtorch gave up and hit, and with it, a run, and suddenly the Royals were down 3-2.
Still, there was time. Herrera inherited two runners, and surely there wouldn't be a situation like that the rest of the game. Now the Giants were done scoring, and the magical Royals would take it from there.
Then, Madison Bumgarner.
Hundreds of pregnant Midwestern couples had already struck "Madison" from their list of potential baby names after his complete game shutout three days earlier. It was a dominating performance that drew comparisons to Bob Gibson and Cy Young, and Royals fans were in no rush to see the tall North Carolinian and his unkempt beard ever again.
The talk before the game was that Bumgarner might be available for a relief stint a few days removed from throwing 117 pitches. Fans would probably be sitting on their hands for the next two, maybe three innings before Bumgarner's arm tired and Bruce Bochy would be forced to put in a more earthly reliever.
Except Bumgarner's arm didn't tire. Aside from Nori Aoki's lead off single in the fifth, the Royals weren't able to find a hit that inning. Or the next. Or the seventh, eighth or most of the ninth.
Alex Gordon's single to left field was misplayed by not one but TWO Giants outfielders, and for a moment we thought we would see a Little League-style inside-the-park home run to tie Game 7 of the World Series in the bottom of the ninth inning.
After Gordon was (correctly) held up at third, I hugged the bearded stranger next to me. He lifted my 220 pounds into the air with surprising ease, like a father overcome with enough adrenaline to lift a car and save his child.
And so, Salvador Perez would come to the plate with a chance to tie or potentially win the World Series with a home run. "Dramatic" does not begin to describe such a moment.
From the Wild Card game through the American League Division and Championship Series, Royals fans had been treated to thrilling walk-off victories, extra inning heroics and pure domination at the plate, in the field and on the mound. Kansas City won 10-0 the night before to make this Game 7 possible, and there was a sense that yes, this was happening, and yes, this was the way it was meant to happen all along.
The only hesitation was about Perez himself. Plate discipline is not his strong suit. While it was a hitless Salvy who strode to the box and ended the Wild Card game in the 12th inning with a seeing-eye single, the odds of him trying to do too much in this situation were astronomical.
Yet at that moment I looked at my bearded new friend and said, "There's no way, after all this, the Royals are going to lose this game."
Five pitches and two pop-ups later, the final out of the 2014 World Series was in the glove of a portly third baseman nicknamed for a children's cartoon about a panda bear with the ability to perform martial arts. The tying run would stay 90 feet away, further than anyone in blue wanted but so much closer than we could have ever imagined.
* * *
It's a weird feeling, for your team to lose the World Series. Royals fans, many of whom witnessed their first playoff game as a fan not one month prior, didn't really know how to react.
Moments after the final out, before all the Giants were piled in a celebratory scrum, a "Let's go Royals" chant echoed throughout the stadium. The rest of us took photos of the champions, not because we were indifferent about the loss, but because we wanted some sort of receipt — proof that all of this actually happened.
I stuck around the stadium for a while, not wanting the experience to end. The tears from earlier were back, surprisingly for the same reason.
I wasn't mad — how could I be after the month the Royals had just given us? — but instead I was so, so happy to have seen that game in person.
I was so happy to have watched Kansas City in the postseason for the first time in my life; so happy that my brother became a Royals fan in the process; so happy that my parents had another reason to feel connected to the city they left more than two decades ago; and so happy that all the energy spent caring about a pro baseball team over the years culminated with the experience of a lifetime.
But perhaps the most fulfilling part of the night was the genuine sentiment passed along by my friends, who knew what it meant for me to be there. There was no mocking of my giddiness or tears, only sincere excitement, disbelief and eventually, condolences. I'll cherish that aspect of the experience as much as any other, including the moment when the ball hopped past Gregor Blanco in left field.
If Salvador Perez had channeled some of that Wild Card magic and hit a walk-off home run to win the World Series, I would have joined dozens of others jumping in the outfield fountains before returning to Power & Light smelling like wet copper and ready to party with the champions. But after thirty years without going for so much as a swim, I'm not sure Royals fans were ready to conquer the high dive just yet.