Sunday, October 19, 2014

Royal Pains

Anyone who’s known me for a reasonable amount of time will attest that I am a lifelong and long-suffering Kansas City Royals fan. For the vast majority of the time I’ve been a fan, there really hasn’t been much to brag about. Growing up in the southwest Chicago suburbs, reactions from other baseball fans --about 50% White Sox, 45% Cubs, 5% “other”-- ranged from ridicule to confusion to pity. With the Royals becoming the Cinderella of the 2014 playoffs, earning them the temporary title of America’s team and sentimental favorites against the thriving San Francisco Giants, my noted fandom has experienced unheard-of levels of euphoria. And yet, I’ve never really explained at length why I root for the Royals.

My paternal grandmother’s family moved from Jefferson Parish, Louisiana to Kansas City in the mid-1910s. Even though my father’s family bounced between KC, St. Louis, and LaGrange, IL for much of the 1940s and 50s, my grandmother’s brother and two sisters hewed close to KC. When Grandma Sara died in July 1993 my family flew out to the Emerald City for her funeral, the first of several trips I would take between then and 2001. It was during this first trip that I would grow acquainted with the surviving members of Grandma Sara’s side of the family, especially her older sister Beatrice. “Aunt Bea” was ten years Sara’s senior; she was 12 years old when the family left the Deep South; my grandma, the baby of the family, was 25 months old. Because of that, Bea spoke with a lilting, Eudora Welty-type southern drawl while Sara spoke with a very slight Great Plains twang.

Growing up mostly with my mom’s side of the family --unabashedly blue collar, salt of the earth Chicago Polacks-- to meet these college-educated, somewhat WASPy, middlebrow social climbers was a little alien to me. My father’s sister had a bigger house than most of my mother’s relatives, but I never dwelled on it too much. I found it hard to relate to my mother’s side of the family; I’m more urban than agrarian and I’m not very outdoorsy; in a family of mechanics and custodians, I was more concerned with getting an education than picking up a trade. I wanted to strive more than live modestly within my means. I saw that in Aunt Bea, who was a socialite in her prime and was still graciously hosting whomever would visit her townhouse as she approached her 90th birthday. Incidentally, she was also a Kansas City Royals fan, with a swooning affection for their aging star George Brett.

Kansas City in 1993 was a lot different than KC now. When the Royals won their first championship in 1985, the city was at rock bottom; the farms were dying, and the economic strife in the heartland trickled up to the cities, where businesses were shuttered and unemployment was at record levels. With their NBA team moving to California and the Chiefs middling at best, the Royals’ come-from-behind defeat of the Cardinals in the World Series was just the morale booster the city needed. Eight years later, KC was faring slightly better but not out of the woods just yet; the urban renewal of the mid-to-late 1990s was in its early stages. The Royals hadn’t made the playoffs since then (obviously), but they were consistently first-division and at worst a .500 ballclub. The Royals were consistently good but seldom great, and with my interest in sports just beginning to bloom, this piqued my interest. My mom’s family were mostly Cubs fans, and their almost delusional devotion just didn’t make sense to me.

With our first World Series appearance in 29 years on the horizon, my pride is usurped by a desire to gloat. After decades of mismanagement, small-market budgeting, lousy scouting, squandered draft picks, and all-around irrelevance my beloved Royals are back in the promised land. Regardless of what happens in the 2014 World Series, I will remain just as proud of my favorite baseball team as I was when they consistently lost 100 games a year. Their improbable playoff run has been a thrill to watch, and I assure you that this displaced Royals fan will spend this year’s Fall Classic glued to a TV set.

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