That’s My Team: In Praise of the Beloved Royals (And Others)

Despite the fact that it feels nothing like springtime in Iowa, I’m pleased to note that the Major League Baseball Season is underway, as I am cautiously optimistic that I might actually have something to root for this year. (2015 update: I’m still aglow about last year’s World Series appearance, and am once again cautiously optimistic that they can win the whole thing this year. Gasp!)

Let me come clean up front about why that’s the case, since I am that rarest and most pathological of all baseball followers: a Kansas City Royals fan. Stop smirking, I’m serious. No, really. Stop it. Now. Last season, the Beloved Royals actually finished above .500 for the first time since 2004. Can they build on that this year? Perhaps even making the playoffs for the first time since they won the I-70 World Series in 1985, and invoked the Curse of Joaquin Andujar? Or is that just crazy talk?

It’s probably just crazy talk, but a deranged fan can dream, can’t he?

I do feel like I should note that my devotion to the Royals is not an affectation picked up since I moved to the Midwest, nor is it some sort of weird bandwagon jumping just as sportswriters seem to notice that there is actually a second major league baseball team playing in Missouri. No, my delusional fandom has far deeper roots than that.

As a kid in the Carolinas, I followed my Dad’s lead and was a devoted Washington sports fan. I diligently followed the Redskins, then the Bullets when they came over from Baltimore (and before they became the Wizards), then the Capitals when they came along. But in the early ’70s, after Washington lost its second baseball franchise, I was without a team to root for. Then we moved to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas for a year, where the new-ish Royals were doing whizbang good for an expansion franchise, making the postseason for the first time in 1976.

Since I didn’t have a Washington-based baseball team to claim as my own, I quickly jumped on the Royals bandwagon that fall, becoming a dogged, diligent fan of great players like George Brett, Frank White, Cookie Rojas, Larry Gura, Freddie Patek, Amos Otis, Bret Saberhagen, Hal McRae, Willie Wilson, Dennis Leonard, Paul Splittorff, Dan Quisenberry and so many others on the classic ’70s and ’80s rosters. Times were good then: the Royals made the postseason in 1976, 1977 and 1978, then made their first World Series appearance in 1980, losing 4-2 to the Phillies.

After a pair of quick postseason eliminations in 1981 and 1984, the Royals finally ascended to baseball’s highest pinacle in 1985, when they beat the Toronto Blue Jays 4-3 in the American League Championship Series, and then beat the St. Louis Cardinals 4-3 in the World Series. Of course, the East Coast Sporting Elites wanted to sully my celebration even then, noting that the Royals were the beneficiaries of a series of ridiculously bad umpiring calls, not to mention Cardinal pitcher Joaquin Andujar‘s monumental on-mound psycho meltdown in Game Seven. But I didn’t (and don’t) care. The Royals were the champs in 1985, and I gloated like a champ, as the only known Royals fan within a 500 mile radius of Annapolis, where I lived at the time.

It’s a good thing I gloated so much then, because the Royals have never returned to the post-season, and I haven’t been able to do so again since. I don’t believe in the Curse of the Bambino any more, but I do believe in the Curse of Joaquin Andujar, who most certainly directed so much antipathy towards the Royals and Umps who shamed him that they have never been able to get out from beneath the lingering cloud of bad karma that he tagged them with in that ominous, potentious seventh game. They won the battle that year, but clearly the war turned against the Royals and their fans.

Until this year? Maybe? One day into the season, despite an opening day loss, I’m still optimistic. Give me a few weeks, and I’ll let you know whether reality has set in or not.

While the Royals are certainly my most beloved major league team, and the one to which I’ve been unequivocally faithful over the years (no Yankees bandwagon jumping for me during the 24 total years I lived in New York, thank you very much), they’re not my only sports passion, so while I’m putting my heart out on a sleeve here, I’m going to go ahead and tell you all the teams I follow, so you can mock me pretty much anytime of the year, as the spirit moves you. I offer some explanatory words about each of these passions, since my nomadic upbringing results in something of a weird combo platter of cities and states.

Major League Baseball (MLB):

  • Kansas City Royals (American League): Duh. See everything above.
  • New York Mets (National League): In 1976, my family moved to Nassau County, Long Island, during some of the Yankees’ glory days. Of course, me being me, I immediately glommed onto the Mets as my local favorite team, because that’s how I roll. The Mets were credible that year, then fell into a decade-long slump, just the way I like it. Before moving on from baseball, I should note that I actually prefer National League, no-designated hitter, baseball to American League baseball, so I wish that the Beloved Royals had made the intra-league leap instead of the Milwaukee Brewers in 1998. Oh well, just another disappointment, nothing to see here, moving right along.

National Basketball Association (NBA):

  • Washington Wizards: I started following them in 1973 (we lived in the D.C. suburbs at the time) when the Baltimore Bullets moved to Landover, Maryland and became the Capital Bullets, then later the Washington Bullets, then later the Washington Wizards. As is the case with the Royals, I have one great and glowing memory of this team, when they won the 1978 NBA Championship (their only title) with Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes leading the charge. They’re poised to make the playoffs again this year after a drought, so maybe something to excited about here, too? We’ll see.

National Hockey League (NHL):

  • Washington Capitals: Been following them since their inception in 1974 (also lived in the D.C. suburbs that year), and they are really the team that I love to hate, or hate to love, more than any other. They are truly maddening, year after year, losing series after taking 3-0 or 3-1 leads, capturing individual honors by the score while the team wallows in mediocrity, doing well in the playoffs when they barely squeak in as #8 seeds, and tanking when they roll in strong with the #1 conference ranking. They’re right on the cusp of missing the playoffs again this year, so will likely get in, win two series, then belly flop just as I get excited about them again.
  • New York Islanders: As noted above, I was lucky enough to live on Long Island, five minutes from Nassau Coliseum by bicycle, during the glory days of the great Trottier, Bossy, Gillies, Potvin, Smith and Goring fortified Islanders. So I still follow them faithfully, because their subsequent pitiability fits in nicely with my sports worldview.

National Football League (NFL):

  • VACANT: My dad was a devoted Washington Redskins fan, and when we lived in the D.C. area during the early ’70s, I had the chance to see the team live a few times, and also have vivid memories of watching their first Super Bowl appearance in 1973, with the sole score coming on the infamous Mike Bass touchdown return of Garo Yepremian’s misguided pass attempt. I even got Herb Mul-Key‘s autograph that year! But after years and years of Dan Snyder and Mike Shanahan and Jeff George and all sorts of other annoyances and irritants, some time ago, I found myself realizing that my feelings for the ‘Skins had shifted from my usual love-hate type relationship to a more active hate-hate mode. So until Dan Snyder sells the team, and until it has a new franchise name, I’m going to have to remain a Man Without a Team. It’s the right thing to do. Boo!

Major League Soccer (MLS):

  • I’m sorry. I don’t know the name of any of the teams, or if this league still exists. So can I claim the New York Cosmos of the original NASL or the New York Arrows of the original MISL as nostalgia, picks, since I saw them play in the late ’70s, when I actually cared about soccer at something below the World Cup level? I’ve been following British Premier League for a few years now, too, so I might just have to adopt one of their clubs. I’m thinking West Brom Albion or West Ham United. Either would be a less embarrassing choice than picking a domestic team.

College Basketball:

  • University at Albany Great Danes: I worked here and got a degree here, and watched their first NCAA Tournament appearance when they put a scare into mighty UConn back in 2006. They’re an exciting, rising program, and it was great to see them win their first NCAA tournament game this year in their fifth Big Dance, even if it was a 16 vs 16 seed play-in game.
  • Navy Midshipmen: My undergraduate alma mater. David Robinson was in my Navy company his freshman year, so it was exciting to be there for the greatest moments in Navy men’s basketball history. I regret that Navy left the Colonial Athletic Conference some years after I graduated, downsizing into the Patriot League. I think that has hurt the program in the long run, as there was a day when they had the potential to be an ongoing Mid-Major powerhouse.
  • North Carolina State Wolfpack: My grandfather, father, brother-in-law and many other friends and family members went to State, so I grew up rooting for them, though as a kid, I referred to them as “The Wolf Patch,” sothat’s still a source of mirth for the family. I watched their first National Championship (David Thompson era) with my Dad, then listened to their second National Championship (Lorenzo Charles era) while standing at attention outside of my Naval Academy Company Wardroom, since I was a plebe at the time, and plebes were not allowed to watch television. I don’t think I saw the famous Lorenzo Charles winning shot nor Jim Valvano’s run in search of hug in their entirety until the Youtube era. Sadly, both Coach V and Lorenzo are no longer with us, but I remember them fondly.

College Football:

  • Navy Midshipmen: No question about my number one football loyalty here. The Army-Navy Game is America’sbest annual sporting event, and one of my greatest sports memories of all was watching Navy beat Notre Dame in triple overtime to end a drought that went back to Roger Staubach’s playing days. Outside of the Army-Navy game, I always root for the Black Knights, since they share so many traditions, experiences and commitments with the Midshipmen. But I always, always, always root against Notre Dame, in every sport, all the time, world without end, amen.
  • North Carolina State Wolfpack: Again, as noted above, I grew up rooting for the Wolf Patch with my Dad. He died in fall of 2002 after an auto accident; one of the last things he did, and the last lucid conversation we had, was about his beloved ‘Pack beating Navy soundly in football, preserving what was then an unblemished record. I didn’t mind my Midshipmen getting whacked since it made him so happy. And I still root for the Wolf Patch in his honor.

College Hockey:

  • Union College Skating Dutchmen: We moved to the Albany area in 1993, and I worked in downtown Schenectady, which wasn’t really a very nice place to be at that time. For lunch, when the weather was nice, I would get some bread and cheese from little Italian bakery called Perrecca’s and take it over the nearby Union College campus, which was an oasis of shade and green in an otherwise bombed out urban cityscape. (Things have changed for the better for Schenectady since then, I am happy to note). That was the end of Union’s second season as a Division I hockey program (they are D-III for all other sports), and I started following the then-hapless Dutchmen at the time, and have done so zealously since. I had to suppress this enthusiasm a little bit during the five years that I worked at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, since RPI and Union are fierce rivals within the ECAC Hockey League, but the passion remained, nonetheless. As I type this, the Dutchmen are ranked Number One in the USCHO College Hockey Poll, and are preparing for their second trip to the Frozen Four. It’s great to see such a tiny engineering college holding its own against huge schools like Minnesota, Boston College and the like. I’ll be watching eagerly April 11 and 12 to see if the Dutchmen can bring a national championship back to Schenectady. I think they can do it.

Nine Ways to Say I Love You

1. Last week’s Navy vs Notre Dame game was a heartbreaker, made more painful when they showed David Robinson (arguably Navy’s most famous athlete, with the possible exception of Roger Staubach) wearing Notre Dame regalia. David was in my Naval Academy company his plebe year (he and his room-mate and I and my room-mate used to play a lot of acey deucy late at night, when we were all supposed to be sleeping or studying), and I like, respect and admire him. I am also delighted that his son is an accomplished football player with the Irish, since I know that the younger Robinson will be every bit the fine scholar-athlete that his father was. But, you know, maybe neutral colors for the Navy-Notre Dame game, huh? Just saying? Nicely enough, Notre Dame followed up on their success by tanking in a game against Pitt, while Navy pummeled Hawaii at home. Good bounce back, Mids. Very proud.

2. Just for the record: Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds deserves to be a Heisman Trophy finalist, if not the winner of college football’s most famed award. What he does week after week after week with a small offensive line against major college programs is just remarkable. And knowing what he has to cope with, week after week after week, in terms of his academic and military responsibilities makes him all the more everything that a great student-athlete should be. Are you watching and listening, Heisman Trophy voters? You should be.

3. Andy Prieboy‘s “Bands” is one of my favorite songs of recent years, since it does a brilliant job of describing the obsessive mindset of the serious music geek, and also sounds just gorgeous in terms of the language, words, rhymes, alliterations and rhythms that Prieboy uses in telling his tale. He’s an extraordinarily gifted songwriter and storyteller, right up there with my other long-time favorite tune-smith, Jed Davis. This band, that band, every damn band, every damn band know to either God or man, indeed . . .

 

4. Robert Fripp is one of my favorite musicians, and also one of my favorite philosophers and writers. After a period of retirement as a performing player, he is bringing back King Crimson in 2014 with a new seven piece lineup. I very much loved this quote from his online diary (which I read regularly) about part of the reason why he is re-embracing the venal world of the professional player: “Simply put, my life is closer to Paradise than I might reasonably hope for. The danger with Paradise: we fall asleep in the wonderfulness of it all. At that point, time to bring out The Pointed Stick.” I like and get this. It helps explain my masochistic tendencies.

5. One of the nice things about having Katelin living nearby is that we can get together when we have something special to do, or we can get together when we just feel like hanging out and being lazy. A couple of weeks ago, she was here in the afternoon while we just slugged about and watched football. She was sort of paying attention, while also reading a book, and it occurred to me that I had never actually seen her actively watch or had a conversation with her about football. So I asked her if she had any idea as to what was actually happening on the television. Here’s what she told me:

So the kicker kicks the football, and then they all run after it, and if they catch it, they generally run faster. And the kicker wants to get it as far away from scoring a touchdown as possible, but they want to get it to the touchdown. A lot of tackling happens, and there are four downs, and the downs have to do with when they’ve been tackled the most often. And when a touchdown happens, the kicker gets to do this again, to kick the ball to get it, I am blanking on what the thing is called, the pointy thing, and if that happens then they get an extra point, and the defense players are bigger than the offense players, and they don’t really look like humans. And the positions are quarterback, linebacker, kicker, running back. I don’t know what they do, but I know the linebackers are defense and they are the biggest guys. I know what the quarterback does: he is the head of the team, so he does the huddles and does the counts and tries to get the ball across. Oh, there is a center, too.

6. I have really been enjoying listening to some of the classic Little Feat albums recently. As I was looking for footage of them at the peak of their live capabilities, I found the great version of “Dixie Chicken” from Burt Sugarman’s The Midnight Special linked below. It is interesting how many times a search for great live performances from the ’70s bring up links to this amazing television show. With forty bazillion cable channels now, how come we can’t have nice things like this today?

 

7. G.B. Trudeau’s Doonesbury has been on hiatus for several months now while he works on other projects, but he’s started producing new Sunday strips in recent weeks, and plans to come back to his full daily schedule in the next month. I miss his his insightful daily takes on our modern times, but am glad to have strips like this one again, even if they only come once per week.

8. So let’s say you are lucky enough to have Dale Crover (he’s on the left in the linked video) as the drummer in your band for 30 years, even though he did not participate in your very, very earliest demo works. So then let’s say that your original drummer from way, way back in your pre-Crover days turns up and wants to play with you again. Obviously, the answer is to kick him to the curb and tell him he missed his chance. Unless, of course, you are the Melvins, in which case you switch Crover to bass and let prodigal drummer Mike Dillard handle the skins again. That should be a recipe is futility, if not disaster, but in true Melvins fashion, they make it work brilliantly on their new record, Tres Cabrones . . . which is the best thing they’ve done since their last counter-intuitive move of incorporating Big Business into the band for their brilliant 2006 album (A) Senile Animal. “Civilized Worm” from that record is one of my favorite live clips ever, even if it didn’t appear on Burt Sugarman’s The Midnight Special.

9. The title of this post comes from an album by the legendary Albany band Section 8, who I interviewed and wrote press material for back in the ’90s. They played one of the ten greatest live shows I ever saw, at the late lamented QE2 in October 1997, then broke up soon thereafter. In January, they’re playing a two-night reunion stand in Clifton Park, and the tickets for the event sold out almost as soon as they were released. I just wish the bastards had done it before I moved to Iowa.