Friday, July 17, 2009

2003 Revisited, Part 3

This is the final installment of 2003 Revisited series written by guest blogger Brian McGannon. A big thank you to Brian for contributing the piece that helped us remember a great season. Check out McGannon’s new blog, Royals Kingdom.

by Brian McGannon

Carlos Beltran

A four-game weekend series with the Mariners drew over 110,00 Royals fans to the K in mid-July. The Royals dropped a heartbreaker in the first game of the series when Ichiro Suzuki hit an extra innings grand slam to give the first game to the Mariners. Over the next few games, Kansas City saw Carlos Beltran go from five-tool prospect, to full blown superstar.

On July 19, Darrel May faced off against Gil Meche. Meche dominated the Royals throughout the first three innings, allowing no runs on two hits. But Meche's dominance was overshadowed by what some call the greatest defensive play in Royals history.

Darrel May was beginning to falter after only giving up one run through 6.1 innings. Seattle catcher Dan Wilson hammered a 3-1 pitch deep to center field. The ballpark groaned as Carlos Beltran raced back to the wall. Beltran glanced at the ball, then the wall, then the ball, then . . . he jumped. The walls were 10 feet high at this point in Kauffman Stadium and generally, if a ball was over the wall, it was a homerun. But right as the ball was about to leave the ballpark, Beltran planted his right foot into the rubber padding and vaulted himself a good three feet over the wall to pull the homerun back. The crowd groaned thinking the ball was gone and the game was tied, but then Beltran casually tossed the ball back to the infield. The infielders just staring at Beltran who apparently didn’t realize the magnitude of the play or of his ability or maybe both. Replays showed Darrel May saying “Wow.” Dan Wilson was in his homerun trot and had just rounded second base when he realized Beltran had committed larceny. Wilson decided not to press charges and the Royals went on to win 5-1. To this day, people simply call it “The Catch.”

The next day, the Royals saw yet another game go into extra innings. The Mariners tied the game in the ninth inning, but in the tenth inning Carlos Beltran stepped to the plate against Arthur Rhodes with a man on first and one out. He hit a ball to deep left field. Gold Glover Mike Cameron raced to the wall, and timing his jump, he leaped. The ball ticked off the top of his glove and went over the wall for a homerun, and more importantly, for another Royals’ victory. The Royals raced out of the dugout. Jose Lima and Angel Berroa grabbed a cooler and dumped it on Beltran as he crossed home plate.

Dog Days

As the days got shorter, so did the Royals lead in the division. The Minnesota Twins were nipping at their heels. The Royals started losing ground as they went 10-16 in August. The Twins caught fire in August, going 18-11, and gained ground on the Royals by winning four of seven games head-to-head that month. The Twins were just two games back at the beginning of September.

To make things worse, Mike Sweeney went down with an injury after celebrating a win with Carlos Beltran. Jose Lima lost three straight decisions. Angel Berroa started turning into well, Angel Berroa. The rotation and bullpen faltered, blowing leads in late innings. And the team began to lose its sheen and magic.

As if the Twins hadn't caused enough trouble, the White Sox had been knocking on the door for most of August. The Sox went 16-13 in August, and they turned the AL Central into a three horse race.

Worse than Heartbreak

Scoreboard watching became the norm in September. The Royals’ schedule was in their favor since they played seven games against the Detroit Tigers (who went on to lose 119 games), six games against Cleveland (who lost 94 games that season), three games against last place Texas, and seven games against first place Chicago.

Destiny was in the Royals’ hands, but stringing wins together was becoming increasingly difficult. Minnesota won 11 games in a row in the last two weeks of the season and ended up running away with the title. The Royals finished 13-15 in September, seven games out of first place and 83-79 overall. Both the Twins and the White Sox finished ahead of them.  

The Hangover

The 2003 season brought baseball back to Kansas City. Season ticket sales spiked during the offseason. The Royals signed Juan Gonzalez, Scott Sullivan, Matt Stairs, and Benito Santiago hoping the veteran talent would push them over the top in 2004. The Royals were unable to retain Raul Ibanez who was a major centerpiece on the 2002-03 teams.

Opening Day 2004 drew 41,575 excited fans and they got their moneys worth. The Royals staged a huge comeback against the White Sox, erasing a four run deficit in the ninth inning and winning on homeruns from Mendy Lopez and Carlos Beltran. The team went 5-2 in its first seven games, but they went on to lose their next six. Soon after, Carlos Beltran was traded for prospects, Curtis Leskanic was put on waivers, and Tony Pena took a shower with all of his clothes on.

The 2003 team was merely a distant memory before the 2004 All-Star break. The team finished 58-104 and went on to lose 100 games the next two seasons. Tony Pena stepped down as manager in the middle of the 2005 season, Allard Baird was fired in 2006, Mike Sweeney was not re-signed after 2007, and in early 2009 the last Royal from the 2003 team, Jimmy Gobble, was released.

But every March, each Royals fan gets that funny feeling. Only a feeling that a true baseball fan can get. Hope. The hope that if it can happen in 2003, it can happen any year.

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