April 5, 2004: The stadium is positively electric. Fans chant, whoop and holler as they exit the stadium like it’s college football game day. High fives for everyone who passes by.
The spiraling ramps bubble with the kind of glee found on Bourbon Street. The cause for such elation?
Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, the Royals just won their opening day game on two dramatic home runs in the bottom of the ninth. After trailing 7 to 3 going to bat for the last time, Mendy Lopez tied the game with a three-run blast. And then with movie-quality drama, Carlos Beltran launched a two-run homer to finish it off.
The Royals are going to be contenders once again.
After all, we came oh so close to making the playoffs last year. And we’re a lot better this year than last year. We’ve got Juan Gonzales to rake home runs and a veteran catcher in Benito Santiago to shepherd our up-and-coming pitching staff. We’ve got the Rookie-of-the-Year at shortstop in Angel Berroa, plus Mike Sweeney, Ken Harvey, Joe Randa… this is a team that’s built to make a playoff run.
Well… that didn’t quite turn out as planned.
But that was an opening day to remember.
I’ve taken in quite a few opening day games. There’s nothing like it, as far as the Royals are concerned. The team is still mathematically in contention, and for one afternoon, the stadium is packed with people.
In talking to the people actually in the stadium on opening day, however, you learn that most of them aren’t exactly there because they’re enthusiastic about the team. They are there because they got free tickets from work, or because it’s a tradition to come out one time a year, drink beer and enjoy the spring afternoon away from the office, or because they just like to be where the action is.
Not many folks in the stands really care about the Royals success or failure. But on that day in 2004, we were all believers. When I say it was like a college football atmosphere, I mean it. We were passionate, hanging on every pitch.
Of all the games I’ve seen in Kaufman, I’d say that was possibly the most exciting one.
Funny as it sounds now, we really did have high hopes for that team. We’d finished the 2003 season still believing like Tony Pena even after faltering down the stretch to finish at 83-79. It was the most exciting season in about a decade. Why couldn’t we improve upon it?
“Juntos Podemos!” was the battle cry for 2004. Unfortunately, it would seem Gonzales and Santiago didn’t understand that in English that means “Together we can!” They weren’t a part of anything but the disabled list for most of the year.
Berroa wasn’t terrible… yet. But he was well on his way. Three of our best hitters – Sweeney, Randa and Harvey – all finished with the exact same batting average: .287. They each battled injuries, as did just about everyone else.
The losses started mounting immediately following the opening day thriller.
With a record of 28-41, the plug was pulled on this team on June 24. After getting blasted 12-3 by Detroit, the Royals shipped off their best player, Carlos Beltran, for prospects that would prove to be the building blocks for the terrible teams of the rest of the decade.
That team won just 58 and lost 104. There have been some awful teams in KC since then, but possibly none as bad as that one. And certainly none as disappointing.
But for that one glorious afternoon, the exit ramps rocked with chants of “Let’s go Royals” and it was great to be a fan on opening day.