Monday October 20th, 2014

This essay is one of more than 20 nominations for SI's 2014 Sportsman of the Year. You can see all of this year's nominees here.

Hiroo Onoda was a Japanese soldier who remained at his jungle post on the island of Lubang in the Philippines for 29 years after World War II ended, unaware that his nation had surrendered and oblivious to the march of time.

Onoda’s continued existence came as a revelation to his long-retired commanding officer, who found the soldier in 1974 -- decades after he was declared dead -- and formally relieved him of his duty. Onoda wore the same uniform he had in 1945, though it was in tatters when he returned to Tokyo, blinking in disbelief at the skyscrapers and motor cars he saw there.

Twenty-nine years is a long time to be dead. The world was reminded of that when Onoda died -- for real -- in Tokyo, at the age of 91, this past January 16, which happened to be the 57th birthday of Steve (Bye-Bye) Balboni, the former slugger of the 1985 Kansas City Royals. The Royals won the World Series that season, but spent the 29 years before their next Series appearance in oblivion, dutifully making the rounds of the American League, wearing more or less the same uniforms they always had, unaware that their efforts were pointless and they had long ago surrendered.

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Or had they? On a Tuesday night at the end of August, in 2014, the Royals found themselves one and a half games in front of the Tigers in the American League Central after beating the Twins with an Alex Gordon walk-off homer in front of 13,847 witnesses, most of them Kansas Citians who suspected this team might be alive after all, and not an animated corpse in the Weekend-at-Bernie’s tradition.

Manager Ned Yost expressed his disappointment that more believers hadn’t shown up, when in fact it was a marvel that so many had. From April through September, an average of 21,614 people came to Kauffman Stadium, waiting at the jungle’s edge, inexplicably devoted to duty. And then the Royals abruptly emerged from the wilderness, a little dazed, into the blazing light of autumn. They were alive. A nation gasped, then applauded.

The wildcard game the Royals won against the A’s didn’t exist in 1985. The night they beat the Angels to clinch the ALDS -- another modern invention -- Comedy Central was airing “Hot Tub Time Machine,” about high school buddies who travel back to 1986, when the Royals were reigning champions of a world filled with enormous satellite phones and something called wine coolers.

My 2014 Sportsman nominee: Theatrics

The world had changed while the Royals were off the grid -- starting with the fact that there wasn’t really a grid in 1985 -- but their fans continued turning up in the intervening decades, as if nothing had happened. And that was the problem: Nothing had happened. Royals fans came anyway -- never fewer than 1.2 million in a season, usually many more -- in an act of faith or madness or (that phrase again) simple devotion to duty. That’s why those fans are my Sportsmen and Women of the Year. They maintained this bedside vigil, day after day for decades, in the fading hope that the patient would stir.

And then it stirred. By the bottom of the ninth of Game 7 last week, with Gordon standing on third and the winning run at the plate, those fans were one pitch from bliss. Fans described as “long-suffering” for 29 years hadn’t suffered deeply. Prolonged losing becomes a general anesthesia. Then Salvador Perez popped a foul ball that Pablo Sandoval settled under. The anesthesia began to wear off.

Like Hiroo Onoda, Alex Gordon was stranded on his island, unable to get home. When Onoda returned to life (and to Tokyo) after 29 years, he received a hero’s welcome. The Royals have too, a reward from -- but also for -- those fans who remained vigilant against all reason. Duty or folly, Royals fans now know the truth of what Robert Louis Stevenson wrote: “There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy.”

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