KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- It's all over but the schedule now, a string of 40 more games that probably don't affect the answer to the lingering question that nobody wants to consider.
This Royals season began so nicely. Remember that? Zack Greinke was the story of baseball, the Royals held first place into May, and the $250 million worth of Kauffman Stadium renovations had the city buzzing with optimism.
It's hard to imagine things going worse in the three months since, the blissful fun wiped out by familiar reality. Promise and hope are now anger or jokes, so what began as something of intentional hyperbole is now a legitimate question:
Is this the most disappointing season for a franchise now used to them?
Or one step further: has any team put together a more disappointing season than this?
These things are hard to quantify. Somewhere, a Mets fan reads about the Royals' disappointment and curses, but there are objective measurements to argue Kansas City's summer is among the most disappointing baseball seasons of all time.
General manager Dayton Moore has called this season "embarrassing," but won't rank the disappointment.
"You get a lot of scars on your heart from this game," he says. "I never thought about that until you just asked the question. So I can't say it is."
Another team employee is more direct, though he insists his name not appear in the paper because of growing tension around the organization.
"It's gotta be the most disappointing," he says. "Gotta be. We've had others, worse teams, but nothing like this."
Because we are a public service kind of newspaper, we'll try to help you cope, too.
Heck, you can probably use the guidance at some point during the upcoming Chiefs season, too.
Disappointment is a feeling, and feelings are hard to measure. Your hurt is different from your neighbor's hurt, so trying to figure out where Kansas City's current baseball disappointment ranks historically is mostly subjective.
The Mets were picked by many to make the World Series, and instead have a star-studded disabled list, a losing record, and a dud of a season to open a new ballpark. The Mariners lost 100 games with a $100 million payroll last year.
The Red Sox lost Game 6 of the 1986 World Series on Bill Buckner's error, Montreal had the best record in baseball in 1994 before the strike and lost its team 10 years later, and Cubs fans could write their own books on disappointment.
Lots of places can make a case for most disappointing season. Here's Kansas City's:
A loyal fan base watches its favorite team go from model franchise to league-wide joke. It has one (barely) winning season in 14 before finding the courage to believe again this past offseason in a team built by a sharp general manager with the supposed right pieces.
Everything seems to line up. An owner long chastised for cheapness OKs a payroll hike of more than 20 percent. The team trades for a speedy center fielder, brings in some power, a bunch of hard-throwing relievers, and becomes a trendy pick to win its division for the first time since -- ahem -- 1985.
Greinke signs on for four years at a bargain price, then turns the baseball world on its head by dominating his way to Sports Illustrated's cover. The Royals sit in first place into mid-May, with sellout crowds celebrating in what's effectively a new stadium.
Then, of course, it all falls apart -- like wet toilet paper. The All-Star closer gets hurt. The $55 million pitcher gets hurt. The speedy centerfielder gets hurt. And most everyone else plays like they're hurt.
Entering Sunday's games, the Royals had the second-best record in the American League on May 7, and are 2 1/2 games worse than anybody in baseball since. What began with playoff hopes is ending with an eye on whether the Royals will lose 100 games, finish with the game's worst record, or maybe both.
It is like dangling a steak in front of a starving man, and then punching him in the face.
That's the subjective case. Here's the objective one, the part that puts all of this in historical perspective:
Only four teams opened their current stadiums armed with a relative payroll increase equal to the Royals and still fielded a losing team.
Only six teams since the strike have started 18-11 or better and still ended up with a losing record. None of them lost nearly as many games as the Royals.
No team is on both lists.
So to review: the Royals are the first team to open a new or heavily renovated stadium with a payroll increase 20 percent or more above the league average, start 18-11, and then tank anywhere close to this bad.
And, of course, nobody's ever pulled off a stink-bomb like this with a possible Cy Young-winning pitcher.
This is unprecedented, what we're seeing in Kansas City. No market has dealt with our particular brand of disappointment before.
So there's the case.
Here comes the analysis.
Kevin Young may just be the world's most qualified human to talk about this. He was the starting first baseman for the 2001 Pirates, who bumped their payroll and opened PNC Park with a team many locals thought could at least be respectable.
Instead, they lost 100 games.
Young also grew up in Kansas City, still gets back here occasionally, and has a solid working knowledge of the fan base.
"Yeah, I do see similarities," he says. "People there are hungry for it, especially when you see what the Chiefs have done, you want to see a winner in the city. Any bit of success, people want to run away with that. That's what happened in Pittsburgh as well. Baseball players will tell you they get caught up in it, too."
Injuries often come up when talking about the '09 Royals, but the '01 Pirates lost each of their top three starting pitchers before the season even began. The 12 pitchers they broke camp with were the only 12 pitchers still healthy at the end of spring training.
They were 19 games out of first place by mid-June, and drawing fewer than 20,000 to one of the sport's most beautiful stadiums by September. Young likes to say that perennial losers like the Royals and Pirates "train a city to think, 'Oh, here we go again."' That feeling is all over Kansas City this summer, with crowds coming for Greinke or a promotion or the other team.
It's a different kind of disappointment that comes after high expectations, like when a movie you've been looking forward to for months turns out to be "Star Wars: The Clone Wars."
You feel it as a fan, and you know what else? The guys in the Royals' clubhouse do, too, no matter what they say.
"The guys that matter, they do," Young says. "The type of players you want with you, it bothers them. They take a lot of pride. Not every guy's like that. It's just a shame you have to do it so much. It becomes such a grind."
It's enough to make a fan seek professional help.
The first step in solving a problem is admitting a problem. That's true for bad personal hygiene, alcoholism, and reality TV.
It's also true if you're finding yourself beaten down by a baseball team, cursing John Bale for letting another inherited runner score or Yuniesky Betancourt for not getting that ball to his left.
"It's like any addiction," says Debbie Mandel, author of Addicted to Stress. "There's usually some unhappiness, a loneliness there, a lack of connection. That's a sign, if you have that kind of agitation, to find something creative that makes your own heart sing. I urge your readers to do something they're bad at doing, because that means you love doing it."
Michael Morris is a psychology professor at the University of New Haven and has a slightly different approach. He says the first thing to do is to put the baseball team in perspective. This isn't your job. It's Josh Anderson who picked up the ball and then dropped it the other night, not you.
Laughter is a good cure, he says, like you could root for the first-place Tigers, but would you really want to live in Detroit?
The last thing is to own the misery. Take pride in it. Yeah, he says, the Royals very well could be in the midst of the most disappointing season ever. The argument can be made, so instead of being embarrassed by it, own it.
"If you're at the very bottom," Morris says, "you can have a sense of pride, like, 'It's going to be so good once we climb from this.' When you have truly horrific play, you can do like Annie, you know, 'The sun will come out tomorrow.' "
"Well," he says, "it may not come out this year for the Royals. But maybe next year."