Clintonville’s Mike Jirschele is calm and collected when reflecting on a whirlwind year for his club and his career. The Kansas City Royals exhibit that same low-key demeanor as they take on the San Francisco Giants in this year’s World Series.
Perhaps the unflappable nerves now on display in the limelight are a product of countless years toiling in relative obscurity – a place both Jirschele and the Royals know quite well.
It’s been 29 years since the Royals won the American League (AL) Pennant and then beat out the St. Louis Cardinals to win the 1985 World Series, four games to three. Between then and now, the Royals had been all but forgotten by most of the professional baseball community. Their dreams of lasting success seemed to vanish after that magical championship run.
Jirschele spent 36 years working in baseball’s minor leagues. Much like his current team, Jirschele knows how it feels to be on the outside looking in. His dreams of coaching in the major leagues seemed more improbable with every passing year, and he had to face the reality that he might never get called up.
Suddenly, everything changed. The Royals finished strong and went on a historic tear through the AL Wild Card, AL Divisional Series (ALDS), and AL Championship Series (ALCS).
Similarly, Jirschele’s promotion to the majors seemed sudden to those who are unfamiliar with his baseball background. He was called up to the majors in November of 2013 and started the 2014 season as one of seven Royals coaches. He put in some time scouting other teams, doing infield drills, and hitting fungos, but was quickly promoted to third base coach early in the season.
Jirschele and the Royals are now competing on Major League Baseball’s biggest stage as they face the Giants with a World Series Championship on the line, and it’s amazing how one successful season can put so many years of struggling into perspective. The slow, steady road to success is paying off for a team and a coach that appear to be made for each other.
“It seems like it’s been a year ago since I was called up, and since I was promoted to third base coach. But it’s been very exciting,” said Jirschele with a laugh. “But I’m comfortable at third, since that’s where I spent most of my time when I was managing in the minor leagues.”
Jirschele said the team’s slow start to the season didn’t diminish their hopes. The team focused on the final 81 games of the season while leaving their bland performance in the first 81 games behind them.
“Even though we were right around .500, at the All-Star break, we weren’t exactly out of our race to win the division,” said Jirschele when looking back on the first half of the season. “But we knew we had to pick it up and play better. We got swept by Boston after the All-Star break, but after that, we started playing good ball. It just snowballed, and we played better and better as the season went on.”
A franchise marked by futility for nearly three decades began to shake off years of disappointment as this year’s team proved they were for real.
“We were in the hunt (for the AL Central division title) at the end of the regular season,” said Jirschele. “That made the end of the regular season really exciting. We knew we had a shot to win the division, but we were also constantly checking the Wild Card standings. We went from second to first in the Wild Card standings, and we knew that if we didn’t win the division, we would probably have the first Wild Card. That meant a lot to us.”
The Royals finished the regular season with an 89-73 record, but didn’t win the division. The perennial postseason favorite Detroit Tigers took the AL Central crown with a 90-72 record. Meanwhile, the Royals secured an AL Wild Card matchup against the win-now Oakland A’s, who had put together a fearsome starting rotation that was built with postseason play in mind.
“I’ve never been in a game where it was a seesaw battle throughout the whole thing. It was such an up-and-down game,” said Jirschele of the Royals’ battle with the A’s in the AL Wild Card game. “At one point, we thought we were out of it. We were down 7-3 in the eighth inning. I thought, ‘Jeepers creepers, how are we gonna come back?’ But then we tied it up and the game went to extra innings. We had chances in extra innings to drive in runs, but we didn’t get it done. I was wondering if it was going to work out, but in the end it did. That game was what really jumpstarted our club.”
The Royals walked away with a 9-8 win after 12 innings of play, earning a trip to the AL Divisional Series (ALDS) against the Los Angeles Angels.
“Once we got to the ALDS, we knew we’d be facing the best,” said Jirschele. “We knew that the Angels and the Orioles were the best in the AL, and we’d have to get through them to make it to the World Series.
“We had played the Angels tough during the regular season, just like we did Baltimore,” he continued. “After winning that first game against Oakland, the guys finally realized that we belong here and can play at this level.”
The high-powered, heavy-hitting Angels squad that featured future Hall-of-Famer Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, and this year’s All-Star Game MVP, Mike Trout, seemed like a safe bet to win the series over the smaller, less flashy lineup trotted out by the Royals.
“Our philosophy is to play small ball. We have a lot of speedy players on this team, so we get a lot of infield hits. We bunt the ball. We do a lot of hit-and-run plays. We just do the little things to try to manufacture runs. We can’t sit back and wait for home runs like the three teams we’ve played in the playoffs. They depend on big ball—home runs and extra base hits. They have lots more power than we do.”
The Royals, who finished last in the league in home runs and walks, kept playing their brand of baseball. It paid off, as they won game one by a score of 3-2 in 11 innings, took game two by a score of 4-1 in 11 innings, and closed out the series with an 8-3 win in nine innings of game three.
“The energy level was pretty high when we swept the Angels,” said Jirschele with a chuckle. “Our team just continued to build confidence. They’re going into games just saying, ‘We’re going to win this game and this series.’ They have so much confidence right now.”
Having conquered the star-powered Angels, the Royals set their sights on a resurgent Baltimore Orioles team in the AL Championship Series (ALCS).
“I think our guys relaxed a little bit after winning game one of the ALCS. It built more confidence, and they knew they could win,” said Jirschele. “We were on the road for two games to start the series, and we were just hoping to get a split, winning one of those two games. When we won the second game and headed home with a 2-0 lead, our feeling was that we needed to close out the series in Kansas City.
“These guys just kept playing with so much confidence in games three and four,” continued Jirschele. “Our pitching and defense kept us in the game, and a few uncharacteristic home runs helped us win in Baltimore.”
By the time the dust had settled, the Royals had earned another sweep—this time winning the best-of-seven series by scores of 8-6 in 10 innings, 6-4 in nine innings, 2-1 in nine innings, and 2-1 in nine innings.
With the win, the Royals captured their first AL Pennant in 29 years. The small market team with the small ball philosophy and small town third base coach had done the impossible, shocking the baseball world in the process.
“I feel very fortunate to have made it to the World Series with this team,” said Jirschele. “I’m blessed that it worked out the way it did. In this game, a lot of it is timing. I guess my timing is perfect—I came up here this year, the team took off at the end of the year, and now we’re all just feeling very fortunate.”
Jirschele’s family is also enjoying the World Series run. Wife Sheri, daughter Jen, and sons Jeremy and Justin will be cheering from the stands during the championship series.
“We’re all saying, ‘Can you believe we’re in the playoffs?’ Usually we’re watching on TV back home,” laughed Jirschele. “I’m happy for my family and friends that hung with me through those many years in the minor leagues. They’re finally getting to have some fun at the big league level. It’s great to know that my wife and all the kids can be here for the World Series. Dad (Don) won’t make it down, but he watches every game and stays in close contact. He’s very excited, and he just tells me, ‘Your boys are playing really well, just keep them going!’ So I know he is enjoying this, too.”
In addition to family and close friends, supporters around Clintonville are wrapping blue ribbons around trees along with the Royals’ logo. The first ribbons to be seen around town were created by Lisa Kotter.
“I’ve known the Jirschele family since I moved to Clintonville and I want him to know how much people are rooting for him and love him,” said Kotter. “Making these ribbons was one way to show him how proud we are of him. We’re very happy for him and his family that he has accomplished so much after being so patient for so many years.”
Downtown businesses are showing their support as well. Pam O’Connor, owner of Studio 22, had the plate glass window of her building decorated to cheer on Jirschele, who wears #59.
“Pam Ebert and I decided to paint the window with Mike’s jersey on it because we wanted to show our support for him and his family,” said O’Connor. “We are so excited to have positive, exciting things happening that involve Clintonville. We love the Jirscheles and we want to support them and celebrate with them.”
True to his character, Jirschele remains calm and focused on the task at hand, just like the Royals players he works with every day. Their season of destiny is tempered by gratitude, and perhaps that’s what makes them a perfect match.
“I’m just very fortunate to be where I am today,” he concluded. “I thank the good Lord every day for the opportunity to do what I’m doing.”