Welcome to Flashback Friday: Take Me Out to 34 Ballparks, a celebration, critique and countdown of every major league ballpark one baseball fan has been fortunate enough to visit in a lifetime of going to ballgames.
BALLPARK: Royals Stadium
LATER KNOWN AS: Kauffman Stadium
HOME TEAM: Kansas City Royals
VISITED: August 11, 1989
CHRONOLOGY: 7th of 34
RANKING: 32nd of 34
This is it? This is the big deal? This is the baseball-only ballpark that everybody’s been raving about since it opened in 1973? This is the place I just had to see?
What a disappointment.
Thirty-four ballparks I’ve been to, and I’d say Royals Stadium, as it was called until mid-1993 when it was renamed for owner Ewing Kauffman, was the only one that felt like an out-and-out letdown. I didn’t expect much from Olympic Stadium. I had no expectations for Jack Murphy Stadium. Royals Stadium was different. Royals Stadium was always different, at least when it was a one-of-a-kind major league edifice.
It wasn’t multipurpose when everything was multipurpose. It had fountains beyond the outfield wall when there was usually nothing beyond anything. It was a dedicated park for a dedicated team, a team of which I’d grown fond from a distance for dedicating itself to battling and eventually beating the team I really wanted to lose.
Rooting for the Royals was a rite of autumn when I was in junior high and high school. Four times from 1976 to 1980, the ALCS put down stakes in Kansas City — the playoffs and the Yankees. What the Orioles or Red Sox couldn’t do in the regular season I had hoped the Royals could take care of before things got out of hand. KC did what appeared to be its best, taking the first three of those 3-of-5 championship series to five games, five games and four games, never quite stopping the Pinstriped Cur, but usually slowing it down in entertaining fashion. Finally, October 1980, and a three-game sweep for Kansas City. If you listen closely, you can still hear George Brett’s death blow home run off Goose Gossage traveling to its third solar system. It felt really good, speaking as a totally impartial observer.
And those Royals Stadium fountains. On TV, always with the fountains spouting that water between innings. So classy — just like the Royals themselves. The Royals, in case you weren’t alive or sentient three decades ago, were once a model franchise. They grew their own stars, they kept together their team, they contended every year and they attracted large crowds. They were the small-market success story of their time, except nobody used that phrase. On a level playing field, the Royals prevailed more than most.
When I got to Kansas City in the summer of ’89, the Royals were in their coda period of being that franchise, spending much of the summer in a three-way dogfight with California and eventual A.L. West champion Oakland. They’d finish with 92 victories, more than they garnered when winning their only world championship in 1985, more than in any season since their first pennant season in 1980. They drew 2.47 million to Royals Stadium, their most ever.
They drew me from a long ways away one night in August.
You don’t just show up in Kansas City from Long Island. You plan for something like this. If you can, you plan on somebody else’s dime — legitimately, of course. Five months before game night, I had begun a new job that, to my delight, gave me two legitimate reasons to be in the general vicinity of Kansas City in August…if you count Tulsa and Wichita as right next door. Which they’re not, but you take what you can get when you’re starting from 1,112 miles to the north and the east.
I should point out there was a little more than the Royals and a multitiered business trip involved in my thinking 21 years ago. My lovely wife, who was then my lovely long-distance college-student girlfriend, has her roots in Kansas. Back then, her equally lovely grandmother lived in the town of Augusta, outside of Wichita. A visit by Stephanie, then living in North Fort Myers (Florida) to Grandma was tentatively on the docket for summer. Thus, we put our itineraries together.
If you can see her in the second week of August, I schemed, then I can come out there and see you and meet Grandma, because there’s a meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures — which addressed municipal solid waste issues, a reasonably big deal to my magazine’s readership — in Tulsa. Tulsa’s 130 miles from Wichita, but that was a chip shot compared to our usual separation (Long Beach to North Fort Myers: 1,070 miles). And then, I added, there’s some research firm outside Kansas City whose principals we can drop by to interview and photograph — they did a study on recycling I wrote about, so it was a real story, not just a lame excuse to spend the weekend upon the Great Plains — and, gosh, as long as we’re right there, the Royals will be home that Friday night.
So to sum up, Stephanie would fly from Fort Myers via St. Louis to Wichita. I would fly from JFK via St. Louis to Tulsa. Then I’d drive from Tulsa…no, check that, I’d have to fly, since car rental return fees across state lines were exorbitant. So I was flying from JFK to St. Louis to Tulsa, staying in Tulsa to cover the NLCS conference there — with a detour to Muskogee to visit with a soft drink bottler (the magazine I worked for loved profiles of soft drink bottlers) — and then flying from Tulsa to Wichita. I’d drive from Wichita to Augusta and then, the next day, Stephanie and I would light out for Overland Park, Kansas, home of the suddenly exciting research firm. When we were done with all that, we, like the Toronto Blue Jays, would visit Royals Stadium.
This was a lot to go through just to attend a baseball game without paying for the airfare. But what’s the point of, well, anything if it can’t lead you to a ballpark?
A few recollections of my extended pregame warmup:
• I arrived in Tulsa late on a Tuesday night. The National Conference of State Legislatures was as big a draw there as the Royals were in KC. The car rental place had two vehicles left for me to choose from. One was a stick shift, which I couldn’t drive. One was a minivan, which was taller than anything I’d ever driven. Future bloggers couldn’t be choosers. I went with the minivan.
• Once I adjusted to the minivan, it wasn’t strange at all driving it the 46 miles to Muskogee. And it wasn’t strange, either, that I was in the same town Merle Haggard rhapsodized over as “a place where even squares can have a ball.”
• The company I visited, in addition to being aligned with a couple of major national brands, made its own soda (or “pop”): Love Beverages. Because I loved beverages, the GM was kind enough to weigh me down with a half-dozen ornate bottles. No problem finding space for them in the minivan, but I did a lousy job of shipping them back to the office. Several broke in transit, but I still have one, displayed not ten feet from where I sit at this very moment.
• When I returned to my motel in Tulsa, I flipped on CNN Headline News and learned Gary Carter went 4-for-4 at the Vet while I was off getting some Love. It raised his average all the way to .152, but for one scorching afternoon in Philly, the Kid could still swing it.
• The next afternoon, I set off alarms at Tulsa airport security because I attempted to board my flight to Wichita with a pair of box cutters. I had purchased it at a Builders Square as part of my feeble bottle-packing efforts. Security told me I could keep the box cutters but I’d have to take the blade out. I told them they could keep the whole thing (like I knew how to put a new blade in anything). Twelve years, one month and one day later was the next time I heard about an airplane, box cutters and security — which, sadly, wasn’t so vigilant on September 11, 2001.
• The flight from Tulsa to Wichita, with a stop in Parsons, was harrowing. It was on a prop plane, the only time I’ve ever been on one of those. We bounced the entire journey. The stop in Parsons (Kansas, in case you were wondering) was essentially a drop-by in a field. I don’t think anybody got on or off. I clutched my copy of The Boys of Summer tightly and kept my eyes glued to Roger Kahn’s prose until I could make it to the Wichita airport in one frazzled piece.
• After a night at Grandma’s (where I slept on the fold-out couch), Stephanie and I took off on our 153-mile journey from Augusta to Overland Park. We showed up at the research firm, me the reporter, Stephanie as my “photographer”. It must have seemed a bit much to our interview subjects, considering their relationship to the industry I covered was peripheral at best. One of the principals kept asking, “Why are you here?” Hey, I wanted to answer, any publicity is good publicity. It wasn’t until the professional portion of our meeting was over that I mentioned our evening plans included Royals Stadium, but I didn’t let on that that was why we were there.
• Overland Park had (and still has, I just confirmed) a Steak ‘n’ Shake, my favorite dining option in the world. I fell in love with Steak ‘n’ Shake in Tampa when I was a college freshman and being reunited with the Double Steakburger With Cheese Platter was almost as sweet as being reunited with my girlfriend. Almost.
• Kansas City, Kansas seemed just as good an option to find a place to stay as Kansas City, Missouri, even though the Royals played in the latter. Maybe we just found it first. In any event, we spotted a Holiday Inn in a gritty part of town and checked in. Strikes me as odd that I put so much thought into this trip ahead of time and then just winged it on a hotel room.
I’d say I went to a lot of trouble to get to Royals Stadium, but how can it be trouble when there’s baseball at the end of the Yellow Brick Road? Still, it was a lot of motion, and for that much motion, I would have liked to have been overly impressed.
Overland Park overly impressed by having a Steak ‘n’ Shake. Royals Stadium didn’t impress at all. It sat in a parking lot off I-70, same road the Cardinals took en route to losing the ’85 World Series. It kept company with Arrowhead Stadium, home of the Chiefs. Just dump all your stadiums in one place, I thought — how convenient.
Paid attendance Friday night was over 40,000. The Royals were hot stuff to Kansans, Missourians and maybe Oklahomans. It was a long walk through the lot to the park. Then there were ramps that looked like the ones they had at Giants Stadium and Joe Robbie Stadium. They dominated the landscape. Shea had ramps but they didn’t jut out the way these did. I was surprised at just how distracting the banks of ramps were. They kept the Chiefs in a separate facility, but this didn’t feel all that “baseball-only”. I guess when I heard “baseball-only,” I thought of Fenway and Wrigley.
This was a multipurpose stadium in soul if not practicality. The artificial turf (replaced by grass in 1995) didn’t help. The schlep up to the top rows of the upper deck — I’d bought the seats in June, but the Royals were very popular — was frustrating, too. The Royals monarchical scoreboard was unique, but the fountain’s charms wore off quickly. Middle of the second: fountains spew water. Top of the third: fountains spew water. By the fourth, we got it.
We felt far from the action and, despite sitting in on a battle of two highly regarded pitchers — Bret Saberhagen for the Royals, Mike Flanagan for the Jays — were generally disengaged from the competition in question. This was the second time in two months that I’d been to a game that offered me no clear rooting interest. We were willing to loan ourselves out to the locals for the evening despite coming in with no allegiances (although Grandma had mentioned the night before something about having seen the Kansas City Athletics way back when), but I found myself unmoved by the Royals. And I liked Royals fans a lot more when they were rooting against the Yankees on TV. In the abstract, they were good, solid citizens. In the row behind us, they were confounding.
We overheard a father and his two sons. The younger son, at some point in the middle innings, inquired of his pop (not “soda”), “Dad, can we make a bat?”
I knew what the answer would be. I mean I knew it had to be some G-rated, Middle American variation on “What are you, a schmuck? You don’t make bats. Hillerich & Bradsby makes bats. Why, I oughta…” But maybe I was projecting, because that’s not what the dad said at all. No, he indulged what I considered to be the stupidest question I ever heard at a ballpark.
“Well, son, we could do that. We’d have to get a piece of lumber and put in a vise and…”
YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME! YOU’RE NOT GOING TO MAKE A BAT!
Or are you? Builders Square and its line of box cutters pretty much befuddled me, but maybe out here in the heartland they really did this kind of woodwork for kicks. Maybe they make bats in their garages. Maybe Royals Fan, Jr. went home and crafted his very own Wonderboy.
But I doubt it.
The Royals chased Flanagan in the eighth and scored a bunch of runs off Duane Ward. The home crowd was properly appreciative. I was surprisingly bored. Thousands of miles in every direction just to get here and I said to Stephanie, “Wanna get out of here?” She wasn’t exactly campaigning to see Saberhagen get the complete game. On the way to the massive parking lot, I remembered one other thing that supposedly set Royals Stadium apart from all other ballparks. They sold baseball cards there. They had kiosks. As we wound down our ramps, I thought I saw one. I did.
But it wasn’t all that great, so we resumed our long march to the car. I obligatorily put the ninth inning on the radio and heard Saberhagen figuratively do what we had geographically done to share this evening with him — go the distance — and then it was back to the other Kansas City for Pizza Hut and trying to sleep through a ruckus outside our window. Like I said, we were in the gritty part of Kansas City, Kansas.
Saturday morning, before heading west to Grandma in August, we crossed state lines once more to see the Truman Library in Independence, stopping beforehand at a Denny’s on the other side of the Interstate from Royals Stadium. From I-70 you could see the WORLD CHAMPIONS 1985 designation still proudly displayed behind the KCR crest that served as scoreboard. We had the Grand Slam Breakfast, which seemed a perfect complement to our baseball experience. If the ballpark were a 24-hour chain restaurant instead of a ballpark, I imagined it would serve relatively agreeable food that you could find anywhere off any highway. A few exits after the fact, you might remember the food. You might remember the fountains. Or you might remember overhearing some preposterous conversation about making your own bat. Soon enough we bade goodbye to the Denny’s of the American League.
It was no Steak ‘n’ Shake. It was Royals Stadium.
Caryn Rose of Metsgrrl fame has seen a few ballparks in her time and offers up her own assessments and photographs at Down The Line. Check it out here.
Jeff Wilpon recently built a ballpark and generally knows how to get things done. See what he’s up to here.
And don’t forget AMAZIN’ TUESDAY returns to Two Boots Tavern on the Lower East Side, March 23 at 7:00 PM. Details here.