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My Missouri Adventure

I’ll admit this: I never thought Fred Wilpon’s line about meaningful games in September was so embarrassing. Granted, I would have revised the line to “meaningful games in the last week of September.” If you’re playing those, your team’s kept you scoreboard watching, hoping and dreaming almost until the end, which I’ll always sign up for. But even without my suggested tweak, I thought Wilpon’s formulation was the product of baseball wisdom more fans should internalize: winning is more about luck than we like to imagine, a season can be great even without a World Series trophy at the end, and a sense of entitlement makes you a toxic shithead. If you disagree with all that, there’s a team in the Bronx tailor-made for you.

But this week is a reminder of something else: Meaningless September games can be just fine. Not the meaningless kind where you try to convince yourself that a second-tier prospect’s garbage-time quality start will mean great things in a couple of years, but the meaningless kind we’re playing now. In Philadelphia tonight, the Mets lost. Bartolo Colon [1] and Jon Niese [2] weren’t great, Carlos Torres [3] returned and looked OK, Lucas Duda [4] hit a pair of home runs, and brothers Travis d’Arnaud [5] and Chase d’Arnaud [6] seemed to have a pleasant time gabbing at home plate. That’s about it [7].

If you weren’t paying attention, you get a mulligan. The Mets are auditioning starters for bullpen roles, trying to figure out how to fill the last couple of roster spots, and looking to strike a balance between rust and rest. The only thing left to play for is home-field advantage over the Dodgers, which would be nice but isn’t worth an all-out sprint; the team also has to face the possibility that they may not get to play baseball for a ridiculously long time, what with multiple fronts and a hurricane converging on the East Coast.

In all likelihood nothing that happens this week will be remembered come October 9, which is fine. Baseball’s one of humanity’s greatest artistic achievements, but there’s nothing wrong with a bit of a break from it. This is a fine week to take your spouse out to dinner, take your kids to the movies, or pursue whatever evening plan normally gets neglected between April and October. Next month you’re going to be frantic and delirious and terrified and delighted and mostly tired, for at least a long weekend and hopefully the whole month. So rest up, y’hear?

This concludes the Mets-related portion of today’s blog post. Now I’m going to tell you about my adventures watching baseball in Missouri.

A few weeks ago I noticed that I had a $200 Delta credit that was about to expire. After various ideas proved unworkable, I hit upon one I should have thought of earlier: I’d go to one of the 11 big-league ballparks I’d never visited before.

I eliminated Pittsburgh because Emily wants to go. I tossed out Detroit, Cleveland and Cincinnati because I’ve always imagined combining them with Pittsburgh in a baseball great circle route some summer. I dropped Milwaukee and New Comiskey because Emily wants to go to Wrigley (I went last year [8]), and it and the other two could be combined in a single trip.

That left Minnesota, Texas, Miami, Kansas City and St. Louis. I started checking Delta airfares and schedules and StubHub, and then realized that if I was willing to drive for a few hours, I could knock off Kansas City and St. Louis in one trip, with enough room to pursue a little genealogical exploration as well.

Done — and for surprisingly little money. The credit took care of most of the airfare, even with me flying into K.C. and out of St. Louis. The one-way car rental was reasonable. I used points for hotel rooms. And I found pretty great seats that weren’t crazily expensive, a surprise given both teams were headed for the postseason.

My biggest worry was that the Mets would falter and I’d be stuck halfway across the country freaking out and blowing my data plan watching At Bat. But that didn’t happen either — I returned to a magic number of one.

So, the parks.

Kauffman Stadium dates back to 1973, though it got an extensive renovation a few years ago. It’s not bad for what it is — a pretty nice park from an era of lousy park design, given a thoughtful coat of paint.

Which isn’t enormous praise, granted. The biggest problem is one that can’t be solved: Kauffman isn’t in Kansas City proper, but plopped down east of the city next to Arrowhead Stadium and surrounded by highways. Behind those iconic fountains (about which more in a bit) are some statues of Royals greats, a few nondescript eateries (none of which feature local barbeque, for some absurd reason), and then this view:

21638335250_ea10f83a94_z [9]

Yeah, that’s not inspiring. People tailgate like fiends before Royals games because there is absolutely nowhere else to go.

But the park itself isn’t bad. The fountains are a bit doofy — after hearing about them for years, I was as underwhelmed as Greg [10] to see them in action, which is probably a reflection of my enthusiasm for fountains rather than any failure of the park’s. (I don’t know what the world’s greatest fountain is, but I bet it’s a bunch of pipes that make water go up.)

fountains [11]

But I liked the big gold crown atop the massive video board, and the Royals flags snapping in the wind, and even the arches on the concourse.

arches [12]

No, that isn’t old-timey brickwork or black iron. It’s just a bunch of concrete. But for 1973 it isn’t bad — Kauffman could have been some brutalist doughnut horror, but it has some nice sweeping angles and good bones that elevate it above such parks.

One thing that might have colored my perceptions is the fans are great. My pal Sterling and I were sitting in good seats behind first base, and we happened to be there on the night the Royals clinched the American League Central, which you might argue is the kind of thing that leads to grade inflation. And perhaps you’re right. But the folks around us in the good seats were into it from the first pitch, in a way the folks in a lot of good seats aren’t. It was rare to see anyone not clad in royal blue, and I was surrounded by baseball conversations all night.

in-kauffman [13]

Kauffman’s stadium-operations folks set the right tone as well, seemingly determined to get every cute kid a few seconds on the video screen and to find every banner exhorting the Royals to a division title, looking for romantic attention from Eric Hosmer [14], or both. The Royals won and mobbed each other on the field, the fans cheered and high-fived and took inept cellphone videos from the stands (I looked at mine and deleted it), and then everybody wandered out into the vast parking lot and waited in their cars to get somewhere else. But they seemed pretty happy doing it, and I found I felt the same way.

The next night brought me to Busch Stadium, a visit that will need a few asterisks upfront:

  1. The Cardinals are far from my favorite team.
  2. St. Louis is far from my favorite town. (Well, except for the bourbon shake at Baileys’ Range [15], which is awesome.)
  3. I was there last year but the Cardinals weren’t, which I resented even though it’s nobody’s fault.

busch-2 [16]

Busch Stadium opened in 2006, the third park to bear the name (here’s Greg [17] on Busch II), and if you’ve been to more than a couple of HOK parks you’ll instantly recognize this one — brick and arches, ironwork, a level that’s suites-only, fancy seats with waiter service behind home plate, quirky seating areas in the outfield, a gathering place for families and big parties on the top deck behind home plate. None of this is a bad thing — heck, I just described Citi Field. But Citi’s a lot more distinctive than Busch, somehow. Busch feels like it was assembled by a committee flipping through a Retro Stadium pattern book.

It does have some nice touches. I liked the Scoreboard Patio seating area in center field, and the statues of Cardinal stars outside (including Jack Buck), and the place is properly festooned with Cardinalia no matter where you are. Walking up the stairs you find images of team logos, and the signs for sections are topped with cardinals in various poses. Even this Mets fan found those pretty adorable.

cards [18]

The customer service at Busch is also top-notch. There are people everywhere to help you, and they’ve been trained to actually do that, rather than assume you’re the enemy. There are about a billion places to get something to eat, meaning lines are pretty short even with a packed house. No matter where you are there’s a TV showing the game or you can hear the radio feed, which is the kind of simple thing a lot of parks can’t manage. And the out-of-town scoreboard is great, packing a lot of information into an easy-to-read space.

not-wrigley [19]

But there’s also a certain too muchness going on. For example, that thing above is Ballpark Village, an appendage of Busch that’s basically a TGI Friday’s on steroids that only serves Anheuser-Busch products. (If that sounds great to you, we probably shouldn’t hang out.) Besides the invocation of fandom as a nation, which works a lot better as ironic shorthand than as a massive expanse of neon, that AT&T Rooftop contraption is a blatant ripoff of Wrigley Field’s neighbors, which you’d think the Cardinals would have shied from copying. And I can count three Ford logos and three Budweiser ones in that picture, which is approximately 0.00000000000000001% of the number of each you’ll find at Busch. St. Louis feels like a company town, the Cardinals feel like a company team, and Busch Stadium feels like a company headquarters.

I don’t mean to be too hard on Busch. It’s a perfectly nice park. I enjoyed myself and the fireworks show after the Cardinals lost, then took myself across the street to the Hilton at the Ballpark, which has pictures of Cardinals in every room. I had a perfectly good time — as I will most anywhere you give me a beer, something to eat and let me watch baseball. But I was relieved when the next day was Cardinal-free, and I don’t think that was just the Mets fan in me.