|Enjoy it while it lasts: Kauffman Stadium probably won’t host another All-Star Game. (US Presswire)|
I used to love listening to Skip Prosser talk about Pittsburgh. Skip was a very successful college basketball coach at Xavier and Wake Forest — he died when he was still the coach at Wake Forest five years ago this month. More than coaching, though, Skip was a great guy, and sometimes he would just talk about his hometown of Pittsburgh, and it was so great to hear. I remember he used to say all the time, “Coming through the Fort Pitt Tunnel into downtown is the most beautiful thing in the world.”
Then I would try to kid him. I’d ask him about Paris at night, Maui with the waves crashing in, the Grand Canyon at sunset, Darling Harbor in Sydney, the seventh hole at Pebble Beach or just a spot of beach looking out over the Mediterranean. He’d never even crack a smile.
“Coming through the Fort Pitt Tunnel into downtown,” he’d say again, “is the most beautiful thing in the world.”
That view coming out of the Fort Pitt Tunnel is a beautiful thing, by the way, but the larger point is how cool it is to listen to someone who has fallen in love with a city. Let’s face it, you can mock any place. You can gripe about any place. You can complain about the traffic or lack thereof, about the prices or the fact that no place is open, about the heat or the humidity or the lack of variety, about the signs of wear or the missing character, about the noise or the boredom, the crime or the tumbleweeds, the crowds or the emptiness.
That kind of talk can be entertaining for a while, sure, but you know what I like even more? I like hearing Boston people talk about Boston, New York people talk about New York, Chicago people talk about Chicago, San Francisco people talk about San Francisco. I have a friend from Houston who insists that the best Chinese restaurant in the entire world — not America, understand, but the world — is in a Houston strip mall. I have another who will talk about how much better the cherries and peaches and grapes are in California than any place else on earth. I was given a tour of Louisville by someone who loves Louisville, and I came away starstruck. I have friends who talk about New Orleans and Seattle and Washington and Austin and Cincinnati and a dozen other places, and after I hear them talk I want to move there. Of course, I love talking with Cleveland people about Cleveland. That’s where I grew up. I always feel a certain joy there that I don’t feel anywhere else in the world.
This is not to say that those people are blind to the problems of their hometowns. They understand those problems better than anyone and talk about them more than anyone. But the problems are easy. Problems are always easy. Get stuck in L.A. traffic, feel St. Louis’ heat, walk around Detroit’s downtown, try to find a good meal after 10 p.m. in Birmingham — that’s easy. The charms and wonder of a place, though — that might take a little explaining and a little bit of patience. Maybe it’s just me. But I love listening to someone who loves a place.
* * *
Kansas City is not a town you fall in love with on the first day, or even the second. The first thing you discover is probably the barbecue. It’s amazing and it’s everywhere. You walk into Gates the first time, and someone yells, “Hi may I help you?” at you, and maybe you are flustered and order the first thing you see on the menu. A short end. A long end. The sliced beef. The beautiful thing is that it doesn’t matter. It’s all amazing. You go to Arthur Bryant’s, the real one, 18th and Brooklyn, and it looks dingy, and you hear that screen door slam behind you, and you ask what burnt ends are. They plop them on your plate. They don’t look great. But it’s the most delicious thing in the world. You go to Oklahoma Joe’s, and while you may have heard it’s in a gas station you don’t realize until you arrive that it’s really in a gas station, and if you arrive at lunch hour the line backs up all the way to the gas pumps, and you try their brisket and fries, and it’s heaven too, and you understand why Kansas City always does so poorly in those “healthiest American cities” studies.
Over time, you find your way around. You park for free in the Plaza — the outdoor shopping area that is as close to the heart of Kansas City as anything else — and maybe you are there when they have lit up the place for Christmas. You go to Crown Center, the mall Hallmark built, and you take your child to the Crayola Cafe. You go to a Chiefs game and watch the giant parking lot outside the two stadiums turn into an enormous picnic. You wander to this beautiful little church borrowed often by Rainy Day Books and find that America’s best authors and most interesting people — almost all of them — come here to talk about their books and their lives. You drink a Boulevard Pale Ale, you listen to Kansas or Kansas State or Missouri football on the radio, you go to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, right next to the American Jazz Museum, and there’s something about being there that transcends the displays and the exhibits. It used to be that when you walked in here, the great Buck O’Neil was likely to greet you, give you a hug, tell you a story. You can still feel his presence there.
Kansas City’s public relations people used to brag about the city having more boulevards than Paris and more fountains than Rome, and though there are two problems with the statistic — (1) it probably isn’t true and (2) it doesn’t matter even if it is true — those boulevards and fountains become a part of your daily reality. You drive up Ward Parkway, past the majestic homes, and along the various boulevards that are divided by green islands, and you see fountains all over the place, in Overland Park, in Lenexa, in Lee’s Summit, in Independence, in the Northland, and without even noticing it, those things get inside you. They offer a one-second reprieve from the everyday and remind you where you are.
You get a burger at Winstead’s — the thinnest anywhere; as if the burger was reduced to its essence — or you stop in for a drink or a meal at Governor Stumpy’s or you go to watch some sports at Nick & Jake’s or you see George Brett at Garozzo’s or you take the family to the zoo or to the Nelson-Atkins Museum (where they can stare at the giant shuttlecocks on the greenway) or to the new Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts or just to see a quartet singing Sinatra songs downtown or a former TV star in a play at the New Theater Restaurant*, none of these are pleasures are easily explained to friends or visitors.
*Barbara Eden is coming in August!
But those things — and a million more — build the mosaic of Kansas City. This is an early rising town, I think. The traffic generally moves. The baseball voices on the radio don’t yell at you, the faces on television are friendly, the letters to the Kansas City Star tend to take different points of view rather than a flood of the same voices, again and again. The weather is generally harsh throughout the year — scalding and deadening in summer, howling in winter, with spring and autumn never lasting long enough. This is a city of neighborhoods, more than most places because a street called State Line Road cuts through it, dividing Kansas and Missouri. Most of those neighborhoods have pools. Those pools, perhaps more than anyplace, are where Kansas City people lose their summer days. That and the mall. That doesn’t make Kansas City very different from anywhere else. There are farmers markets everywhere. Fast-food service is almost always fast.
And, more often than not, all of this brings out the generosity of Kansas City people. I’ve always said, people are people, but the place you live might highlight certain traits. I’ve never thought people in New York are rude, but the rush of the town might make them so. The traffic in L.A. and Miami and other places can turn drivers hostile and cutthroat. Kansas City’s general ease, its often brutal weather, its great restaurants, its neighborhoods tend to spark friendliness. It also tends to spark hopefulness. Some of the most optimistic people I know live in Kansas City.
This, of course, includes Royals fans.
* * *
You could not blame Kansas City Royals fans for expecting the worst. What else could they expect? Unless it turns around this season — something that seems more unlikely every day — this will mark the 27th straight season that the Royals miss the playoffs. No other team in baseball has a streak that long or even particularly close to that long.* But it’s much worse than just missing the playoffs. Not counting the strike year — which is a shame because the Royals actually got hot that year — Kansas City has only finished within five games of the lead once over that time frame, and that was 25 years ago. The Royals have finished an average of 22 games back since 1986. They haven’t made the playoffs, true. But, more dizzying, they also have not been in contention.
*The Pirates have the second-longest streak — 20 seasons — but the Pirates are also in first place at the moment.
|Alex Gordon is arguably baseball’s most
underrated player. (US Presswire)
And yet, I have been back in Kansas City for only a day, in preparation of the All-Star Game, and I’ve heard from a dozen people already about how hopeful they are about this Royals team. This is not to say Kansas City people lack skepticism or cynicism. There’s plenty of it here like everywhere else, and it’s not hard to find people who will say the Royals will never win, and the ownership is a scandal, and the management is a travesty and all that. But let’s face it, skepticism isn’t always fun, and cynicism doesn’t feed life, and the Royals are mostly young. Alex Gordon has developed into a sensational player*. Billy Butler can hit, Mike Moustakas had a terrific first half, Eric Hosmer is showing signs, Alcides Escobar plays a fantastic shortstop, Bruce Chen is surprisingly entertaining to watch in the same way the movie “Rudy” is.
*You could make a pretty compelling argument that Gordon is the most underrated player in baseball. Last year, Gordon had a 7.1 WAR, which makes it the best season by WAR for any Royals player since George Brett in 1985. Gordon got off to a dreadful start this season, and he’s a bit down on home runs. But he has been killing it the last month and a half. He’s a good hitter, gets on base, smashes a lot of doubles, he’s a terrific fielder and an excellent base runner. I was happy for Billy Butler when he was chosen for the All-Star team — he’s a great guy, and a line-drive machine — but Gordon is easily the best player on the Royals, and he should have been the Royals’ representative in Kansas City.
This is not to say that people here believe the Royals will win next year or the year after that. Royals fans know better than anyone what has been going on here. It’s more subtle than that. For many years, Royals fans have been forced to watch unlikable teams featuring grizzled veterans who had no place else to go. Sometimes those veterans would have pretty good years — Jay Bell did, Paul Byrd and Tim Belcher did, Rey Sanchez and Jose Offerman and Mark Grudzielanek did — in which case they would find the first train out of town. Anyway, more of them were disasters. The team never got better, and because of this and because the Royals have so much less money to spend than some others, the few impressive young players who came along, like Johnny Damon and Jermaine Dye and Zack Greinke and Carlos Beltran, would leave first chance they could. It was a concentric circle of agony.
So this team, hey, at least its young, and there are some players who could be stars, and there are a few more on the way. The hope is not that the Royals will suddenly emerge, the way the Nationals have or the Rays did a few years ago. No, this is a much more vague kind of hope — that good things might somehow happen.
See, people in Kansas City love baseball. They love all sports really — this is a great sports town. When the Chiefs were good (not great, mind you, but just good), no place in America cared more. This is a real college basketball hotbed, and college football captures the imagination when the teams show signs of life. But baseball fits the cities rhythms. Baseball goes back here to those years long before anyone thought Kansas City was major league. Lou Gehrig played his last game here, you know. Mickey Mantle almost quit baseball here. Jackie Robinson started his baseball career here. The 1939 Kansas City Blues might be the greatest minor league team ever. And the 1942 Kansas City Monarchs — with Satchel Paige and Hilton Smith and Willard Brown and the like — might be one of the greatest baseball teams ever, period.
For that decade between 1976 and 1985 when the Royals were winning, the Royals were always in the top five in attendance, the Royals talk consumed the city and, even more, the region. The Royals were Oklahoma’s team and Nebraska’s team and parts of Iowa and Arkansas, too. Of course, the Cardinals had owned the Midwest for a half century, and largely still do, but the Royals meant something. They wore blue, and they turned singles into doubles, and they broke up double plays, and they caught everything, and they didn’t need the home run to win but when they hit one the fountains in the outfield would dance. This was the spirit of Kansas City baseball, the spirit that the last 25 years has stepped on and kicked and stabbed.
But that spirit is still around. The forecasters are calling for it to be 106 degrees today, and the grass has yellowed, and the Royals are 8 1/2 back already, and the Royals still have unhelpful veterans like Jeff Francoeur and Yuni Betancourt in their everyday lineup, and Jonathan Sanchez wrecks things every fifth day while the guy he was traded for, Melky Cabrera, is hitting like .789 in San Francisco. But people still care. They still care enough to want GM Dayton Moore to be pushed out and owner David Glass to sell. They still care enough to check Wil Myers’ amazing numbers in the minors (.327/.403/.676 with 20 doubles, five triples and 27 homers in 83 games between Class AA and Class AAA), they still care enough to notice Hosmer’s coming on, and Moustakas is playing a nice third base and to check in on how the surgeries for Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino are going.
Kansas City is probably the smallest market in baseball. There are numerous ways to judge such things — population in the city, population in the metro area, population going out 100 miles, television market size, radio reach — and in all of those, Kansas City and Milwaukee scrape bottom. If Major League Baseball was starting a 30-team league right now, Kansas City almost certainly would not get a team. The Royals are here for the effort and obsessive believe of a few people who loved this town — mainly owner Ewing Kauffman and sportswriters Ernie Mehl and Joe McGuff — and stayed here because people cared, and have kept caring. It isn’t easy. There are some inside Kansas City who think the city would be better off without the Royals, and many, many more outside the city limits who think baseball would be better off without Kansas City.
But enough people still love the Royals, and every summer the Royals play, and people keep hoping for the best.
* * *
Kansas City gets the All-Star Game, and it’s likely that this will be the last time Kansas City will be in the national sports spotlight for a long time. Kansas City used to be in the spotlight with regularity. There have been 10 Final Fours here, more than any other city. The NCAA was based here. There were two World Series here, a Davis Cup semifinal, numerous NFL playoff games including the Christmas Day game that is one of the best ever played. Tom Watson stayed here, so did George Brett. They kept Kansas City in the news. Heck, they played the Pro Bowl here if you can believe that.
But times have changed. Unless something dramatic changes — and it almost certainly won’t — there won’t ever be a Super Bowl here, a U.S. Open here, another Final Four here. There’s a beautiful arena downtown that was built largely for an NBA or NHL team that almost certainly won’t ever come. Another World Series seems as distant as anything. The All-Star Game won’t come back for a long time.
So this is it: Kansas City’s time to be at the heart of the sports world. But what will people really see in just a couple of days? I hope they will enjoy what’s here. I hope they go to the Negro Leagues Museum* and appreciate the history of 18th and Vine. I suspect they will try the barbecue and have their own opinions about that. I hope they will drive around a little bit, see some of those boulevards and fountains, shop a bit at the Plaza and all those sorts of things. Baseball stars will be all over the place, and there will be many celebrations, and it will be fun.
*I will be there often, but especially on Tuesday morning. At 9 a.m. I will be talking about Buck O’Neil and signing “The Soul of Baseball” for anyone who brings a copy. And then, around 10:30 — this is really cool — I’ll be talking hitting with Tony Gwynn. Come on out.
Let’s be honest: There will be wisecracks. There are always wisecracks. People will come here and they will feel the oppressive heat, and they will see some empty stores downtown, and they will find that the stadiums are kind of in the middle of nowhere. They will see that Kansas City isn’t a good public transportation town — no light rail, no subway, cabs are as rare as 60-degree summer days. They will see a city without a real center; there have been so many efforts to resuscitate downtown but, meanwhile, the people keep moving south. They will land at an airport that feels small and has few restaurants or shops and isn’t particularly close to anything.
But, in a way, that airport is a perfect way to describe Kansas City. Those things I just said are true — the airport does feel small, and it isn’t close to much, and it isn’t particularly attractive for tourists, and unlike the airports in so many places there are is no great food court, no cool stores. But you know what? It’s my favorite airport in the country. Because if you live in Kansas City, the parking is easy, and the walk is easy, and unlike any other major airport there are a dozen or more entry points so the security lines are almost always short. Picking someone up or dropping them off is easy. The stores have what you need. And like every place in Kansas City, the people are friendly. The airport, for a traveler who lives in Kansas City, is something close to perfect. It may not impress anyone just coming to visit, but once you’ve lived here for a while you realize: It’s an amazing place.