Sunday, April 15, 2012

My baseball home

Friday started the 40th season of baseball at Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium. On Saturday, I went to a game there with some of my friends for my brother’s bachelor party. It was a pretty wild game, as the benches (and bullpens) cleared twice, the Royals rallied from down seven to force extra innings, and, in a rather deflating development, the Indians won in 10.

Because Kansas City is not a major media market, and because the team has spent the last quarter century essentially wandering in the desert, Kauffman is not necessarily viewed as one of the game’s historic ballparks. It is widely referred to as beautiful, idyllic, a refreshing change of pace from the homely “cookie-cutter” stadiums of its era that all seemed to look alike. But no so much historical.

Maybe part of that is in modern times we’ve really had four historic ballparks: Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, Yankee Stadium and Tiger Stadium. Yankee and Tiger are gone, leaving Fenway and Wrigley as the seemingly timeless icons. They are 50 and 48 years older, respectively, than any other major league ballpark.

Kauffman is in that next group, the surviving relics of baseball’s era of expansion, relocation, transition. It is the sixth-oldest ballpark (would crack the top five if the A’s get a new park), and, as I tweeted Friday, in July Kauffman will join Fenway and Wrigley as the only current ballparks that have hosted at least two World Series and at least two All-Star Games.

But perhaps more important than where a ballpark stands relative to others is its standing in the hearts of the fans who go to games there. Kauffman Stadium has a familiarity for me. There are many memories from trips there, special moments that draw me back and make me want to share my ballpark with others.

August 14, 2002

Yankees 3, Royals 2 (14 innings)

The Yankees had won four straight AL pennants at this point, and the Royals were barreling toward their first 100-loss season in franchise history. But on this August night, the Royals and pitcher Paul Byrd dug in.

Byrd was having a fine season for the otherwise struggling Royals. He gave up a home run in the first inning, but then shut down the mighty Yankees. The Royals scored two in the sixth, including a steal of home by Mike Sweeney with Andy Pettitte pitching to take the lead. The Yankees tied it with an unearned run in the seventh.

Working past the 100-pitch mark, Byrd struck out Derek Jeter and Jason Giambi en route to a 1-2-3 eighth inning as the crowd roared. As he walked off the mound, unsure if he’d be back, he flapped his arms like wings to acknowledge his fans in the “Byrd’s Nest.”

The Royals couldn’t score in the bottom of the eight, but Byrd came back out to face the Yankees again in the ninth. After a hit and a double play, Raul Mondesi singled. Mondesi stole second and third as Byrd battled Rondell White, fighting to keep the Yankees at bay. After an interminable 10-pitch at bat, with rising applause before each pitch, Byrd induced a groundout, flapping his arms to the Byrd’s Nest once again.

The Yankees eventually won in 14, complete with the incomparable Mariano Rivera getting the save. But Byrd drawing a line in the sand on that night was something to behold, a reminder even a downtrodden team could stand up to the Bombers.

April 5, 2004

Royals 9, White Sox 7

This was one of my best days ever at Kauffman Stadium. I skipped school to go with my brother and his friend to see my first ever Royals Opening Day game. The Royals had posted a very surprising winning record in 2003, and there was a lot of excitement about the 2004 season for the winning-starved fan base.

We perhaps foolishly went without tickets, as my brother and his friend had been able to get them from a scalper at the previous year’s home opener. Once we arrived, we couldn’t find anyone selling tickets. As game time neared, it seemed I would have to wait for my first Opening Day game.

But then my brother came up with a brilliant plan, one that ticket-scanning technology has now made impossible. We bought tickets to the next home game, also against the Chicago White Sox, and just handed them to the ticket takers as we entered the stadium. It was a moment of Ocean’s 11-level tension, but the ticket takers tore the stubs off the tickets and we walked inside.

We watched from standing room areas for most of the game, but as the White Sox took a 7-3 lead into the ninth, a few people left and we took some seats on the infield, under the overhang on the first base side. According to Baseball Reference, Chicago took a 98 percent win probability to the ninth.

Then, several minutes of baseball magic.

Walk, walk, double to cut it to 7-4, strikeout. Then the anonymous Mendy Lopez crushed a pinch-hit, game-tying home run to dead center as Kauffman Stadium erupted.

Angel Berroa followed with a single, giving the Royals 12 hits and a free dozen Krispy Kreme doughnuts to everyone in attendance. Carlos Beltran, shining in his youth, followed by smashing a homer to left-center for the wild, walkoff win.

It’s tempting to call the win a mirage, as the Royals staggered to a 58-104 record that season, and 106 losses the following year as optimistic manager Tony Pena quit during a series in Toronto, saying, “I just can’t take it anymore.”

But I prefer to think of it as a coda, a thrilling tribute to the magical 2003 season when for one year, the Royals were contenders. Devout first baseman Mike Sweeney summed up that April afternoon with his comments that day about Beltran.

“He’s walking close to heaven right now.”

April 24 and May 15, 2009

Royals 6, Tigers 1 and Royals 8, Orioles 1

I had a couple friends with me who had either never been to a game at Kauffman Stadium, or hadn’t been to one since the renovations before the 2009 season. On a Buck Night and with ace Zack Greinke on the hill, it was quite a show.

Greinke carried a 0.00 ERA into the game, and he was locked in. He threw a 3-hit complete game, yielding only an unearned run in the fifth. He wasn’t merely effective; he was breathtaking, striking out 10 and getting better and better as the game progressed and the crowd got more and more excited. After the unearned run, Greinke retired 13 straight Tiger hitters to end the game, including striking out six of seven hitters during a stretch from the seventh to ninth innings. He was soon on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Later that spring, I drove from Columbia with three friends on the night before my college graduation to watch Greinke and the Royals again. After a rain delay of over two hours, the game finally started. The Royals had anticipated a big crowd, so with the rain driving away many fans, vendors were giving away hotdogs during the game. My friends and I combined to eat 23 hotdogs, Greinke’s number. Greinke went seven innings, allowed only one run, and struck out six. By the end of the game, he was 7-1 and had a 0.60 ERA. The Royals were in first.

That Royals team would eventually tank, playing awful baseball during the heat of the summer. But Greinke won the A.L. Cy Young Award that year and provided some lasting memories that spring and that season.

* * *

These are just some of the countless stories from my many trips to my ballpark. This post would get ridiculously long if I rambled on about my first game there, in 1996 against the then-powerhouse Cleveland Indians.

Or I-70 Series games with most of my friends swathed in Cardinal red, like the Royals-Cards game when immortal pitchers Scott Elarton and Kip Wells squared off, resulting in 25 combined runs scored.

Or the August night my friend Nathan Armer and I drove to Kauffman on a whim to watch the Royals take on C.C. Sabathia and the Indians.

Or the time my family and I saw Pedro Martinez “in full bloom,” as Joe Posnanski would say, in 2000, when he gave up five in the first and one in the second to Kansas City before digging in and twirling six perfect innings as the Red Sox eventually came back and won.

Or the time my brother, a friend and I watched an entire series against the Blue Jays, setting my personal record by hearing “O, Canada” on three straight days.

Or the time my group painted “KRIS” on our chests as erstwhile reliever Kris Wilson made a start, heard someone crack, “Maybe it should say ‘risk,’” caught his warmup ball that he tossed to us, then watched him get shelled by Billy Beane’s A’s machine.

Or the time I saw them lose a 12th straight game.

Or the time I was part of standing ovation for Cal Ripkin Jr., maybe baseball’s last hero in the classic sense.

Or the time after a game when my friends and I stopped at Sheridan’s Frozen Custard, met two girls from a Kansas City Catholic high school, and tried to impress them by removing the back seat from my friend’s mom’s Chevy Astro van to make a couch.

Or the multiple times I saw poor, wounded Gil Meche get shelled, including his final start, where our Dri-Duck seats were threatened by the prodigious home run blasts by the Rangers.

Or the first time I saw the new, giant HD video board. Or all the Opening Day games. Or the Buck Nights and Fireworks Fridays and hot and cold and rain and snow (yes, really) and how green the grass is and being there with friends and family and that moment when it’s not quite night but not quite day and the lights are shining bright.

And the fountains, those beautiful, signature fountains.

It is the seemingly incompatible junction of youth and history.

My baseball home.

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