The Many Pleasures Of Kansas City

A general view of an American Flag being stretched out and help by Military Personnel as a Stealth Bomber performs a flyover during the 83rd MLB All-Star Game at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

What happens when a Kansas City native returns to his hometown after too many years away from both his city and the ballpark in which he grew to love his team?

I grew up in Kansas City.

More to the point, I grew up as a baseball fan in Kansas City. If not for Kansas City, I might well have grown to love baseball. Or I might not have. Before Kansas City, I had equal fervor for football, basketball, even floor hockey. But if you were a kid in 1976 and you moved to Kansas City, you probably became crazy in a hurry for the Kansas City Royals. They were the toast of the town, and I was easily won over.

Eventually, I would see many dozens of games at Kauffman (née Royals) Stadium before I saw a single game anywhere else. I didn't travel much, nor did I particularly care to travel much; after all, what of any essential nature would I find somewhere else that we didn't have in Kansas City? We had the Royals, and we had those delightful summer nights from May through September, with the fireflies and the cicadas and the languid temperatures and the hint of future thunderstorms that make every evening feel like a long sentence in a Ray Bradbury story.

Then I moved away, for a job. And then farther away, for another job. For a while, I fantasized about moving back someday. For the fireflies and the cicadas and the summer nights, but for the Royals more than anything else. I fantasized about finding a house within a mile or two of Kauffman Stadium, and going to every game.

Yeah.

And then I didn't. At some point in the late 1990s, after I'd been living in the Pacific Northwest for a few years, I felt at home. Not as if I'd lived there all my life. But as if someone had designed a place specifically for me, a feeling that became only more pronounced after I migrated from Seattle (too big, said the baby bear) to Portland (just right). There seemed to be a place in Portland for someone like me, especially when the local baseballers played in a Depression-era ballpark.

And speaking of local baseballers, my ardor for the Kansas City nine waned over the years. I have not, like some baseball fans I know, switched allegiances. Though I have been in the Pacific Northwest for longer than I've lived anywhere else, and even owned season tickets for the Mariners for a few years, I never really cared much whether the M's won or lost.

It's simply not in my DNA to love another baseball team.*

* Or at least not another existing team; if Portland were to get a team, especially a team in the National League, I might become infatuated.

But I don't exactly love the Royals any more, either. I do know people who still love the Royals, despite all the heartache and frustrations and cognitive dissonance and Yuniesky Betancourt. I envy them. They're true fans, and I never intended to leave them. The passion comes when it comes, and it leaves when it leaves.

Today, I am merely an enthusiast. I feel about the Royals the way I feel about Game of Thrones; I'll watch when they're on, and my base passions might well be stirred for a moment. But when the show's over, I don't give those characters much thought until the next time.

I don't feel about Kansas City the way I once did; I don't feel about Kansas City's Royals the way I once did. So when I arrived in my old hometown for the 83rd All-Star Game, a batch of new feelings arrived with me. It had been some time since I'd been set loose in Kansas City, and I hadn't visited Kauffman Stadium since renovations transformed what had been, for so many years, my favorite playground.


Video: Rob Neyer visits Satchel Paige, Buck O'Neil, and Zack Wheat.

Well, I am happy to report that the revised Kauffman Stadium is an improvement over the original. The building initially opened for business in 1973, and was essentially a concrete shell surrounding a seating bowl that stretched from behind the plate to just beyond both foul lines in the outfield corners. It wasn't a pretty building. But because it was built solely for baseball, it was a good place to watch a baseball game.

It's still a good place to watch a baseball game, and now it's actually sort of pretty. They've added a big swath of stainless steel (or something) to the exterior of the stadium that actually echoes, stylistically, Kansas City's shiny new downtown arena (a striking building that still is looking for a big-time tenant). Most of the people who visit the new Kauffman Stadium focus on all the new additions beyond the outfield: the Royals Hall of Fame (which is excellent), the kid-centric attractions, the new places to buy food and beer ... But you know what my favorite change is?

The landscaping. Just outside the ballpark, the trees have grown and native grasses have been planted. All around the stadium used to be a wasteland of concrete and asphalt. Of course it's still mostly concrete and asphalt, because everyone drives to the ballpark and all those cars have to go somewhere. But I have to tell you this ...

Sitting there in the auxiliary press section, so far from the field that I usually couldn't see the baseball and could track the action on the field only by watching the fielders, my absolute favorite moment in the 83rd All-Star Game came right around dusk. I was far from the field, but close to some of those tall native grasses, planted just outside the stadium. And at dusk, those tall native grasses came alive with the sounds of the Midwest's crickets and cicadas and all manner of other tiny nocturnal creatures.

And for the first time in a long while, I remembered why I loved my old hometown.

***************

There are, I must add, other reasons to love Kansas City. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, which remains as modest as ever but still must be visited at least once. The stunning new World War I Museum. Grand old Union Station. Downtown, quite small but loaded with historical character. Satchel Paige's grave. Buck O'Neil's grave. All the fountains. And of course all those terrific barbecue joints (if you're into that sort of thing). I just can't quite recommend visiting Kansas City in July or August. The nights are delightful, but the days ... the days are just flat hot. And in case you haven't been following the news, they're getting hotter.

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