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Baseball Across America: Kansas City

Kauffman Stadium

Editor’s Note: Mark Cryan, former MiLB general manager and Ballpark Digest contributing editor, is embarking on an epic ballpark tour this summer, and he’ll be filing regular dispatches from the road. Today’s stop: Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium.

We have a bias toward the Kansas City Royals, since our local minor-league team is a Royals affiliate. We have watched players like Salvador Perez start in Burlington and wind up playing in Kansas City. I have also always been intrigued by Kaufman Stadium’s reputation as a pure ballpark, a baseball-only facility with excellent site lines and some great history.

The ballpark also underwent a significant overhaul for their recent turn hosting the All-Star Game. This renovation was primarily focused on the addition of an outfield concourse with additional kids’ activity areas, food options, hospitality space and more.

The strangest thing about this visit was the feeling of a ballpark located off a highway exit and surrounded by a sea of parking. I struggled to remember the last major-league game I attended that wasn’t in an urban setting; the Yankees, Cardinals, Padres, and Red Sox all have the downtown vibe going. So, thinking on it, I remembered a visit to the Angels and the Dodgers, and a long-ago visit to County Stadium in Milwaukee. So, the atmosphere has a sort of strange post-modern retro element.

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But Royals fans seem to love it. The complex, shared with Arrowhead Stadium, the home of the NFL’s Chiefs, is simply the home to big-time sports for people in this region. There is a good deal of tailgating going on, lots of Royals gear being worn, and a festive atmosphere. It certainly helps that the Royals have been very good in recent years. But the ballpark delivers; the fountains in the outfield are distinctive and appropriate for a city that calls itself the “City of Fountains.” The old synthetic turf is gone, and the whole place feels shiny and new.

And the fans are coming out. The game we attended, versus the Twins on a Thursday night, was a near sell-out. And when you look at the Royals promotional calendar, they have things like $1 hot dog night and other weekly specials. It’s always amazes me how rare it is for major league teams to learn from the strategies that have worked in the minors for decade, but in this case, the Royals seem to get it.

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We toured the Royals Hall of Fame in left field, and particularly liked the “Design Your Own Stadium” feature sponsored by our friends at Populous. The staff was very friendly, there lots of food choices, and the crowd was really into the game.

Overall, this was a very different experience than our other recent MLB outings, but we had a great time in our first visit to Kansas City’s home field.

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Kansas City BBQ

Another must when you are in Kansas City is eating BBQ. And, this is not the vinegar-based pulled pork barbeque that we are used to in most of North Carolina. This is a tomato-based sauce on rib meat. When they say pulled pork, they are not talking about the practically shredded pulled pork of NC, they are talking about chunks of meat.

By all accounts, the best place to get BBQ in KC is Joe’s (formerly Oklahoma Joe’s), as the sign says. We headed to the original location, which operates out of a building on a corner in a largely residential neighborhood. The building also houses a gas station, and there is still a working convenience store counter occupying the front corner of the building. And, you better allow some time. We were there at about 5 p.m. on a Friday night, and the line was already around the building. We waited just under an hour to order. The food is excellent, but I doubt I would wait on line for an hour again. If you are determined to eat Joe’s BBQ, you can call ahead, and just show up about an hour later and take it out. Another insider tip; as soon as you have moved far enough in line to be inside the door, you can go to the take-out counter and order a beer, which makes the wait a lot more bearable.

World War I Memorial and Museum

If you have a military history buff in your traveling party, or if you would just like to learn more about the “other” world war, this is a great stop. The monument is impressive, and the museum is truly fantastic. There is a small charge for admission, and the tickets are good for two days, allowing for some great flexibility if you decide you can’t get through it all in one day, or if you just want to break it up, like we did.

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Negro League Baseball Museum

This one is a no-brainer for anyone on a baseball road trip. The Negro Leagues had strong historical ties to Kansas City, and this museum does them proud. The centerpiece is a set of statues, stationed at their positions, honoring the greats of Negro League Baseball, including one of Buck O’Neil behind the backstop in his role as a manager. O’Neil, a Kansas City native, was the driving force in the creation of this museum which shares a building with a jazz museum, which sadly, we didn’t have time to visit. If you are a baseball fan in Kansas City, you need to find your way to this shrine to our beloved game’s complex history.

Life on the Road: Camp Fiasco

We tried our hand at camping in Kansas City, with no luck whatsoever. Since we were going to be in town for a couple nights, with no game the first night, we thought a night in campground would be a nice change of pace, and let us grill some hot dogs and throw the ball around a little. Ty did some online research and found a very nice campground, located on a lake, run by Jackson County. It was in the country, but just about 10 minutes from Kaufman Stadium. Perfect!

We check in, pick a spot, and head back out to get hot dogs and buns and other groceries at the Price Chopper down street. It was a gorgeous day when we went into the grocery store, but by the time we came out, it was pouring! We figured that maybe it would pass, so we headed to the campground. We were watching a movie in the van, waiting out the rain, when a camp attendant knocks on the door to tell us there is a tornado warning, and we all supposed to go the bathroom building, which is their designated tornado shelter.

We spent about an hour and half in a concrete bunker that smelled like urinal cakes, waiting out the delay. When we returned to our campsite, we tried to set up our tarp awning, with limited success, and then realized that while electricity had been restored to the campgrounds, our site had no juice.

We took our awning back down and stopped at two other campsites before we found one with electricity, and tried to settle in. At this point, having not learned our lesson, we decided to try and get a wood fire going with an assist from some charcoal. The charcoal never seemed to get going and the wood was soaked, so after about an hour, we had succeeded “cooking” two hot dogs over the newspaper we had in the van, and we threw in the towel.  The charcoal was showing no signs of life, so I covered it over with a layer of the soaking wet firewood to smother any lingering embers, and we headed to sleep.

An hour or so later, Ty says, “Well, somebody got a wood fire going. I smell wood smoke.” We peek our heads outside and see that our fire has roared to life, and with a brightly burning open flame. It was after midnight, so we just had to laugh, doused it with water and went to sleep.

Needless to say, we spent the next night in a hotel, eating fast food and watching cable TV, which felt pretty luxurious. Hopefully, we’ll have better luck next time!

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Kids’ Eye View

Behind the plaza built in the outfield is Kansas City’s kids’ play area. The Royals do a lot to keep the kids entertained. When you first enter there is a playground to the left and a mini golf course to the right. They also have a batting cage and speed pitch. Though all of that is fun, I find the most unique thing is the miniature field where you can hit a Wiffle ball and run the bases. Like most of the Major league ballparks they have a kids’ concession stand.

Next stop: Olathe, Community America Ballpark.

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