I’ve mentioned over and over throughout the past week how homesick the Kansas City All-Star game has been making me. To make matters worse, since it’s being broadcast on FOX — which lacks a live streaming option — I have no way of watching it. I have been following it via Twitter feed, and due to this whole David Ortiz incident (if you haven’t heard about it, I’ll get to it), I felt compelled to write.
I was born six years after the Kansas City Royals beat the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1985 World Series and 21 years after the Kansas City Chiefs defeated the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV. My mom is a Kansas State alumna and, though my father earned his degree later when I was in grade school, he never really seemed to have much of a preference when it came to college sports. Cousins from both sides of my family were University of Kansas students/graduates, so around kindergarten, I started to ‘become’ a KU fan — I just have easily could have been a K-State fan, but for some reason, I never did.
But before that, I never had to question it — I was a Chiefs fan and I was a Royals fan. I never had to ‘become’ one, I just was. I’ve seen pictures of myself in Chiefs and Royals clothes dating so far back that I can’t remember actually owning them or wearing them. Everyone around me was a Chiefs and Royals fan. Since winter birthdays are rare in my family, almost every family function was innately centered around the game — even when it came time to open presents, the Chiefs game would still be on. Sure, Grandma forced Grandpa to put it on mute, but it was still there. Every uncle and cousin would mutter the customary “Ooooh, look at that!” or “Oh wow!” each time any one of us then snot-nosed toddlers opened a present, but they were more or less autopilot functions — their attention was on the game. That’s the way it was, and even though we’ve all grown up and there aren’t as many birthday parties, that’s still the way it kind of is. It probably won’t ever change, nor do I think anyone would want it to.
I’ve had a lot of great memories with both teams. I remember the good old days when Johnny Damon was a Royal; I remember going to games with my neighbor and giggling every time the announcer would call Mike Sweeney up to bat (say his name fast). I remember watching Jermaine Dye play. Because they always seem to be significantly less hopeful than the Chiefs — and because I’ve been to Kauffmann Stadium less than I’ve been to Arrowhead — I remember almost every single time I’ve seen the Royals win in person. It feels pretty damn good each time, because odds that the one game you’ll go to that month will be a win are generally worse than a coin flip — or so they seem. Across the street at Arrowhead, the memories are a bit fonder — I remember when we had Dante Hall and the entire stadium would be on its feet when the other team would be preparing to punt. I remember when it felt like he would run back every single punt return. Then there was Derrick Thomas, too, and then there was Priest Holmes. No matter what, Tony Gonzalez was always there, too. Whether or not we ever win a Super Bowl, I’ll still tell my kids about how I saw us bury the Broncos with a cold-blooded, last second field goal on Thanksgiving night. I’ll still tell them about how I saw us beat the defending champion Steelers in overtime before a house full of black and gold. I’ll still tell them about how we ended the defending champion Packers’ winning streak before a house full of green and gold.
But, to date, I’ve still never seen either team win a playoff game with my naked eye. Frankly, I haven’t had too many opportunities. Sure, I saw the (then) Kansas City Wizards win the MLS Cup in 2000, before Sporting Park was built and before they changed their name and before anyone outside of the KC soccer community really cared. Sure, I watched the Jayhawks win the national championship in 2008 and watched them play in it again this year, but while those were both sweet as can be, they weren’t the same. Outside of Lawrence, it was only the Jayhawk alumni and fans who were celebrating in Kansas City. When we won, the Mizzou and K-State fans either didn’t watch it or just didn’t talk about it, and when we lost, they either didn’t watch it or just spent all their time harassing us about how we “choked.” Either way, only a portion of the city had a good time on those two nights.
I’m lucky — when the Jayhawks did it in 2008, I felt the indescribable nirvana that comes with your team winning it all. Kansas City-bred (and born after 1985) K-State and Mizzou fans have never felt it — it makes me cringe that I’m shedding the slightest bit of sympathy toward either, but bear with me. Kansas City sports fans (born after 1985) with no local college preference have never felt it. Not only has there never been a moment during my lifetime where our entire city has celebrated the sweet glory of “winning it all” —there’s never even been a moment where our entire city has been under the prime time, national sports spotlight.
Well, for me there hasn’t. The All-Star game is going on now as I type, and I’m in New York City.
But for every young Kansas City native — regardless of their college preference — this week has been the biggest one. It’s a different kind of big, though; the Royals are probably still doomed to be cellar-dwellers come September and, even though Sports Illustrated listed the Chiefs as Super Bowl contenders, it still feels too good to be true. But none of that matters, because it’s the first time everyone’s talking about Kansas City. Everyone’s watching Kansas City. The unfortunate souls doomed to work this weekend at every one of Kansas City’s barbecue establishments are sweating like Mayor Sly James during “Take Your Son to Work Day” (Google ‘Sly James son.’ He’s a political nightmare). Kansas City’s in the headlines, Kansas City’s on the TV screens.
Enter Robinson Cano of the New York Yankees. He’s tasted from the silver spoon, he’s drank from the Steinbrenner family’s diamond-encrusted pimp cup. He’s a Yankee, and he knows what it is to win. He won the Home Run Derby last year, which made him the ‘captain’ for the American League Derby team this year. The quotes around ‘captain’ are intentional — it’s beyond trivial to try and over-dignify his responsibilities with that word. He gets to pick which guys get to come up and swing at slow pitches during a sold-out batting practice. There’s no pressure and there’s no huge reward — the winner goes down as a footnote on some page in the nether indexes of baseball history books. Their team doesn’t benefit at all and their league doesn’t benefit at all. Really, the only people who benefit from the whole anti-climactic, effortless and depraved shitshow that is the Home Run Derby are the fans and those who receive the charity donations.
So obviously, there’s no real pressure for Robinson Cano when he puts his team together. Sure, he’s a competitor and doesn’t want to lose, but there’s no real consequence if the American League doesn’t win. So, seeing as this is the first time Kansas City has had an All-Star game since Queen Elizabeth II was sexually attractive, it would make sense to let a Royal participate in the derby. The stakes remain the same — nothing really happens if the AL wins, nothing really happens if they lose. But Kansas City isn’t Los Angeles or Miami; people generally don’t think, “Oh wow, the All-Star Game is in KC. That’d be an amazing place to take a week-long vacation. Pack your bags, kids, we’re going to Kansas!” For the most part, those in attendance will be Kansas City natives, and subsequently, Royals fans. Even if someone like Billy Butler has little-to-no chance at winning the whole thing, the fans will get to see one of their hometown boys participate in the derby for the first time since 1991. Even better, they’ll see it at the K.
Before finalizing his ‘team,’ (once again, that’s such a fucking stupid word for such a trivial event) Robinson Cano said he’d call up Billy Butler because it was the “right thing to do.” Outside of KC, it didn’t make headlines, because that’s precisely what it was: the right thing to do. To steal from Joe Posnanski, it’s like inviting the bride’s parents to her wedding; there’s no rule that says you have to, you just do it.
But for whatever skewed, nonsensical reason, Cano didn’t do it. So when he was introduced at the derby, he was violently booed. When it came time for him to swing his bat, the booing damn-near matched the decibel levels of a botched 4th quarter call in Arrowhead. Each time he failed to go deep (which was every time), the crowd cheered. He didn’t hit a single home run and the Kansas City faithful were absolutely jazzed about it. The national press (unfortunately, that includes my own employer) called the Kansas City fans tasteless and classless and scolded us for “ruining the occasion” for Cano. I’m not going to waste time justifying the jeers, because if you have any sense, sympathy or taste — which automatically disqualifies all Yankee fans — it should justify itself.
Enter David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox, who said he’d take one at-bat during this evening’s All-Star Game before bowing out so Billy Butler could play. Ortiz said it was because “it’s [Butler’s] hometown.” I, along with countless others, tweeted and posted our appreciation for Ortiz’s gesture. With that, there’d be a chance — though rather slim — that maybe Butler would yard one in the All-Star Game at the K. Maybe Billy’d hit a grand slam. Maybe he’d hit a walk-off! Sure, you’d be better served to bet your 401k at the dog tracks, but it could still happen.
Then, sure as shit, Ortiz goes and does the same thing Cano does and takes a second at-bat. Billy got in the game eventually, but only after getting snubbed by two big-name, internationally-known multi-millionaires.
Billy Butler isn’t a big name. No one outside of the United States (and that’s even generous) knows who the fuck Billy Butler is. Billy Butler isn’t rolling in the big bucks.
Billy Butler plays in Kansas City. Billy Butler is just like every single athlete who’s ever played in Kansas City but wasn’t on the ’85 Royals team or the ’70 Chiefs team — he makes decent money and he plays with decent players, but his offseason always starts earlier than he’d like. Each time he sees himself on Sportscenter or Baseball Tonight, he probably gets a bigger kick out of it than many other pro-athletes because it doesn’t happen all the time. He may have his number retired when he grows old, but outside of Kansas City, it isn’t likely that his name will ring many bells. ‘Tis the unfortunate and inescapable reality of playing for a Kansas City sports team.
Really, being a Kansas City sports fan is pretty much just that, too: an unfortunate and inescapable reality. We were doomed from the minute we first fell in love with our teams. Every now and then, a moment will come along when you think, “this could be it” and cross your fingers and cross your toes and dot your ‘i’s’ and cross your ‘t’s and wear your lucky shirt and wear your lucky undies. You don’t need me to tell you — it never comes. And though I doubt anyone except for Billy Butler was thinking “this could be it,” every one of us was thinking that the All-Star Game could have been the one event that would alter everyone’s perception about our mid-sized, corn-fed “cow town.” We thought maybe the rest of the country would remember this All-Star Game or maybe they’d think — brace yourselves for this one… — that Kansas City is actually a reputable, classy, cool sports town. But like always, it never really works out like that.
Billy Butler plays in Kansas City. So when he came onto the field tonight, he received a standing ovation. Some idiots on Twitter even had the balls to say that his popularity in KC may usurp George Brett’s (they’re idiots). From now on, Billy Butler jerseys and t-shirts will sell better than hot dogs. He’ll probably never win a championship for us, but we’ll love him as if he’d won us 10. ‘Tis the beautiful and inescapable reality of playing for a Kansas City sports team.
And really — even if we never, ever win another championship again — being a Kansas City sports fan will always be pretty much that, too: a beautiful and inescapable reality. We’re not the kind of people who shy away from our teams when they’re not winning, because frankly, they’re usually not winning. We don’t just ‘like’ our teams; we know the names of every player worth mentioning. We all have tattered, worn out jerseys in our closet dating back to our childhoods with names like “Saberhagen” and “Dye” and “Boerigter” and “Gonzalez” on them. When little moments come around and we actually prevail? We never, ever forget them. When the big moments come around and we fall, like always?
We never, ever forget those either. But believe me, we will remember how painful each and every one of those moments was if we ever “do it,” if we ever “win it all.” Each year we rack up more bitter, it’s only going to make the sweet taste so much sweeter.
And one of those days, we will “do it.” We will “win it all.” The anguish, the pain and the excruciatingly long wait will all have been worth it.
There are no doubts in my mind that Kansas City is one of the best damn sports towns in the United States, if not the best.
If we ever do it, the rest of the United States won’t have any doubts, either.
All the best