Even the most starved and beleaguered sports fans claim some obscure benefits when their hometown team is perennially cellar-dwelling in what is perhaps baseball's thinnest division (the AL Central). Two days ago at 4:47 p.m., my roommate Daniel and I decided to fill another lifeless Tuesday with a trip to the Royals-Indians game that evening at Kauffman Stadium, recently renovated and now known around town as 'The K'.
After a quick workout and an even quicker dinner, we left for The K shortly after 6:23 p.m., hoping somehow to avoid Kansas City's rush-hour traffic and still arrive in time for first pitch at 7:05. Neither objective was an obstacle. With the Royals roughly 20 games out of first (19 entering Tuesday) and exactly 30 games below .500 (47-77), there was no discernible automotive convergence on the Truman Sports Complex, which is located due east of downtown KC and holds both The K and Arrowhead Stadium, where the town's other lovable losers languish longingly. Most of the city's worker bees had fled their 9-to-5 by the time we passed through, and very few of them were headed to the Royals-Indians game. Travelling along I-435 from our apartment in the southwest suburbs on the Kansas side, the 25-minute drive took an astonishing 25 minutes. That's one of those obscure benefits you claim when your hometown team is perennially cellar-dwelling in what is perhaps baseball's thinnest division.
We met little or no resistance (not even a line of cars) as we cruised up to the outer gates and vomited the $9 parking fee before sailing into a parking spot towards the front of a half-full parking lot (I'm not normally a parking lot half-full kind of guy, but this would prove to be the beginning of a very pleasant evening, so let's not break the vibe).
We exited the vehicle and found our immediate vicinity full of young, single people tailgating and carrying on, slamming beers from bottle and can alike as they threw both football and baseball to and fro. It occurred to Daniel and me as we approached the stadium that we still did not have tickets for the evening's affair, but luckily for us, luck wasn't gonna' let us down now. Before we made it to the ticket window on the southwest corner of The K, a man walking the other way somehow picked us out of the crowd and asked if we need tickets.
"How much?", I answered/asked.
"Five dollars," he said.
"Five dollars?!" I echoed.
"Yep ... five dollars will get you in, and then you can move down to some better seats after that. These are 18-dollar tickets, but I'm selling 'em for five now."
I looked deep into the man's eyes and then down at the tickets in his left hand to see if they had the proper date, time and opponent. I'd had good luck with scalpers in the past, but this crazy fool was un-scalping these tickets. I guess this is another one of the obscure benefits you claim when your hometown team is perennially cellar-dwelling in what is perhaps baseball's thinnest division.
"Sold ... give me two of 'em," I said as I reached into my pocket for the 10-dollar bill I knew was there. We made a crisp exchange in broad daylight, and suddenly Daniel and I were headed up the escalators to the 18-dollar seats we had commandeered for five after a 25-minute drive that actually lasted 25.
To make matters better, it was free T-shirt night for the first 20,000 fans, whom would likely be the only 20,000 fans, and we were each presented with an extra-large, powder blue Royals T as we passed through the turnstiles, compliments of AT&T. We got to our seats without asking more than two ushers where our seats were, and our plastic blue chairs happened to be in my favorite part of any major league stadium: on the front of the upper deck down the third base line, with a video-game quality view of all the action. These seats are particularly convenient in The K, where an August sunset blinds the people on the right field line for the first three or four innings of the game. We've been having an unseasonably cool summer here in the middle of the Midwest, but it was nice and stuffy on this particular evening as we settled in for first pitch, which was six minutes late at 7:11 p.m.
Zack Greinke threw that first pitch, and while Daniel and I had no idea the Royals' ace was even throwing that night, no one in the half-full stadium had any idea what they were about to witness. I'm not usually a stadium half-full kind of guy, but just keep reading.
Greinke struck out four of the first six Indians he faced, and after fanning just one in the top of the third, he K'd two in the fourth and struck out the side in the fifth to make it 10 K's through five IP. He struck out a pair in the sixth and seventh to establish a new career-high at 14, throwing one curveball as slow as 69 mph before squeezing off consecutive 97 mph fastballs in the top of the sixth to strike out Matt LaPorta.
Kauffman Stadium's new, bigger and better jumbotron in left-center lists each batter's previous at-bats each time he comes back to bat, and the oversized pixels started listing "Struck out swinging" and/or "Struck out looking" for almost every Indian hitter as the game went along. Kelly Shoppach and Shin-Soo Choo struck out three times each, and all nine Cleveland starters wiffed at least once.
In the top of the eighth, Greinke struck out Indian third baseman Andy Marte -- who had broken up the shutout with a solo homer in the sixth -- to set a new franchise record nearly 21 years to the day when Mark Gubicza struck out 14 Twins on Aug. 27, 1988.
The ball went to the dugout, but the bashful Greinke did not acknowledge a standing ovation from the half-full stadium, and he was denied his 16th strikeout on a 2-2 count later in the inning when Royal center fielder Josh Anderson made a horizontally immaculate diving catch to end the inning.
Greinke allowed just two earned runs in eight innings to further reduce his league-leading ERA to 2.43, and he actually got some run support this time, leaving with a 6-2 lead that would ultimately be the final. The crowd booed when Greinke did not reappear for the top of the ninth after 117 pitches, but those boos soon switched to a standing ovation, which Greinke naturally refused.
All this historic action prove to be a bit too much for Daniel and I. Ordinarily, we'll leave our seats at some time in the game and creep closer to the field no matter how much we liked the seats we paid for. If somehow we ever get our butts into front-row seats, we'll probably try sneaking into the Royals dugout during the seventh inning stretch. On this record-setting occasion, however, we downgraded our seats during the seventh inning stretch by moving up. The K's upper deck was less than a quarter full, which is typical for a weeknight whenever the Royals have been out of the pennant race since June, so we went to the top of the stadium and sat down next to a pillar on the very last row. I reached into my pocket to discover the night's only botched execution: the blunt I had rolled up the night before had somehow unravelled from the paper towel I'd wrapped it in and spilled half its guts out into the cellphone pocket of my white Dickies shorts. It was a tragic disappointment to be sure, but it was the only blemish on an otherwise spotless night.
I pulled the black Bic lighter out of that same cellphone pocket and lit what was left of our recreational utensil, passing it to Daniel after a few puffs and then surveying the stands below us for stadium personnel or law enforcement. There were some cops about a hundred yards away at 3 o'clock low in the middle of the upper deck, but they were too busy clapping for Greinke to worry about us. So there we sat, smoking a scaled-back spliff atop Kauffman Stadium while the Royals' only all-star had his way with the Cleveland Indians. I realized at that moment how impossible that moment would be if the Royals were a good baseball team or if we lived in a bigger city where more people came to the games based on sheer population and weeknight boredom. The upper decks at Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park and Wrigley Field were surely filled to the brim on that very same evening, and while those fans get to watch good teams year in and year out, they can't get stoned at the top of the stadium like we can here in KC. I guess it's another one of those obscure benefits a beleaguered and starved sports fan claims when his team is perennially cellar-dwelling in what is perhaps baseball's thinnest division.
That's all we have to cling to here in Kansas City these days. Greinke was a puppeteer on the mound Tuesday, throwing whatever he wanted whenever he wanted to whichever Indian was in the batter's box for eight full innings. Daniel and I returned to our seats in the eighth before Royal reliever Robinson Tejada struck out another Indian in the ninth, making it a season-high 16 K's for the Tribe, which also tied KC's franchise record for a nine-inning game).
Greinke's performance also moved him past 700 K's for his career and a personal best with 197 strikeouts this season, but sadly for Kansas City and all its sports fans, our young ace probably won't return to the Royals after his 4-year, $38 million contract is up in 2012. By then, he'll be 28-years old, and ready to begin the prime of his potentially hall-of-fame career. Tuesday night he exhibited full command of two different fastballs, a slow, 12-6 curveball, an 89 mph slider, and even the occasional changeup, and those five pitches should earn him nine digits from the Yankees, Red Sox, or whichever coastal, big-market team bids the most for him. That's life in today's sporting landscape, and we here in Kansas City have grown grudgingly used to it.
I've lived all my life within two hours of KC, but I've never been loyal to the Royals because their front office has proven itself incompetent and misguided time and again over the last two decades. Dayton Moore and the new administration is doing a better job than previous general management groups, but progress is still not promised for the smallest of small-market teams in a small-market division.
In a perfect world, the Royals starting outfield right now would also be the top three hitters in their lineup, and it would go something like this: Johnny Damon leading off in Left, Carlos Beltran batting second in Center, and Jermaine Dye batting third in Right. Damon and Dye have multiple all-star appearances and three World Series rings between them, and Beltran single handedly carried the Astros to the World Series in 2004. The Royals like to sign and re-sign one-dimensional jokes like Mike Sweeney instead of four and five-tool all stars like Damon, Dye and Beltran. Consequently, Kansas City hasn't made the playoffs since winning the World Series in 1985, and they have just two winning seasons in the last decade and a half: 2003 and the strike-shortened 1994.
Now do you see why Zackkkkkkkkkkkkkkk Greinkkkkkkkkkkkkkkke's performance Tuesday night is so special to a fan base that has been so deprived and depraved for so very long? Do you see why it hurts to know he'll be playing for another team in four years, just like all the other all-stars we've raised through our farm system only to watch leave through free agency? Now do you see why we get stoned in the stadium during the seventh inning stretch?!
Naturally, we were hungry by the end of the game, but responsible consumers don't pay $3.25 for a hot dog and $4.75 for a bottled water under any circumstances. When they announced Tuesday's official attendance to be 17,753, it occurred to me there were 2,247 unclaimed powder blue T-shirts somewhere on the premisis. On the way out, I asked stadium personnel if I could have a few more XL's to give to my friends, but they just looked at me like I was high.