With the end of the 2011 Major League Baseball season today, it's always a melancholy time of the year for me. Summer is over, winter is closing in and, to me, there is nothing more lonely than a baseball field in the dead of winter. Oh, I know the playoffs and World Series are coming up, but for me baseball is over for the season. I may give a cursory glance at a playoff game on TV, but I don't like to watch the insipid network coverage of Major League Baseball. However, to get one last baseball fix in before it all ended, I had to go to Kansas City for some meetings last week and I was able to take a night out and go to Kauffman Stadium to see the Royals play the American League Central Champions Detroit Tigers.
People in Kansas City were optimistic before the season started that the young Royals ballclub was going to make a big splash this year. With one of the best minor league feeder systems in all of baseball, many observers felt that Kansas City could have a surprising year, but the majority of the baseball pundits felt the Royals were possibly a couple three years away from contending once again. Even with a quick start that saw them at and/or near the top of the division standings the first month of the season, the Royals faded quickly after losing at least five games in a row two times in the months of May and June. The Royals will end the season firmly entrenched in fourth place of the AL Central division.
With the anticipation of better days ahead for the Royals, Kansas City fans came out and supported the home team this season. Nearly 110,000 more people went through the gates of Kauffman Stadium this past season versus the 2010 season. And with the renovation of the stadium three seasons ago, it's much more of a fan-friendly environment - definitely on par or even above most major league baseball stadiums.
I had not been to the renovated stadium during my recent travels to Kansas City. I think the last time I was there was 2008 when I went to a game with a local dealer. At the time, renovation work was fully underway and was completed in time for the start of the 2009 season. I'd been asked by a handful of Kansas City area people during my travels over the last couple of years if I'd been out to the "new stadium". I had to chuckle thinking that Kauffman Stadium has been around since 1973 when it was originally known as Royals Stadium. Although it wasn't really new, people in Kansas City felt it was new to them.
Since I knew I was going to be doing a lot of walking around to look at the renovated stadium, I got a standing room only ticket for the game against the Tigers. According to the chart at the ticket window, standing room only tickets run $10 bucks. But the lady at the ticket window said they only had $11 dollar standing room only tickets that evening. I was too dumbstruck to ask, "Hey, what's the deal?", until I found out later that depending upon the night and who is in town to play the Royals standing room only tickets can run between $10 and $15 bucks. Actually, $11 bucks to attend a Major League Baseball game isn't too bad.
Upon entering the stadium, the first thing that struck me was how wide the concourses were compared to the pre-renovated Kauffman Stadium. Before the concourse under the grandstand was - maybe - 25 feet wide and when you tried to pack 30,000+ people into the place AND have the concession stands in the concourse, as well, it created bottlenecks and traffic jams of the most ungodly proportion. With the renovation, the concession stands were moved back about 20 feet giving people a wide walk way to and from their seats.
The renovated stadium also offered a 360 degree concourse completely around the stadium - something the "old" stadium didn't have. They added seats, a sports bar, family amenities and renovated their famous fountains and put in a new scoreboard in center field. This new area also allowed fans to stand just behind the fountains and watch the action from the outfield - something I sort of like to do. The outfield concourse also features a "Walk of Fame" with bronze statues of the three Royals whose numbers have been retired - George Brett, Frank White and Dick Howser - along with a statue of Ewing and Muriel Kauffman who brought baseball back to Kansas City in 1969 and for whom the stadium is named after.
Troubling to me, however, was the family fun area just past the outfield concourse area. It had a carousel, a video game room, playground equipment and a miniature golf course. Call me a traditionalist - or a fun-hater for kids - but I don't think I'd take my kids to a ballpark to ride a carousel, play video games or have a round of miniature golf.
However, one area of in the outfield just beyond the left field concourse was a small baseball field called the "Little K". It had an artificial surface and allowed for young kids to come onto the field and hit a few balls thrown to them by a worker. I thought this was a better thing for kids to do at a ballpark than ride a carousel or play miniature golf. Actually, this little kid (pictured bottom left), who probably wasn't much past the age of 3, was hitting the ball really well. He had an amazing swing for as little as he was. I was trying to set up my video camera on my phone to catch him in action, but he was done before I could get a quick video.
Also along the left field concourse at Kauffman Stadium is the new Kansas City Royals Hall of Fame. Not only did it have exhibits and displays from the 42 years the Royals have been in existence, but it also had displays for the Kansas City Monarchs of the old Negro Baseball League, as well as some for the old Kansas City Athletics.
There was a theater that had a short video presentation on the history of baseball in Kansas City, a number of kiosks and wall-displays of former Kansas City greats who played for the Monarchs or Royals over the years. It also had historical timelines of baseball history in Kansas City, features on Royals Cy Young and Gold Glove Award winners, and a timeline of Ewing Kauffman's efforts to not only bring baseball back to Kansas City, but on his efforts to build a new stadium for his Royals.
In a room with a large video display showing highlights of the 1985 World Series is the world championship trophy that the Royals won. I know this is really gonna rankle those of you who are huge St. Louis Cardinals fans because of the horrible call in Game Six that literally stole the World Series away from the Cards. But, to me, who is a fan of baseball, it was pretty neat to see up close.
Also in the Royals Hall of Fame was a display of 3,154 baseballs shaped into a huge number 5 for George Brett. The baseballs signified the number of hits Brett had in his 21 year career with the Royals. The bat that Brett used and the ball that he hit for his 3000 Major League hit late in the 1992 season are also on display embedded within the number 5. The Royals Hall of Fame had a guy standing near the display and he kept saying, "Please do not touch the baseballs. They are suspended on metal rods and we don't want the balls to get dirty." And almost as soon as he said that, some 30-something rube went over and tried to grab one of the balls. I just stood there, dumbfounded. I sort of looked at the guy who tried to grab one of the balls, then I glanced at the Hall of Fame worker and sort of pointed at the guy. The worker sort of shook his head and said, "I could scream 'Do not touch the baseballs' at the top of my lungs and people would still want to touch them."
I said, "Maybe you ought to just say nothing and when someone reaches out to touch a ball, yell "Hey! Get away from the baseballs!" He sort of chuckled over that.
One of the growing trends among major league baseball stadiums are in-house sports bars/lounges that serve food. Just beyond the right field wall is Rivals Sports Bar, the Kauffman Stadium sports bar that is open to the public. With a baseball theme and over two dozen televisions turned the Royals game it was actually a pretty cool place to hang out during the game. There was a little patio with waitress service next to it that overlooked the field just behind the fountains in right field.
Above right is the custom made 360 degree circular bar at Rivals. It allowed for people to stand at the bar and easily watch the action through the floor to ceiling windows that looked out onto the field. Even though there was a pretty good crowd there that evening (just shy of 27,000 people came out - about 2/3rds the capacity of Kauffman Stadium), I heard one guy remark that this was the least amount of people he'd ever seen in Rivals.
Of course, the game had to be played and I always like to get the first pitch of any Major League ball game that I attend. Here is the first pitch that evening from Kansas City's Luis Mendoza to the Tigers' Austin Jackson. In the starting line-up that evening for the Royals were five guys (out of ten - including the designated hitter) who started their seasons in Omaha for the Royals AAA team. Three of those guys were playing for the Royals when I was there earlier this season (to see my entry on my visit to Werner Park in Omaha, click here). As I said, the Royals have one of the best minor league systems - if not THE best minor league systems - in all of Major League Baseball. So there's cause for optimism among the Royals faithful for years to come.
I ventured up to the upper deck of the stadium to take a look around. They have two open areas that are sponsored by Proctor and Gamble that will allow people to stand and watch the game. There are designated standing room only areas along the outfield concourse areas, but I stood in a number of areas during this game and I wasn't hassled in the least. In fact, I had very helpful ushers ask me if I needed help finding my seat. When I told them I just wanted to stand to watch the game, they left me alone or, better yet, told me to enjoy myself. I found the staff at the renovated Kauffman Stadium to be overly friendly and helpful.
And, of course, if you're a regular reader of Road Tips you know that I have a scoreboard fetish when it comes to Major League ballparks. This is the Royals' CrownVision scoreboard that is a marked improvement over their old scoreboard. The CrownVision scoreboard is 106 feet high by 85 feet wide. It was designed, built and installed by Daktronics, a Brookings, SD-based manufacturer of high-end sports scoreboards and video screens. It has 1800 lines of high definition resolution and features line-ups for both the offense and defense, stats for the batter, inning-by-inning scoring and the count and outs. The scoreboard will then shift to a huge video display to show instant replays in high definition. Although it isn't the neatest scoreboard I've found in the Major Leagues, it was still pretty cool.
Beer and hot dogs are a staple for me at any ball game, major league or minor league. I always have to try the hot dogs at any given stadium. I got one of the Royals' hot dogs from a concession stand for $4.75 and a 22 oz. Bud Light for $9.00. The hot dog was overcooked and a little dried out from the warming drawer they kept them in. I would have graded the hot dog a C because the taste wasn't actually all that bad. But I would have preferred a sizzling hot dog directly off the grill. The beer, however, was very cold. And I like cold beer at a ball game.
Walking around later in the game, I happened upon a hot dog stand out along the left field concourse. I sort of went up to the place - called the Dugout Dog House - and took a look at the various styles of hot dogs they had to offer. They had Chicago-style hot dogs with the tomatoes, pickle relish, sport peppers and the works, the Royal Bacon hot dog with bleu cheese and real bacon bits and chopped red onions, the Island Dog with smoked ham, pineapple slices, mandarin orange chunks, with cole slaw and teriyaki sauce, and the El Diablo Dog with chili, pepper cheese, and jalapeno peppers. I was contemplating getting the El Diablo until the guy in front of me turned and said, "Man, the All-Star dog is the best. They put pulled pork on top of a dog, cover it in barbecue sauce, then put on pickles and cole slaw. Damn, is it good!"
The thought of any type of a tomato-based product on a hot dog or a brat almost turns my stomach. About the only tomato-based sauce I like on a brat or hot dog is the Secret Stadium Sauce at Miller Park in Milwaukee. But this guy talked so passionately about the All-Star dog that I had to give it a try.
The Dugout Dog House has either regular or foot long flat-grilled all beef hot dogs. The grill cook rolls the hot dogs to give them an even char on the outer casing. Just as I like 'em - hot off the grill. I followed the guy's lead in front of me and ordered a regular All-Star dog.
The grill cook pulled a plump all-beef hot dog off the grill, put it in the bun and then proceeded to slather it with copious amounts of pulled barbecue pork, topped with an equally large amount of cole slaw (pictured below left). Then he topped it off with dill pickle slices and a large squirt of barbecue sauce. I got a 16 oz. bottle of Bud Light to go along with it (although they did have a number of very good beers to choose from). The total cost for beer and specialty dog was $14.25. Ouch!
But from the first bite I have to say it was worth the price. The bun was moist and light, the top of which was piled on with the cole slaw, pulled pork and barbecue sauce. Once you got past that, the grilled hot dog was rich and flavorful. It was so much better than the nearly lifeless hot dog I got earlier in the evening. This was just an outstanding combination of taste sensations. In fact, it was one of the all-time top hot dogs I've ever had in my life. Remember, I'm not big on a lot of tomato-based product on a hot dog, but having the pulled pork with the barbecue sauce on top was out of this world.
And I'm not ashamed to admit that I went back later in the evening to get another one. However, this time it wasn't as good. They were getting ready to close up for the night after the 7th inning and the bun wasn't as moist and light as the first one, the hot dog wasn't quite as crisp as the first one. But the pulled pork and the cole slaw/barbecue sauce toppings were still wonderful.
I left soon afterward as the Royals ended up winning the game by a score of 10-2. The "new" Kauffman Stadium is a great place to watch a ballgame and the amenities - including a truly outstanding hot dog from the Dugout Dog House - are major league worthy. But, it's going to be another six months before I get fired up to hear the crack of the ball hitting the bat, along with warmer temperatures, sizzling hot dogs and ice cold beer. Winter bums me out, but knowing that baseball isn't that far off is what keeps me warm. And a trip back to Kauffman Stadium next year is a must for me. Especially for an All-Star dog.