Thirty years ago, on July 28, 1979, my father played a very clever trick on me, one that I'll never forget.
It was a typical muggy summer afternoon on a Saturday in Wichita, KS. He told me to shower up and put on some nice clothes, but he wouldn't tell me where we were going or who we were visiting.
As a 12-year-old who placed a premium on a summer time free of compulsory events, I started to dread what came next. Was I going to have to spend a lame, boring dinner with some distant relative or long lost group of friends of my father's whom I didn't know?
For some reason, this was one of the few occasions that I trusted my father without questioning him. He wasn’t in the “C’mon let’s go” mode of a drill sergeant, either.
I did as he said and met him in the living room in what would best be described as a 12-year-old’s answer to business casual attire.
“Where are your glasses?” he asked.
“You said you wanted me to look nice,” I responded.
In those days, I abused my glasses in a manner that only the American Tourister ape could admire. I would play basketball or football with the plastic frames on and inevitably they ended up broken and re-broken.
If we had super glue or epoxy, we would usually glue the broken fragments together. It was okay if I wanted to see, but not okay if I didn’t want to look like one of the Hanson Brothers.
Without giving away the ruse, my father insisted that I must wear my glasses, even if they were broken and we did not have time to fix them. Again, I did as he said, but remained puzzled.
I grabbed the working part of my glasses and we hit the road. I was still puzzled, because we were on I-35 north to Emporia, the Kansas Turnpike, and eventually Kansas City, a route that we rarely took as a family.
Kansas City was the closest thing you could get to Hollywood growing up in southern Kansas. It was to me what Capital City is to the Simpsons. It was that mysterious, far away place that was hard to get to (about a three hour drive) but once you got there you knew it was going to be fun.
Everything was more interesting, there was much more to do and everything was done the right way in Kansas City. “Why couldn’t Wichita figure it out?” I often wondered.
Royals Stadium (later known as Kauffman Stadium) had a similar mystery about it. Royals games were always televised on the local stations in Wichita in those days, but most games were on the road and they wore the light blue road uniforms.
About the only time you saw the Royals play at home in their white uniforms on TV in Wichita was on ABC Monday Night Baseball, NBC’s Game of the Week, and the postseason.
Remember, this was 1979; ESPN was in its infancy and FSN’s local programming system was almost 20 years from coming to life. In fact, many people did not even have cable yet.
So when I entered the stadium and saw the field for the very first time, I was totally in awe, because I rarely saw this venue on TV, let alone in person.
There was the state-of-the-art scoreboard that was 12 stories high and the fountains and waterfalls in the outfield. Forget some cornfield in Iowa; this larger-than-life venue was my Field of Dreams.
Kansas City was well ahead of the game when it came providing separate facilities for football and baseball. They are 37 years ahead of San Diego, where I currently live, and counting.
The Truman Sports Complex with Royals Stadium and Arrowhead Stadium was a rebuttal to the design of multi-purpose stadiums that often weren’t well suited for either football or baseball.
One of the things that I remember about Royals Stadium was that it was built so that all seats faced second base. The architect(s) for this stadium should be inducted into Cooperstown. Arrowhead is equally acclaimed for its design as a football venue. So much to be impressed with as a youngster, and the game hadn’t started yet.
The Royals-Orioles game picked up where the experience of entering the stadium left off. I eagerly anticipated the first at-bat of George Brett. This was the first sports hero I ever had. I held him in such high regard that I would never wear a uniform with the number five on it. That number belonged to him.
In his first at-bat, Brett hit a sharp grounder between first and second and the Royals eventually took a 1-0 lead in the first inning.
Dennis Martinez was the starting pitcher for the Orioles that night and had a very respectable career in the majors. Although not a hall-of-famer, he is one of only a few pitchers to throw a perfect game.
This Orioles team was formidable; one that would win the AL pennant before losing to the "We Are Family" Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series that year. Any game at Royals Stadium would be nice, but to see a contender added to the atmosphere.
As for the Royals, Rich Gale was the starting pitcher. He would best be described as a decent, but not great pitcher. This particular Royals team would finish second in the AL West in 1979 behind the California Angels of America.
Royals teams in that era were competitive more often than not. They were built for speed in that large ballpark with its AstroTurf surface. They worked the count, had a high OBP, and could hang a five-spot on you before you blinked.
This would be the last season that Whitey Herzog managed that team. He was fired after the season, one of the few moves on the part of the Royals front office that I questioned.
Brett’s at-bat in the fifth resulted in a three-run homer that landed in the water. The fountain that the ball landed in was illuminated to indicate the location and to impress upon the audience how far the ball went.
We developed an eye for what was a routine fly and what was a home run before the game started when watching the O’s take hitting practice.
When you sit up high like we did and have not seen major league fly balls before, many fly balls looked like possible home runs from that perspective. After seeing enough fly balls, it's easier read the trajectories.
Brett's blast had a totally different trajectory. The 40,448 in attendance knew it was gone almost immediately.
After Brett’s homer, the rest of the game seemed anti-climactic. A storm was on the way and with the Royals ahead 6-3, my dad decided that we should leave at the bottom of the eighth.
When we descended to field level, we sat in the seats to enjoy a closer look in the pricey seats, but it didn’t last long. The late Dan Quisenberry, the Royals’ submariner, closed out the game like he usually did. The 6-3 score held up.
There will probably never be a moment that will be as magical for me as that first trip to Royals Stadium.
Even an improbable Padres World Series championship won’t match it, because it will come through the eyes of an older, more cynical man. However, I think I could learn to live with that disappointment.
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