Saturday, April 12, 2008

Rotten Roots

The wife graciously gathered up some enthusiasm to attend a frigid baseball game with me last night, even blowing off a potential party with friends to freeze to death so I could enjoy $1 hot dog night. I'm not joking about the weather, after the sun went down in the third inning, it was about 34 degrees with 20mph winds. We had tickets to sit at the top of the upper deck, but settled about 40 rows back on the first level, under the roof in case of rain.

We were impressed by Kauffman Stadium's new addition, the largest HD screen in the world (at least until another park builds a bigger one). I was thoroughly excited to see a good young Royals squad take on a good young Twins squad, despite the rash of construction debris around the park. The atmosphere was great and even with the cold it felt like baseball season.

Now Kansas City has great fans and they're loyal, so this is not so much a knock on them as it is a knock on the state of fan-dom altogether these days. Bill Simmons noted last week that the incredibly knowledgeable, deft crowd at Golden State Warriors games has been so infiltrated by rich front-runners that they successfully executed the wave last week. FYI - the wave should be done only at pop concerts and political rallies; stay away from my sporting events!

So Gil Meche allowed five runs early in the game before settling down for a solid outing. In the fifth inning the Royals loaded the bases with only one out. Up to the plate comes Jose Guillen. Guillen was signed in the off-season for a KC-max deal of $55 million dollars. He was hired to hit Home Runs. Despite a .158 batting average early, there was a sense that this was the moment for which he was brought in.

As I prepared to stand and make some noise so as to cheer on our struggling newcomer, I looked around and no one seemed to care. An idiot could tell that Guillen needed some crowd love to overcome the cold and make something happen; even a base hit would be timely. The crowd remained indifferent and Guillen whiffed on an 0-2 curveball.* Two outs.

Next up, the wunderkind, 22-year old Billy Butler, the savior of the franchise and owner of a nine game hit streak (the Royals had only played nine games to this point). The guy came into the game batting .400 and he's built like Babe Ruth. If any situation could get the Royals faithful (and you have to be faithful to come out on a night like this) hopping, nothing would (we'll see the horrible truth of how wrong I was in a moment). Indeed, there were a few more cheers, but nothing noticeable, even as Billy refused to swing at a borderline pitch on a 2-2 count. Only after the outfield scoreboard said "noise" nine times did any sort of emotion come out. Still no one stood and Billy grounded out to the pitcher.

I was about to chalk this all up to the cold and the fact that people just don't know baseball like they used to, when a 90 foot HD Garth Brooks appeared on the outfield screen and invited us to "stand up and sing," which all 16,000 people around us proceeded to do, carrying on with the second verse of "I've Got Friends in Low Places" even after Garth left the screen, drowning out the announcer's call of the next inning.

I've never been in a situation like that before. I really thought my head would explode, not from anger, but from sheer surprise. I've had the luxury of seeing baseball games at a lot of places. Nothing will ever top the camaraderie of singing along with the crowd at Fenway Park (which needs no visual prompts, by the way) to Neil Diamond's Sweet Caroline in the late innings. However, that crowd also stands and cheers with ungodly volume when any Red Sox pitcher gets two strikes on a hitter.

There's a lot of reason why living in Kansas City has rubbed me the wrong way, but after that display, the next 14 months cannot come quickly enough.

For Shame!

*Guillen took two hard rips and fouled the first two pitches back to the media booth above home plate. He then proceeded to swing about fifteen seconds too early on the third pitch. I quit playing baseball in fifth grade due mostly to embarrassment, but even I know that if you're down 0-2 with the bases loaded, you better expect a breaking ball way off the plate. $55 million well spent, guys.