Around this time last year, Nick and Mindy Rocha briefly discussed the idea of attending the Kansas City Royals’ annual FanFest before ultimately deciding against it.
This year, however — in the aftermath of a wild, improbable, magical, awe-inspiring World Series run — the couple made a point to get there. And not only that, but to pull their two sons — Christopher, 7, and Josh, 5 — out of St. Patrick School in Kansas City, Kan., so they could be there, too.
“We’re playing hookey a little bit,” Nick Rocha said, smiling.
This is what happens when you give your fanbase a reason to hope.
Just three months after the Royals bulldozed their way through the American League playoffs to come within a win of their first world championship since 1985, a fan event that has long generated rather modest attendance figures has become a bonafide happening.
On its opening day Friday at Bartle Hall, Royals FanFest — an extensive collection of games, food and autograph opportunities held annually to drum up preseason excitement — brought sizable crowds to downtown in what served as the organization’s first major public event since last season’s conclusion.
In presales alone, the team sold 14,000 tickets to this year’s event — about 3,000 more than their previous high for an entire weekend. And with walk-up totals still to come, Toby Cook, vice president of community affairs and publicity for the Royals, figured that final ticket sales of 18,000 for the weekend was a realistic expectation, with 20,000 as an outside hope.
“Nothing replaces winning on the field in getting people excited about a Major League Baseball team,” said Cook, who noted that extra staff had been deployed to deal with the larger crowds.
“We’re now getting into the kind of territory we were hoping for when we started this thing. Getting to the postseason started this whole thing, and going to the World Series just added to it.”
When the Royals started FanFest back in 2008, they held high hopes. The organization studied a similar event put on by the Cincinnati Reds, who drew around 20,000 people annually, and figured that was a reasonable expectation.
But in the ensuing years, as the Royals endured losing seasons and oftentimes laughable levels of futility, annual FanFest attendance hovered at about 10,000. Attendance never seemed to push past that ceiling. Even last year’s version, when the team moved the event from the Overland Park Convention Center to the more sizable Bartle Hall, only 11,000 fans turned out.
Then came the fall of 2014, when a city went wild and blue-shaded clothing started flying off shelves.
The sudden rejuvenation of a long-suffering fanbase was evident to anyone who ventured over to Bartle Hall on Friday afternoon.
The line to enter snaked through the building’s lobby, and outside, stretching well down the sidewalk. Long before doors opened to the general public at 2 p.m., fans had been showing up. And inside, the party already was in full effect for season ticket holders.
Music was blaring from the speakers of a nearby stage, and lines for player autographs were growing increasingly large. Anything imaginable — popcorn, Royals gear, season tickets — was on sale.
Near a stage on which some sort of karaoke-based battle between fans was taking place, Larry and Connie Chrisco stood overseeing their memorabilia booth, chatting with customers.
The co-owners of Central Missouri Sports Cards in Rolla, Mo., they’d attended last year’s FanFest, but having seen the crowds that filled the floor by Friday afternoon they were clearly pleased with the greater potential for sales this time around.
“Coming off the World Series appearance,” Larry Chrisco said, “has certainly made a difference in attendance and participation.”
Back downstairs in the lobby, meanwhile, an army of fans waited for their turn.
Toward the front of the line, friends Randon Alford and Mike Sciandra had come prepared.
They carried a pair of white buckets stuffed with memorabilia — baseballs, old programs, Sports Illustrated covers featuring the Royals — that, at the moment, were serving as makeshift chairs as they awaited the 2 p.m. entry time for non-season ticket holders.
Making their third consecutive Royals FanFest appearance, they didn’t take long to notice this year’s bump in attendance.
“We assumed as much,” said Sciandra, 36, who had made the trek to Kansas City from Lincoln, Neb., that morning, stopping in Manhattan, Kan., to pick up his friend.
But while the larger crowds would certainly make it a little more difficult for them to navigate the floor this year, both agreed that it was a small price to pay for the glory of the 2014 season.
“I’ll take the huge crowds,” Alford said, in a sentiment likely shared by the vast majority of those in attendance, “if that’s what you’re getting for it.”
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9-11 a.m.: Open to season-ticket holders only
11 a.m-7 p.m.: Open to all fans