In the summer of 2015, as the Royals were on their way to a World Series championship, the then-Secretary of the Navy made an announcement at Kauffman Stadium alongside Mayor Sly James: There would be a new combat ship named USS Kansas City.
Throughout the Barack Obama administration, Ray Mabus held the honor of naming Navy vessels.
“Way cool,” he described it.
Along the way, Mabus also earned the honor of being the only known person to throw the ceremonial first pitch at all 30 major league ballparks — and that July day, he got his first shot at tossing one at The K.
Less than a year later, after wrapping up his first-pitch supremacy at Cleveland’s Progressive Field, the New York Times wrote up the feat in an article headlined “Navy Secretary Ray Mabus Knows a Thing or 30 about First Pitches.”
In a phone interview Thursday, though, he laughed and denied there’s a connection between the cities he’s pitched in and the vessels he’s named.
Throwing out first pitches, he said, “is one of the nice extra benefits, but not the main reason” for the ship’s name.
The USS Kansas City — a variably armed, ultra-tech and compact destroyer (even at 608 tons) — reflects the latest at sea in national defense.
Its christening Saturday at the Mobile, Ala., shipyard of Australian builder Austal USA will be attended by dignitaries of the Navy and Austal, military members holding swords in full dress-white uniforms, and U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, who will give the main speech.
Cleaver, a Democrat from Kansas City, said he held no sway in the ship’s naming. But “I’m just as proud as I can be,” he said.
“Everybody tries to get a ship named after their hometown,” said Cleaver. “This is another day when Kansas Citians can get out of bed, walk to the mirror and say, ‘Looking good.’”
The Kansas City is the 22nd of 32 “littoral combat ships” (she being LCS-22) that began rolling into service a decade ago.
Most are named for inland cities. The USS Fort Worth hit the seas in 2012, the USS Milwaukee in 2015, and the USS Omaha was commissioned earlier this year.
Mabus, a former Mississippi governor who retired in 2017 after eight years as Navy secretary, said naming warships after middle American cities helps connect inland populations to the Navy. And announcing the selections at sports venues, which he often did, brought a festive spirit and diverse crowds of all ages to the occasion.
“For every one you name, you get hundreds of requests,” he said. “I tried to pick places that didn’t have a ship named for them in a while.”
This isn’t the first USS Kansas City. In 1994 the Navy decommissioned a massive replenishment oiler of that name after she saw service in the Vietnam War and Operation Desert Storm.
That vessel packed 400 crewmen. The new Kansas City will be “minimally manned,” in defense speak, with a core crew of 40 but slated to carry dozens more on missions.
Priced at about $500 million, it’s built to do battle. With .50-caliber guns, a hangar for housing two Seahawk helicopters and bays holding an assortment of armaments, LCS craft are outfitted to monitor and defend against air, surface and submarine threats. The Navy bills the boats as “nimble, agile, stealthy,” 422 feet long and powered to speed past 40 knots.
The christening will be indoors, as the USS Kansas City isn’t yet finished. After final touches and extensive testing, she is expected to be commissioned by late 2019.
The bottle-busting ceremony will be performed by the ship’s “sponsor,” who by Navy tradition is a woman selected by the secretary. The USS Kansas City’s sponsor is Tracy Davidson, the wife of Adm. Phil Davidson. Both are St. Louis natives. They have a daughter who graduated from the University of Missouri and a niece from the University of Kansas.
Cleaver said he suspects Tracy Davidson may have had a hand in pitching the name Kansas City.
Still, the final call belonged to Mabus, who has no personal ties to the area.
He did know that Kansas City boasts the National World War I Museum and Memorial. It also had companies that built engine parts and computer systems for Navy vehicles.
And in a column in The Star one day after his July 20, 2015, announcement at The K, Mabus wrote of a Midwestern passion for military service that fosters “the long tradition and strong connection between the people of Kansas City and our Navy.”
Not one word about baseball.
No mention that, at the time, Mabus was in the midst of a whirlwind baseball jag.
Days before he announced the name of the USS Kansas City to cheering Royals fans, Mabus was at Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park, announcing the USS Cincinnati to cheering Reds fans. He closed out the month at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
There, he announced, you guessed it: The USS Cooperstown.
Here in Kansas City, he met Royals manager Ned Yost and learned that Yost’s wife hails from Mabus’ beloved Mississippi. The manager and the Navy secretary hit it off.
But no, no, absolutely not. His naming of the USS Kansas City had nothing to do with baseball nor, dare say, throwing out that first pitch.
You have to wonder, though, when he wraps up his interview for this story by saying, “If you see Ned Yost, tell him I said hey.”