The Royals’ 2015 World Champions flag went up before the home opener Sunday on a sunny, warm, jubilant evening during a ceremony that, at first, seemed out of character for a Midwestern city known for its pleasantness.
In the moments before the banner rose alongside the one from 1985, the New York team the Royals vanquished last fall had to stand silently along the third base line with the video board staring in their faces.
It was a cruel sight, to be sure. Kansas City fans were on their feet. They whooped and hollered as the video montage of Games 1 through 5 of last year’s World Series told the story of the Mets’ quick and dreadful defeat to the Royals. Five games, 4 to 1.
A happenstance of scheduling now had the Mets in Kauffman Stadium on the very day they would least like to have been here.
But just when it couldn’t have gotten more awkward, a hush momentarily fell over the crowd.
There behind the parapet to hoist the flag were two sobering figures who put things in proper perspective. Dan Werner and Chris Anderson, the two Kansas City firefighters who survived last October’s deadly building collapse on Independence Boulevard, stood solemnly side by side.
Their firefighter brothers Larry Leggio and John Mesh didn’t make it out of that alley alive. Werner and Anderson barely did, both hospitalized afterward.
But on this evening they stood tall and raised the flag as fireworks were set off.
“I thought we were going to tear up, but we didn’t,” said Sawyer Watt of Lee’s Summit.
Dave Steger of Lawrence was standing nearby.
“It was a happy moment,” he agreed.
Nine mile toss
Long before the game came the Relay the Way, touted as the longest opening day baseball pitch in history.
It began rather serenely Sunday morning.
After all, the last time fans turned out at Union Station for the Royals, they came as a mass of 500,000 that deluged all of downtown for the 2015 World Series celebration in November. But Sunday’s relay was far longer, and for some, scarier, than last fall’s parade. It was more than 9 miles of fans trying very, very hard not to drop the ball.
Well, a few did drop it, and before the ball reached the stadium it had been scuffed up and saved at least once from rolling down a sewer.
But first, a loose crowd of about 200 people gathered around a main stage in front of Union Station. Most were people and the staffs of people responsible for the Relay the Way campaign, which raised more than $100,000.
“At the end of the day, this is about the kids of Kansas City,” Mayor Sly James told those gathered. “Frankly, it is pretty typical of Kansas City to take care of others.”
Jon Cook, chief executive officer of marketing and advertising firm VML — which came up with the idea of the relay and built least three baseballs designed with tiny computers ready to receive supportive messages for the relay — sent out a cautionary request to the 2,500 or so people who had paid $30 to be part of the relay.
“Please don’t drop the ball,” he said. “It has a long way to go.”
In fact, the original ball made it all the way to the stadium.
The relay started at 9 a.m. with Royals general manager Dayton Moore tossing the ball underhand to Blue Springs High School student Nia Lewis, who plays on an RBI ball team through the Boys and Girls Club.
She never expected to be the first person to catch. “I thought we were going to be somewhere in the middle,” she said.
From there, the ball moved fast, almost too fast.
Near-disaster at Pershing Road and Main Street. A throw went wild. Third District City Councilman Jermaine Reed had to make a diving save to keep the baseball from going down a storm sewer.
Wes and Natalie Meugniot left before daybreak and drove more than an hour from Ozawkie, Kan., to make it to 18th and Vine streets.
The couple, married 27 years, had their first date at a Royals game in 1984. “We are so excited about this,” Natalie said. Both had spent much of Saturday playing catch to get some practice in before Sunday’s big toss.
Like most fans in line, they didn’t need to worry. They did just fine.
The 18th and Vine area was significant: that’s where the Kansas City Urban Youth Academy, the beneficiary of the charity toss, will be built.
The multimillion-dollar project is designed to promote both baseball and life skills beyond sports to children in the urban core. Funded by public and privately raised money, including money from the Royals and Royals players, it is set to open this fall near 18th and Vine streets.
As the relay moved on, Barbara Field waited along Brooklyn Avenue with her butterfly net. A retired teacher from the Kansas City school district, she loves anything that benefits kids and is a baseball fan. She and her late husband went to a Kansas City Blues game on their first date.
No glove for her. In her retirement, she raises butterflies and teaches kids about them.
By 11:30, when the relay arrived at the corner of Brooklyn and Linwood, the area was mobbed with children and adults in Royals blue. The rotors of a news helicopter thumped overhead.
“We ask, please no selfies with the ball,” a volunteer coordinator requested of the participants. And few selfies were shot.
As it turned out, the only major concern was that the relay was going too well, getting ahead of schedule by 40 minutes or more.
Too fast and there would be no volunteers to toss it. In fact, when the ball reached Mayor James, he tossed it back and forth several times to the next person in line to eat up time.
Finally it moved on.
At Stadium Drive, Frank Tanner was on bike patrol making sure that the pitching line was spread out and that people would be ready when the ball arrived.
“The only thing people are worried about is dropping the ball,” said Tanner, an electrical engineer from Lee’s Summit.
That was exactly what was on Tracy Daye’s mind as she slid on her mitt and stood ready to catch. Daye, who works for Ikea, could see the ball flying through the air on its way southeast on Stadium Drive. Her heart was thumping.
“I don’t want to drop it. I don’t want to be that person, no way,” Daye said.
“Here it comes,” she yelled to a co-worker. In seconds she caught it, tossed it and leaped into the air, just happy to have played a role. “I did it!” she said.
The ball completed its crosstown journey 27 minutes ahead of schedule, at 2:03 p.m., when it landed in the palm of veteran Royals groundskeeper Trevor Vance.
Photographers crowded around Vance on the warning track in the right field of a sparkling, fan-free Kauffman Stadium, the gates not scheduled to open for another three hours.
Other than a few scuff marks, Vance pronounced the ball in fine shape.
Despite the evening game time, the day at the stadium began even earlier than the relay.
Parking lot gates weren’t scheduled to open until noon, but cars were lining up by 8 a.m., so some gates opened at 11. Soon the party was well underway, the air thick with charcoal and wood smoke, dance music thumping beneath pop-up canopies strung like atolls across the vast concrete expanse of the Truman Sports Complex.
Lani Cook of Harrisonville made sure to get there early for a prime spot to park her custom Royalsmobile: a jet black, 2015 Ford Taurus with Royals decals on all four sides. It was a selfie magnet out in Lot A.
“Salvy signed it for me,” Cook said. Sure enough, on the trunk is what looks to be the signature of Royals catcher Salvador Perez.
“He signed it down at spring training,” she said.
Jeff Mallory of Independence watched the crowd start to arrive as he fed wood to the fire barrel set up behind his pickup.
“Got here at 7:30,” he said. The gate guards hadn’t arrived by then, so he had the place pretty much to himself. He often does at Royals home openers. Likes to get there early and make a day of it, he said.
But something was different this year. Soon after he arrived, he had company.
The FBI. Homeland Security. The Kansas City Police Department. Jackson County Sheriff’s Department and others. They parked their vans and trailers across from Mallory’s truck and set to work.
They unloaded four-wheelers. There were police on horseback.
“They had bomb-sniffing dogs, too,” Mallory said.
The security teams fanned out for a sweep. A guard at the gate to Lot A likened it to the kind of security usually reserved for the World Series.
But by midday, the four-wheelers were parked, the police horses were hitched up, drinking water in the shade, and the dogs were nowhere in sight.
“I feel protected,” Mallory said with a laugh.