A baseball soared through the afternoon air at 3:05 p.m. Friday, a clean white pearl shot into orbit, spinning toward a mass of blue T-shirts and Kansas City jerseys in the 300-level bleacher seats.
A short while earlier, here in the confines of Wrigley Field, Brad Thomas, 25, had taken his seat in the famous left-field bleachers that run parallel to Waveland Avenue, just before the start of the Royals’ three-game series against the Chicago Cubs. Thomas, a Kansas Citian, had come here to see the Royals play a baseball game at venerable Wrigley for the first time since 2001, and, well, he almost didn’t make it.
One day earlier, Thomas, an account executive in the Royals’ ticket department, had left Kansas City with a group of co-workers, fired up a GPS and pushed the car toward Chicago. Along the way, the group’s car collided with a deer, putting the whole endeavor in peril, but they forged on, making it in time to see Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar drill the first pitch of Friday’s game to deep left.
The ball cleared the ivy-covered wall, disappearing into a mass of arms and bodies, and Thomas emerged from the mob, hoisting the ball in the air while the whole scene was beamed back to his office at Kauffman Stadium.
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“I’m getting a ton of texts,” Thomas told The Star, a few minutes after catching the ball. “Everyone from the office saw us on TV.”
On most afternoons at Wrigley Field, it probably would feel like mere coincidence or happenstance for a road fan to snare a home-run ball and forgo the usual Wrigley tradition of chucking it back onto the field. A cool story, perhaps. Nothing more.
On Friday, as thousands of Royals fans descended on Wrigleyville, it felt, well … about right. For the last two months, as the Royals have racked up record television ratings and enjoyed increased attendance figures, the franchise has staked its claim as the best team in the American League Central. On Friday, Kansas City offered the latest evidence of its modern-day baseball renaissance.
Its baseball fans invaded a major American city.
“We’re out in force,” said Tom Bailey, an Overland Park native, standing on the patio at Murphy’s Bleacher Bar. “We’re here.”
This invasion, a blend of summer vacation, baseball and some alcohol-infused rhetoric, in some ways began last year, when the Royals won the American League pennant and Major League Baseball unveiled the 2015 schedule. For the first time since the days of Mike Sweeney, Tony Muser and sub-.500 baseball in Kansas City, the Royals would be venturing to the North Side of Chicago.
Wrigleyville, of course, has seen its share of visiting fans who come here to enjoy the sunny day games, the ivy-covered walls, and the ice-cold Old Style. But even by the usual standards of Wrigleyville fun, those locals were caught off-guard on Friday afternoon.
“Before 2014, seeing people in Royals gear in Chicago was like seeing a unicorn,” said Jeremy Scheuch, a Kansas City native who now lives in Chicago.
Scheuch, a graduate of the Kansas City Art Institute, is not your run-of-the-mill Royals fan. He’s something more than that. Among Royals fan circles, Scheuch is known as the guy who took to Twitter last October and promised to get a tattoo of Mike Moustakas on his (rear) in exchange for World Series tickets.
Lest you think he was kidding, Scheuch already owns tattoos of both the late actor Patrick Swayze and disgraced Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, so perhaps a cartoon Moustakas would have been welcome. The tattoo gambit didn’t pay off. (“Not yet,” he said.) But this week, Scheuch was ready to see his favorite team, welcome his fellow Royals fans to town, and pre-emptively squash any complains about bandwagon fans.
“It’s not even ‘bandwagon’ fans, which is a dumb thing to complain about,” Scheuch said. “You get new fans by being a successful team — I love that we have new fans. The more the merrier. People complaining about bandwagon fans is like the hipster comment of the sports world — ‘I liked that band before it was cool.’”
The invasion of Wrigleyville started early on Friday morning, at the corner of Waveland and Sheffield, where Bailey — who politely asked to be referred to as “Tombo” — stood on the patio of Murphy’s Bleacher Bar and sipped on a 16-ounce beer. Bailey, who now works as an auditor here in Lincoln Park, peered to his right, to a man in a throwback Steve Balboni jersey and a scene filled with Royals fans.
“It’s packed,” he said. “But I guess it’s not that surprising.”
Seven months ago, Bailey flew to Kansas City from a wedding in New Jersey, attending games six and seven of the World Series. The plane was filled with both Royals and Giants fans, Bailey says, and chants broke out while passengers were boarding. The whole scene, he says, caused him to have a tingling feeling in his stomach.
“I come home to Kansas City all the time,” Bailey said. “But it was a different feeling.”
Seven months later, Kansas City isn’t ready for the party to be over. So on Friday, the Royals brought the celebration to another city.
For one day, that meant streets filled with fathers and sons, young families and old fans, frat boys and eager colleges kids. By one very unofficial estimate, somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 Royals fan were in Wrigleyville for the Royals’ 8-4 victory. The invasion spilled out onto Sheffield Avenue, to the famed Cubby Bear, and into the other bars that run along Clark Street. One small Kansas town sent more than 40 people up to Chicago, and another group from the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum was set to arrive Saturday.
And yes, the invasion was lubricated by lots of beer.
C.J. Krug, a 20-something Olathe native, showed up with 10 high school friends from Olathe Northwest, rented a vacation home in Lincoln Park, and set up shop in Chicago for the weekend. Matt Wilson, a Windsor, Mo. native, flew in from San Antonio, met his parents, and marked the event with some home-made blue T-shirts that featured a simple message:
“The Royals Are The Best.”
“It’s hard to make just one shirt,” Wilson said. “So we made like 13 or 14.”
On Friday afternoon, two of those shirts were worn by Adam Lewis, an old friend of Wilson’s, and Lewis’ young daughter, Wren. They stood together on a patio, father and daughter, two generations of Royals fans waiting for an afternoon game baseball game in Chicago.
For one day, at least, the invasion went as planned.