They came, of course, despite everything.
Despite biting winds and grayish skies and the Royals’ unsightly 0-2 start to Major League Baseball’s 2014 season, they poured into Kauffman Stadium by the carful Friday, 40,103 of them ready to witness firsthand the makeup of this year’s team.
This was Opening Day at The K, after all, when optimism still reigns supreme, not yet corroded by bullpen issues or a lack of middle-of-the-order power or any other perceived deficiency that a baseball fan routinely finds himself fretting over.
Five hours before the 3:10 p.m. first pitch, the parking lots were already filling up, fans jockeying for prime tailgating territory.
Two hours before game time, they had turned the acres of asphalt surrounding the stadium into a block party.
There were fans listening to Kid Rock on stereos and fans guzzling beers, fans dressed in head-to-toe blue and fans grilling burgers. There were fans playing washers and fans throwing footballs and fans like Craig Rookstool, whose souped-up Royals-mobile — a royal blue, 1972 Toyota FJ40 Land Cruiser with 47-inch tires and covered with Royals decals — drew rave reviews from beer-toting passersby.
Before parking, Rookstool, who owns AvidAir International in Lee’s Summit and brought three of his employees with him to the game, had cruised the lot, his rare automobile the subject of a good number of cell phone photos.
“People get pretty riled up for it,” he said.
Not far away, a group of youngish fans were carving out their own unique tailgating experience, thanks to the ingenuity of a Des Moines, Iowa, man named Heath Hyder.
Hyder and friend Will Langford, who began renting out an innovative all-purpose trailer last winter, had been trying to figure out a way to bring the luxury of an upscale tailgate to the average, everyday fan.
Hence, trailergating — a trailer that comes with two 47-inch HDTVs, an XBox 360, beer taps and an RV-style restroom with hot and cold water.
“The women love the bathroom,” Hyder said, handing a business card to a couple that had wandered over to inquire about the contraption. “The men are torn between the electronics and the beer taps.”
And then there were the old-timers, the beer-and-a-brat types who seemed perfectly content with their traditional setup.
Stationed in front of a small grill and a couple of portable tables, Rick Holmes, Jerry Stichler and Terry Lunsford had been there since 9:30 Friday morning, a group of old friends who have managed to make opening day at The K an annual tradition.
The three started attending Royals opening day together years ago, attending each of the past 10 or so openers. They’ve probably been to 20 total, they agreed, and while this one was perhaps the coldest, it was also one tinged with a certain amount of promise.
It’s not every year that a Royals fan — at least one prone to self-awareness — can foster legitimate playoff hopes.
But following a surprisingly successful season last year, and with a young nucleus potentially poised for a breakout, something about 2014 just felt different.
A few hours later, the Royals would deliver their first victory of the season, closing out a 7-5 victory over the Chicago White Sox.
But in the lazy hours before game time, the group seemed happy enough just where they were: in a bustling parking lot filled with their blue-clad brethren.
As Holmes put it, “There’s just something about opening day.”