The day the Royals made Kansas City stop was a gift from the baseball gods. Pure blue sky, light breeze, the kind of day you don’t mind walking a mile or two from wherever you parked to go stand with hundreds of thousands of friendly strangers, the biggest crowd that any of them had ever seen.
What besides sports could give us a day like this? The parade weaved through downtown, people lining the streets — 10, 15, 50-deep in parts — and nearly all of them in blue. Some of it was well-worn blue, hats with brims faded and folded tight, and some of it was brand-new blue — World Series championship hats and “Thank You Royals” T-shirts.
We’ve been talking about this day for, what, 30 years? Usually it was a joke, because parades are things that happen in other places. We’ve grown used to seeing those on TV, Kobe Bryant waving, or Rob Gronkowski binge drinking, or Derek Jeter smiling. That would never happen here. How could it?
“I was at the parade in ’85,” said Jake Thomason, wearing a “Straight Outta Kauffman” shirt.
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“I don’t remember it,” he said. “I was two.”
Another pause. Thomason is holding his four-year-old daughter’s hand.
“Hopefully she doesn’t have to wait as long for the parade she’ll remember,” Thomason said.
Officials estimated 800,000 people showed up, and maybe that’s high. Nobody can really know. But whatever the number, it was a significant chunk of the 2 million people in the metro area. Schools closed. Medical offices told all non-essential personnel to take a day. Small businesses closed, except the ones positioned to make a fortune off the day, like bars and restaurants.
Employees at one local engineering firm got an email from their boss late Sunday night, demanding they not show up on Monday, or Tuesday, or before they were done celebrating. The email contained some colorful language. The boss was pretty excited.
It is quite possible that no event in the history of Kansas City has attracted more people. This may be the country’s most convenient place to live and get around. What passes for rush hour here is a breeze in other places. You can almost always park within 100 yards of your favorite restaurant or concert venue. Most times, 100 feet.
So it is no small thing that Kansas City was overloaded with non-workers on a weekday afternoon and generally looked at it as a once-in-a-lifetime inconvenience. It was a logistical nightmare, plans and officials completely overwhelmed by an unprecedented response, and sure, some people complained. But more of them looked around and sort of said, Oh my gawd look at all these people!, and then squeezed in their bellies and smiled to make room for another family walking through.
If you were there, the striking thing wasn’t necessarily the size of the crowd, but the cordialness. Fans overwhelmed downtown, turning a one-block walk into a half hour of sidestepping and excuse-me-ing through a crowd that went forever. The Kansas City Police Department reported just three arrests. In some places, sports celebrations like this mean tearing up a town. Here, it merely meant taking over a town.
They parked, literally, miles away. Some parked on the side of Interstate highways. A QuikTrip on Southwest Boulevard, a full two miles from the nearest point of the parade, had a line to get in. A man walked around the rally with a sign that read, “Cell phone service like it’s 1985.”
What a party, too. The aerial shots are stunning — a massive swarm of blue T-shirts surrounding Union Station and downtown streets — and will hang on walls in Kansas City forever.
They came to crane their necks and spend their days just for a peek, or even just the sound, or maybe more than anything, the feeling. Fifty-year-old women wore blue wigs, and hipsters dyed their handlebar mustaches, and kids painted their faces. Babies drank milk, and their daddies drank Fireball.
This team was a gift to Kansas City, and this day a thank you. Sports fans here have been far more patient than should be required, and spent so long loving a team that could not or would not love them back. There was a time when team employees would make sure to hide their work badges when they went out, and fans sometimes felt a similar need to hide their passion. We all have unhealthy habits we keep from the outside world.
The best part of watching the rise of the Royals has been the correlating rise of their fans. Rooting for the Royals used to mean accepting that nothing good would come of it, and of being able to laugh at yourself when Mark Redman is your All-Star, or when Tony Peña showers with his clothes on in some vague attempt to stop a losing streak. Now, it means knowing that being down two runs in the eighth inning is exactly where you want to be.
Maybe it’s all those years of being beaten down, or maybe it’s that we don’t have mountains or beaches here so our teams mean a little more, or maybe there really is something deep and irrepressible about how the people love their baseball team.
Because as much as anything else, the celebration of the Royals has been a celebration of their fans. There are baseball men and baseball decisions that deserve attention and praise.
David Glass, after years of being deservedly mocked, began appropriately supporting his team in 2006. Dayton Moore hired good people and allowed them to do good work and together they made good decisions. They got lucky along the way, but everyone needs a little luck. The winners are the ones who take advantage. Alex Gordon’s persistence and determination make him a model for the entire organization. Salvador Perez, Alcides Escobar, Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Greg Holland, Wade Davis, all of them and more made crucial contributions.
But the story of the Royals has always been the story of their fans. Most of the time, that’s meant focusing on whether and how their support would be validated, but the support has always been there. People in Kansas City have always known that. Now that they have a product worthy of their love, everyone else is finding out.
They bought more tickets and spent more time at home watching more games than ever before. Next year, those numbers figure to go up again. Royals fans essentially highjacked All-Star voting, at one point putting Omar Infante in position to start at second base, even though most of them did not want Infante starting at second base for their own team.
More than 60 percent of TV-owning households in Kansas City watched Game 5 of the World Series, and you have to assume most of the other 40 percent were at someone else’s house, or a bar.
So the celebration on Tuesday was entirely fitting. When those images and stories make their way around the internet and the world, the only reaction is, basically, hole-ee crap.
That’s largely how it’s been most of these last two years, too. The Royals have been one of baseball’s funnest stories, and their fans have been baseball’s loudest messengers. This is the only way they should’ve both been celebrated, then, with the loudest crowd any of them are likely to see in their lives. They were there to honor baseball’s champion.
But when those pictures are seen, both this week around the world and forever around Kansas City, all anyone is going to think about is all of those fans.