Midsummer Royalty

When Royals Stadium, now Kauffman Stadium, had been in operation only three months, with the strains of “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” “Kodachrome” and “Smoke on the Water” on the radio, Kansas City hosted the 40th anniversary of Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game. And in that 7-1 National League win, bronzed men of Cooperstown graced the field, 18 Hall of Famers in all. Brooks Robinson, Rod Carew and Nolan Ryan played for the American League; Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Johnny Bench played for the National.

So yes, it’s been a few years.

The game was the only attraction when the All-Star Game was last played here on July 24, 1973. Players would fly in, play the game, then fly out. Nearly four decades later, it’s metamorphosed into a five-day extravaganza themed around the platform of celebrating the game of baseball.

“It is the only time that we can actually plan for an event of this size and magnitude, because of course with our World Series and postseason, we don’t know where we’re going to be,” says Marla Miller, MLB’s senior vice president of special events. “So we do get the benefit once the commissioner awards the city that’s hosting an All-Star Game to start the planning process immediately.”

Knowing that the Kauffman Stadium upgrades would make it a desirable site, MLB representatives scouted the city before Commissioner Bud Selig awarded the game to Kansas City in June 2010. Jackie Secaira-Cotto, an MLB vice president in charge of FanFest, was in a party of MLB representatives which checked out Kansas City and did a walk-through of Bartle Hall in November 2008.

On June 28, 2012, FanFest folks arrived downtown to convert Bartle into a baseball fan’s wonderland. Taking about eight days to set up, FanFest overflows with baseball bustle. From July 6-10, families who don’t have tickets to the game can experience All-Star Summer with a Hometown Heroes display chronicling Kansas City’s rich baseball history; a mini-baseball field called The Diamond where there will be clinics with former and current players; and the biggest draw, autographs from the legends. John Mayberry, Amos Otis and Cookie Rojas, the three Royals All-Stars from 1973, are some of the players who will need an ample supply of pens to accommodate the throng. Manny Mota, in his 33rd season as a coach for the Dodgers, has also notably agreed to the autograph session in that 1973 was his only All-Star appearance.

It’s 400,000 square feet of sprawling fan interaction that the 1973 game simply didn’t have.

“My nephew, when he came to FanFest in 2008, he was 7 years old,” Secaira-Cotto says.  “And he spent the entire day and begged his parents to come back the next day. For someone who’s a fan, for someone who’s not a fan, it’s just a really fun event that you can spend the entire day in.”

Among those teaching at The Diamond will be George Brett, who, as the rightful All-Star Ambassador, will do everything but sing the National Anthem. He’ll be playing with fellow Royal alums Bo Jackson and Mike Sweeney in the Taco Bell All-Star Legends and Celebrity Softball Game. Earlier that Sunday evening, he’ll also manage the U.S. team against Yankee great Bernie Williams’ World team in the Futures Game on the Sunday of All-Star Summer.

The Futures Game is a launching pad for many players’ first steps onto a major league field. So competitive is Brett that he still hasn’t gotten over losing when he managed the game in Detroit in 2005, says Brian O’Gara, the MLB vice president who helps plan both the Futures Game and the softball game. In that 2005 edition, though, Brett sent a future Cy Young Award winner to the mound.

“He told me that when he got there in Detroit, he didn’t know a lot about some of the players on the roster. He tried to study up, but a lot of the other coaches from the minor leagues knew the players better,” O’Gara says. “But George said, ‘Look, I’m no dummy. I told them the starting pitcher was going to be whomever the pitcher was from Detroit. Whomever their best minor league pitcher was, was going to be the starting pitcher. I just thought that was nice of the kid, and nice for the fans.’

“Well, it ended up being Justin Verlander. George looked like a genius for making Verlander the starting pitcher.”

And the next Justin Verlander could be throwing strikes for one of these teams.

Invariably the Futures guys will come back from the locker room to watch the celebrity softball game themselves. Washington Nationals breakout star Bryce Harper, who played in the Futures Game last year, has the kind of voracious appetite for baseball that he wanted to meet the legends and see them play again. MLB pursues a national list of celebrities but is excited about the natives from both sides of the state line who will participate, which have yet to be divulged.

The first couple of years, the celebrities were worried that they’d be overmatched by the Ozzie Smiths and Rickey Hendersons, but they’ve learned to loosen up. Because everyone wants to take their cuts and get their at-bats, and they all have so much fun, the game will be six innings instead of five for the first time. The camaraderie builds with each year since the game was introduced in 2001, and some of the biggest ovations of the weekend are for the hometown favorites. It was enough to make Don Draper of “Mad Men” fame smile in St. Louis in 2009.

“Jon Hamm is from Missouri, grew up a Cardinals fan,” O’Gara says, “and for him to take the field with Ozzie Smith—Ozzie went to shortstop and Jon Hamm went to second base—they worked on turning a double play, and that’s the kind of great memory that Jon Hamm will have.”

Even the traditional Home Run Derby the night before the game didn’t come along until 1985, and it was a competition between leagues then. So all these ballpark undercards in anticipation of the main event were years away from being proposed.

But it’s the All-Star Game itself that is really unchanged from 39 years ago. To borrow from James Earl Jones in “Field of Dreams,” baseball has marked the time. The players will tip their caps as they jog from the dugout the same way, and after they’re announced they’ll stand along the first- and third-base lines the same way. Then they’ll play the game, exhibition though it may be, in the same spirited way as those Hall of Famers from 1973.

The game will be seen in more than 220 countries in what could be Kauffman Stadium’s finest moment since Darryl Motley caught the final out in the 1985 World Series. MLB’s Miller, who’s visited Kansas City 20-plus times since the announcement, says she and MLB were overwhelmed by the differences between the old stadium and the new stadium and that the Royals have adapted well to their one-year second job.

“They have been absolutely tremendous,” she says. “There’s no exaggeration there.”

With FanFest, the Futures Game, the celebrity softball game and the multitude of outside events preceding the Midsummer Classic, MLB knows that Kansas City baseball fans will pack each of the festivities.
“It might be the only opportunity to get to an All-Star Game for many people in the ballpark,” O’Gara says. “If you consider that, then that’s a great incentive for us to make it a tremendous experience for them.”

For more information visit allstargame.com.


All-Star Summer

Anyone who’s cheered for a towering home run, a hustle play on the bases or a diving catch should check the calendar for Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game events in Kansas City.

July 6-10
MLB All-Star FanFest, Bartle Hall (Alex Gordon, spokesman)
9 a.m.-8 p.m. (July 6-9)
9 a.m.-6 p.m. (July 10)

July 8
MLB All-Star Game Charity 5K and Fun Run presented by Nike, benefiting cancer charities, downtown Kansas City (Kristin Chenowith, starter)
Charity 5K: 7:30 a.m.
Fun Run: 8 a.m.

July 8
Taco Bell All-Star Sunday, Kauffman Stadium: 4 p.m. (Taco Bell Futures Game and Taco Bell All-Star Legends & Celebrity Softball Game)

July 9
Gatorade All-Star Workout Day featuring the State Farm Home Run Derby
Kauffman Stadium: 7 p.m.

July 10
2012 MLB All-Star Game
Kauffman Stadium: 7 p.m.

Categories: Arts & Entertainment, Sports