KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Home, sweet home!
Actually, make that home, sweet second home. Stew Force One has landed on blessed Missouri soil and to say I'm excited about the next few days would be an understatement. As part of the vaunted Kansas City Star staff of the early '00s, I called the City of Fountains my home for three years and though Chicago's siren song eventually summoned me home, I left a lot of good friends and times behind in Kansas City. I love it every time I come back, for many of the reasons that my former co-worker Joe Posnanski details here.
Indeed, it goes without saying that I've had this All-Star Game circled on my calendar ever since it became apparent that it'd be Kansas City's reward from Bud Selig for putting Kauffman Stadium through some expensive and extensive renovations. And it goes without saying that I wouldn't miss it for anything. When my then-fiancée suggested July 1 as a possible wedding date, I said that the schedule would work under one condition: That we could tack on a trip to Kansas City on the tailend of our honeymoon.
Missing the All-Star Game in KC, I said, was non-negotiable.
Luckily, I married a woman who once bought Chicago White Sox season tickets in part so she was guaranteed tickets to the 2003 All-Star Game at The Cell. And after a week-long trip to San Diego — where we caught our first game at Petco Park and a batting practice home run off the Western Metal Supply Co. building from either Todd Frazier or Chris Heisey — we've arrived in the land of barbecue and baseball.
Blastroom temperatures aside, both Kauffman Stadium and Kansas City have the potential to be the perfect All-Star host. They're hidden gems with enough history and character to grab and hold the nation's sporting attention. And with both Dave Brown and yours truly on location for the events, Big League Stew is your one place to check in on the party.
A few more observations before we really kick things off on Monday:
"HI, MAY I HELP YOU?": Let's cut to the chase. The most-written about stars of KC's All-Star week may not be Derek Jeter or Bryce Harper but barbecue hotspots like Gates, Oklahoma Joe's and Arthur Bryant's. In fact, because I know my sportswriting brethren, I'd guarantee that to be true. (You think we're bad when referencing In-N-Out when we're in Arizona for spring training? Just wait until we belly up to a platter of burnt ends.)
In town and need a recommendation? After some measured debate, I've determined that my two scheduled, uh, pit stops will be the historic Gates (I'm actually writing this with sauce on my fingers as it was our first stop on Sunday afternoon) and the relatively lesser-known Smokin' Guns, located in an industrial park just north of downtown.
Now, I'll admit that some other barbecue aficionados may smoke a bit over my Gates pick and I can see where they're coming from. Maybe they're loyal fans of Arthur Bryant's — now that Mizzou is off to the SEC, Gates-Bryant's ranks as the undisputed biggest rivalry in town — or maybe they're barbecue hipsters who equate liking Gates or Bryants to liking Coldplay or Nickelback. I actually feel sorry for that latter group because just as you don't knock Kleenex for becoming synonymous with tissue, you can't hate on Ollie Gates for making barbecue so delicious that it's the first name many associate with fine Kansas City dining. There are few things in life more pleasurable than answering the loud Gates' greeting of "Hi, may I help you?" with a cadenced callback of "short ends, please!" Arm that platter with a side of potato salad, beans and a large strawberry soda and you've written a menu suitable for a last meal.
As for Smokin' Guns, I'll say this: Most Kansas City barbecue has a few menu items they do really well and it's somewhat of a local parlor game to assemble the best menu possible. ("Ribs from Gates, brisket from OK Joe's, onion rings from Jack Stack ..."). But Smokin' Guns really almost obliterates the need for that exercise. They do everything well.
King George: No offense to Tim Salmon or Luis Gonzalez — the de facto "faces" of the last two franchises to host the All-Star Game — but it's nice to get a Hall of Famer back as the unofficial center of the proceedings. George Brett's mug will be everywhere and he'll likely get all the pregame love that Stan the Man got in '09, that Yogi Berra got in '08 and that Willie Mays got in '07. Brett is the only member of the Hall of Fame who sports a Kansas City cap on his plaque and seeing him at the center of attention is going to be a thrill for people like me, who grew up watching Brett on all those great Royals teams in the '70s and '80s. His presence should make for a nice pregame moment for MLB, so long as George stays away from telling any Bellagio stories ...
Chipper: Watching George Brett serve as the elder statesman may make some of us feel old, though maybe not as much as watching Chipper Jones doff his cap for the final time will. Though Larry Wayne's moniker may suggest something close to eternal youth, the 40-year-old's final turn at the Midsummer Classic will likely be one of the lasting story lines to come out of this edition.
Mike Trout and Bryce Harper: But one of the great things about baseball, of course, is that there's always someone ready to take the ball and carry the sport into its next era. The presence of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper in Kansas City this weekend — despite neither being old enough to buy a drink in Westport — gives this All-Star Game the potential to be one to remember for a long time.