ALL STAR GAME: 1973, 2012 WORLD SERIES: 1980, 1985 ARTIFICIAL TURF: 1973-1994
BEEN THERE, DONE THAT: Aug. 16, 2002 (tour); Aug. 15, 2009; Aug. 16, 2011 (NYY 9, KC 7); July 25, 2014 (KC 6, CLE 4)
When Kansas City built separate stadiums for football and baseball in the early 1970s, I thought it was an extravagant waste of public money, especially for such a small city. How far-sighted those city fathers turned out to be in retrospect! "Royals Stadium" (as this ballpark was called until 1993) was the one exception to the rule of conformist mediocrity in the doughnut "clone" era of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Although symmetrical and therefore a little dull, like most modern-era 20th-century stadiums, it was designed to make baseball fans as comfortable as possible. With a cozy capacity of just over 40,000, the scale of this ballpark was just right for baseball. It is also quite pleasing aesthetically: The signature feature of this stadium is the huge artificial waterfall that stretches between the bullpens in the outfield. Until 2009, there was a beautiful landscaped grass slope out there. Kauffman Stadium is located about five miles east of downtown Kansas City, with plenty of parking and easy access to Interstate 70.
The overall layout of the field is reminiscent of Dodger Stadium, as the main grandstand forms a rounded acute angle, and the outfield fence makes a sharp curve between the foul poles and the bullpens. Another similarity is that there are two distance markers on either side of straightaway center field. However, there are no bleachers. U.S. Cellular Field also borrowed several innovative design elements. One architectural feature that sets this stadium apart from all others is the shape of the second deck, which is very large in the area close to the infield but tapers to a point just beyond each foul pole. It's an elegant match of form and function that keeps most fans close to the infield. In addition, the seats in the lower deck are not parallel to the wall but are rather arranged in a very gentle, broad curve, so that people sitting near the foul poles face toward the middle of the field rather than deep center field. (This is reflected in the diagrams by the slight curvature of the dugouts.) As a result of this seating curvature, there are eight fewer rows of seats in the corners than behind the dugouts, which is why the height of the wall rises gradually from the dugouts to the foul poles. There is a small mezzanine level, which on the left side of the field consists mainly of enclosed air-conditioned skyboxes. Another interesting feature is the way the stadium lights reach out toward the field along the curved rim extending from the ends of the roof on either side of the second deck. This was made possible by the careful balancing of structural stresses in those angled support beams, which was quite an architectural feat. The lights do not extend out to the far corners of the second deck, however, so it gets dark out there at night.
Note that, contrary to Phil Lowry's Green Cathedrals, the original distance to center field was 410 feet, not 405 feet, and it remained the same until 1995.
The only major defect with Royals Stadium in its original form was the artificial turf, which was chosen in order to minimize the number of rained-out games. The Royals depend on a fan base that stretches across the Midwest, from Wichita to Omaha, and fans would be reluctant to drive over a hundred miles if rain threatened to postpone a game. The JumboTron video screen in left-center field was state of the art when it was installed in 1991, but it eventually became obsolescent.
In July 1993 the name of this ballpark was changed to Kauffman Stadium, in honor of Ewing Kauffman, the team's much-admired original owner; he passed away just one month later. Prior to the 1995 season, the old fake turf was replaced by real grass, as the advent of new-fangled quick-draining natural turf substantially reduced the number of rained-out games. At the same time, the outfield fence between the bullpens was moved closer to home, creating a bend in the outfield fence next to each of the bullpens, not unlike those at Wrigley Field. Since the right field bullpen was (at that time) wider than the left field one (to accommodate vehicle entry), the right field bend was a little farther away from the foul pole, creating a tiny bit of asymmetry. (During my tour of the stadium, I noticed that the warning track in foul territory is not real dirt, however, but a strange rubbery substance.) In 1999 a few rows of high-class box seats were squeezed in behind home plate, cutting the backstop distance from 60 feet to about 50. In addition, three rows of "dugout" seats (one of which was covered) were added beyond the photographers' area near first and third bases. In 2000, a covered pavilion/picnic area was added behind the left field (visitor's) bullpen, and in 2004, the fence was moved back to where it had been before 1995.
In April 2006, voters approved a bond referendum that provided funding for major renovations in Kauffman Stadium and Arrowhead Stadium, where the Chiefs play football next door. The proposal to build an enormous moving roof that would cover either Kauffman Stadium or Arrowhead Stadium failed, however. (The two facilities combined are called the "Harry S Truman Sports Complex.") In the spring of 2008, the scoreboard in center field was replaced with a bigger, high-definition video board, while the bullpens were rebuilt in parallel alignment to the outfield fence rather than perpendicular to it. Also, the fake rubbery warning track was replaced by real dirt and grit. Later in that year, a series a truly radical renovations were begun. Large chunks were torn out of the upper and lower decks, providing quicker access to the concourse areas in the rear, and the front edge of the upper deck was torn out to make room for a new press box at a higher level. A new glass-enclosed luxury "Diamond Club" was built to the rear behind home plate (visible in the lower deck diagram above), and to provide more room for elite box seats, the backtop distance was reduced by a few more feet as well. In addition, new outfield seating sections were built, replacing nearly all of the grass slope, with a concourse that wraps all the way around the stadium. Also, indoor restaurants were built near the right and left field corners. Finally, the main and upper level concourses were widened, and two of the spiral access ramps were replaced by new escalators. (Whew!) By Opening Day 2009, nearly all these enhancements were completed, making Kauffman Stadium one of the fan-friendliest ballparks in America.
The Royals' only Hall of Famer, George Brett, led the Royals to the World Series in 1980, when they lost to the Phillies, and in 1985, when they beat the Cardinals in the second-ever Missouri-only World Series. (The first was in 1944, between the St. Louis Browns and Cardinals.) The Royals were only the second expansion franchise ever to win the World Series, and Kansas City was delirious with joy. Lacking a big urban media market, the Royals have struggled since the 1980s, but their fans remain loyal. The revenue-sharing agreement in 2003 boosted the team's chances to compete with bigger-market teams, but some of their hottest stars -- such as ace pitcher Zack Greinke -- ended up being traded to other teams.
SOURCES: Lowry (1992, 2006), Pastier (2007), USA Today / Fodor's (1996), Rosen (2001), Royals Gameday Magazine (2002); Royals Baseball Insider (2011); eric.langhorst; MLB.com
FAN TIP: Jim Meyer