Freak of nature

So I had a night yesterday that was almost as good as my infamous baseball doubleheader in 2007.

My friend Tom and I had been wanting to meet for a Royals game all season. We planned to go to a game in May, but backed out because it was cold and raining. Then, there was the big move in June, and other things kept getting in the way.

As this weekend approached, I signed on to attend a lunch gathering in Kansas City for alumni of my college journalism school. It turned out the Royals were in town, too, and Tom and I laid plans to attend last night’s game.

On Friday afternoon, he purchased a pair of $9 upper deck seats and a parking pass for us. Hours later, the Royals’ game with the White Sox was called in the midst of our stormy weather … The game was rescheduled as a nighttime doubleheader, with the Saturday night game to go on as scheduled, with a 6:10 p.m. start time, and the Friday night game to be made up afterward.

So our cheap $9 upper deck seats suddenly became golden tickets to two games. Let me repeat that: $9 for two games. … And so much more.

I hit the lunch gathering and had a grand time catching up with generations of journalists, some of whom I hadn’t see in 10 years and were valued mentors to me back in the day. They were overjoyed when I told them about my new gig, too.

By 3 in the afternoon, I was at Tom’s place, just blocks from the stadium. We warmed up for the game by pulling out the old school Nintendo system and playing some RBI Baseball (Tom’s circa 1995 Atlanta Braves beat my circa 1995 Cleveland Indians, 9-8.)

We headed for the ballpark around 4. Drank a couple brewskies in the parking lot, and headed inside the stadium to watch some batting practice … Really, we just wanted to shag batting practice balls. More importantly, I’m on a crusade now to replace the two prized possessions that were stolen from me. Jerk burglars.

Instead, Tom and I walked to the left field seats -- the same place I caught my first batting practice home run in 1999 -- stood viewing the field for about three minutes, and then decided it was far too hot to wait on the slim chance a ball came our way. So we headed to the concourse for a walk of the improved stadium.

I hadn’t been to Kauffman Stadium since that other hot August night in 2007, one year before the renovations began … And, wow, has the stadium experience improved. The new concourse is wider, lighter and no longer feels like a continuation of the parking lot. When you enter the stadium now, it feels like a truly modern ballpark. Then again, I’ve been spoiled by my years of attending games at Miller Park … What’s more, the gates are surrounded by gardens of appealing ornamental grasses, replacing the pavement fields where my buddies and I used to play catch to pass time before the $5 general admission ticket windows opened.

We secured our Royals jersey coolers, and I purchased not one but two scorecards for the double-bill, thus impressing the souvenir hawker with my foresight … My next goal was to purchase a worthy Royals hat, to much teasing from Tom considering the prices of ballpark souvenirs these days. After all, I found a nice one with a faded look that felt comfortable; it cost me just $25 bucks and Tom approved.

Eventually, we headed for our seats, settling in about 15 minutes before the first pitch. Then the fun really began.

Philip Humber started the game for the Royals and was perfect for the first three innings. I jinxed it, though, when I pointed out the perfecto to Tom; Humber gave up an infield single to Juan Pierre -- the only White Sox player for whom I have any legitimate admiration -- leading off the fourth … The White Sox proceeded to mount a 5-1 lead in the sixth inning.

But in the seventh inning, Billy Butler led off with a walk. White Sox starter Freddy Garcia struck out Wilson Betemit and Alex Gordon. Then Willie Bloomquist and Mike Aviles singled to load the bases. Ozzie Guillen removed Garcia for Sergio Santos and Yuni Betancourt hit the second pitch he saw for a game-tying grand slam. The crowd went wild. High fives all around.

The score held until the 11th inning -- even after Bentacourt doubled in the ninth and the White Sox seemingly had the win in hand, only to watch the Royals toss a perfect relay from right fielder Carlos Quentin to second baseman Mike Aviles to catcher to catcher Jason Kendall, who tagged Paul Konerko sliding home. Again, the crowd went wild. Again, high fives all around.

In the bottom of the 11th, Betemit walked and Gordon bunted him to second. Then, Aviles singled, moving Betemit to third. And lo and behold, Betancourt slapped a two-out single to center field for the game winner. The Royals won 6-5 … The crowd went wild. High fives all around.

Our voices hoarse from all of the screaming, Tom and I ventured to the fountain deck for the intermission … The fountains at Kauffman Stadium are arguably one of the greatest features of any Major League ballpark. Now that fans have the ability to walk alongside them -- way cool.

We walked the entire deck, stopping to gaze up at the humongous scoreboard and the various outfield views along the way ... Eventually, we swung around to the deck that stretches behind the fountains and got an even more dazzling view of the water displays between innings.

And then to the children’s area … Holy moly, I can hardly wait to take Phoebe for a game and watch her run around there! There’s a full-fledged playground, plus a carousel, batting cages, a base run, a little league field -- and a mini-golf course!

In the meantime, the second game started, and Tom and I weren’t missing anything by the sounds of the crowd. The White Sox piled two runs and five hits in the first three innings.

Wanting to make the most of our opportunity, we headed to the Royals Hall of Fame, which is now housed in a cool, air-conditioned building beyond the left field corner. The storied history of Kansas City baseball hits you the moment you step inside the atrium, where the retired jerseys of Brett, Howser and White are encased and newspaper headlines of memorable moments are plastered on the walls … The sad part is realizing the Royals were once among the elite franchises in all of baseball.

From the jerseys, to famous bats and home plates, to the Cy Young and Gold Glove awards, the Royals Hall of Fame is a display that I can only imagine rivals the mother of them all in Cooperstown. (… Some day.)

(For all of my photos from the night, check out my Flickr set.)

“Yep, I’d say they did pretty good on the renovations,” I said as we walked back to our seats to watch the second game.

The second game, by the way, started at 10 p.m. … I was in my glory.

At the entrance to the upper deck, we were ready to bargain with the usher. After all, the ushers had been strict to start the night, even in the upper deck, which was hardly full. They were posted in every corner and allowed us to go nowhere but the section for our seats … So when we approached the usher for the second game -- and the stadium crowd had cleared considerably, I asked bluntly, “Seriously, we don’t have to sit in our original seats, right?”

To our surprise, he replied, “Nah, you guys could probably go down below at this point and nobody would say anything.”

No problem. We headed to the field-level seats and settled into a pair beyond the third base dugout.

We sat in the bottom of the third with the Royals showing little life and losing 2-0. "They're tired," I said. ... That changed in the fourth when the Royals knocked out five straight hits, including Betemit’s double, and took a 4-2 lead.

The White Sox took back the lead, 6-4 in the sixth … Gregor Blanco hit a home run in the eighth to make the score 6-5.

So you can imagine the excitement that filled the ballpark when the Royals came to the bat in the ninth -- at the possibility of the second game also going into extras. It didn’t appear it would happen when the first two Royals to bat in the inning struck out …

Then Mitch Maier drove a pitch down the right field line for a triple. None other than Yuni Betancourt came up next and -- you guessed it -- drove in Maier, sending the game into extra innings. (Check out Joe Posnanski's curiously long post about Yuni Betancourt.)

That was our cue to move even closer to the field, ending up about a dozen rows behind the third base dugout … During that last inning, the crowd had dwindled to mere hundreds. The stadium was so empty, the water pouring from the fountains was almost louder than any of the cheers echoing around the ballpark.

In the 10th, the White Sox took care of business. Juan Pierre doubled to score Gordon Beckham and the Sox won it 7-6.

The game ended at about 1:10 a.m. Two games. 6 hours, 31 minutes. 21 innings. For $9.

I’d say we got our money’s worth.

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