If you’re as old as I am, you may remember watching those great late 70’s Kansas City Royals teams playing on Monday Night Baseball on ABC. I recall seeing those broadcasts from Royals Stadium thinking: “They have fountains!” Young me thought that was as amazing as outfield walls covered in ivy or Sparky Lyle’s tobacco wad.
Fast forward today and those fountains are still there. But they’re also there at other parks. And they no longer define the stadium; I’d argue the amazing HD scoreboard is what draws your eyes. It’s just proof that was once venerated can become less special over time.
Which is why stadiums need to keep re-inventing themselves. The Royals have a few times, once by moving from turf to natural grass in 1995, and again with a major renovation completed in 2009. Having been here in the turf years, in the years before the renovation, and several times in the years after the renovations, I can see how the place has evolved.
Kauffman Stadium, the structure, ranks among the top ones in all of baseball. However, its suburban location and utter lack of nearby scene hurts it. As well, the years of bad baseball took a toll on attendance that even a brief period of glory couldn’t fully rectify. As such it just barely cracks the 2nd tercile.
Exterior aesthetics 7/10; Interior & Concourse Aesthetics 8/10; Sightlines & seating 9/10; Amenities & entertainment 10/10; Flow 5/5; Celebrating history 5/5; Scoreboards 5/5; Grand entrance 2/5; Sense of place 6/10; WOW Factor 27/30. Total 84 points divided by 2 for 42
It’s a pretty stadium. It’s always been. The renovations have improved the amenities significantly and made the ugly exterior more presentable. The interior architecture was arguably nicer before the outfield opened up, but I think the place is much better now.
- The scoreboard is a signature piece of architecture. Shaped like the team logo, complete with a crown on top, it’s one of the largest boards in baseball, and provides the data that a ball fan wants. Few do it better.
- The Royals Hall of Fame in left field, free with your admission, is really good with an entertaining theatre show and some nice exhibits. Worthy of your time.
- You can walk around the lower bowl and see the action along both baselines (like many parks, your view is unobstructed behind the plate due to club seating). Amazing considering this was built in the 1970’s.
- Fans seating in the lower rows of the lower deck have access to a bunker where there are basic concessions and restrooms, thus keeping the main concession area a little less crowded
- Sightlines are generally good. The upper deck, while steep, is closer to the action due to the fact that this is a three-tier stadium (lower deck, small club level, upper deck) with a little cantilevering.
- The view beyond the outfield fences is pastoral. They make it seem like the park is in a rural setting (even though it’s a suburban park by the Interstate).
- There’s a clean symmetry to both the playing field and the stands
- You can now watch a few innings from behind the fountains and get a little mist on those sweltering summer days
- The outfield features the best kid’s area in baseball complete with a carousel, a playground, a Wiffle Ball diamond, a speed pitch, a batting cage and even a putt-putt course.
- There are two restaurants open to the public for congregating: Craft & Draft and the outfield Rivals Sports Bar, as well as three other social areas in the outfield of the park.
- As mentioned, the fountains now compete with ads, various seating decks and the incredible scoreboard for your attention. This is too bad since KC is the City of Fountains.
- Seats feel old and worn, and not all have cupholders
- The modern exterior façade clashes somewhat with the park’s pastoral setting. While I find it attractive, it seems a little out of place. And even with the new facades, the exterior architecture is more “function over form”. The main entrance gates lack grandeur.
- In the upper deck and mezzanine levels, sections can go 25 seats wide without an aisle. If you’re in seat 12, that’s a lot of people you need to displace.
Overall, it’s a nice park built on a foundation of good design that just improved with the major renovations.
Overall, the food scene at the K tends to veer toward more traditional ballpark fare and less about showcasing local restaurants and eateries. But there are a few of things that are definitely worth eating, and I suppose that’s all you really need.
The brisket-topped tots served in a helmet seems to personify the offerings here; i.e. large portion of a midwestern starch and a little KC BBQ. It’s safe yet satisfying. It’s a similar combination to my personal fave: The burnt ends mac n cheese offered by Craft & Draft which offer a little KC flavor in a carbo-licious dish.
There’s also a good selection of encased meats (brats, smoked kielbasa, jalapeno and cheddar sausages) and some good fried chicken sandwiches (the artisan sandwich is my preference with lettuce, tomato, avocado, bacon, cheese and a fried egg atop the chicken). And the two accessible restaurants offer good food like poke bowls, oyster po boys, queso and chips, tri-tip Philly sandwiches and Korean BBQ.
Surprisingly, there isn’t a local BBQ joint smoking their wares on site. The BBQ stand is run by Aramark and sponsored by Sweet Baby Rays. That said, I’ve eaten there often and some of the vittles are good (like the burnt ends or the pulled pork sandwich) even though there’s much better BBQ in the city.
Kansas City’s Boulevard Brewing has a large presence here. You can get many of their varietals including their unfiltered wheat beer, IPA, Kölsch, lager, tropical pale ale and hoppy wheat ale. The best is their Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale, which is a rather funky offering for a ballpark. You can also find stuff from local brewers KC Bier Co, Martin City and Mother’s Brewing. Almost every concession will have at least one craft beer available on tap. A decent selection of imports can also be enjoyed, and Miller Coors is the macro partner.
The real treat here is the Craft & Draft down the left field line with 75 beer available on tap, can or bottle. If you want something other than locals, they offer many nationally recognized options from brewers like Founders, Ommegang, Crane Brewing, 4 Hands and Revolver Brewing. You may forget there’s a game on.
The stadium complex is in the far east end of town off the interstate with nothing around it other than a Taco Bell, a Denny’s, and some 2-star chain hotels. It’s as empty as any park in the majors, the ultimate get in/get out park. There are a few murmurs of a downtown stadium perhaps being a decade away, but for now this jewel sits with its football cousin, away from anything.
It gets a 3 because the tailgating is the best in baseball for any park not in Wisconsin. So BYOB (bring your own barbecue).
While the “recent” World Series win drove prices up, a Royals game is still about average. The ticket price is a little lower than other places, but concessions and parking are par for MLB.
There’s no public transit other than an hourly bus, so this will be a low score. The good news is that it’s relatively easy to get to by car. Parking is ample as the Chiefs lots can be used for overflow.
Early season games can be cold. Summer games can be unbearable. And violent storms are possible, especially in spring (it’s one of the only stadiums that I’ve been in when I was forced to take cover under the seats due to a very real tornado warning).
There was talk of building a shared roof with Arrowhead to protect from rain (the team is a regional team, attracting fans from many miles away, and wants to reward those long drives with an actual baseball game); however, the local tax payers voted it down after saying yes to the renovation costs.
At least now, on those sweltering summer days, if the breeze is right, fans can get a little mist from the beautiful fountains by standing out in right.
In some ways Kansas City fans deserve the Mother Teresa award for showing up at all during the two decades when the team never a had a chance. It’s got to be disheartening knowing you’re realistically never going to be in the race year in year out. Finally, in the mid 2010’s, they managed to keep a core young group together just long enough to make it to two World Series, winning one. I felt great for Royals fans for sticking with it all those years.
Alas, the bump in attendance was short-lived as the team went back to its losing ways. Often, you can go to a game at the K with a relatively light crowd. The fans there are exceedingly polite and nice, and there always seem to be a lot of families, but they aren’t particularly loud or plentiful which dulls the buzz a bit. Unless it’s a bobblehead or jersey night; then it’s packed!
In a way, all the great new amenities take the focus away from the game itself. My son still claims his trip to Kansas City was his favorite (he was 10 at the time), but we were out by the Speed Pitch for much of innings 5-6 because the game wasn’t close and we didn’t have a vested interest in either team playing that night. Many others were in the bars, social areas, the Hall of Fame, or simply wandering the concourse instead of being in the seats. And this was by no means a one off for that game. While I see it in many other parks, it felt more pronounced here, which I found odd in a great baseball city.
The suburban location also makes a difference. Somebody is driving which means someone is sober. And so you never have one of those slightly goofy 8th inning conversations that occur in other parks.
That all said, there’s something about the bucolic setting that is almost peaceful. There’s a bit of a “Field of Dreams” vibe here. It feels less like a frenetic Big League event, and more like a casual minor league outing in a fantastic facility. It’s perfectly pleasant, almost wholesome.
I like my sports to have a little more bite to them, so I gave this an average score. But some may find the more pastoral approach to Big League ball right up their alley.
OTHER THINGS TO DO
Three fun KC restaurants:
Kansas City is barbecue country. I’ve patronized at least 12 barbecue joints over my trips to KC, with most getting return visits. Narrowing this down to three is virtually impossible. For instance, Q39 is an upscale-casual restaurant that would be the best BBQ in almost any other American town (and one that many BBQ aficionados rate as #1 here). LC’s Barbecue is a no-frills place in a not-too-nice part of town relatively close to the ballpark that serves up top-notch ribs tips and a great mixed plate, making it a great option for those preferring to eat close to the stadium. But in the end, my top three are:
- Joe’s Kansas City BBQ (Kansas City, KS. BBQ in an old gas station, rated among the best in the land.)
- Arthur Bryant’s (18th and Vine. The OG BBQ joint that still makes a mean burnt ends.)
- Fiorella’s Jack Stack (6 locations, my favorite being the one in the Crossroads Art District. Upscale setting that feels more like a steakhouse than a BBQ joint, but nonetheless delivers the goods.)
Three places to imbibe before the game:
Most of the imbibing is done in the parking lot with a bonafide tailgate scene. Bring your BBQ as takeout and enjoy it with a cold one in the lot. If you aren’t carrying, the bar in the nearby Best Western is as close to a pre-game spot as there is within walking distance, but it’s hardly The Cubby Bear.
One bar in the area worth hitting (I’ll give you three since I only gave you one above):
- Power & Light District (Choose from a few good spots including Johnny’s, Yard House, KC Live!)
- Boulevard Brewing Taproom (Westside South. KC’s pre-eminent brewery has a great facility.)
- Chappell’s Restaurant & Sports Museum (North KC. Incredible memorabilia is the real draw.)
Three craft breweries in the area worthy of your time:
- Border Brewing and Casual Animal Brewing Co (Crossroads Arts District. My favorite breweries in a fun area with several other small breweries and bars.)
- Stockyards Brewing (Stockyards District. Solid brewery in the old Livestock Exchange Building)
- KC Bier Co (Good brewery in south part of town with good size bierhall and German eats)
Three fun tourist attractions in the area:
- Negro League Baseball Museum (A must for all baseball fans)
- American Jazz Museum (In the same complex as the Negro League Museum)
- Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum (Independence. Was a good library before the large renovation. Looking forward to going back.)
It’s a beautiful facility attended by nice Midwesterners in a rural-like location. But given that baseball always has been an urban sport, it feels weird to witness big league baseball in a stadium that feels a little like Ray Kinsella’s Iowa cornfield. If that’s your bag, it may score higher on your list. While its score in the 80’s gives it the status of being a “great park”, I’d probably call it “a really nice park”. “Complisult” fully intended.