Baseball, Barbecue, Beer and Burgers: A TravelogueBy
At around this time last week, my flight to Kansas City was just about to touch down, and I had one thing in mind: Barbecue. I had been to Arthur Bryant’s once before ten years ago, and I wanted lunch. After picking up my car, I drove down into KC from the airport where I sampled some burnt ends and brisket, enjoyed a few ribs and a scoop of pulled pork. It was as good as I remembered, and it wouldn’t even be the best barbecue of my trip.
After taking the bar in late July and spending the previous summer months studying for it, I wanted to spend some time in August on the road. I knew the Yanks too were heading west this month, and so I followed them. I caught the last two games in Kansas City before settling in for a long weekend in Minneapolis. Along the way, I ate well, I drank well and I enjoyed a successful 4-2 stint with the Yanks during which I encountered many knowledgeable, passionate and friendly baseball fans.
The Kansas City leg of a trip was a short one. After my lunch at Arthur Bryant’s, I stopped by my hotel, across the street from Kauffman Stadium, and decamped for the ballpark. The K is a lovely stadium. It opened in 1973, and it’s now one of the game’s oldest ballparks. You wouldn’t know it though from the trip. It’s a small, intimate setting for a baseball game. The upper deck tapers off at the end, and the seating bowl holds just over 37,000. For the mid-week series against the Yanks, the last-place Royals drew just over 22,000 to each of the two games I saw.
In Kansas City, I wasn’t the lone Yankee fan there. My hotel was swarming with families decked out in Yankee gear. Not many had traveled from New York, but others had taken the trip from near and far. Some came in from Nebraska and Oklahoma, fans of the Yankees since the Mick roamed center field. Others were up from Arkansas to see their favorite team play. Throughout the games, chants of “Let’s go, Yanks” drowned out those KC natives trying to pull for the Royals.
When the Royals beat the Yankees on a disputed home run call last Wednesday, the crowd went crazy. We might mock these fans as boosters of a last-place club, but they drew some baseball joy from seeing the Royals beat the Yankees. Although some fans had the typical “Yankees suck” shirts, those I spoke with were resigned to rooting for a losing team, and when David conquered the $200 million Goliath, they found a minute of happiness amidst yet another lost season.
In KC, I found a city that respects its baseball history. The recently renovated Kauffman Stadium has a new Hall of Fame-curated Royals-specific museum with tributes to the great Royals clubs from the 1980s, images of David Cone and Bret Saberhagen and a monument to George Brett in baseballs. They want to be good again, and maybe soon, the Royals, with a stocked farm system, will be.
Outside of baseball, I ate my way through the city. Thanks to a tip from Mark Feinsand, I left the Missouri part of town and ventured to a gas station in Kansas where I found the best barbecue I’ve had. Oklahoma Joe’s, not a quite a secret to those who know about it, operates in the second half of a gas station convenience store, and it was packed with Yankee fans. I downed succulent half rack of ribs, some pulled pork and a bit of cole slaw. I wanted seconds. After the barbecue, I toured Boulevard Brewery, Kansas City’s expanding and delicious microbrewery. The trip was worth it for the food alone.
Following my 36 hours of beer, baseball and barbecue in Kansas City, I flew north for a four-game stay in Minneapolis and switched out the barbecue for some burgers. The specialty of Minneapolis are Jucy Lucy’s or Juicy Lucy’s depending upon which restaurant you frequent. These are burger patties with the cheese inside of them. They are rich, messy and delicious. My first stop was a high-end joint, the Blue Door Pub in St. Paul, but over the weekend, I also dropped in on Matt’s Bar and the 5-8 Club. With some Summit or Surly to accompany the food, I ate well.
But the focus was again on baseball. I saw four games on Target Field over the weekend, and it is an electric baseball atmosphere. The Twins and Populous have constructed a temple to baseball in Minnesota. From the gates numbered for Minnesota’s retired uniforms to the local materials used in construction, this ballpark oozes Minnesota history. (You can, however, skip the infamous pork chop-on-a-stick.) For one game, I sat atop the overhang in right field, and for the others, I sat with views of the Downtown Minneapolis skyline. It is outdoor baseball away from the confines of the Metrodome.
Unlike in Kansas City, Twins fans packed the house, and Yankee fans had to find a fit. These days, Twins fans love their team. Everyone in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area had on a Twins hat, a t-shirt, a jersey, and when I showed up in my Yankee shirt, they would playfully tease me. And it was a playful teasing for everyone I met in Minnesota was as friendly as New Yorkers think they would be. It’s midwest hospitality at its finest.
While Royals fans cheer for a bad team, the Twins this year have been bitten by the injury bug, and their fans have grown accustomed to Yankee dominance. The Yanks have won all but four games they’ve played against the Twins since the start of 2009, and when you consider that the Twins have made the playoffs twice since then, it’s a rather astounding fact. So the Target Field faithful went into the weekend expecting loses, and outside of A.J.’s blow-up, the Yanks delivered.
By the time I returned home yesterday, I was full. I had stopped at burger and barbecue joints around the midwest. I had eaten pancakes at Al’s Breakfast and eggs at Hell’s Kitchen. I had seen two barbecue places, a brewery, six Yankee games and an irate Joe Girardi chew out Jack Curry. It’s a trip well worth planning for any baseball fan with a few days or a weekend to spare, and although I don’t need to eat much for a little while, I’m off to Yankee Stadium again tonight. After all, I can never have enough baseball.