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The happiest place on earth?

 

Missouri corners the market, with KC leading the way

There's just something about Missouri. Talk about a state of happiness!

We ran a poll here on BASEBALLPARKS.COM a few years back where we asked visitors to select the best game-day staffs in the Majors. The winners in the National League were the St. Louis Cardinals. The top voter getter in the American League play on the other side of Missouri, in Kansas City. And the unbelievably friendly staff at the Springfield Cardinals, the only team in the affiliated Minors in the Show Me State, played a large role in their stadium being named BASEBALLPARKS.COM's Ballpark of the Year.

The friendliest place of all three is Kauffman Stadium, home of the Royals. (NOTE: this article was written prior to Kauffman's massive, $250-million renovation. For more on that, click here)

Before we look at exactly why I believe this is so, let's first take a quick look at the two franchises called "Cardinals."

The St. Louis Cardinals

What a combination: a consistently competitive team; enduring stars such as Stan Musial, Mark McGwire and Albert Pujols; the best fans in the sport. And starting in 2006, a new, state-of-the-art ballpark. What's not to like?

And is this team ever liked! No, make that worshipped, from the corn cribs of central Illinois over to the hog barns of Iowa and all the way down to Sooner country in Oklahoma (where two exhibition games featuring the Cards in Oklahoma City just before the 2005 regular season drew sold-out houses, even though the average ticket price was $50!).

I maintain that the glue that holds it all together for the Cards, though, is the game-day staff. I could write about their training, Midwestern upbringing and single-minded devotion to the fans' enjoyment of the game (and team) they love, but let me relate how one fan feels about the team's staff. I think it speaks volumes.

When I was preparing my book, Joe Mock's Ballpark Guide, I invited visitors to this website to write me about experiences they'd had at big-league parks. One fellow from Jennings, Missouri sent me a very long e-mail (which I edited down and used as the intro to the chapter on Busch Stadium). He told how his mother had been devoted to her Cardinals since 1936, and how she took him to many games as he was growing up, including Stan Musial's finale in 1963.

When she became older, she was confined to a wheelchair, so she figured that her days of attending games at Busch were behind her. However, her son worked with the team's front office to arrange for her to go to a game in 1998, and the ushers working the game went to incredible lengths to make her comfortable and to ensure she enjoyed one last trip to see her Cardinals. As the writer put it, "This game was especially memorable for me because just four weeks later on July 28, 1998, my mother died at the age of 75. Her obituary ends with, 'She was an avid Cardinal fan.' She was buried with her Cardinals hat in her casket and we sang Take Me Out to the Ballgame at her funeral. Now, every time the crowd sings that song at a ballgame, I think of my mother."

When I finished reading his long e-mail (and having to brush the moisture away from my eyes), it was obvious to me that Cardinal fans are particularly devoted to their team, and that the game-day staff at their games is comprised of angels.

The scene below (on the left) shows yet another happy moment at Busch Stadium.

The Springfield Cardinals

The St. Louis Cardinals own and operate their Double-A affiliate in Springfield, MO, 200 miles to the southwest of the city known as the Gateway To The West. The steadfast devotion to the fans exhibited at Busch Stadium is carried through beautifully at Hammons Field. From having a brass band and players in uniform to greet fans at the gates when they open, to unending cheerfulness and helpfulness throughout the game, the game-day staff in Springfield is second to none in the Minors.

In the photo above (right), the ushers get together before the gates open to go over ways to make the fans happy that day.

The Kansas City Royals

A three-hour drive north of Springfield is Kansas City, which might be the friendliest place of all.

In thinking of the ways in which Kauffman Stadium is so fan-friendly, I came up with seven: the between-innings events on the field; the music played over the PA system; the fountains; the tours of the stadium; the way kids are treated; the mascot; and pulling it all together, the game-day staff.

Between innings

To keep the fans entertained between innings, the Royals conduct a steady stream of activities on the field. And it's not so much what activities they do, it's what they don't do.

If you travel around the world of baseball as much as I do, you see all kinds of between innings entertainment, from on-field "hosts" who scream their lungs out (Greensboro), to "jousting" matches where contestants use poles to attempt to knock the velcroed "head" off their opponent (New Hampshire), to rolling a huge pair of dice to win prizes (Las Vegas, of course). The Royals have none of this, and for that, I'm thankful. They refuse to do any activity that might be demeaning to one of the contestants, preferring instead to doing dance contests and races.

The music

At far too many ballparks, what's played on the PA system prior to games and between innings is not what you'd want your kids listening to. In-your-face hip-hop, rap and heavy metal seems to be the order of the day. Not at Kauffman Stadium, where there is a steady diet of music from the '70s and '80s, like the group Chicago.

Not only that, but the all-too-forgotten sound of an organ can be heard, especially during the seventh-inning stretch, and that's a sound that I miss at other parks!

The fountains

I've said it many times in many places: I think the fountains at Kauffman Stadium are the single nicest feature of any ballpark anywhere. When you consider that this includes features like the Green Monster at Fenway or Monument Park at Yankee Stadium, this is high praise indeed.

Aside from the obvious aesthetics of the fountains, they are incredibly appropriate in a city whose official nickname is "The City of Fountains." Indeed, no other metropolis in the U.S. features as many public fountains as Kansas City. Therefore, it's perfect that the signature feature of Kauffman is the fountains.

While the game is going on, the fountains don't spray upward, but the pretty waterfalls, as the water spills from an upper level to a lower one, are always going. In between innings, though, the fountains shoot upward and outward in all their glory. And I don't think anyone has taken as many pictures of those fountains as me.

The tours

Often when a stadium is fairly new, the team will conduct tours so that curious fans can get a behind-the-scenes look at the facility. When a ballpark is more than three decades old, though, there isn't much demand for such tours.

Ahh, such is not the case with Kauffman Stadium ... and it's not just during baseball season, either!

In 2004 alone, over 15,000 people were given a guided tour of the Royals' home. The tour guides are very well-trained, knowledgeable and, naturally, extremely pleasant. The guides loosely follow a script composed by the team, and the interaction between the guides and the fans (especially the kids) is marvelous.

Morrie Carlson (shown to the right), manager of the Royals' Stadium Tours & Operations Department, oversees the tours and their content. His scripts for off-season tours are quite clever and full of educational info. He refers to this as "Royals-ology," as his guides interject math, phys-ed and communications skills into their presentation. The way this is presented is brilliant in its own right, as it's done in such a fun way that the kids don't even realize the teaching that is taking place. This makes a tour of Kauffman Stadium the perfect field trip for a school.

"In our department, we truly feel that we are the good-will ambassadors of the Royals," said Morrie. "We might be the only representative of the team that a fan will meet, so we want to make absolutely sure that the experience is a positive one."

The features for kids

A facility can have nice tours and pretty fountains, but if they fail to treat kids especially well, then you don't have a family-friendly place. In this area, the Royals have outdone themselves.

Beyond the right-field stands is an incredibly elaborate play area. There is a small-scale ballfield, cleverly called The Little K, where youngsters can run around the bases and take whacks at pitched balls. Right next to the field is a miniature-golf course with a cute baseball theme (see photo below).

Behind the double-deck stands on the first-base side is a nice playground (see above) where little tykes can burn off untold calories.

The mascot

Sometimes you have to stop and think for a moment about why a team decides to use a certain type of character as its mascot. Why do the Colorado Rockies have a dinosaur? Oh, it's because so many dinosaur bones have been discovered around Denver. Why do the Royals have a lion? Oh, because the lion is like royalty, as he is the king of the animals. It helps you figure this out when you notice that the top of the head of Kansas City's mascot is shaped like a crown.

His name is Sluggerrr, with the ending letters being a play on the growling sound a lion makes. If you think he's too fierce looking to be appealing, think again. I don't believe I've ever seen a mascot that attracts kids -- and not just attracts them, they come running to hug him -- like Sluggerrr.

The game-day staff

Above all else, this is what makes Kauffman such a special, warm place.

The ushers and concession-stand workers positively beam at the fans as they are serving them. They go out of their way to be as helpful as possible ... and sometimes they'll even try their hand at dancing behind the counter if they think it will bring a smile to your face.

The ushers deserve special mention. I posed a few questions to one as she was helping fans find their seats, and she couldn't have been nicer in patiently answering my questions.

Her name is Mallory Lutz (photos below) and she's a student at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. She's been an usher at Royals games for the past three years, plus she conducts tours of Kauffman Stadium year-round. "Before becoming an usher, I was a fan first. My family had season tickets when I was growing up, and I got to come to games here all the time," she told me. As to whether ushering or leading tours is more fun, Mallory told me, "Each one is a different kind of fun. Being an usher lets me see so many different people, and they are always excited to be in our beautiful stadium to see the great game of baseball. Doing tours, on the other hand, lets me show people a behind-the-scenes look at our ballpark, which is also fun.

"It's really important that we all treat the fans well," she added. "If an usher treats a fan poorly, then that fan is thinking about that experience all the way down to his seat. That reflects badly on the entire team,."

Happiest place on earth?

The Royals might not draw the biggest crowds in the Majors, and their team doesn't win nearly enough games to keep the average fan happy ... but the fans in Kansas City are happy nevertheless. Why shouldn't they be? They get to attend games in a wonderful stadium where they're treated like, well, royalty!

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