On Monday, the Royals will enjoy the home opener for their 45th season at beautiful Kauffman Stadium. The home opener has always been a special occasion in Kansas City, coinciding with Greater Kansas City Day, a charity fundraising event that helps celebrate Kansas City.
For me, growing up, Opening Day was pretty much another holiday. I thought of it as the real first day of spring. After school, I could race home and flip on the radio to hear Denny Matthews calling weekday afternoon baseball (back then, a very rare occasion). I remember listening to my first Opening Day in 1988, when George Bell took Bret Saberhagen deep three times, an ominous start to the season.
"I think he pitched me pretty good today. I give him credit because he's a good pitcher."
Eventually, I wouldn’t have to race home from school anymore to listen to games. My dad surprised me with tickets one year, and not only did I get to go to baseball game, I got to skip school and go to a baseball game. By high school, I was attending Opening Day with my friends (with my parents’ blessing to skip school). It had become, for me, a tradition.
By the time I was out of college, attending Opening Day with my buddies was an annual event. In those days, it was about the only time there was a demand for tickets, the only sell out of the year. In 2003, we had low expectations as always. The Royals couldn’t even figure out their Opening Day starter.
Manager Tony Pena said he decided to use a coin flip between Hernandez and left-hander Jeremy Affeldt to determine the opening day starter.
"That was the easy way," Pena way. "I believe both of these kids deserve a chance to start the opener. That was the best way to do it.
The Royals won that game against the White Sox, 3-0. They won the next eight games. It was entirely inexplicable. It made zero sense. It was the most fun season of Royals baseball in over a decade. They won 83 games.
The next year, we found ourselves with something we hadn’t had in years - hope. The team had actually gone out and signed some promising free agents like Juan Gonzalez and Benito Santiago, hoping to build off the promise of the previous season. Opening Day gave an early indication that it may indeed be a magical season for the Royals when light-hitting Mendy Lopez hit a two-run home run in the ninth to overcome a four-run deficit and tie the game. Two batters later, Carlos Beltran won it with a two-run, walk-off home run.
"This I'm going to remember for the rest of my life. I'm going to live with this. Opening day. A walk-off home run. It doesn't get any better than this."
I actually didn’t get to witness that one. I had moved go Washington, DC for a job, and had to hear about it from my friends. Part of the reason I moved back to Kansas City was because I missed having this tradition with my friends. Well that, and home prices.
When I returned, Opening Day was still special, but an expected loss. Scott Elarton got the start in the 2006 home opener, only gave up three runs to Detroit in a loss - and that was enough for us to get excited. “They kept it close! Maybe we won’t be god awful!” Elarton finished with a 5.34 ERA and they lost 100 games.
Then Dayton Moore came and again we had....hope? Gil Meche started in 2007 against the Red Sox, outdueled Curt Schilling, and led by an inexplicable pair of triples by Tony Pena, the Royals won, as Meche exited to a standing ovation.
`”I've never admitted to being nervous before a game...but this one was a little nerve-racking...I felt fine until I actually got across the white lines and thought to myself, ‘This is opening day. This is a big deal.”
In 2008, the Royals followed up a successful 4-2 road trip with a 5-2 home opener win against the Yankees. Brian Bannister tamed the Yankees, with Alex Rodriguez whiffing four times. In 2009, the Royals unveiled a renovated stadium on a cold, rainy day against the Yankees with Sir Sidney Ponson going for the Royals. In 2010, young Zack Greinke outdueled Justin Verlander - only to have the bullpen blow the lead. It seemed like the Royals were on the right track.
But “the Process” was stalling. In 2012, former first-round pick Luke Hochevar gave up seven first inning runs to the Indians. In 2013, the Royals found themselves down 1-0 to the Twins going into the eighth. But an offensive attack by Lorenzo Cain, Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, Alcides Escobar, and Mike Moustakas allowed the Royals to rally and win. Those players would be at the core of a team that would win the home opener again in 2014 and go on to win the pennant in a magical season.
In 2015, the Royals got to raise a pennant flag, but in the 10-1 beatdown of the White Sox, you could tell the team was hungrier for more, especially after Jeff Samardzija tried to send a message by beaning Lorenzo Cain.
"We were talking. That's about it. I'm not sure why he hit me, but we're going to drop it and move on from it and just try and beat these guys."
That team would not back down all year, and they went on to win it all. Which meant, of course, they got to raise a championship flag in 2016 - and it happened to be in front of the team they beat - the New York Mets. The Royals beat the Mets on Opening Night, 4-3, with a night of celebration over their championship victory.
"For them to relive that, it's a little awkward.”
On Monday, the Royals host the Oakland Athletics in front of 40,000 screaming fans ready to root on their Royals. I’ll be there as usual, tailgaiting with my buddies with a shrimp boil before we take our seats, just as we’ve done for many years. Royals wins and losses will come and go, but Opening Day will always be special and something every fan should experience.
Whether you’re a baseball junkie or casual fan, games are better at the ballpark. Grab seats at StubHub and be part of the action at Kauffman Stadium. And, download the StubHub app to choose the perfect seats with 360* views from your section.