When I was eight, I decided to become a Kansas City Chiefs fan. The general perception at the time was that the American Football League was very much inferior to the National Football League. But I did my research. The only NFL teams that were halfway close to my home town were the St. Louis Cardinals and the Dallas Cowboys, both of which sucked pretty badly at that point in history. In contrast, the Chiefs were one of the best teams in the AFL.
I even had a hero picked out. My hero was defensive tackle Buck Buchanan. Number 86 for the Chiefs was one of the biggest, fastest, most dominating defensive linemen in all of professional football. I knew I would never be that big or that strong, but I loved watching Buchanan smash through opposing linemen and throw quarterbacks around. Especially Oakland Raider quarterbacks. One of the best things about being a Chiefs fan in those days was the rivalry against the hated Raiders. My fan loyalty was rewarded later that season when the Chiefs played in the first ever Super Bowl. Later, in 1970, they won Super Bowl IV against the Vikings.
My dad wasn't that big a football fan. He would watch it from time to time, but he really preferred baseball. Throughout his life, Dad supported a few different teams. In general, his fandom gravitated to the team he could watch on a regular basis. He didn't necessarily fall into regional support (beyond how regional coverage dictated who he could watch on TV). So growing up in the sixties, I remember him as a Cardinal fan. Later, he watched the Royals and even took us to a few games in Kansas City. In time, with the advent of cable super-stations, Dad could see the Braves on TV every night and rooted for them a bit.
When he retired and my folks spent summers in Colorado, Dad shifted his loyalty to the Rockies while watching from Estes Park. When they stopped being snowbirds and settled down to Brownwood, Texas (and later Oklahoma City) Dad was more of a Rangers fan. In truth, my dad was a fan of baseball - not necessarily a specific team. Oh, he did hate the Yankees, but everyone hates the Yankees. In general, Dad was a fan of the team he could watch on a regular basis and that was really the size of it.
My first baseball memories consist of sitting next to Dad on the couch and watching the Cards. Those were the late sixties Cardinals that featured a dominating pitcher in Bob Gibson and one of the greatest base runners of all time, Lou Brock. I remember them taking on the Detroit Tigers in the 1968 World Series and coming up just a bit short. They led the series 3-1 but lost the last three games with Detroit sending up their best pitchers on 2 days of rest.
A year later, a new baseball team arrived in the American Leagues - the Kansas City Royals. I announced to my dad that I was going to be a Royals fan and I told him I would always root for the Royals, no matter what. Dad quietly told the 11-year old me that it was very likely the Royals would not be very good at first and I would have to be patient.
Well, it didn't take the Royals long to start to get better and by the time I was in college in 76-79, they were dominating the American League West. During this time, they made three appearances in the American League Championship Series. And went down in defeat each time to the hated New York Yankees. God, I hated those Yankees!
Then 1980 happened.
In 1980, I was working for KOFO-96X Radio in Ottawa, Kansas and I spent a good part of that summer managing the broadcast board during Royals games. And that summer, they were awesome. They ran away with the AL West. It was a scorching hot summer in Missouri and Kansas with weeks of 100+ temperatures. But if there was anything hotter than the weather, it was George Brett who was batting around .400 all season long. He ended up at .390 and the Royals moved on to the ALCS to once again face the hated Yankees.
That year, the Royals won in three games, culminating with a massive George Brett homer in game 3 off Goose Gossage - a moment in which every die-hard Royals fan felt so good, he or she had to step out and smoke a cigarette afterward.
The Royals would go on to lose to the Phillies in the World Series, then come back five years later to beat the Cardinals in seven games for their first world championship. This was followed by twenty-nine years without post-season play. During that time, a lot of Royals fans lost heart. And I admit, that period of futility was rough. It was hard to sustain a lot of enthusiasm though I still checked scores and standings on a regular basis.
Back in 1997, my parents were still spending summers in Estes Park which means Dad was still a Rockies fan. One night, he got up in the middle of the night to head to the bathroom but he fainted and my mom had to call for medical help. They were so concerned about Dad that they med-evaced him by helicopter from Estes Park to Fort Collins. The initial thought was that he may have had a stroke. He was still unconscious when I flew out to Denver to join the family.
A bunch of us had gathered there - all my siblings and my mom's sister and others. We rented a house near the hospital and waited. Dad remained unconscious for a few days while doctors struggled to figure out what happened to him. They ruled out an actual stroke, but then thought it might be vascular disease and something he would be dealing with all his life. It was pretty frightening and my mom was almost hysterical at the thought of losing him or having him permanently impaired.
We took turns sitting with Dad in the ICU. A couple of days later, I was sitting beside his bed watching the Rockies on the TV. It was a relief to be to be siting with Dad and away from all the others because the conversations and concern could be depressing. So I was sitting there with the TV volume low, listening to Dad's slow breathing and then I heard his voice, soft and low.
"What's the score?"
In the end, the doctors decided it was a chemical imbalance or something else vague enough to cover the fact that they weren't sure. They said to watch him for signs of mental damage caused by the incident, but I was pretty sure his mind was just fine.
After all, when he woke up, he immediately took in his surroundings and asked a relevant question. I mean, what more proof do you need that he was back to normal?
The past couple of years, the Royals have returned to dominance and they've gained a lot of new fans - fans who love a winner no matter where that winner is from. Attendance is good at Kaufman Stadium and they get on TV a little more often these days. All that is great stuff. It's a nice reward for those fans like me - and there are quite a few of them scattered around the country - who decided 45 years ago that they were going to be Royals fans for life.
I don't scorn the fair-weather fans or the bandwagoners who jump in to root for winners. Let's be honest - winning is more fun to watch. I think that special loyalty through thick and thin is its own reward. The bandwagoners can enjoy watching the Royals play their brand of baseball - great defense, aggressive base running, powerful pitching - and that's fine. The die-hard fans can sit there in the K and smile down, knowing their perseverance is appreciated and has finally paid off. I can tell you, watching that George Brett homer in 1980 and feeling like we had finally beaten those damn Yankees - that felt pretty good. In truth, those three consecutive playoff losses made the moment even sweeter, in an odd way.
So while I do not scorn the bandwagon fans, I do feel some pride in being a Royal fan for life. Still, there are ways in which Dad's fandom was even more perfect. Dad didn't search for winners. He just turned on the TV and took joy in whatever team he could watch often enough to become familiar with the players. He didn't like teams because they won - he liked them because they became familiar and he took joy in watching them play and grow and become better ballplayers.
I was sitting beside him one night in Royals Stadium in the early eighties. We were directly behind home plate but in the front row of the steep upper deck. That night, a foul ball came straight up and straight back off the bat of Hal McRae and just kissed the bottom of the railing in front of Dad, ricocheted down under his seat, and pinballed there, trapped by Dad's legs. When Dad died around thirty years later, he still had that ball and because I was there that night, laughing with him as he trapped that souvenir under his seat with his ankles, I suppose I could have claimed it.
Instead, it now belongs to my nephew, Hal. There were a couple of summers when Hal was a boy where he spent a few weeks out in Colorado with Dad, watching the Rockies play when they weren't a good team. Hal learned the joy of watching the game because you love the game. And for that reason, I think it's good that he has that baseball. The ball reminds me of a moment but I have that memory trapped in my mind no matter what. The ball reminds Hal of spending special time with my Dad - much like those days I spent on the couch watching Bob Gibson and Lou Brock in Cardinal red.
It also feels right that Hal is now a die-hard Cardinal fan.