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Butherus: A Royal Tradition in the Cheap Seats

Baseball has a way of reminding us about all those important things in life like family, passion and tradition, writes columnist J. Scott Butherus.

ST. PETERSBURG — Inside of every professional sportswriter is a moment in time that they can always return to when they were the little boy — or girl— that truly fell in love with the sport that they would go on to dedicate their lives and livelihood to.

For me, it was spring training of 1986. I was five years old. I can remember every single little detail about that day.

It was the first professional baseball game I can truly remember. My parents bought tickets on the visitor side at Payne Park in Sarasota.The Chicago White Sox were hosting the the reigning World Series champion Kansas City Royals. One of only two times in history that any one could say say that. It was a packed house. I was far too young to realize it was just an exhibition game. Every one around us was excited.

I remember my dad pointing out the player just a few yards away from us, the one playing third base, as being the best player in the entire league. His name was George Brett and he was the best third baseman since Brooks Robinson, according to Pops, a lifelong Baltimore Orioles fan. We cheered extra loud every time the 10-time All-Star came to the plate that day.

And then something magical happened. At least for me. It was the middle innings of a meaningless exhibition game. Chicago’s Ron Karkovice, I think, was at the plate with men on first and second. The journeyman backup catcher smashed a line drive down the third base line. The bat made the sort of crack that made everyone on our side of the stadium go silent. With just a millisecond to react, Brett made a diving backhand stop down the line. It threw up a plume of orange dust as he righted himself, and, using the third base bag as leverage, got up and threw a dart across the length of the diamond for the double play. I remember the stadium going from silent to euphoric.

The cheers were loud and genuine. Smiling strangers gave me high fives as if I had something to do with it all. It was the coolest thing five-year-old me had ever experienced. In that moment, I fell in love with the game of baseball and I made the decision to be a fan of George Brett and his Royals for the rest of my life.

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A Longstanding Tradition

That sunny day in South Florida started what became a tradition for me. I went to at least one Royals game every year after that. Baseball is nothing without its traditions. I remember Baseball and Boardwalk, the theme park with roller coasters and theme parks built around the Royals’ spring training complex in Haines City. I remember my parents surprising me on a random weekend by loading us up and driving to Lakeland one spring. I remember going to a game at Ed Smith Stadium, arriving in the fifth inning still dressed in my Little League uniform after finishing my game across the street. There was the time I got to see Bo Jackson take batting practice one spring. He hit 10 straight balls out of the park.

There was the time I played hooky with a bunch of friends in high school to go see an afternoon game in Bradenton. It was like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off except we were all really stoned the entire time. I wore the No. 20 jersey while playing all the way through high school because of Frank White. When I left for college at the University of Central Florida, I remember driving by myself my freshman year to see them play the Houston Astros in nearby Osceola because I couldn’t convince anybody to go with me.

The Royals never seemed to win when I was there. Quite frankly, they were always pretty bad after that World Series year. I never really cared though. It made me realize how silly and trivial sports fandom really was. I had no real geographical or familial ties to Kansas City. I just loved baseball. The Royals were just a stupid reason to keep caring. Even if they lost, there would always be highlights on TV and a box score in the paper the next day.

And I always kept that promise I made to myself as a wide-eyed five year old. I collected every George Brett card ever printed. When he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, my pops and I made the road trip to Cooperstown to see him enshrined along with Nolan Ryan and Robin Yount. I suffered through decades of futility. Powder blue was still my favorite color. I still made it a priority to make it out to the Trop whenever the Royals came to town. I’ve gone to at least one KC game for the last 33 years, even driving all the way to Kansas City to do so.

Rekindling a Fire

The truth is we all need to have those moments. Never trust anyone that tells you to do what you love for a living. No matter how much you love something, if you do it enough you are going to hate it, more than a little. For well over a decade, I’ve been fortunate enough to pay my bills by writing prose about children’s games. But there’s so much more than just getting paid to watch games. There’s deadlines. There’s pressure. There’s long days and late nights.

The people you cover on a daily basis, you learn that they are just normal people with all the flaws and foibles of other normal people. When I was a kid, I was awestruck by big league ballplayers. When you deal with them on regular basis, you quickly learn that they are just people — only they’ve also been blessed with talents most normal people don’t have.
I ask them about adjustments to their plate approach and afterwards they ask me for fishing tips. It’s actually all pretty banal.

Even the most genuine athletes, the ones that recognize how blessed they are and are grateful for it, aren’t always the most interesting ones to talk to. Most of them have devoted so much of there lives to playing a game that they never had time for much of anything else. Their idea of a coming-of-age moment came from that one time they beat that upper-level prospect who already had his own baseball card on the ping pong table during spring training camp. And worse, sometimes you learn that some players aren’t even that decent of people. They just hit a baseball a long way.

That’s why it is so easy to become disillusioned in this business, no matter how much you love the game. At the end of the day, it is a job. Every now and then we need a reminder of why we love the game in the first place.

Let’s Go Royals

Mine came on Tuesday with Kansas City in town for a four-game series. I always set aside one night of the year to be a true baseball fan again. It’s hard enough to keep a tradition going for three years let alone three decades. Now I’ve got another reason to keep this tradition alive. For my son, it will be his third consecutive year of joining me on my annual adventure. He’s learning to love that feeling of just being a carefree fan at the ballpark. It also helps it was his birthday this year. Royals pitcher Jakob Junis even hooked him up with a baseball for it. We played video games in the arcade. We chased batting practice home runs. I forgot any journalistic notions of objectivity. I drank beer or two and heckled the players from the cheapest seats we could find while eating $2 hot dogs.

Kansas City lost 4-1, just as they always seem to do. Blake Snell threw a gem for Tampa Bay, striking out 11 in just six innings of work. Willy Adames hit a home run that would have reached us in the uppermost decks of left field had it not hit the catwalk. No Royals player really did anything worth noting. I didn’t mind. This tradition isn’t about the players, or even the game that was played that night. It is all about being a kid again. The same little kid who had George Brett jerseys and Bo Jackson posters. The one who fell in love with a silly game on a hot spring day over 30 years ago. I got to see that same excitement on my son’s face. I imagine that’s what I looked like when I was his age.

As I walked through the parking lot after the game, holding my son’s hand and a bag full of memories on my back, I was in love with the game of baseball all over again.

I just needed a reminder.

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