In 1988, I was coaching at Doane College. We had just ended our first of 12 consecutive 20-win seasons. I was feeling great. Recruiting was going great. The weather was perfect for the spring and my favorite sport was beginning. I love coaching basketball, but I LOVE baseball. That spring in 1988 was very special. The Kansas Jayhawks had Danny (Manning) and the Miracles and Oklahoma had Coach Billy Tubbs telling his crowds not to throw things at the officials, no matter how bad they were. The two Big 8 rivals were meeting in the national championship game in Kansas City. Twenty-two years ago, Kemper Auditorium wasn’t a forgotten arena. It was the sight of the Final Four. That very same day, the Kansas City Royals were opening their season with a home game against the Toronto Blue Jays.
I convinced the Admissions Director at Doane College to play hooky from work and make the four-hour drive to Kansas City. I really thought we could find baseball and basketball tickets and go to the two greatest events in sports each year. First we headed to Crown Center, where the NCAA headquarters was located. The search for tickets was on. However, there wasn’t a ticket anywhere. A couple of college coaches had been arrested the day before for scalping their Coach’s Association game tickets. Everyone was afraid of jail time if they held their extra tickets high in the air, hoping for a big profit. After an hour of fruitless searching, we gave up and headed for Kaufman Stadium.
We should have gone to the Sports Complex first. In 1988, 5,000 tickets were made available every game day for the general public. All you had to do was line up at either the right field or left field general admission window and wait for it to open two hours before game time. We arrived at exactly two hours before game time and it looked hopeless. The lines at both ticket booths were several blocks long. I got in one of the lines anyway remembering the line from Casey at the Bat, “Hope springs eternal.” There was no hope this day. I didn’t get within two blocks of the ticket window when all the tickets sold out.
The next strategy was to scalp a ticket. Today’s hapless Royals never have such problems with tickets. My son, Sam, and I can always find tickets and about half the time, people are giving them away FREE! That wasn’t true on opening day in 1988. We couldn’t even find overpriced tickets. Finally, my friend and I gave up. The next stop was a sports bar in the Westport area of Kansas City. We sat there eating lunch while George Bell hit a home run off Bret Saberhagen, the reigning Cy Young winner (award for best pitcher, 1987). We were forced to listen to the game. There was no television coverage of the Royals home opener. Can you imagine that today? Bell hit his second home run as we paid our bill. We were on I-29 as Bell hit his third home run to finish off my beloved Royals by a 5-3 score. Did you know that only two other players have hit three home runs on opening day? Who could forget the Cub’s Tuffy Rhodes, who hit his three home runs in 1994, then he finished the year playing in the minor leagues.
Somewhere in our car between St. Joseph and Mound City, my friend and I decided our luck had to change, so we headed for Council Bluffs, Iowa. There’s not many sporting events in Council Bluffs, but we thought good luck could find us at the greyhound dog races. We found our way to the club section so we could have our own television. Not to watch the dog races, but to watch Kansas play Oklahoma in the championship game. The game began just as we took our seats.
I was wrong to think our luck would change. My dad always said to bet the smallest dog or the one that relieved themselves on the way to the starting gate. Dad thought small dogs were better on the curves or lighter if they provided infield fertilizer. Unfortunately, that was not good advice on this day. I lost my fifth straight race as Kansas and Oklahoma fought to a 50-50 halftime score. My friends and I never saw either game in Kansas City and limped home dead broke after Manning pulled Kansas and Coach Larry Brown to the national championsip. Baseball’s opening day I love almost as much as Christmas Eve. Did you know that Wally Bunker was the starting and winning pitcher on the very first Royal home opener in 1969? He beat Minnesota 4-3 and I listened to every pitch on a radio as a sophomore at Kearney State College. I actually bought tickets in advance to the 1989 Royals home opener. Toronto again beat the Royals 4-3. At least George Bell didn’t hit three homers.
If a President doesn’t throw out the first pitch on opening day, I think its grounds for impeachment. William Howard Taft was the first president to throw out the first pitch on opening day in 1910. Missouri’s own Harry Truman did something very unique. He threw out pitches on opening day both right and left handed. I guess you could say Truman sat on the fence not favoring the left or right.
Walter Johnson, a great pitcher from early in the 20th century, pitched nine opening day shutouts. Bob Feller, who was born in Iowa, pitched the only opening day no-hitter in 1940. I did see something amazing the last time I attended an opening day game in 2004. The Royals rallied from a 7-4 ninth-inning deficit, to win 9-7. The Royals had finished above .500 in 2003. After opening day in 2004, the World Series seemed a lock. However, within two months, the manager had been fired and even the new skipper, Buddy Bell, couldn’t pull the Royals out of the basement.
Sam and I will be in the stands today (opening day). Sam should probably be doing his math since Map Testing starts next week for fourth graders at Horace Mann Elementary School. Map Tests are suppose to give parents an indication of where your child sits knowledge wise against other fourth graders nation-wide. It’s just too bad that Map Tests don’t have a unit on baseball. Sam would definitely be in the 95th percentile. Can you get you a college scholarship for that?