Why I’m Crying: My Lifelong Love Affair With the Kansas City Royals

19374_517642683402_2642330_n I have no idea when I first became a Kansas City Royals fan. I don’t have any pictures from my first game. There are no foul balls or autographs from my childhood. It’s all a little bit blurry to me. But the Royals have always been a part of who I am. They’ve always been the professional sports team for me and for my family. We’ve always been Royals fans.

I was born in Kansas City in September of 1985. That October the Royals won the World Series. The 1985 connection always felt special to me. They were my team. We were linked by that year.

35851_519716407642_6890275_nI grew up in Kansas. I lived in a few small towns before moving to the Kansas City suburbs for high school. Even though I didn’t live in the City before then, we used to always go to at least one game. My Grandmother was one of the people who frequently took me to games.

I remember going to a Royals Cardinals with her and my cousins during the home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. McGwire hit a monster home run that game. It went so far that it hit someone in the butt who was waiting in line at the concessions stand behind the left field seats. The fans were pretty into it. My cousins were excited, but I recall being disappointed. I hated the Cardinals. They were the enemy. My Grandma laughed at me the next day, but you could tell she was little proud, too. I was loyal to my team.

We got souvenirs at those games. I have a Royals mini-bat from those years. They were fun times.

I grew up a being a big Kansas City sports fan. I was born and, mostly, raised there. Chiefs, Royals, and Wizards Sporting. But even though I’ve been a huge sports fan, and I’m now a historian of sports, my journey and experience as a fan isn’t typical. My Dad isn’t really a sports fan. He’s never been that interested in them. He doesn’t follow any teams. He doesn’t have any favorite players. He briefly played football in high school, but quit because he didn’t find it any fun.

Almost all of my sports knowledge and skills has come from my mother. She’s been a bit more rabid of a fan. She taught me throw a football and a baseball. Maybe that’s why I throw like a girl. Maybe that’s why I never grew into my coordination. My Mom ran track in high school and would always show up to my meets yelling obnoxiously loud, though she sprinted and I ran distance.

Despite this sport dynamic, the Royals were still the family team. The Kansas City Royals were a big part of my parents’ early relationship. My parents would tell stories about going to Royals games in the late 1970s. My Mom grew up in Kansas City. She graduated from high school in 1977. My parents were married in 1979. They dated at Royals games. They joked about cheap beer prices, but they also had some really good teams back then.

They moved to Seattle in 1980, but they still backed the Royals. They went to a Mariners game and held up a towel that said: “I love KC” and got on TV. When then Royals went to the 1980 World Series against the Phillies, they watched the games at the bar and high-fived strangers who had joined the KC bandwagon.

By 1985 my parents had 2 kids, and me on the way. I was born that fall. We were a Royals family.

The Royals were Kansas City’s team. We were a baseball town. The Chiefs were pretty mediocre during this period. It was before Arrowhead Stadium erupted in the late 1990s. The Royals players lived in town; you saw them out and about. They were accessible. George Brett is the typical image that comes to mind, but there were others.

My other Grandma tells a story about my Aunt seeing a young Clint Hurdle out somewhere and she being so tickled to death that he gave her a kiss on the cheek. She also tells stories about going to a couple of games a year with my Grandfather. The bank he worked for would give him free seats and they’d sit in a club box and watch the game. It was a normal part of their summers.

As I grew up these stories endeared me to my team. They were a part of our family. They were part of Kansas City and what made the city special. Baseball was the perfect remedy for a warm hot night in Kansas City.

When I finally moved to Kansas City I became even more obsessed with the Royals. Some of it was the proximity and some of it was the TV. I would watch or listen to nearly every game when I was in high school. That was the summer of 2000. The Royals had a pretty decent team. They only won 77 games but they had some future stars. The starting outfield was Johnny Damon, Jermaine Dye, and Carlos Beltran. Mike Sweeney was in classic form. Unfortunately they didn’t have any pitching. After that season, I started following their moves on the Internet. I joined message boards and learned our minor league affiliates. I also started attending more games.

Fourth of July was a common game for us to go to as a family. It was a nice way to spend an evening, and then they had an amazing fireworks display. We also went to “Buck Nights” – where you could hot dogs, peanuts, Cokes for a $1 each. My brother and I used to see who could eat more hot dogs. Then we chugged Cokes so we could stay awake on the drive home.

Then came the summer of 2003. The Royals had a .500 record for the first time in a decade. The team came out of nowhere. There weren’t any stars (though Angel Berroa won the AL ROY). It wasn’t expected, but we loved it. That 2003 team is really what pulled me in. It’s when my true obsession began. My brother and I went to 12 games that year — the most I’ve ever been to in one season. We sat in good seats too – usually down the first base line. We were dedicated fans. We didn’t leave early and we sat through rain delays.

34287_10100241735561859_7768940_nOne of my favorite memories from that season was going to a double header — a classic doubleheader, one ticket, two games. It was on June 30, which is usually a very steamy day in KC. There was nothing remarkable about the game. We lost both halves to Cleveland and it rained between the games, but just being there, soaking in the atmosphere, it was the best way to spend a summer. It was classic Royals.

After 2003 I nearly purchased season tickets. I really fell in love with baseball. It was no longer a family thing; it was a summer time obsession. Baseball was my summer distraction. Since then I’ve hung on their every move. I invested myself in learning more about baseball. I became hardcore baseball nerdy. I read about stuff like Sabermetrics, I started following a slew of excellent Royals blogs, and started to learn about and follow our drafts. If I didn’t know something myself, I at least knew someone or somewhere I could go and figure it out. I remember drafting Zach Greinke, Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, Luke Hochevar, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Christian Colon, Aaron Crow, etc. I recall being upset about some of the major trades we made – Johnny Damon, Carlos Beltran, Jermaine Dye, and Zach Greinke.

It was hard to be a fan for several of those years. Never ending rebuilding projects are hard to stomach. There were so many what ifs; so many failed prospects. There were times when we’d sit around and think about how and why we were cursed. Did Mr. K sell his soul for 1985? Was it when he died in 1993 and they renamed the stadium? Was it when they removed the turf and put in grass in 1995? Or maybe it was when they moved the fences in to try and score more runs, and then back out to benefit our young pitchers off and on over the next two decades? The real curse, perhaps, was the 1994 strike. Kansas City went from one of the highest spending teams in the early ‘90s to the small market poorhouse.

This, of course, was compounded by the death of Ewing Kauffman in 1993. When Mr. K died, a Board of Trustees ran the team with the stipulation that they could not lose money. It took them 7 years to find a new owner – David Glass, the former CEO of Wal-Mart. He brought his “always low-prices” style of management to the team, cutting their bottom line and refusing to invest. The Royals lost 100 games four times from 2002 to 2006. The only glimmer of hope was that magical, fluky 2003 season.

To his credit, Glass got tired of losing. He hired Dayton Moore in May of 2006 and gave them all the resources he asked for. They added minor league teams, created international academies, and added legions of scouts. Signing bonuses went up. International signings increased. They finally began to rebuild the franchise from a player development model. This was how the original Royals teams were constructed. John Schuerholz, the famous Atlanta GM who oversaw 15 years of AL East dominance, learned his trade in Kansas City. He was the Royals GM from 1981-1990, and before that he was the director of scouting and assistant GM. The Royals were a model organization. In fact, Moore learned much of his “process” from Schuerholz in Atlanta.

After I graduated college I moved away from Kansas. I started my master’s degree in Nevada in the fall of 2009. My love for the Royals stuck. I signed up for Twitter that year and immediately found a community of Royals fans. We live-Tweeted games and talked about the various moves and developments. We became friends. Several of us didn’t live in KC. It was a tie back home for us.

1074116_599035561422_1340170161_oThis Twitter-fandom has sustained me that last 5 years. I’ve sparsely attended Royals game during these years, but when I could, I did. I saw them play the Athletics in Oakland in August of 2010. I saw them in Chicago in July of 2013. It was fun for me to go see them play at away ballparks. I have batting practice balls from both games. They made me feel like a kid again. And I felt like an even bigger fan because I was representing my city even though I was away from home.

The summer of 2013 was our second winning season since 1993. I followed it closely. I was deeply engaged in the Royals Twitter community. I started a Twitter glossary of our nicknames and hashtags. Many of the people I’ve met on there have become friends. It’s both an imagined and a real community. We have our language and customs. We’re connected by our love for our city and our team. Many of the fans have met and become real life friends. They’ve started movements and gained major recognition, including #BooCano at the 2012 All-Star Game and dubbing Billy Butler #CountryBreakfast during a rain delay. Even more amazing was the reception of a Korean fan, Sung Woo Lee. This year they brought him over to attend his first game in Kansas City and gave him the “Royal” treatment. He was local celebrity for a week. The local and national media loved it. The New York Times wrote about him.

Sung Woo and I Tweeted each other many times over the past few years. He’s an incredible inspiration, always positive. He wakes up in the middle of the night to watch the games. Fans like him are who’ve been waiting 29 years for this, fans that run the many, excellent Royals blogs and podcasts such as Kings of Kauffman, Pine Tar Press, Royals Review, etc. They’re the lifeblood of the Royals community.

This past summer I only attended one Royals game. I took my Grandma with me on an unseasonably cool July night. We were in contention, still battling for the division and the wildcard. The next morning she set the sport section of the paper out for me at breakfast – like she’s always done every time I’ve stayed at her house. As we sat there I couldn’t help but think back to those early games of my childhood. We’d cheer for the Royals, often we’d leave an inning early when they were losing and she was getting tired, but I’d always read what happened the next day. But this time I drove, and we stayed until the end. Unlike so many of those games from my childhood, the Royals won. It was a special moment for me, something I’ll always remember.

It’s really hard to fully explain what the Royals mean to me. They’re a symbol of my family, who I am, where I’m from. They’ve been one of my obsessions for the majority of my life. They the sports team that I care about more than any other.

When the Royals made the Wildcard game I was excited. I wanted to buy playoffs gear to remember it. But I was also cautious. I didn’t want to buy gear and then have us flame out after 1 game. My friend told me I should wait and see. When we advanced I thought about it again, but I wasn’t too excited about the design of the divisional series gear. I didn’t buy anything. Now that we’ve won the American League pennant, I’m rethinking my decision. Earlier tonight I stared at the new gear in the online store. As I clicked on the different items emblazoned with “American League Champions” and “World Series 2014” the reality sank in. This is really happening. This is reality. We won. I almost bought some gear tonight, but waiting has paid off. I’ve waited 29 years – my entire life – for this to happen. What’s another couple of weeks? And if we don’t win it all, it’s not like they’ll stop selling the ALCS stuff. They can’t take this away.

tumblr_ndigiuHsYK1qc0ltvo1_500As personal as this has been to me, it’s also been incredible to see the excitement and enthusiasm of the community. Sure, most of this is through online communities and social networks. Royals Twitter has joked about how hard their #RoyalsPlayoffBoner is raging. That it’s been way more than 4 hours. My friends and family from Kansas City, spread out across the country, have jumped on the bandwagon. There’s nothing that makes me smile more than seeing friends who never cared about baseball or sports, people who only went to Royals games for the fireworks, all of a sudden becoming rabid fans. A “lost generation” of fans is rediscovering how fun baseball is. They’re falling in love with their hometown team. After each win you have 40 people commenting and like your posts. My timeline is full of news stories and pictures celebrating the Royals. People are sharing personal stories like mine; they’re soaking up every minute. Kansas City is rediscovering its baseball core, it’s reuniting the family atmosphere, and it’s doing it in dramatic fashion with some of the most likable and exciting players in recent memory. This is what brings tears to my eyes.

I’m also tearing up because of all the emails and text messages I’ve been getting from friends and colleagues. Classmates and professors I’ve worked and studied with – many of whom are not from Kansas City and their only connection to the Royals is knowing me – are calling. They know how much this means to me. They know that Kansas City, that the Royals, and that baseball has been such a huge part of my life, such a huge part of who I am – and they want to be a part of that. They want to celebrate with me. It means me the world to me that they’re thinking of me, that they’re rooting for my team, that they’re enjoying it alongside me.

Sports are beautiful. They help us discover who we are and connect us to our family, our cities, and our friends. And as my favorite team arrives at the pinnacle, these memories and these relationships, they mean the world to me. They make the wait all worth it, because I don’t think it would be this special, this emotional, this big of a deal, if it happened all of the time.

Posted in Kansas City, sports | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Beyond Football: The Political Career of Bud Wilkinson (part 1)

Andrew McGregor:

Here’s a piece I wrote for the Sport in American History blog. It’s based on some of my dissertation research and what I foresee to be my last chapter. I’ll be posting  one or two more parts later this fall.

Originally posted on Sport in American History:

On Saturday, November 23, 1963, Oklahoma and Nebraska were schedule to meet in Lincoln. It was an important game in the Big 8 standings. The Sooners were 7-1 going into the game, 5-0 in conference play. Their only loss that season was to Darrell Royal and a pesky Texas team that seemed to always have Oklahoma’s number.

Nebraska had a good team. They were 8-1 and undefeated heading into their last conference game. Their only loss came against a tough Air Force team. The matchup between the Sooners and Cornhuskers would decide the conference championship.

The Sooners were confident before the game, though Coach Bud Wilkinson, as he did every week, praised the opponent and suggested they might be the better team. Oklahomans knew the truth. In his 16 years at OU, Wilkinson’s Sooners had only lost to Nebraska twice. Oklahoma was the one, true Big Red.

The team flew to…

View original 2,289 more words

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Learning Together: Thoughts on Teaching and Evaluation

I’m in the middle of teaching my first solo course. It’s a survey of American history — U.S. history since 1877 — that falls within my major field of study. The class is 100-level and the vast majority are non-history majors taking it for required general education credits (I have 2 history majors out of 48 student). You can check out my syllabus here.

Because it’s my first time going-it-alone in the classroom, I’ve been able to experiment with a few ideas and test out my teaching philosophy. I took 3 years of education coursework when I was an undergraduate (I had 2 classes & student teaching away from being certified), so I have a lot of ideas in the bank. Added to this reserve are ideas I’ve picked along the way from my various advisors and by interacting with different people (such as the Hybrid Pedagogy folks).

Part of what has characterized my approach so far is the notion of dialogue between student and instructor, what I call “learning together.” It has been essential so far, precisely because I’m learning how to teach while they are learning about history. We’re both learning. But even if I wasn’t new to all of this, it’s something I really believe in.

Part of starting this dialogue was the first quiz I gave them at the end of week 3. To that point they hadn’t received any sort of grading or evaluation. I knew a few of them were nervous about it. So on that Friday I gave them a 4 question, 10 point quiz. The first two questions  were multiple choice and the second two short answer. I admitted to them that the short answer were a big broad and might be difficult to answer in a brief amount of time.

After 15-20 minutes or working I stopped them. I told them that we were going to grade them together, that we were going to have a conversation about what the right answers were, about my expectation. After all, one of the hardest part about college is learning and adapting to the expectations of a new instructor. Likewise, one of the trickiest things about being a new teacher is knowing what they’re taking away from my lectures. I see many of them furiously taking notes during class, but I never know what they’re writing and think is important.

Some would say it’s not their job to know what’s important. They’re not the experts. This is partially true. I trust students to pick up on repeated ideas and themes. If I keep coming back to a certain idea or belabor a point, they can tell it’s important. This trust isn’t something you want to let go unchecked for too long though. Some will only write down what’s on your Powerpoint slides. Treating the first quiz as a conversation starter to seek mutual understanding of each other is a good first step.

We started with the multiple choice was easy, but to lessen the pressure I guaranteed them 1 point for answering and 2 for a correct answer. Maybe I’m just soft, but I wanted them to feel safe. I didn’t want them to worry about failing. The real discussion began with the sort answer. Many were unsure what to write or how to approach thematic questions. The first question asked them it give examples of how the railroad industry was entangled in economic, social, political life during the Gilded Age. The second dealt with changing attitudes towards racial minorities in the late 19th century (African America, American Indians, and immigrant groups). The short answers were worth 3 points each. To grade them, I asked that they underline any of the points they made that we talked about during our discussion. Three underlines equals full credit.

The conversation was the important part for me. It allowed to me to assess what they knew, their ability to connect ideas across time, and to better explain how I think about history. Most of them did very well. They tended to grade themselves a bit harsher than I would.  I adjusted their grades after reading their responses but promised only to raise them. They ended up with an average over 90%.

This may seem like spoon-feeding or pandering. I may sound like I’m being too easy. Maybe I am. My belief is that all evaluation should be two-way a dialogue between the instructor and the student. I want all of my students to have the best chance at being successful. Evaluating students should be a clear and open process. The better they understand that process and have a stake in it, the more likely it is that they will do well. Having this open dialogue and discussion is part of creating that mutual understanding. It helps break down assumptions and works to eliminate biases across disciplines. For most of my students this will be their only history class. They’re not used to writing essays or approaching questions that don’t have absolute answers.

Next week is our first exam. We’re having an in-class study session the day before and I prepared a study guide with a few sample essay questions, an overview of the format, and a few recommendations on how to studying. The dialogue is continuing. They’re also helping shape the exam. Each student is writing 2 multiple choice questions. The assignment to write 2 multiple choice questions counts for quiz grade. I joked with them that it’s because I’m lazy, but that’s not really true. The idea behind it is that it forces them to study by looking over their notes, reading the textbook, and deciding what’s important. Reading their questions indicates to me both what they think is important  but also how well they understand the information (individually and collectively). Some questions are poorly written and confuse a few ideas. It’s helpful for me to know this ahead of time and correct it in the study session as well as when I teach those concepts in the future.

This is not a perfect process. Perhaps I am being a bit generous with my dolling out of points. The quiz grade is only 15% of the total grade, so inflating it a little bit won’t hurt, I’m just hoping to make the class democratic and student centered. So far I think that I’m doing that and I’m seeing pretty solid results. I’ll know more next week.

 

Posted in history, pedagogy, teaching | Leave a comment

OU Football and the “new Oklahoma”

Since I returned home from Oklahoma I’ve been working on organizing my research and sketching out how to organize my dissertation. I have a lot of little stories and anecdotes, but I’m not sure where to place them within the larger story. I’m still unsure how to construct and layout that story.

In a lot of ways the story is tailor-made. The University of Oklahoma won 47-consecutive games from 1953-1957. They also won 31-straight from 1949-1950. These two streaks serve as the driving narratives. Football and unprecedented success are the story. Yet, in other ways, they’re not the story at all. The immediate questions of “why football” and “what impact did the team and winning have on the university and state” are integral to doing good history. Those questions help separate my project from the other books written about the streak. After my research trip and doing quite a bit of reading I have answers to those questions and others.

The struggle is about organization and arrangement. What’s most logical, what supports my argument best, etc. I want to develop and foreshadow events with context and connections but I don’t want to detour too much from the “main” football story. Maybe this shouldn’t be a concern, because I feel like a lot of my little arguments and assertions take place along these side roads while football itself only loosely connects some of them.  Football is the big image people notice, but the detours are what show the real, new Oklahoma in the postwar era.

The story that I think is at the heart of my dissertation is that of football as a symbol of the new Oklahoma building its image, industry, racial equality, etc. in the postwar Sunbelt. Football and winning are what people notice. It’s what makes Oklahoma and OU so unique and interesting, but along the way, parallel to the streaks, are some really compelling stories about racial integration (both of OU and the team as well as events in Oklahoma City), boosterism (Oklahoma City striving to become the “Detroit of the aviation industry”), the university’s vast expansion (with assistance from the Navy), loyalty oaths, and the state’s political influence.

Image is perhaps the overarching story, of which football is the biggest attention grabber. John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath sets it all in motion. Oklahoma desperately wants to counter the “Okie” image and rebrand the state. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! helps. So too does a variety of ad campaigns and whistle stop tours by the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce (and others). Football success, however, has the largest impact. This is undoubtedly why Oklahoma is one of the major instigators in questioning the NCAAs broadcasting policies during the 1950s. It also affects similar debates as they consider different conference memberships (with the president informing some alumni that while the Southwest Conference has less stringent recruiting rules, OU’s academic reputation would suffer).

Image really is at the fore in both narratives, it’s at the heart of what I mean when I say  the “new Oklahoma” (or “Bud Wilkinson’s Oklahoma” in my working dissertation title). The “new Oklahoma” is complex. It relies on football, the politics of pork, boosterism, mass media, and more, to reshape not just the state’s image but also its racial and economic landscape. There are hints of change in the political climate as well (though they’re not completely achieved until later). I want my dissertation to be about the construction of this “new Oklahoma” while keeping football as the central narrative trunk of which everything else branches off.  It’s hard to strike that balance but I’m excited about where I’m going and I think I’ll be able to get there.

Posted in dissertation, grad school, history, race, research | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Remembering my Track Coach

My college track coach passed away suddenly last night. He was only 35. I was on the committee that hired him in 2007, and later served as one of his assistant coaches before going to graduate school. Though there were some growing pains at the beginning, he took the program to new heights. He was a great leader and role model, praying before every team meal, making us remove hats and turning off our phones when we ate, and encouraging us to pursue our dreams. I’m grateful for all of the opportunities and second chances he gave me.

I was a senior during his first year and the transition to a new coach was tough. I was still figuring out my life then and which direction I wanted to go. He knew I had a passion for working with people and the ability to explain complex ideas. He saw something in me and hired me as graduate assistant. We had our differences — mostly philosophical — but worked together to improve the team and recruit talented athletes. Five of the cross country runners I recruited became the centerpiece of the programs ascendancy to the top of the conference standings (we finished last my senior year). We spent a lot of time together those few years. Coaching every day, traveling to cross country, indoor, and outdoor meets. I attended two national meets with him, too.

Beyond coaching, the opportunity and flexibility he gave me to coach with him, earn my Master’s of Liberal Arts, and work part time in the archives was integral in helping me figure out what I wanted to do with my life. That was probably one of the most difficult times of my life and I’m grateful for all of the support he gave me. I only coached a year before leaving for Reno to earn my MA, but that year was so pivotal for the trajectory of my life and career. Had I not had that year to figure things out, I don’t know what I’d be doing now.

My coaching tenure didn’t end on the best terms, but we later made amends. I shared with him my MA thesis on my running-hero Billy Mills, which he enjoyed. We also would occasionally exchange text messages — mostly me congratulating him on his the team’s success. We also talked about what I was up to in school. He was genuinely interested in my life and excited about the path I was on. After I became a certified USATF official, he gave me an open invitation to come back and help out with home track meets. Sadly, I never got a chance to.

It’s tragic that he died so young. He influenced so many talented athletes and students at Baker University. He was a tremendous athlete and coach. During his competitive days he won a National Championship in the javelin, but he never really talked about it. That didn’t define him. He was mostly family man and a man of faith. He leaves behind a wife and three young children. RIP Zach Kindler. You were a great coach and an even greater man.

Posted in reflection, sports | Leave a comment

Billy Mills and the 1959 Big 8 Cross Country Championships

Yesterday when I doing dissertation research at the University of Oklahoma Archives, I came across this document. As you can see below, it’s a copy of the official Big Eight Conference Cross Country Meet results from 1959. At first glance the document was meaningless to me. It’s completely unrelated to my current project on the University of Oklahoma football. At second glance, however, I noticed Billy Mills’ name. Because I wrote my master’s thesis on Billy Mills, I took a quick photo and though it would be fun to share it with him on Facebook (I’m friends with his wife and they share an account). Upon seeing the photo, the shared a couple of short tidbits about the race.

big 8 meet

First, as the document explains, the meet was held in Lawrence, KS on a gusty November day. The University of Kansas won the team title and Billy Mills was their lead runner taking second-place. He finished the 3 mile course, which was in “perfect” condition, in a time of 14:11.0. Miles Eisenman of Oklahoma State won the race in a new meet record of 13:55.2. According to the splits at the bottom of the page, he took the lead around the first mile and never looked back.

Yesterday Mills relayed his experience in the race to me on Facebook. His recollections expand upon the information and add some drama to the meet. The race was pretty rough for him. He, along with 2 or 3 other guys, fell around the 2 mile mark. The fall likely cost him sometime, but he got up and tried his best to chase down Eisenman. Mills finish was important in helping KU secure the team-title. Though this story is relatively briefly and somewhat insignificant, it adds an important personal perspective to official document. By reading the meet results alone, you would never know about the fall and the close physical battle among the runners.

Mills was ecstatic to see the sheet tonight. It clearly took him back. It’s always fun to remember old time and old friends, even those who’ve passed on. According to Mills, Miles Eisenman passed away this year. Seeing this tonight was likely a nice tribute and reminder of that race and his close rivalry. Mills was a junior in 1959. As a senior, he won the 1960 Big 8 Cross Country meet.

Posted in history, research, sports, sports | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Saying Goodbye to the Track at KU’s Memorial Stadium

kutrackThe University of Kansas removed the track from their Memorial Stadium this week. They were the last BCS conference school to do so. It’s bittersweet to see the track torn out. I have a lot of personal connections to that facility — from both my academic and athletic careers.

Growing up in Kansas running cross country and track, KU was held in high esteem. The University hosted annual cross country and track meets for the region’s best high schoolers each fall and spring. The fall cross country meet predated the state meet and served as a de facto championship for several years. Those early meets were held on the hills surrounding the stadium (now it’s held at Rim Rock Farm, a beautiful cross country course north of Lawrence). But the track meet — the Kansas Relays — was the granddaddy of them all. It lasted three-days and hosted athletes competing at the high school, college, and professional levels. It was a major event that attracted thousands of spectators. As recently as 2006 I remember their being as many as 30,000 spectators — enough to fill half of the stadium.

The meet has been held annually for over 80 years. It’s been an important meet in the history of the sport, too. During track and field’s heyday Relay Carnivals became common and extremely popular. Nationally there are four major relay meets: the Penn Relays, Texas Relays, the Drake Relays, and the Kansas Relays. The Kansas Relays are continuing on, of course. Track and Field has long been one of KU’s marquee programs and they built a brand-new, state-of-the art facility, which the program badly needed.

My sadness in seeing the track go is strictly nostalgic. By most accounts the Memorial Stadium track wasn’t great. It was one of the few facilities that I ran on still measured in yards instead of meters (because, as the rumor goes, they didn’t have the room to expand it). I always remember it being a little hard, uneven and patchy. But the surface didn’t matter to me and thousands of other athletes. It was an honor to be running at KU, dwarfed by the towering walls of the stadium under the bright lights, with a rowdy crowd cheering you on. The atmosphere of it all was great.

Of course, beyond that atmosphere was the history. The Kansas Relays and the University of Kansas track and field program has an illustrious past (and present). KU has won a handful of NCAA team championships in the sport (including the women’s last year). They team has also developed several Olympians and world record holders. As a distance runner I was well versed in this history growing up. Glenn Cunningham held the mile record in the 1930s, Wes Santee held it while chasing the 4-minute barrier in the 1950s, and Wichita East high school phenom Jim Ryun set his mark before matriculating to KU in the 1960s. Billy Mills won the 1964 Olympic 10,000m after graduating from KU and later held the 6-mile world record. Al Oerter, another KU alum, won four Olympic gold medals in the discus. They all competed and practiced on that track. Basketball great Wilt Chamberlain even competed for the Jayhawk track team.

When I was in college I competed in the 4-x-mile relay at the Kansas Relays. I recorded my career fastest mile time as a split in one of those races. I don’t know if it was the lights (the race was after dark), the crowd, the adrenaline, or just the history, but I’ll never forget that race. I was a pretty mediocre runner throughout my career but I always felt world-class at the Kansas Relays because I knew I was running on the same stretches as my heroes, my feet landing in the same places as theirs.

Saying goodbye to a track with that much history is hard, but the decision is the right one. Almost all major track and field programs now have their own track specific facilities that feature pristine running surfaces, jumping pits, and throwing rings. The nostalgia of Memorial Stadium held KU back in improving these areas. The new improvements will help KU attract top athletes and maintain a high level of success that matches the program’s history.

The sport of track and field has already experienced its decline in popularity. This has been a half-century long process. My own theory blames an increasing move away from team-centered programs towards. It’s rare to find a team that is strong in all facets of the sport — sprinting, jumping, hurdling, throwing, and distance running. Likewise, the sport has increasingly focused on individual marks. As an a former athlete and coach, I admit that these developments have been great for improving performances and developing talent, but as spectator, they make it harder to follow the sport.

In track and field’s heyday the sport centered on weekday duals and weekend meets. Duals required that both team put 2 or 3 individuals in each event. The dual was then scored giving points to each team based on where they placed. Every race mattered. At the end of the dual you had a clear winner and a tidy box-score (like baseball) of the performances for the newspaper. On the weekends, meets operated similarly but with more teams. Winning a meet was a major accomplishment and the goal of many coaches. Fans could follow these results — both in the stands and through newspapers — to measure how well a team was doing.

As I said earlier, the sport has evolved past this. Today some programs focus on training only a handful of event groups. Dual meets rarely exist and team scores aren’t standard at lots of meets. Coaches and athletes are focused on getting certain performances standards to qualify for regional and national meets, not winning team titles. This evolution has been really good for the athletes and has greatly enhanced the quality of the sport. A lot of coaches believe that the old system encouraged over-racing that complicated training schedules making it difficult to achieve peak performances. For example, Wes Santee once remarked that he may have broken the four-minute barrier first, but he was always running 3 or 4 events in meets and never really fresh.

Track and field is a different sport now. And, in a lot of ways, it’s a better sport now, too. The removal of the track from Memorial Stadium at the University of Kansas is a part of the sport’s evolution. It’s actually fairly remarkable that KU kept its track inside of stadium this long. But those of us versed in its history know why they did. That’s why the news this week tugs at the hearts of those of us who are nostalgic for the large crowds of yesteryear, but also excites us as we see KU moving forward to build on its tradition in the new world of track and field.

Posted in history, politics, reflection | Leave a comment