I wanted to tell the girls to find their goodbyes to Kansas City, but I wasn’t sure how to explain that concept to them. I’m not even sure I understand the concept in words. It’s a feeling, you know? Anyway, it didn’t matter. They’re so young that goodbyes come easy. Elizabeth is 9. Katie is 6. When you’re that young, I think, you live close to the surface. The sun is a blinding yellow. The rain can sound like music against the window. Everything feels urgent and alive. When you say goodbye to your best friend at the end the school day, it can feel like the water scene from “Titanic.” Put it this way: Elizabeth cried when we had our driveway fixed so that it no longer had an inch-high drop in it. “I miss the bump,” she told me. Every day. It’s like that for them. They do not need to trigger their emotions. They do not need a single memory or scene to bring it all to the surface. Any goodbye is a heartfelt goodbye.
I did need that, though. Anyway, I wanted that.
I lived in Kansas City for 15 years, and there’s too much to remember. There’s the personal stuff, of course. The wedding. The births. The funerals. All of it. There are the sports things too. There’s Derrick Thomas making the safety signal over his head before the snap while 80,000 Chiefs fans shriek and then rushing around the end and getting the safety. There’s Carlos Beltran rounding second base heading to third, running without any apparent effort, almost without movement, but somehow running so fast the 15 on his back seemed to blur. There’s me sitting across the chess table from Priest Holmes every week on Friday evenings, less than 48 hours before game time during one of the greatest seasons a running back has ever had.
“How good a chess player is Joe?” someone asked Holmes at an event at some point during that year.
“He’s a good player,” Priest said. “But he chokes.”
There are so many Royals blunders, so many Chiefs heartbreaks, so many times I saw Kansas coach Roy Williams cry. “I know I’m as corny as all get out,” he would say when his team lost those painful March games, “but that’s just who I am.” Tom Watson promised to give me golf lessons. Tony Pena took him to his childhood home in the Dominican Republic. Jared Allen took me shopping at Bass Pro Shop. Herm Edwards called me “Coach.”
I came to Kansas City knowing nothing at all … not even what I wanted. I vaguely knew that I wanted to be a big city sports columnist. That was the biggest thing I could imagine when I was 29 years old.The big city was New York, of course, it had to be New York. Well, Chicago could suffice. Washington might do. Los Angeles had a nice ring. Cleveland was home. Boston … oh, I loved Boston. It took time to figure out that the size of the place didn’t matter. It took time to understand that what I really wanted was to become a part of a place, to become a big voice in that place, maybe even to have a sandwich named for me in a local restaurant, to have my photo on billboards, to have my columns talked about in offices and factories and around the corner.
It took even more time to figure out that none of those things mattered either.*
*Though the Chicken Spiedini IS named for me at Governor Stumpy’s in Kansas City, one of the prouder achievements of my life.
What does matter? A lot of things. Too many things. The people, of course. Friends. Memories. Moments. I remember when Tom Watson had a magical Thursday at the U.S. Open at Olympia Fields. I guess that was 2003. I had been in Kansas City for years by then, and I had followed Tom around for years, but I was not with Watson that Thursday … I was in Kansas City accepting an award. I bring this up only because at least 50 times during that evening, people wandered over to ask why I wasn’t up in Illinois writing about Tom Watson. They were sad. They wanted me there. That hit me. That touched me. The next day, I took a flight up to Chicago. I took a train out to Olympia Fields. I raced on the golf course … just in time to watch Tom Watson double bogey a hole and basically take himself out of contention.
“What are you doing here?” Tom asked, and he grimaced, and I’ll never forget it.
Memories? Everywhere. I saw the Chiefs win a game in the most bizarre way, when Cleveland’s Dwayne Rudd threw his helmet and offensive lineman John Tait rumbled 26 yards and it would take too long to explain the whole crazy scenario. I listened to George Brett tell the story of a Royals-Rangers fight and how he tore the jacket of Willie Horton, and it remains one of the funniest things I have ever heard in my entire life. I talked poetry with Dan Quisenberry and fatherhood with Len Dawson and elusiveness with Gale Sayers. I was once hosting an event featuring Bob Costas and Royals owner David Glass, and I asked what was the reason for the massive increase in home runs in baseball. And someone in the crowd yelled: “Ricky Botallico,” who was the Royals closer at the time.
How do you find a goodbye to all that? I went to a Royals game, wrote a billion word recap. But no. That wasn’t quite it. I stood for a long time in the parking lot the Truman Sports Complex, between Kauffman and Arrowhead Stadiums, and I remembered Sunday mornings in autumn, when the place smelled like barbecue, when it glowed red, when anticipation bubbled. There’s nothing quite like a city when its pro football team is playing well. Kansas City always seemed most alive to me in the autumns and winters of 1997 and 2003, when the Chiefs were good, when the Super Bowl seemed realistic, when everybody — across all borders and in two states — cared about precisely the same thing.
But I did not get my goodbye standing in the parking lot.
I parked on the corner of 18th and Vine, near the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. I parked in the exact same spot where I once sat in a car with Buck O’Neil. It was early morning, and rain splashed against the window, and we waited for somebody — maybe our driver. Buck told me about the time he went to see the young Charlie Parker play in a Kansas City club nearby. “We didn’t know what he was playing,” Buck said. “We just knew it was NEW.”
I often say this: Other than my father, no man has had a bigger impact on my life than Buck. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is the obvious: I have never met anyone so positive. People sometimes ask if Buck’s unchained optimism was real, and it’s a good question, the question I asked myself many times. How could it be real? Buck O’Neil was the grandson of a slave. His father had to leave town for a time after an encounter with a racist sheriff’s deputy. He was barred from attending Sarasota High School. He was never given a chance to play Major League Baseball — he did once play baseball dressed in a grass skirt as part of team that was supposed to look, to the prejudiced eyes of the time, like the Zulu people (“So degrading,” he said).
He was never given a chance to manage in the big leagues, and I think this might have hurt him most. Buck was modest, but he was not unaware. He knew how much smarter he was about baseball than others. He knew how players responded to his instruction. He knew — with all his heart, he knew — that he could have been a great big league manager. But it wasn’t his time. He was not even given a chance to manage when he was with the Chicago Cubs and they were trying their crazy College of Coaches experiment — that was when the Cubs did not have a single manager and instead had their coaches trade duties all the time. The 1962 Cubs had three coaches who were managers. Buck was not one of them. He was never even allowed to coach first or third base — he was not allowed on the field in his duties. The reason was never hidden. Buck was the first black coach in Major League Baseball. That was as far as anyone was willing to go in 1962.
How could he be so positive? How could it be real? I was around the man an awful lot. I traveled the country with him. I saw him at the edge of exhaustion. I saw him at the point of frustration. I was sitting three feet away from him when he was told that the a special Negro Leagues Committee had not voted him into the Hall of Fame. I was with him in Houston when the car that was supposed to pick him up did not show up on time — and if there was one thing Buck could not stand it was being late. I saw him in the hospital just days before he died. I saw him grumpy, and I saw him exhausted, and I even saw him irritated and unhappy. But I never once saw his spirit broken. I never once saw him go cynical. In the Houston heat, as I’ve written, I saw a man take a foul ball away from a boy. I griped about it. Buck said: “Maybe he’s got a boy of his own at home.”
“If he has a kid, why didn’t he bring him to the ballpark?” I asked, figuring I finally had the man trapped.
“Maybe his kid is sick,” Buck said.
He insisted on believing in the goodness of people and that the world was getting better all the time. He wasn’t a saint, and he would have been insulted to be called one. I just think he believed those things because he understood that life is better when you believe in those things. Buck’s life was built around faith and baseball and jazz, and that holy trinity made him optimistic about people and about the world. Many times he told me how hate destroys the hater. Joy comes from being joyful. Love comes from being loved. That sort of thing. It was amazing to be around that sort of insistent happiness. Buck taught me that to be happy, you work at it. A hundred times a year now, I think about that. My obstacles can never be as big as his. My challenges can never reach the depths that challenged Buck O’Neil. He constantly felt lucky. How can I feel anything but lucky?
The optimism was his most obvious trait. But the other thing that Buck gave me was a whole other world to explore. People sometimes ask: Why did I become a sportswriter? And I tell them that I became a sportswriter because I failed out of accounting. That is true. But I also became a sportswriter because all my life, even before I realized it, I have wanted to tell stories. The one thing that has always lifted me higher was hearing a story that hadn’t been told before, or at least hadn’t been told OFTEN before, and telling that story in a way that brings it to life.
Well, Buck opened up the world of Negro Leagues baseball to me. And those stories became urgent to me, alive to me, not only the stories about the most famous of the players — of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell and Oscar Charleston — but of the less well known, of Leon Day, of Hilton Smith, of Turkey Stearnes, of Ghost and Jelly and the Devil and Slim and Double Duty and Pee Wee. The memories of their baseball games are scattered to the wind, with just a few hints and clues found in small newspaper clippings and half-remembered quotes. The story of those players trying to live something like a dream in those years before Rosa Parks refused to move back, before Brown v. Topeka, before Martin Luther King wrote a letter from jail, before the march on Washington, well, it’s an American story, one of the great American stories. Buck opened that world to me.
And so I sat outside the Negro Leagues Museum, and I thought about how many hours I had spent in there, how many more hours I will spend in there in my best effort to keep things going.* And I thought about Buck O’Neil, my good friend, and how I was playing the piano when I heard that he had died. I gathered myself and wrote his obituary. And then, I cried even though he had told me not to cry.
For reasons I cannot explain, parking on the corner of 18th and Vine was not my goodbye either.
We went to Jasper’s, a great Italian restaurant in town where my wife had once seen Paul Rudd. Well, technically, she did not just see him once because she started at him all dinner long and kept saying to me, “He’s looking over at you. He recognizes you. You should go over and say hello to him. He’s looking over here again.” My wife and I have been married for 13 years. If there is one thing she knows it is that I would NEVER walk over to a celebrity like Paul Rudd and introduce myself. I would be more likely to stand up in the middle of a restaurant and just start singing “Artificial Flowers.” There is 0.000000000001% chance of that happening. The Paul Rudd thing is less likely.
But Jaspers did not fill my goodbye. Eating burnt ends at Bryant’s — the greatest foodstuff on earth — did not either. I bought books at Rainy Day Books — the amazing little bookstore in Kansas City where I spent many of my happiest afternoons — but that wasn’t it. I got a hamburger from Winstead’s, a chocolate-strawberry concrete from Sheridan’s, a pizza from Italian Delight. They were all delicious. But they didn’t get me there either.
I saw friends, as many as I could see, and it was wonderful. But somehow those weren’t my goodbye, not quite, it didn’t quite bring it all to the front like I hoped. Everywhere I went, people wished us well. I recorded a couple of interviews talking about Kansas City and what it has meant to me, to my family. I never failed to appreciate how much I love the town, how wonderful the people are, how great a place can be when you get to know the place. But I could not quite find my goodbye. And a day before we left, I still had not found it.
Then, it happened. The strangest thing. I was standing outside our house, the one we had built, the one we felt would be our home forever. And a hard wind was blowing. Hey, this is Kansas City. I had the same thought I always had when a hard wind blows: Do we have the umbrella from our outdoor patio set down? As you might imagine, once we did not. We found our patio set scattered on someone’s lawn two blocks away.
And then I had an even more bizarre thought: I should fly a kite. I can honestly say I have never had that thought before in my entire life. I can remember flying a kite once in Cleveland — not because I wanted to but because someone gave me one as a gift and it just seemed appropriate. The kite got caught in the electrical wire that stretched above our front lawn, and for years afterward it was a daily reminder of what happens when a helpless 1970s city kid with no spacial skills whatsoever attempts something as 19th century as flying a kite.
But standing there, in that stiff wind, flying a kite did not just seem like a good idea. It seemed like the ONLY idea. I went into the garage and there was a kite that my father-in-law had bought for my daughters. I took it outside. I did not have even the slightest idea how to go about flying the kite, but the Kansas City wind is a wonderful teacher. The kite took off. I let a little string go, then a little more, then a little more. And in no time, the kite was above the ground — 50 feet in the air? One hundred feet? Like I say, I’m terrible with space. It seemed pretty high.
And then, standing in that wind, all sorts of things rushed back. I thought of the time Margo and I moved into our first house, a wonderful little brick Tudor, and how my father-in-law and I tried to move a new couch through a doorway that was considerably narrower than the couch itself. He directed. “Move it the East,” he said. My wife is from a small town in Kansas. This is how they talk there. They talk in direction. “Move the couch to the East,” he said again. East? Who am I, Vasco de Gama? I hadn’t thought to bring my compass. It was clear my father-in-law was getting a touch agitated.
“Move it to YOUR East,” he said.
I thought of an ice storm that was so fierce it exploded transformers all over town. I thought of a Chiefs game where the rain fell in sheets, so much so they literally had to stop the game. I thought of summer days that were so hot, you could actually see the grass brown in real time, like an egg frying. And I thought of the perfect weather days that would just pop up out of nowhere, sometimes days after a snowstorm, sometimes days after a stretch of 100 degree afternoons, and how they felt like gifts from heaven.
I thought of the Van Morrison song “Eternal Kansas City.” It played in my head: “Do you know the way to Kansas City?” That line over and over and over again. Then the words on how to get there:
Train down to St. Louie
Over to the city there. You know the one.
Where the farmer’s daughter digs the farmer’s son
Dig your Charlie Parker,
Basie and Young
Witherspoon and Jay McShann
They will come.
I had listened to all of them so I could know that place — I listened to Charlie Parker and Count Basie and Lester Young and Jimmy Witherspoon and Julia Lee and Andy Kirk and Big Joe Turner and, yes, Jay McShann. They called him “Hootie.” I talked with Jay McShann about Kansas City jazz once. He told me how the jazz in Kansas City had grown out of the openness of the time. The town was wide open. Gambling. Booze. Neon. The music had to fit the time and place. It had to be wild, and it had to be joyful, and it had to be filled with the pain behind the wild and the joy. And it was.
I thought about a double I hit in Royals Fantasy Camp and how it had one-hopped the wall, which led Big John Mayberry to shout: “You’re a hitter, Joe!” And how ever single time I saw Big John from that moment on, no matter who was around, no matter what the circumstance, well, that would be the first thing he would say to me, and it always made me smile.
One other Big John story came to mind — we were in Arkansas once, at the home of Royals owner David Glass, who you probably know was the CEO of Wal-Mart. Well, there were all of these Wal-Mart executives there, it was quite a thing, and Big John walked up to one and asked what he did. The guy said: “I run Sam’s Club.”
To which Big John said: “Really? Which one?”*
*To tell the whole story, though, I probably should say that this gathering of pretty much the entire brain-trust of Wal-Mart happened just before my book about Buck “The Soul of Baseball” came out. We all had dinner and for reasons that I could not explain, I was sort of the center of attention. Everyone was asking me questions — about sports, about the Royals, about where I’ve been and so on. I was telling stories, and I have to admit that I was actually pretty entertaining — and you should probably know by now that I would not admit to that if it wasn’t true. Anyway, I was entertaining enough that when it ended I called Margo and told her how well it had gone. She listened for a minute and said: “Did you mention your book?”
I said: “What do you mean?”
She said: “Did you mention to the people who RUN WAL-MART that you HAVE A BOOK COMING OUT that they MIGHT WANT TO CARRY IN THEIR STORES?”
The amazing part is not that I did not mention the book. The amazing part is that mentioning the book never even once crossed my mind.
Most of all: I thought about who I was at 29 years old when I arrived in Kansas City. Who was I? I was a young and single sportswriter with bland aspirations I could not even put into words. I loved sports, and I was beginning to love writing in a different way. I loved Bruce Springsteen and chocolate and having enough money to pay my bills. I loved long drives and reading in bed and Winona Ryder. I was floating. I wasn’t so much a person as a half-finished painting, a faded Polaroid not yet in focus.
And who am I now? I still love Springsteen and chocolate and reading in bed. I still have a soft spot in my heart for Winona Ryder, even after the whole shoplifting thing. But those are not who I am, not like it was then. I’m a father. A husband. A writer. Most of the things that mattered then don’t matter at all to me now. Most of the things that matter to me know would have been unimaginable to me then. I am not floating. I am anchored.
The kite began to scuffle in the wind, and it took a nosedive, then lifted up slightly, then nosedived again. I was not skillful enough to keep it up in the air, not skillful enough to keep the string from twisting and snarling and getting caught in a tree — all that Charlie Brown stuff. I had hoped to keep the kite in the air long enough to show my daughters, but they were not home yet, and the sun was beginning to burn my neck, and there was a lot of packing-type things to do. I pulled it in. I put the kite in the garage. It was over. Anyway, it had happened. I had found my goodbye. It wasn’t anything profound. As I packed up my stuff and headed for another chapter in my life, I simply realized something about the town that has been our home for so many years. I’m even going to miss the wind.