SAN FRANCISCO – After Madison Bumgarner completed his dominant complete game shutout to win Game Five of the World Series and send the Giants back to Kansas City just a game away from their third championship in six years, AT&T Park screamed in unison for him to make one last wave from the dugout, a collective thank-you from a single, joyous mind. It was similar to the scene four days earlier, when Royals fans—a cheerful mob that makes a shockingly loud noise rarely heard in the world of baseball—roared for second baseman Omar Infante after he hit a two-run home run off an unnecessarily angry Hunter Strickland to secure the team’s first win in a World Series game in 29 years. The communal adoration and mania of a World Series crowd is infectious, and it is infectious everywhere.
But while that amazing sound is essentially the same in every ballpark, it’s one of the few things—along with the game itself—that’s the same from park to park. I’ve attended every World Series Game this year, and for all the similarity of noise, Northern California and Western Missouri are as far apart in baseball terms as they are politically.
Baseball is at its core a regional sport. It’s why its television ratings are so much smaller than the NFL’s—though still higher than just about anything else on television, thanks to the power of live, un-DVR-able sports—and why those ratings don’t really matter. The NFL makes its money by its games being events; MLB makes its money by being played, all the time, every day, for six months in 30 major North American markets. Contrary to the constant droning claims that baseball has is somehow dying—an argument nicely vivisected here, and an argument people have been making about baseball for nearly 100 years—more people are currently watching baseball than at any other time in human history. (The only thing TV ratings tell you is that they’re not all doing it at the same time on the same channel, which is to say they tell you basically nothing.)
Thus, if you are a fan of the NFL, you are a fan of The National Football League, a monolithic entity of faceless, monomaniacal corporate warriors. (Most likely, your second-favorite NFL team—if they’re not your first-favorite team—is your fantasy team, or the one you wagered on.) But if you are a fan of baseball, what kind of fan you are often depends on where you are. Every baseball fan community is its own unique universe, in large part shaped by the same geographic and cultural schisms that exist in the larger culture. To be a fan of the New York Yankees is a very different thing than being a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals than being a fan of the Los Angeles Dodgers than being a fan of the Milwaukee Brewers than being a member of Red Sox nation.
Baseball thrives on local cultures in a way no other sport does, and that’s as clear as ever in this year’s World Series. Because it is a daily activity, it ingrains itself in a community, becoming part of the day-to-day routine. Other sports are more sporadic, more in-and-out-of-town; you gather around for one of their games, but then everyone, including the team, scatters. But baseball is a squatting sport. It is there, all the time; you get used to the teams, like family members, and people are more inherently themselves around them. Baseball not only becomes part of the community, it ends up reflecting it.
In San Francisco, AT&T Park positions itself the inclusionary, pseudo-hipster idealist place you imagine it being. Even though San Francisco has become as gentrified as any city in America, the perception of the city is multicultural, a place where everyone can be themselves, perpetually on the vanguard. This is a stadium with Uber cars constantly circling outside, with more phone-charging stations than any other, with Carlos Santana playing the national anthem with his son. It’s young, it’s inclusive, it’s The Future. The stadium and the marketing minds of the Giants reflect this. On the 2014 Special Events calendar: Korean, Filipino, Irish, Chinese, Japanese, Native American, Italian, Jewish and African-American Heritage Nights; LGBT Night; Jerry Garcia Tribute Night; Yoga Day.
You can grab essentially any food item, from sushi to garlic fries to corn dogs to tacos to chicken parm. You can even bring in your own food. AT&T Park is located in the city proper, within easy walking distance of the Embarcadero.
There are dozens of bars within a five-minute postgame walk, and you’re not far from public transportation, either. This has led to a giddy postgame environment, even after losses: Rather than hopping in your car and fighting traffic, you can wander and tipple for hours (particularly with the games ending around 8:45 local time). After the Giants’ Game Four victory, a Royals fan and his son played catch in front of the stadium for an hour as fans drinking at the Public House (which is located within AT&T Park) cheered them on and ESPN filmed its postgame show live from just out front. It was a collective civic experience.
In Kansas City, they celebrate something different. As someone who grew up in farm-country Illinois, you’ll never catch me using the word “flyover,” but there’s an inherent modesty that grows in a place where most of the country doesn’t care enough to pay much attention, a place where you have some room to stretch. Kauffman Stadium is now the sixth-oldest stadium in Major League Baseball, and even after a recent renovation, it holds the dated charm of a building built in 1973. It seems somehow sturdier than other parks, with the warm feel of an overgrown minor league stadium. In fact, a large percentage of the renovations was devoted to making the place more family-friendly; there’s a surprisingly large kids’ park in center field that Royals fans rave about it, at least during the regular season when you’re not paying World Series prices and the game doesn’t have to be paid as close attention to. There’s a lot of space, in and around the park. Everybody has room to move around.
Kansas City isn’t exclusionary as much as lacking in diversity to include in the first place. The Royals promotions this year included camouflage jerseys, “Zubazapalooza,” and a Faith and Family Night.
Other than an Irish Heritage Night—at which they gave away a green Royals beer cup—there were no special cultural celebrations. (In St. Louis, the nearest baseball team to Kansas City, they had a Duck Dynasty Day last year. Their food selections don’t get much more adventurous than a “pepperjack sausage,” though there’s of course lots of BBQ.
But the experience is most pronouncedly different postgame. Kauffman Stadium, like Arrowhead Stadium (where the NFL Chiefs play), is located 10 miles from downtown and right off of the interstate. (Standing at home plate, a hitter can watch cars streaming by beyond the outfield.) There’s no way to get to Kauffman Stadium except by car, which has led to a massive tailgating atmosphere this postseason, modeled after the Chiefs’ notorious tailgate scene. But after the game, the place is quickly abandoned: Everybody goes and sits in traffic for an hour or so, leaving this little concrete oasis and going back to wherever they live. (Royals fans come from states all over—Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, even Arkansas and Tennessee.) There is no life around the park because there is nothing there. If that kid and his dad tried to play catch two hours after the game outside Kauffman Stadium, they’d likely be run off by security.
When you get back to Kansas City proper—which, other than a Holiday Inn across the freeway from Kauffman, is the only place really to stay—it is notable that the city has completely remodeled itself with the World Series visiting, gleeful for its rare spot in the national spotlight. Everything in town, particularly in the new Power & Light District, is smacked with a Royals logo, and the fountains downtown have all been dyed blue. In San Francisco, like other major American cities, if you weren’t near the ballpark you might not even know there was a World Series happening. (New York actually ate the Super Bowl last year.) This is actually a point in Kansas City’s favor: It makes you feel like baseball is bigger there, which is probably is. Or maybe just everything else is smaller.
Baseball stays relevant because it sometimes holds onto these differences, while defusing them. It’s a sane way of working out way our regional conflicts—certainly saner than what takes place in Congress.
Though it is worth noting that there’s one way these stadium experiences have felt entirely similar, and it’s a way that Major League Baseball should probably be concerned about moving forward: The people in the stands, at both stadiums, are overwhelmingly white.