KANSAS CITY, Mo. – I live in this town, and at first I was amused by local fans' efforts to make Robinson Cano cry during the Home Run Derby. It was inspired. They booed him, and these weren't regular boos; they were caterwauls, cries of pain, like Cano had violated a family member, which, to them, he had by suggesting he would select a Royal for the Derby and then reneging. Next were the cheers for Cano's ineptitude in the Derby, a rollicking 0-fer accompanied by cascading applause and a brilliant moniker from Kansas City Star columnist Kent Babb: Can0.
There to play the role of aggrieved hero was Royals designated hitter Billy Butler, against whom fans have lodged a singular complaint during his career: He doesn't hit for enough power. That didn't matter, of course, because he was Kansas City's, and this was Kansas City's week, the first that mattered in a long time. If Cano wasn't going to pick Billy Butler, they were going to slay him with vitriol.
Then came the backlash. The country wondered why Kansas City – this sweet and homey place that didn't seem the likeliest to host an All-Star game but, damn, had filled a gorgeous stadium for the Futures Game – so desperately loathed Robinson Cano.
And this is where my city lost it.
By now, professional sports irrelevance here is like a tax. Cheap housing, kind people, great barbeque, no championships. Fans accept games of little consequence, and so built up inside is a tidal wave of sporting emotion waiting to lay waste to whatever gets in its way. Like, say, Robinson Cano.
In the aftermath, however, Kansas City grew defensive against the accusations from outsiders that the booing was petty and bush league and silly. It was. It was ridiculous. That's part of what made it great. And all Kansas City needed to do was own its ludicrousness, laugh at itself, not throw up a wall of excuses as to why Cano deserved it. Save the anger for something that deserves it, like, oh, pretty much anything else.
The idea that the booing represented some sort of stand by the fans against Kansas City's insignificance is wildly wrongheaded. It was mean for meanness' sake, hostile for hostility's sake, an acid-rain shower on a Yankee who they believed did them dirty. They turned a singular deed into a vitriolic money shot. The purchase of a ticket allows them as much. And that's all well and good so long as they know the upshot.
Booing comes with consequences. A city can't boo a guy who, in the eyes of most, did nothing more than commit a slip of the tongue and then chafe at those who dare question the source of the jeers. Kansas City sports-talk radio Tuesday blew up with shows of civic pride, of callers and hosts alike puffing their chests in support of a city standing up for itself. This wasn't funny to them. It was serious.
That was obvious when it continued into Tuesday. At the Red Carpet event, in which Derek Jeter asked Cano into his car to deflect the boos only for them to overwhelm even the game's most revered figure. And during introductions, in which fans followed a thunderous ovation for Butler with a hurricane of hissing at Cano. In the middle of Cano's first at-bat, the crowd broke out into a chant: "Bil-ly But-ler, Bil-ly But-ler, Bil-ly But-ler." The DH with the perfect nickname – Country Breakfast – was an instant folk hero, and one of the game's best players had to live with the right choice gone very wrong.
And that's what rubbed players like sandpaper. No, this didn't show the All-Stars, the best of the best, that Kansas City was a great baseball town. It showed them an ugly side of a place that struggles to draw free agents because of a combination of miserliness and the perception that it's simply not somewhere the best players should want to play.
A number of players said, rather damningly, this isn't the sort of thing that would change their minds.
Look, Cano was stupid to allude to picking a Royal if he didn't truly intend to do so – and Kansas City fans were equally so in holding him at his word. Just because baseball has lacked season-long significance here for more than a quarter-century doesn't suddenly turn the Home Run Derby into anything more than a contest where guys try to hit balls really far. For Kansas Citians to have projected their frustrations onto it was the ultimate in misguided loyalties.
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Robinson Cano was an easy villain for Kansas City, and so it booed, loudly and lustily. The barking metastasized, and Cano turtled away, and the story of Kansas City's All-Star weekend had been born. This was no media creation, no coastal judging. Just the deep, dark recesses of my insecure city's broken sporting heart.
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