My All-Star Weekend, Part I

When Major League Baseball announced two summers ago that the 2012 All-Star Game would be played in Kansas City, I was determined to do whatever I could to experience it.
But when details of the festivities began filtering out, it became clear it wouldn’t be easy. The most desirable events would be costly and very tough to access. Tickets to Monday’s Home Run Derby and Tuesday’s All-Star Game are virtually untouchable. However, when I received an email several months ago with news that MLB was seeking volunteers to staff some of the All-Star events, I figured That’s my ticket! and jumped at the chance.

For me, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity I did not want to miss.

I applied and stepped through all of the hoops along the way, passing a background check and eventually attending a meeting on a hot morning in mid-June at Kauffman Stadium where MLB and Royals staffers laid out more of the ground rules and job opportunities for the All-Star weekend. They told us more than 6,000 people had applied to volunteer in Kansas City – an all-time record for MLB’s All-Star weekend. That number thinned to about 2,000 as the process moved along and in the end that number figured to decline further.

Each of us was put through a brief interview and told to watch for an email in a few days notifying us of our selection to work events and allowing us to sign up for specific jobs. There would be no opportunities to work the big events at the stadium though; those were being handled by Kauffman Stadium’s regular summer staff.

Sure enough, I got the email, and there was a virtual mad dash to get into the All-Star volunteer website and sign up for the most desirable shifts. Volunteers could choose to work at FanFest or be sort of a roving volunteer to be called upon to work charity events or pick up people from the airport. Without a doubt, I wanted to work the Fanfest and successfully signed up to work three shifts spread over the weekend.

Finally, all of the volunteers were required to attend an orientation session Tuesday at the Kansas City Convention Center where FanFest would take place. We received our job assignments and responsibilities for the weekend and a quick tour of main hall where the festival attractions were being constructed at those very moments.

As we walked through the floor, I could hardly keep the smile off my face. It was exhilarating to know the event I’d been anticipating for two years had finally arrived.

I had punched my ticket, and I was in.

* * *

On Friday I was awake by 5 a.m. and on the road at 5:30, driving toward Kansas City to work and attend FanFest. I arrived in downtown around 7, which gave me plenty of time to do a little exploring before I was to report at 7:30 for my first volunteer shift.

For five days beginning Friday, Kansas City is the center of the baseball universe. The city had been decked out in All-Star banners and colors for weeks. Friday morning the Barney Allis Plaza fountain were dyed royal blue.

At 7:30, the doors of the Convention Center opened and I joined the throng of volunteers ready to work the first FanFest shift. MLB and Royals staffers were scurrying around making final preparations as we waited in a hallway. Eventually, we were herded into a ballroom to receive our matching blue FanFest polo shirts, a hat and a button.

The room full of blue was a sight to see. … As the day went on, equally amusing was the army of people in matching blue shirts and khaki shorts marching down a hallway and through FanFest every time there was a shift change. You could almost hear the “Mission Impossible” theme, or any other relevant theme music that comes to mind, playing in the background.

Throughout our orientation sessions, stories were told about a section of All-Star Weekend volunteers who make it an annual ritual, and I experienced some of that firsthand as I overheard a couple talk about coming from Colorado to volunteer. I watched another small group of older adults greet each other warmly and exchange hugs as they renewed a bond they apparently formed working past All-Star weekends; one of the women said it was her seventh year working Fanfest. Another woman I worked with during my first shift was from New York. The manager of the zone I worked last night is a St. Louis resident who got hooked when he worked the All-Star Weekend in St. Louis a few years ago and has done it every year since. A lot of the volunteer managers, who are working 15 hours a day every day throughout the festivities, are college students looking to gain experience for their majors. Throughout the All-Star Weekend all of these people are building friendships that will last a lifetime.

Aside from the joy of experiencing the festivities as a baseball fan, that was perhaps my favorite part of this whole thing: meeting new people, talking each other’s backgrounds, careers and love for sports – and making neat connections along the way.

My first assignment Friday morning, with about 10 other volunteers, was to welcome fans at the gates and help hand out goodie bags stuffed with freebies. From there, fans stepped on escalators that took them up to the FanFest floor. It was a five-hour shift from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., but the hours passed fairly quickly. There were busy stretches and slow stretches, but I never felt bored. Working beside me was a lovely woman from one of my old stomping grounds, Olathe. She was a teacher whose look and mannerisms were downright Paula Deen.

And that brings me to another fun FanFest observation: It made for great people watching. Mostly, I got a kick out of watching people’s behaviors. Some people just do as they please, oblivious to their surroundings or what they might be missing. … A couple times, for example, I watched people who were in line to receive goodies that stretched along several points of a table. These people would receive the first one or two items and then veer out of the line, seemingly because they were too impatient to wait any longer, and failed to notice the key component a little further down the line. Then I’d watch as they realized their mistake and wish they hadn’t stepped out of line.

As fans streamed through the turnstiles I found myself playing a variation of the state license plate game. But instead of checking off the 50 states, I was mentally checking off the 30 Major League teams represented on T-shirts, jerseys and hats. Thinking back on the day, I think I saw representation of every team except the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Chicago White Sox. There were, of course, a lot of Royals and Cardinals fans. Yankees, Cubs and Red Sox fans, too. And there were a lot of Texas Rangers fans, which – when you consider the proximity of Texas to Kansas City relative to other Major League cities, the number of Rangers players in this year’s All-Star game and the team’s growing popularity – isn’t all that surprising I suppose.

And the team mascots. With the number of them roaming the Convention Center, I went on a little mission of trying to get my photo taken with as many of them as possible. Like when you go to Disney World and you try to have pictures taken with as many Disney characters as possible. … I successfully posed with Bernie Brewer, StomperHomer and T.C. Bear. I also logged sightings of Sluggerrr, Rangers Captain, The Oriole Bird, RaymondWally the Green Monster and Mariner Moose but couldn’t get to them because I was tied to my volunteer responsibilities.

* * *

At around 1 in the afternoon, the next shift of volunteers arrived and I was relieved of my duties. The volunteer uniform came off and it was my time to play. … By volunteering, I have an all-access pass to FanFest.

I started strolling the floor as a fan, and again I could hardly keep the smile off my face. I kept thinking, I can’t believe I’m doing this. Just like in “Tangled,” but without the doubting

… The bulk of the attractions and interactive games are aimed at children and youth. There’s diamonds where kids can take lessons and practice their skills. There’s batting cages. There’s a whole section devoted to video games. One of the most popular games is “Steal a Base, Steal a Ticket,” a simulation game where a fan races a major leaguer, who’s shown stealing a base on a large screen. If the fan slides safely into the base before the major leaguer, the fan wins a free taco. … Seeing so many parents enjoying the festival and attractions with their kids, I wished I could take Phoebe to experience it. Unfortunately, the timing just isn’t right.

… There are tables of memorabilia collectors and dealers galore. You can take your pick of any team paraphernalia you wanted. But it’s pricey.

… I filled my bag with freebies. A commemorative All-Star baseball from Chevrolet, a couple of mini foam fingers, a magazine from the Baseball Hall of Fame, a packet of grass seed and fertilizer from Scott’s. Taco Bell also was giving away free tacos every two hours, so I snagged one of those for my lunch, too.

… I took in displays of select Hall of Fame items – from Cal Ripken’s spikes to George Brett’s famous pine tar bat to rows of jerseys and caps worn by hall of famers. There was a neat display, too, of all of the MLB trophies that will be given to this year’s award winners and champions, including the 2012 World Series trophy.

… There were a lot of photo opportunities to take advantage of. I had my picture taken with the World Series trophy. With some legends of baseball -- they were cutouts -- as part of a Pepsi Max promotion. And I posed against a backdrop of fans as though I was making a game-saving, home-run-snatching catch.

But the thing I looked forward to most were the player sightings and interactions. Armed with a special All-Star ball I’d purchased just for autographs, I had my first encounter as I was walking through the festival and stopped at a stage where MLB.com was filming analysis and interviews. I spotted a pool of autograph seekers forming around an older gentleman with a thick mustache and eyebrows. It was Jack Morris – a hall of fame pitcher in my mind – whom I watched growing up and greatly admire for his memorable appearances in the 1991 World Series with the Twins and the 1992 World Series with the Blue Jays. … Later, I checked out the all-star clubhouse attraction where Royals great and former manager John Wathan was conducting a Q&A with fans. I hung around to hear some of his stories and got his autograph, too. Later, I caught former Mariners/Yankees pitcher Jeff Nelson at the MLB.com stage and Royals phenom Wil Myers. … It turns out George Brett was around in the morning, and there were a number of greats, including Willie Wilson and Rollie Fingers, appearing throughout the day, but again my volunteer responsibilities kept me from getting near either of them.

* * *

At 3:30, my playtime was up and I had to report back to the volunteer base for my evening shift. My assignment for the night was to be a utility player, which meant I would go wherever a volunteer was needed. I spent most of the night helping fans sign waivers, which were required to participate in any of the interactive games.

Later, during the final half hour, I was asked to help direct fans to the exit, which led to more fun dealing with people. Myself and a couple more volunteers were stationed near the escalators at the main entrance, which is where many fans figured they could also exit. Oh, the eye rolls we took when we told people they needed to exit at the escalators on the opposite side of the hall. Worse yet, some people proceeded to press the matter and complain, “But we’re parked on this side of the building!” The thing was the exit escalator would take them to same area in the lobby where they entered the building. Other fans were more appreciative of our efforts, thanking us for directing them to the right spot. I love dealing with people.

The first day of FanFest had officially closed. Soon I was dismissed from my shift, thanked for a job well done and free to go. I exited the air-conditioning of the convention center and entered the 97-degree heat enveloping downtown Kansas City, at 8:15 p.m.

I found my car and negotiated the traffic leaving downtown. As I spotted the sun setting in the east, I thought about how cool it was that I’d started my day driving alongside the sunrise and I was about to drive home alongside the sunset.

It was an amazing day. I’m wishing I was back there today -- seeing all of the Tweets, photos and action on social media today is making it more difficult to miss --  but more important responsibilities and chores prevail. I will return tomorrow, though, and it has the makings of being even better.

Good reads & links ...
a Kansas City is on deck for All-Star FanFest
a Warm regards from a town that’s more charming than cool ... Worded perfectly.
a Security is ready for All-Star Game
a KC plans an all-star effort to spruce up the town
a All-Star Fan Fest news video
a Fans flock to first All-Star Week events
a Joe Posnanski: Kansas City

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