It would be macabre if it were anyone else – any other couple – in any other city. But in Kansas City, it seems somehow natural that Ewing and Muriel Kauffman would build their own graveyard in the middle of the city, plant it to 7,000 varieties of flowers, herbs, trees and scrubs – from lemon trees to orchids – then open it to the public and one very fat cat…. of the pure feline variety.
So it is with Kauffman Gardens on the east end of the Country Club Plaza in a fine green space the city has somehow managed to preserve smack between the two ends of its economic spectrum. Well… it wasn’t the city who preserved this green space, it was Mr. Kauffman – the same way he preserved baseball here. Except for the pests – wedding photographers mostly – his garden has turned into a peaceful oasis for city dwellers to collect thoughts, lament the end of the summer of green and growth, and, especially, to welcome the rebirth of spring.
Which is why I was there in mid-March with a film camera and a hopeful heart. Hopeful, for one, the snows were over.
Hope soon, and dramatically, dashed.
I was also there hopeful about the prospects for Mr. Kauffman’s home nine. Every city is hopeful for the home nine in spring – visions of pennants spring to mind like crocuses in the backyard. But, in this city, at least, hope is always tempered by reality. In my case, hope is always tempered by the reality of rooting for the home nine since the mid-1950s. If you look at the history of baseball in Kansas City across that half-century, you understand why tempered takes on the full meaning a blacksmith would apply.
The combined wins for the Kansas City A’s and the Kansas City Royals since 1955 total 4,182, stacked against 4,860 losses. That’s a winning percentage of just .462, which would be the lowest winning percentage of any team in the era if the names hadn't changed.
I have a friend who became an atheist for two reasons. First, in high school, his best friend gave him up for lent. And, second, when he was younger yet, he prayed in church every Sunday morning across the summer the home nine would win the afternoon doubleheader and they usually dropped both games. He came to the conclusion there could be no God.
So I don’t come by baseball hope easily or in quantity. Yet, on this trip to the Gardens I found myself standing at the foot of Mr. Kauffman’s grave, which is tucked in around a corner nearly hidden in summer by trailing vines, speaking words that even surprised me.
Mostly, I have stood there in September and apologized. “I’m sorry, Mr. Kauffman. This season was horrible. I’m glad you can’t see what they've done to your team. The brain trust… I can’t really explain except to say it’s obvious they don’t give a damn… they only want to do just enough to make a profit.”
Something like that with variations, and I’m reluctant to admit on Easter morning, obscenities.
But this March, I stood at the feet of the great man and couldn't believe my ears. “Maybe," I said, "just maybe, I have something good to report. This spring, there may be hope. They may just have figured this out. Time will tell, but I’m thinking they could be pretty good this year. There are a lot of ifs… but it’s possible they could actually be kinda good.”
Embarrassed by this outburst and thankful no one other than my extremely tolerant bride could hear, I moved on quickly. But as I finished the first aisle, I silently went over all the caveats – the third baseman and first baseman have to prove they are what the scouts think they are, the centerfielder has to stay healthy and prove he can hit the curveball, something surprising has to happen in right field … The pitching has to be way better than its collective history... the second basemen-- … I’ve been through all of this before. But I didn't want to bother the great man with caveats. It was after all, the first week of spring and more snow was just a rumor.
Here is an image of some orchids at the Gardens from a visit last summer for your reading pleasure: