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Sports greatness final piece of Kansas City's puzzle

When past glories faded, city built up in other areas while patiently waiting
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Doug Worgul, a writer-in-residence and director of marketing at Oklahoma Joe's (soon to be Joe's Kansas City) Bar-B-Que in Kansas City, as well as the author of Thin Blue Smoke, a novel about baseball, the blues and barbecue, reports in from the host city for Game 1 of the 2014 World Series.

These are good times for Kansas City. Good times that were a long time coming.

Doug Worgul, a writer-in-residence and director of marketing at Oklahoma Joe's (soon to be Joe's Kansas City) Bar-B-Que in Kansas City, as well as the author of Thin Blue Smoke, a novel about baseball, the blues and barbecue, reports in from the host city for Game 1 of the 2014 World Series.

These are good times for Kansas City. Good times that were a long time coming.

With characteristic Midwestern passivity, Kansas City allowed itself to be defined for decades by its own past and faded glories. And folks from the East and West coasts have long thought of Kansas City as "flyover," if they bothered to think of it at all.

But we always knew better. Kansas City is the "Paris of the Plains," we assured ourselves -- misbelieving for generations that the nickname flatteringly referred to our many miles of beautiful boulevards, when the phrase in fact has its roots in an off-hand observation made in the 1920s by an obscure Omaha journalist, who noted: "If you want to see some sin, forget about Paris and go to Kansas City."

Back then, Kansas City was a wide-open free-for-all town, known for unrivaled political corruption and a unique blues-based style of jazz. Yet, the misunderstood and misused "Paris of the Plains" moniker continues to pop up in Chamber of Commerce-type pamphlets, inevitably followed by a reference to our fountains. Kansas City boasts more than 200 of them, second most in the world, just behind Rome. But this is the 21st century. Boulevards and fountains are fine, but not really the kind of thing you brag about. Barroom smack-talk rarely includes consideration of fountains or boulevards when arguing which city is best. No, that would be sports.

Sports is the arena in which Kansas City's glories have been most past and most faded. Though Kansas City is frequently said by national sports broadcasters to have some of the best and most passionate sports fans, until recently, our sports teams have given us little to be fans of. The Chiefs last went to the Super Bowl in 1970 (they won). And until this year, the Royals last playoff appearance was in 1985, when they won the World Series. But things are beginning to turn around.

Kansas City has endured these long years of sports tepidity with sighs and sheepish smiles, because Kansas Citians are nothing if not pleasant and patient. Now, it seems our patience has paid off. And not just in sports.

During those years our sports teams wandered aimlessly in the desert of mediocrity, the rest of the city was busy building a better Kansas City.

It started in the Crossroads, quite organically, in old abandoned factories and warehouses on the southwestern edge of the city's downtown. Because the spaces were large and the rents were small, starting in the early 90s, these buildings became the studios and homes of a growing number of artists and craftspeople. The Crossroads Arts District is now a vital and vigorous community of independent galleries, restaurants, shops, bars and makers' spaces.

On the first Friday of every month, the streets and sidewalks of the neighborhood overflow with art, music and libation well into the wee hours. Because the creative vibe is so strong, the district has also become home to several national and international advertising, architecture and tech firms, and to the people who work in them.

Adjacent to the Crossroads, to the west, is Boulevard Brewing Company, a homegrown internationally award-winning craft brewery and host of Boulevardia, an annual local craft beer, music and maker festival that attracts tens of thousands of visitors.

To the north and east of the arts district is a resurrected and reenergized downtown, anchored by Sprint Center, a sparkling new 19,000 seat arena, host of NCAA basketball tournament games, and concerts of every genre.

Across the street is the Power and Light entertainment district, a bustling bunch of bars and bistros.

A few blocks farther west is the Kauffman Performing Arts Center. The Moshe Safdie-designed, two-theater, 3,400-seat architectural masterpiece is home to the Kansas City Symphony, the Kansas City Ballet and the Lyric Opera of Kansas City. It easily stands as a peer beside the Sydney Opera House or the Bilbao Guggenheim.

Music remains central to Kansas City's identity. Our thriving indie music scene rivals that of Austin, Texas, in its quality and diversity. Old school blues roadhouses abound, and there are more than a dozen nightclubs featuring live jazz, including the Blue Room -- one of the nation's best -- which also happens to be the live performance space of the American Jazz Museum, located in the heart of the 18th & Vine Historic District.

Next door to the Jazz Museum is the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, an absolutely must-visit destination for baseball lovers.

How does Kansas City fare in rankings?
In October, Travel + Leisure magazine's website published the results of its annual America's Favorite Cities poll. The poll's 50,000 participants ranked Kansas City in the top five in 19 of the "Best Of" categories, including the following.
Category Kansas City's rank
Top Cities Overall 3rd
Art Scene 4th
Free Attractions 3rd
Galleries 5th
Affordability 1st
Cleanliness 3rd
Good Drivers 1st
Peace and Quiet 2nd
Friendliness 4th
Geeky 5th
Dive Bars 4th
Craft Beer 2nd
Notable Restaurants 5th
*San Francisco was ranked in the top five in only five of Travel + Leisure's "Best Of" categories.

But Kansas City isn't just a nice place to visit -- it's a great place to live. It can't claim mountains or beaches, but it's hilly and green, friendly and fun, with more free attractions for families than almost any other city in the country. The cost of living is low, and the quality of life is high, with nationally ranked schools and world-class healthcare (especially cardiac care). The economy is robust and diversified, with plenty of traditional manufacturing jobs, and a burgeoning technology sector, with international giants such as Sprint and Cerner leading the way, followed by dozens of smaller, entrepreneurial startups. It's no accident that Kansas City was chosen for the roll out of Google Fiber.

Finally, and not least importantly, for residents and visitors alike, Kansas City is a foodie's paradise. Kansas City is home to several James Beard Award-winning chefs and restaurants and has been recognized by Saveur, Food + Wine and Bon Appetit magazines, among others, for the innovation and excellence of its culinary culture. There are several farmers' markets in the metro, in addition to small local farms who grow and produce organic and artisanal food for area restaurants and consumers.

Then, of course, there's barbecue; a glory both past and present. Kansas City's barbecue history is both deep and wide, dating back more than 150 years. All of America's distinct regional barbecue traditions found a second home in Kansas City, making Kansas City the Barbecue Capital of the World. There are nearly 100 barbecue joints in the metropolitan region, more than in any other city. The world's biggest, baddest barbecue competition, the American Royal BBQ contest, is held here every October, featuring more than 500 teams vying for the crown.

Kansas City's love of barbecue says something about the character of the people who call this place home. It takes a long time to make good barbecue. You can't rush it. Patience is required. But when it's done and ready to eat, it's worth the wait. Kansas Citians know how to wait for the good times to come back around.

And come around they have. Our Royals have swept into the World Series, and they've taken the whole town with them. It'd be tempting to describe the vibe at The K with superlatives like "electric" or "supercharged," but the operative word is not an adjective. It's a noun: "joy." For us, the Kansas City fans who have longed for this for 29 years, the joy comes not from finally being here deep in October, but from watching the pure joy these boys so clearly and deeply share in playing this game. There's satisfaction in winning. But there's joy in playing with abandon and playing from the heart.

After every Royals victory at The K, the Beatles' version of the song "Goin' to Kansas City" is blasted through the stadium sound system. All of Kansas City sings along. We sing it from the heart, with abandon. We sing it with joy. "I'm goin' to Kansas City! Gonna get my baby back home! Yeah, yeah! Well, it's a long, long, time!"

After a somewhat spotty career in journalism, Doug Worgul is now writer-in-residence and director of marketing at Oklahoma Joe's (soon to be Joe's Kansas City) Bar-B-Que, in Kansas City. He is also author of Thin Blue Smoke (Burnside Books, 2012), a novel about baseball, the blues and barbecue.

Kansas City Royals