Dispatches from Kansas City: “Anything cool I did as a teenager, I did in western Missouri…”

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It’s about a four-hour drive from my house in St. Louis to Missouri’s western border with Kansas, where the coolest town in the United States sits with quiet confidence. I made the trip last night, cruising freely along a trafficless stretch of Highway 70 and arriving a little after 9 p.m. with a duffel bag, a laptop and a press credential to the 2012 All-Star Game and the five days of festivities that surround it.

From now until Wednesday morning I’ll be your official Kansas City correspondent, filing regular reports from barbecue joints, watering holes, back porches and the Royals’ Kauffman Stadium as Major League Baseball puts on its annual Midsummer Classic in a place I consider a second home. There will be pomp. There will be exhibition baseball. There will be stained dress shirts and Boulevard Wheat.

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To loosely butcher one of the Counting Crows’ truly decent songs — yeah, they’ve written a few — there’s something about Kansas City that just kills me. I love its care-free, hard-working, fun-loving people. I love its neighborhoods, where no two homes look alike and oak trees are encouraged to grow over the streets. And I love that its most celebrated local traditions — jazz, the blues and barbecue — are uniquely American.

Writing these posts won’t feel like work. It’ll feel like treasure-hunting in a familiar place, then sharing the booty with the readership here on HBT.

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I was raised in a fashion common for a St. Louis suburbanite — Catholic grade school, Catholic high school, then on to a Catholic college. My summers were spent attending different forms of regimented camp, playing catcher in sweltering, error-filled baseball games and trying to shoulder-tap for Natural Light 18-packs on the weekends. Which made me appreciate my twice-yearly visits to Kansas City (for Thanksgiving at my Uncle Chuck and Aunt Mardi’s and a Memorial Day festival called The Pig Roast) more than I might have otherwise. Anything cool I did as a teenager, I did in western Missouri with my cousins Jake, Monica and Joe-Joe.

source:  Thanksgiving in Kansas City taught me about venison and made-from-scratch stuffing and living off the land. The Pig Roast introduced me to bluegrass, beer kegs and bonfires, and opened my eyes to the vast difference between “grilled” meat and authentic BBQ. I got to shoot hunting rifles and I got to ride ATVs. And it wasn’t bedtime until I was tired.

My cousin Jake is 24 years old, just a few months younger than I. He grew up playing the guitar and the fiddle. He fishes commercially for catfish in the summer and he kills deer with a bow in the winter.

During a family trip to Cape Cod when we were both 11, Jake swam from the shore to a private sail boat deep in the bay because I questioned whether it could be done. We drank Boulevard Wheat drafts and ate a plate of the world’s best hot wings last night at The Peanut on 50th and Main — the kind of bar that makes you feel stupid for living, eating or drinking anyplace else.

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The first time I tried the wings at The Peanut, I had a minor coughing fit. Primarily from the cracked black pepper in the sauce but also in utter astonishment at the taste of things. They’re massive and meaty, and come with a side of house bleu cheese that is made from simple, fresh ingredients — not choked out of some plastic salad dressing bottle. That’s what the KC that I know is all about. Don’t take shortcuts. Do things well or don’t do them at all.

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MLB’s schedule of All-Star-related events begins today with the opening of FanFest at the Kansas City Convention Center. I’ll hit that up tomorrow morning. Sunday is the Futures Game and Legends & Celebrity Softball Game. Monday is the Home Run Derby and on Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. ET is the main event.

I’ll be there for all of it while exploring the charms of this city in between. These are my dispatches from KC.

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Check out Part TwoPart ThreePart FourPart Five and Part Six of this series.

What in the heck is Derek Jeter doing with the Marlins?

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Last night we linked the Miami Herald story about the Marlins firing special assistants Jeff Conine, Andre Dawson, Tony Perez and Jack McKeon. Let’s talk about that a little bit.

The firings themselves are eyebrow-raising inasmuch as “special assistants” like that are rarely key front office personnel. Former players, Hall of Famers and former managers like those guys are really ambassadors for the team and, particularly in the case of Jeff Conine, who is known as “Mr. Marlin,” why would new ownership want to kick its ambassadors to the curb? It’s not like you can just hire a bunch of new franchise legends for he role. Who ya gonna call? Dan Uggla?

Sure, I can see an argument for changing their responsibilities. If they actually had say in baseball operations, I can see new ownership wanting to relieve them of those duties. It’s also possible that Jeff Loria paid them too much money for guys who are only team ambassadors. So, sure, if the job is too cushy by the standards of the gig, I could see Jeter cutting their pay or their duties to make it conform to what other clubs do with their former stars. Maybe that makes them want to quit. If so, that’s OK I suppose.

Beyond that, however, it’s hard to see why you would NOT want guys like Conine, Dawson, Perez and McKeon to represent your club in the community and in the service of impressing prospective season ticket holders. The franchise’s first star player, a Hall of Famer who ended his career with the club, another Hall of Famer who is from Cuba (which is kind of a big deal in a place like Miami) and the manager who brought the club its last World Series championship are exactly who you want to represent your team. Especially when nearly everything else about your team has, for so very long, alienated the very public you want supporting it.

But let’s say, for the moment, that there was a good reason to fire those guys. Let’s say they’re all flaming jackwagons who have secretly poisoned the franchise from within. Let’s say that, despite his grandfatherly charm, Jack McKeon is a ruthless Machiavellian. Let’s say that Conine, Dawson and Perez beat up copy boys in the stairwells and microwave leftover fish in the break room every day. Even if that’s the case, how does this happen?

And here’s the twist: Jeter asked Marlins president David Samson to fire those four Marlins luminaries for him, because Jeter didn’t want to do it.

Even more strange, Jeter made the request after telling Samson what he already knew: that Samson would not be returning as team president.

It seems that Samson did carry out the firings. Unless some handsome severance package was being held hostage over it, I’m not sure how Samson doesn’t tell Jeter, “Hey Captain RE2PECT, know what? Up yours, you do it yourself.” Of course, one can only project one’s own sensibility on a guy like David Samson so much, so let’s cut him a bit of slack here. We don’t know how the conversation went. Maybe Samson was happy to tell those guys to hit the bricks.

But really, how doesn’t Jeter man-up and handle this himself? It’s not because he’s not yet officially the owner, because if he has the power to fire Samson, he has the power to fire Conine and his friends. Maybe there is more to this than the Herald story lets on, but as it stands now, it comes off as cowardice on Jeter’s part. It’s a really bad look.

I’ll be curious to see how this plays in the baseball establishment over the next couple of days. Everyone — particularly the press — loves Derek Jeter an credits him with a class, smoothness and media savvy matched by few others. This, though, was either (a) a failure of class and an act of disrespect to baseball luminaries; or (b) a complete bungling of public relations, serving to make what was, in reality, a reasonable move appear classless. It has to be one or the other.

Derek Jeter has been a teflon star for more than two decades, but two of the few things the media loves more than Derek Jeter are (a) old Baseball Men like McKeon, Dawson, Perez and Conine; and (b) “classiness.” It’ll be interesting to see if, for the first time in his professional life, the media gets its knives out for Derek Jeter for seeming content to dispense with both.

Dodgers top Giants, clinch fifth straight NL West title

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The Dodgers are NL West champions for the fifth time in a row. They clinched with a 4-2 win over the Giants on Friday night, taking their first and only lead on a mammoth record-breaking home run from Cody Bellinger in the third inning.

Rich Hill turned in another quality start, going six innings with five hits, a run and nine strikeouts to keep the Giants at bay. He tacked on an RBI hit of his own, too, lashing a double to left field for his first extra-base hit since 2007.

The Giants, meanwhile, deployed Jeff Samardzija and his 4.42 ERA for 4 1/3 innings. Samardzija was on the hook for the Dodgers’ four-run spread in the third and took his 15th loss of the season. Pablo Sandoval came through with a solo home run in the ninth, but the rest of San Francisco’s offense wasn’t so lucky against Kenley Jansen, who struck out the side to clinch the game — and the division.

After Friday’s showstopper, the Dodgers are just two wins away from their first 100-win season since 1974. If they win the remaining eight games of the season, they’ll beat out the 1953 Brooklyn Dodgers for the most wins in franchise history.