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.

Mike Trout says Harper and Machado’s free agency experience sent up “red flags”

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Mike Trout signed a record-setting contract extension last week, agreeing to ten more years tacked on to his existing deal at $35.45 million a year. It’s certainly nothing to sneeze at and, I’m quite sure, Trout will not lose any sleep over financial matters for the rest of his days.

One wonders, though, what he might’ve commanded had he hit free agency. If he had been bid on by more than one team. Sure, there is some upward limit to how much even a guy of Trout’s caliber might get, but you have to assume that if a couple more teams were able to get in on that action that that $35.45 million a year could’ve been topped.

Did he give any thoughts to testing the market? Maybe not serious ones, but he certainly observed the market this past winter and didn’t much care for what he saw. He said this to Fabiran Ardaya of The Athletic last night:

“I kind of saw what Bryce and Manny went through and it drew a red flag for me. I talked to Manny and Bryce. It was a tough couple months in the offseason. They put it perspective in my mind.”

He added, “I obviously want to be an Angel for life. That was a big key,” so it’s not like this was purely some matter of Trout being scared off the market. But it’s also the case that the market has become fraught for even the best players in the game and has influenced their decision making to a considerable degree. Part of Mike Trout’s decision to sign that deal was how unwelcoming the free agent market looked like it’d be even for him.

And it’s not just Trout. To see how unpalatable free agency has become one need merely look at the bevy of contract extensions agreed to over the past week or two. Each one of those, however lucrative they may be, represent a player foregoing the open market in favor of negotiating with a single bidder with greater leverage as a result. While some of those choices, like Trout’s, do not cost the players much more than, perhaps, some rounding error on his ultimate contract, others, like pre-arbitration players, are likely foregoing tens of millions of dollars in order to make a deal now instead of a few years later. And, of course, each team that signs a player to an extension is less likely to be active in an upcoming free agency period, reducing the number of bidders and thus applying downward pressure on salaries for those players who do hit the open market.

For the first century or so of baseball history the Reserve Clause ruled baseball economics. Under that system, a team which possessed the rights to a player could not be deprived of that player’s services if it did not want to be. When it came time to decide what to pay a player only one team could bid, giving it all the leverage. Then free agency came. Owners fought like hell against its implementation. They lost that battle and then attempted to roll it back as much as they could, even employing illegal tactics at times in an effort to do so, but they didn’t have much luck.

In the past two or three years, however, they have done what decades of efforts could not do: they have effectively taken away a full and open free market for players and have returned the game to a state in which the team which holds a players’ rights is, effectively, the only bidder for his services and has the power to retain him on favorable terms.

It’s not the restoration of the old reserve clause, exactly, but when the best player in baseball since Willie Mays is wary of the open market, you have to admit that it’s far, far closer to it than anyone thought the owners would ever get.