Dispatches from Kansas City: “It’s a sea of tents and smoke”

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HardballTalk’s Drew Silva is filing regular stories from this year’s MLB All-Star Game festivities in Kansas City, Missouri. Check out Part One here.

“What’s the best barbecue joint in KC?” I asked my Aunt Mardi, foolishly, after getting in last night. “Our front porch when your uncle is home,” she replied in a tone that was matter-of-fact but deservedly so.

My Uncle Chuck can wow you with a simple grilled chicken thigh, prepared on a classic black Weber. Or knock your teeth out with a pork butt, smoked over low heat for nearly a full day in a cast-iron tank.

There are different kinds of people in every town — some who don’t necessarily involve themselves in local culture — but it seems like a good majority of the folks I’ve encountered in my 15-or-so visits to Kansas City have possessed a well-above-average knowledge base in the art of cooking meat. Having good ingredients is crucial — and the animals are indeed raised well around here — but it’s the technique that makes BBQ sing.

And that technique isn’t something that can be learned; you have to grow up doing it. In KC, it’s a hobby.

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Uncle Chuck is pulling lobsters along the tip of Massachusetts this summer, fulfilling a lifelong dream while waiting out a tough economy for sales people. He, along with my cousin Joe and Uncle Rick, hauled in 500 lbs. on Wednesday, a high-mark since they started dropping traps in May. I’m visiting them later this month.

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With no front-porch feast on the docket at the Silva house due to an absent pitmaster, I headed out on my own this afternoon. I wanted to hit up Oklahoma Joe’s — a favorite spot among the baseball beat writers I follow on Twitter — before the arrival of the rest of the Major League Baseball media horde later this weekend. Those lines are long enough on days when it’s just people from the neighborhood.

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“Okie Joe’s” has three locations, all on the Kansas side of town. I went to the one on 47th and Mission. It’s built into a gas station and it can be hard to find a good parking spot, but no one seems to notice or care.

Perhaps that’s because there’s a company-owned liquor store right next door. Convenience, after all, is king.

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I ordered a “Z-Man Sandwich, a side of fries and a side of beans,” while trying my best to sound and look like a frequent visitor. The Z-Man is a pile of sliced beef brisket, smoked provolone cheese and two hulking, flaky onion rings tucked into the center of a buttered kaiser roll. It’s the kind of concoction you’d slap together after a long night of drinking in college. Yet with meat that consistently medals in international barbecue competitions, including the American Royal which is held every October in an area of town called the West Bottoms. “It’s a sea of tents and smoke,” my cousin Jake says. He works on a team called Junkyard Barbecue, founded over 25 years ago by the Davis family — regional BBQ royalty.

The “Okie Joe’s” beans hit sweet and spicy notes simultaneously. They have the texture of chili and a finish like candy. The fries were as good as fries get, crispy but mushy. I washed it all down with a pink lemonade.

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Tonight, we drink. Jake has outlined a list of his favorite dive bars in the city — places where we might be laughed at for squeezing lemon slices into our glasses of Boulevard Wheat. Of course, we’ll do it anyway.

Tigers sign Josh Thole to minors deal

Josh Thole
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The Tigers signed catcher Josh Thole to a minor league deal, per an announcement from the Double-A Erie SeaWolves on Friday. Thole is expected to report to Double-A Erie, where he’ll split time with starting catcher Jake Rogers.

Thole, 31, has not appeared in a major or minor league game since 2016. He signed a minors deal with the Diamondbacks back in 2017, but was sidelined through most of the season after undergoing hamstring surgery in April. He was released by the team during spring training and failed to catch on with another major league club through the first two months of the 2018 season.

While the veteran backstop hasn’t tested his skills in pro ball for several years now, he held his own during a short-lived run with the independent New Britain Bees of the Atlantic League. Over 17 games in 2018, Thole batted .317/.425/.367 with three extra-base hits and a .791 OPS in 75 plate appearances. He’s expected to serve as catching depth within the Tigers’ organization, but may yet work his way back to the majors if he can get his average back over the Mendoza Line again — a feat he hasn’t managed since 2015.