Here’s why a 93-year-old World War II veteran won’t stop going to KC Royals games
By SAM MELLINGER | The Kansas City Star | Published: September 30, 2019
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (Tribune News Service) — No offense to the rest of you, but the most interesting Royals fan in the stadium is four rows behind the home team’s dugout, on the aisle, and he’s talking about the time he went spikes up into second base and ripped the pants of the shortstop who would eventually become a hit man in the Kansas City mob.
“He was just a kid then,” Harry McLear said. “I didn’t give a (spit).”
Then he laughs, and if you weren’t hooked on McLear already you will be the first time you hear that laugh. It starts low and grows, this 93-year-old man with the spontaneous and infectious laugh of a child.
The Royals are bad. They have lost 100 games for the second year in a row. There are some interesting pieces, and the pitching prospects should start their Kansas City promotions next summer. But, mostly, this is a bad team playing out the string.
Some of us are simply hooked, though. You can see a lot of the same faces around the ballpark on any night. By now, if you ask them how they’re doing, they’ll answer with the number of games remaining, like a schoolboy counting down the days until summer.
At times, it can make you wonder. The Royals have averaged 18,509 fans this season, fewer than all but four teams. The number has dropped in September, and the question isn’t why aren’t more people going. The question is why are this many people spending their free time on a bad team?
Well, McLear is one of those people. He signed with the New York Yankees from a tryout at KC’s old Municipal Stadium in 1943 but never played. His country needed him in World War II. He believes he is one of many whose life was saved by Truman’s decision to drop the bomb.
McLear broke Army protocol to take a picture of the surrendering Japanese general, steered his ship back to the States under the Golden Gate bridge, got into investment banking, raised seven kids with his wife of 68 years, and lived a bit of a Forrest Gump-ish life that included golf with Payne Stewart, a soda with Muhammad Ali and a side job as consult to Morocco.
He has shaken hands with two kings, two presidents and Satchel Paige. He remains sharp as a tack, with his spare time currently consumed with building an autism ranch in the Arizona Mountains he will name after his son.
Or, at least, his spare time that’s not here at the ballpark. His is one of about 200 original season-ticket accounts, and he’s enough a part of the scenery that he and a vendor named Archie go back four decades.
“You want to know why I’m here?” McLear asked. “It’s this right here. The contest between the pitcher and the batter. You watch it enough, you can kind of guess along with it. That’s what I do. If the guy has a good changeup, or slider, ‘OK, throw it now.’”
Baseball gives back what you put in. That’s one of the beauties of the sport for those of us who love it, and if we’re honest, it’s one of the hurdles the sport must clear in the modern world.
The rest of the world is instant. Baseball takes time. Part of why football long ago became America’s real pastime and passion is that it’s intrinsically built for the new world: The action is quick, the highlights plenty, the violence inherent and the betting easy.
Baseball has none of that. You can be into strikeouts, but the allure is lessened with so many of them. You can wait for home runs, but even as the league set another record this year it’s still fewer than three per game between both teams. That’s less than one per hour, which is a lot of waiting.
In some ways, the modern world has made it harder to find moments of wonder. You have to search for them and then recognize them and then appreciate them, which brings us to a game we watched together last month when rain came down from a clear blue sky.
McLear’s eyes widened, his palms went up to feel the drops, and he turned around to watch everything around him.
“Can you believe that?” he yelled. “I never would’ve believed that! I’ve never seen that!”
A few things about McLear’s fandom. He’ll admit that the games are not as fun now as they used to be, and not just because it’s harder to get up and down the steps.
Oh, and he never did care for manager Ned Yost. That’s actually how I met McLear. He first emailed me seven years ago. The Royals lost a lot of games in 2012, and they earned a critical column or four. McLear wrote in to say I should’ve been harder on “Ed Yost,” and as the emails kept coming (30 so far) it became clear that McLear wouldn’t regret the typo.
So, McLear’s fandom is not absolute — but it is pure. He and former first base coach Rusty Kuntz used to have a bit of an unspoken agreement. If McLear saw a kid with a glove and no luck getting a ball, well, by the sixth or seventh inning McLear would lock eyes with Kuntz.
“How many do you need? Kuntz would say, and McLear might put up two fingers. Together, they’d make some kids’ days.
McLear, on the secret to marriage: “Know when to walk away.”
McLear, on the secret to a long life: “Laughter is damned important. That’s really important. So is a martini with two olives.”
He used to cheer then-Royals outfielder Nori Aoki in Japanese, a leftover skill from the year he spent with the 7th Cavalry in the occupation of Japan. And he loves Hunter Dozier. Something about how he holds his hands in his stance, and the way he seems to compete on every pitch.
He threw out the first pitch before Game 4 of the 2015 AL Division Series against the Astros. That was Johnny Cueto’s start, and McLear spent a few days trying to mimic the pitcher’s stalled windup. He’s asked if his pitch was a strike.
And for the first and only time of the night, he hangs his head in shame.
“No,” he said. “On one bounce. I was really mad at myself. I didn’t want to throw it over his head. So I eased up, and it cost me.”
There aren’t many regrets, and how could there be? It’s a good life. He’s been lucky, and he’s also made some of his own luck.
This ballpark is his living room. He’s seen the place change dramatically, from turf to grass, from digital scoreboard to hi-def. His seat has been swapped out many times over the years as he’s watched Piniella and Otis and Wilson and Brett and White and Sweeney and Beltran and Cain and Moustakas.
That’s why he keeps coming, long after nearly everyone who joined him for opening day in 1969 is gone. It’s not just because he’s always come. It’s because he’s always enjoyed coming.
He’s already talking about next season. He bet a friend about Bubba Starling.
“I really want this guy to make it,” McLear said. “But he’s got to change his batting stance. His feet are too wide. They couldn’t change him now, but I bet they change him before next year.”
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