Royals caravan

A young Terry Jordan, left, interviews Paul Splittorff, center, and Steve Busby at the old Holiday Inn during the 1974 Royals Caravan stop in St. Joseph.

Steve Busby, Paul Splittorff, Hal McRae and Dennis Leonard answered questions from reporters. Fred Patek and Frank White put on baseball clinics at Missouri Western.

It was the 1970s, and the Royals caravans were rolling.

Early February — right about this time — always meant that members of the Kansas City club would hop in a van and head north to St. Joseph to drum up support for the approaching season. It may have been a dreary winter day outside, but when the Royals came to town, you knew spring couldn’t be far behind.

“I thought, ‘Man, this is great,’” said Wes Lukoshus, the News-Press sports writer who interviewed Hal McRae at the old Holiday Inn on the 1975 tour. Less than a year before, Lukoshus had been a senior at Culver-Stockton College in Canton, Missouri, and the News-Press job was his first after graduation.

“I loved the fact that St. Joe was able to rub shoulders with the Kansas City teams,” said Lukoshus, who retired last year as assistant vice chancellor of media relations at Purdue University-Northwest in Indiana.

The year before, I had been on the sports desk and interviewed pitchers Steve Busby and Paul Splittorff on the ’74 tour. Like Lukoshus, I felt honored to have a job where I could talk to players of that stature (“They pay me for this? Wow!”).

At the 1976 Caravan, Tom Domalski used his ingenuity to snag an interview with Dennis Leonard. “A bunch of the Royals came up that year, and the other reporters were gathered around them,” said Domalski, who is semi-retired after a long stint with the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer.

“Leonard was standing off by himself, looking kind of lonely. I thought, I bet I can get a good interview with him.” He did.

The next year, Freddie Patek was the star of the show, putting on a baseball clinic at Missouri Western and speaking to students at Spring Garden Middle School. In ’78, Frank White and Darrell Porter hosted a clinic and spoke at Truman Middle School.

Little by little, though, things changed. The Caravans evolved from media events to opportunities for fan interaction. By 1987, when George Brett spoke to students at Bishop LeBlond High School, it wasn’t even billed as a Caravan. He came here with Royals officials, signed autographs, answered questions from the audience and gave the LeBlond Booster Club a crisp $100 bill.

The emphasis on fan interaction continues and is stronger than ever. Cody Thorn, former News-Press sports editor and now editor/publisher of the Platte County Citizen, notes that the Royals have a two-day Fan Fest, which was held recently at the KC Convention Center.

The event is popular, drawing thousands who pay an admission fee to have the chance to meet their favorite players and get autographs. It’s a moneymaker for the Royals, who sell ball caps, T-shirts and other memorabilia at the event.

“Moving to something like this is a trend in the majors,” Thorn said. “I’m in Chicago right now, and the Cubs are having their fan fest this weekend. The Cardinals have one. “It’s great if you can travel and afford it. But I kind of miss the old days.”

Tony Marsola, who retired last year after a long career with Hillyard Industries, is one of those superfans who love the Fan Fest. He goes every year.

“They have interactive exhibits, I can meet the players and get autographs, there’s even displays on the old Negro League,” said Marsola, who has collected dozens of Royals artifacts over the years, from baseballs to framed portraits to caps. “It’s great.”