Commentator Victor Wishna attended his first Royals game as a toddler, and he was there in person to witness the final out of game seven of the World Series. But he'd never journeyed to where it all begins: spring training. That changed this week. Victor reports back from Surprise, Arizona, with this travelogue edition of 'A Fan's Notes.'
If, like me, you’ve never been to spring training, it’s quite a trip.
From the moment we arrive at the airport, the vibe is everywhere. It’s like walking through some massive mash-up of a corporate sales convention and Comic-Con, entire families dressed head to toe in the garb of their favorite players and teams.
At hotels, restaurants — public parks — the standard greeting among strangers isn’t “How do ya do?” but “How’d they do today?” One man, nodding towards me, even asks, “Hey, how’s the weather where you are?” as if I’m not standing five feet away. Then I remember I have “Kansas City” scripted in blue across my chest.
After driving for miles through sand-colored subdivisions and strip malls into a desert clearing, we see Sluggerrrr, about two stories high, welcoming us to Surprise, Arizona, spring-training home of the Kansas City Royals. In a couple hours, a mix of Royals all-stars, free agents, and rookies will match up with a similarly motley crew from Cleveland.
But really, we’re here to see much further into the future.
Stretching north from Surprise Stadium, along Buck O’Neill Way, there are seven practice fields.
At first, I spot some familiar faces, veterans leisurely taking batting practice, joking around. But as the fields get further away, the long-shots get longer.
If the whole complex is something of a Royals theme park, this is Tomorrowland. Besides the 63 jockeying for the Major League roster, more than 100 hopefuls are here for Minor League training, a mix of draftees, international signees, and youth academy alums.
The rebuild begins with them. After boasting the best farm system in baseball in 2011, the Royals are now without a single prospect on MLB.com’s Top 100 list, and so the fundamentals are … fundamental.
On one infield, a crush of beefy young men in catchers gear — nearly a dozen would-be Salvy Perezes — line up for dirtball drills. Across the way, young hitters lay down bunts and sprint for first, again and again. It all feels like a fantasy camp, except for young, athletic guys who still have all their hair and the prospect of making their fantasy into reality.
The coaches call for a switch, and suddenly we’re in the middle of a bright blue herd. As each player jogs around us, I do my best to remember the name on the back of his jersey — you know — so when one of them becomes the Royals’ next World Series MVP in 2023, I can remind my kids that we were right there when it all began.
Yes, it’s as corny as a diamond in a cornfield but, in this cactus-dotted landscape, perhaps the more apt cliche is an oasis, a little patch of hope and in the desert of unfulfilled big-league dreams.
For many of these guys this will be as good as it gets before the looming rounds of cuts.
“Two weeks ’til the grim reaper comes,” as one minor-league trainer tells me. Some players may be picked up and absorbed into other clubs’ farm systems, he says, but most will just head home.
By game time, the stadium — which can hold 10,000, including the sunny center field lawn — is about half full. It’s a throwback to what most Royals games used to be like: a beautiful day, a beautiful field, a little peace and quiet, the chirping of the birds interrupted by the occasional cheer.
It’s a blend of past, present, and — of course — future. I think I see Willie Wilson — yeah, I do! — and there’s John Mayberry, and Dennis Leonard, all signing autographs.
Alex Gordon is on the field today. So are Salvy and Esky. But the percolating storylines belong to newcomers like the deceptively armed and delightfully named rookie pitcher Richard Lovelady. Or the newly signed Michael Saunders, looking to break back in to the bigs, just two years removed from an All-Star season with the Blue Jays.
And then, of course, what would a weekend in Surprise be without something unexpected?
With Mike Moustakas returning to Kansas City, I guess the Moose is not loose.
All in all, I think spring training is the best way to see big-time sports on a completely human scale. It might be a thousand miles away, but I've never felt closer to the game.
Victor Wishna is a writer, editor, and sports fan. He lives in Leawood.