COVID-19 hits Royals hard

Rick Hummel St. Louis Post-Dispatch (TNS)
Kansas City Royals center fielder Bubba Starling (R) congratulates teammate first baseman Ryan O'Hearn after hitting a home run off Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Shane Bieber in the third inning, August 25, 2019, at Progressive Field.

In the 60-game sprint that forever will be known as the Coronavirus Season, Kansas City Royals manager Mike Matheny warned not to be surprised by any outcome, even to the point that his own team, a 100-game loser in each of the past two seasons, would have a shot.

"I think everybody would agree," said Matheny, "that there are going be some teams in baseball that will just shock you because of the odd nature of the season. So I would say 100 percent (that the Royals could contend for a title). We don't run around making T-shirts about it. But we've had those conversations. Why not us?

"We don't know the virus and how it works for a season and how it can run through a clubhouse. We've had more than our share of challenges with it already. There are going to be some teams that are going to get hit real hard.

"We don't know what's ahead but we're going to prepare to be a team that's going to surprise a whole lot of people. You know how I'm wired. I expect us to contend. We've got a really impressive collection of talent around here and some really impressive talent on the way, so let's start changing the way they think."

But, as the former Cardinals manager indicated, his team is off to a fast start in the wrong department - most COVID-19 cases.

"I don't think a team's been hit harder than we have," said Matheny, who will return to Busch Stadium as a manager on Wednesday for an exhibition game for the first time since he was fired in July, 2018, by the Cardinals.

"We've had our No. 1 and No. 2 starters go down," he said, referring to Brad Keller and Jakob Junis, both of whom went on the injured list. "We've had our starting All-Star catcher (Salvador Perez, who is back), our starting first baseman (Ryan O'Hearn) and our No. 2-3-4 catchers all go down."

Their manager already had gone down in April. Mike and wife Kristin Matheny both contracted the virus after a family member was exposed to it. As soon as they found out, the Mathenys left three grown sons at home and took off for the lake house to quarantine there and not affect the rest of the family.

"She's apparently much tougher than I am," said Matheny.

"I had a couple of tough weeks. It wasn't that big a deal where I had to go the hospital. But I had about all of the symptoms except loss of smell and taste. The rest of them hit me and hung on longer than I thought they would

"I could see where it would be really scary for people who aren't less than 50 years old (Matheny will be 50 in September). It was the lack of energy, the fever and the chills and all that stuff but mostly it was the lungs that really concerned me. I was worried that I wouldn't be able to breathe right again."

Later, Matheny said he tested positive for the antibody. But he still practices caution, even to the point of not staying at his own house Tuesday night here after the Royals arrived in town. He stayed in the more controlled environment of the team hotel.

"Staying away from the family stinks ... but we're just trying to go to any length we can to be responsible about this," Matheny said.

Matheny said he had the same fire for managing that he had with the Cardinals, for whom he never had a losing record in seven seasons, with four postseason visits, including a World Series.

"I loved every day I had this seat while I was over there," he said Tuesday. "I knew I was going to miss it, but I was surprised how quick I missed it."

In November, 2018, Matheny was added as an assistant to the general manager and he said, "I kind of got that baseball fix while I was still able to have that time with the family."

Before he was hired as the Royals' manager a year or so later, Matheny went back to the classroom, officially and unofficially.

"I wanted to define weaknesses where I could improve," he said. "I started my Master's in organizational leadership, because I had time. This is a leadership position. People can make fun of that statement however they want. It's baseball, yes. But it's people."

Then he talked to folks he trusted - in the game and out of it. "I sought their feedback on areas I need to improve on," he said.

One of those, he said, was media relations. "How can this be done better?" he wanted to know. His media relations on Tuesday were off the charts.

While Matheny tended to various roster issues and a player's personal problem among other things in his office, he called a reporter back five times to complete an interview before the Royals took the field for a game in Kansas City.

Matheny said he was consulted on whether he would like to play an exhibition game at Busch. The teams will exchange home-and-home three-game series in August and September.

"Ideally," he said, "you wouldn't want to play a team you're going to play six times during the season but I know all of our fans on both sides of the state want to see some real competition and get this thing going."

Matheny won't - and can't - hug people and shake hands on Wednesday but he said, "I've tried to explain to people that I'm incredibly grateful for every day I had over there. I'm trying so hard not to say St. Louis.

"It's always my fear. It's hard when you've spent almost seven years as a manager and five as a player. That's been my home. I've almost had to train myself so I don't actually say it when I'm trying to say Kansas City.

"It was such a great experience. But it was time (to go), obviously. And I couldn't be happier than where I am now."

"I've had some great memories there. We had some great runs, won a lot of games. Brought some joy, I believe, to Cardinal Nation, at times, and a lot of times that weren't as good, but that's part of the game."

"Overall, it was a life-changing experience to be the manager there."

Cardinals manager Mike Shildt, who was Matheny's bench coach in 2018, thanked Matheny for the opportunity to join the staff and said, "It will be good to welcome Mike back to the ballpark."

Said Matheny, "I've got deep respect for everybody who was part of that ride. They're just good people and there are some friendships that will go long beyond me wearing that jersey."

Streaming success

After seeing the success of other teams that put their intrasquad games online, the Cardinals enlisted broadcaster Dan McLaughlin to do the same for St. Louis, and the response was enthusiastic -- and an education in the outreach possibilities of streaming events. The first intrasquad game had nearly 80,000 views, an official with the broadcast said, and the audience was steady through the fifth intrasquad game broadcast Tuesday. The telecasts shift back to Fox Sports Midwest for Wednesday's game.

"It was important to get Cardinals baseball back on the air because it has been missed so much," said McLaughlin. "When (the Cardinals) called me, to borrow a popular phrase, I said, 'When and where?' During this pandemic, the Cardinals and the DeWitts treated me and others with compassion and concern. I'll never, ever forget it."