Royals' Matheny says it's like Christmas on first day

By Lynn Worthy
The Kansas City Star/TNS
Kansas City Royals pitcher Brady Singer works against the St. Louis Cardinals on Sept. 22, 2020, at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, MO.

SURPRISE, Ariz. - The ongoing pandemic fueled plenty of doubts this winter about an on-time start to the Major League Baseball season. But those qualms faded into the background and gave way to the THWACK of the ball jumping off the bat of Kansas City Royals star catcher Salvador Perez and over a fence on Monday afternoon in Arizona.

Most of the sights and sounds of spring training were definitely present at the Royals complex in Surprise. However, those familiar features were somewhat muted by the unique steps taken to try to protect the health of everyone involved as MLB gets set to embark on a six-month, 162-game endeavor.

Still, the first full-squad workout served as a benchmark for the nation's pastime and those who revel in it.

"It's like Christmas Day for baseball people, just the excitement of having everybody together," Royals manager Mike Matheny said. "There were a number of them that we hadn't seen yet first-hand."

Matheny

Spring training camp remains closed to the public this year because of COVID-19 restrictions.

Whereas in past years fans could attend, walk right up to backstops and watch Alex Gordon, Whit Merrifield, Adalberto Mondesi and a host of others taking batting practice or have line at-bats against Danny Duffy, Brad Keller, Greg Holland and any number of talented young pitchers, the first day took place in relative anonymity.

Those adults trying to get a gauge on this year's team as well as the children with excitement in their voices and awe in their eyes, they were absent. The closest thing to spectators were club employees, medical staff, a couple reporters, a photographer and Royals CEO and Chairman John Sherman - all wearing masks their entire time they were on site.

Even with 70 players plus coaches and staff taking part in workouts spread over at least six fields, the day had a quaint feeling.

"It's a little bit different, especially with the COVID situation," Perez said.

The players have been spread out over the two sides of the complex, making use of the minor league facilities to accommodate social distancing.

Players for the most part wore masks as they walked from one field to the next. At times on the field while not actively taking part in a drill, players were masked. Coaches and support staff kept their masks on the entire workout. Without all of the minor-league players in camp, there are fewer coaches on hand.

Head athletic trainer Nick Kenney doled out constant reminders if a player had a mask below his nose and/or mouth.

Players are spaced out in everything they do, including stretching. Matheny even gave two team addresses prior to the start of camp, one catered to the guys in each clubhouse.

"We know everybody's here," Perez said. "But today I was hitting live BP up top and when I looked around, there's only two or three guys. It's a little bit different, but I think it's good for us. Keep everybody healthy, safe. If you get COVID you're going to miss at least 10 days. If it stays in your body, maybe lose more days. We don't want that right now.

"You'll maybe see some empty spots, but everybody's here."

Even with all the health protocols, there were the markers of baseball beginning such as when wily veteran Holland ribbed batter Ryan McBroom about swinging at the first pitch in their live batting practice session or the noticeable added pop catcher Sebastian Rivero displayed to the pull side in batting practice.

There was the boisterous Nick Heath having what seemed like a running conversation with multiple teammates throughout the workout, newcomer Michael A. Taylor showcased some extraordinarily quick hands and wrists, and young right-handed pitcher Jon Heasley threw a nasty arsenal against bonafide big-league hitters just getting back into the swing of things, like Hunter Dozier.

Relay drills were still conducted. Cut-off throws were made. Bases were covered.

The right veterans

When asked about the mix of veterans and young players, Matheny made the distinction between just any veteran and the ones willing to share their knowledge.

"I just was out talking with Carlos Santana," Matheny said. "He was just talking about three different guys and he goes, 'I feel like I want to help this guy do this.' First day in this uniform and he's talking about 'How can I go help make people better?'

"I'm like, this is what I'm talking about."

Between Santana and pitcher Mike Minor, the Royals added a pair of former All-Stars with at least nine years in the majors. Santana is 34, and Minor is 33.

In outfielders Andrew Benintendi and Michael A. Taylor, the Royals added two players who've been on winning World Series clubs.

Adding another pitcher

The Royals announced they'd signed right-handed pitcher Brad Brach to a minor-league contract with an invitation to big-league camp.

The 34-year-old reliever has pitched in the majors for the San Diego Padres, Baltimore Orioles, Atlanta Braves, Chicago Cubs and New York Mets. He appeared in 14 games last season for the Mets and recorded a 5.84 ERA with 14 strikeouts, 14 walks and a 1.78 WHIP in 12 1/3 innings.