Have you ever dreamed of trotting up a set of stairs out of a dugout onto a Major League Baseball field? I have. Ever since I was a youngster, and attended my very first Major League game in the Kingdome in 1989, I dreamed of being a Major League Baseball player. Maybe it was lack of effort, or lack of support, or maybe I didn’t dream big enough or pursue my dreams hard enough. It never happened. Now I’m a thirty-something, die-hard baseball fan. I’ve played some organized scrimmage games of baseball with friends, and occasionally throw the ball around with buddies from work. That’s as close to the action as I’ll ever get.
Nowadays, when I go to baseball games, I’m generally the first one in when the gates open. I always bring my glove, and I patrol the outfield bleachers waiting on my chance to catch a batting practice home run ball. I scavenge the foul areas looking for any baseballs missed by stadium employees, and I almost always get my ticket signed by any baseball player willing to sign it. I’m a baseball fanatic, I’ll admit. I love the game. I read the box scores nightly, and I’m a statistics nerd. It’s my passion to connect myself to such a wonderful sport. Over the years, I have amassed quite a collection. I have one of Dustin Ackley’s batting gloves, I have nearly 400 (375 to be exact) Major League Baseballs that I have caught at over 150 live MLB games (including a foul ball caught at the Oakland Colliseum) I have over 25 autographed tickets, I have countless bobbleheads, three signed baseball bats, (Eric Davis, Miguel Olivo and Jay Buhner) and many, many autographed baseballs. Plus, I have a wide collection of specially used commemorative Major League baseballs.
I’ve always considered myself decent at playing baseball. Once you step onto a Major League Field, and try to invest yourself in what some of these baseball players do day in and day out, you’ll find that your average, soft bodied baseball ego is nothing but sub-par. It takes an incredible skill to be able to hit the way some of these top hitters have crushed their way into the record books. It takes dedication, a premium work ethic to be able to pitch the way some of these athletes have pitched. The conditioning, the work outs, the drive and the sheer dedication to succeed just to make it to the Big Leagues is harder than you think.
The Kansas City Royals were gracious enough to allow a small group of eager fans like me to get out on to the field and partake in some batting practice. It was surreal. We met up with a small group of Kansas City Royals former players; Jamie Quirk, Dennis Leonard, Al Fitzmorris, Jerry Terrell, Greg Pryor, Les Norman, Shawn Sedlacek and John Mayberry in the Diamond Club suites. All this was set up by Mrs. Dina Blevins (Manager of Media Relations and Royals Alumni). We received a briefing and introduction of what to expect for the next four hours of our lives and then we were brought out onto the field through the Royals dugout.
From the bleachers, the field looks small. From the field, the field is enormous. I got to walk down the warning track out to right field with Al Fitzmorris as he told me a quick story of his playing days. He told me how his trainer (back in the day) use to run them from foul pole to foul pole. It doesn’t seem that far. When the Royals trainer came out and started to warm us up, he had us pick up a light jog from right field to left field. I decided to run it out. It’s actually pretty far. After our light warm-up, we paired up and took to the foul line in shallow right field and played catch for about ten minutes just like the Big League pitchers do before every game. After that, the first group lined up around the batting cage.
I jogged out to left field to shag some baseballs. Most of the hits barely made it out of the infield. We were a sorry bunch of amateurs in that batting cage. Some guys were able to smack some flares that would probably count for singles in a real game but most hits were swallowed up by the batting cage. I ran for just about everything, and I soon found out that the field is more than huge. It was massive. I sprinted after a line drive hit towards the corner, and as I was approaching the ball I thought I might have a chance to catch it. It seemed like I would run forever and still come up short. I soon learned that either A) I would somehow have to get faster or B) learn to read the ball off the bat sooner. That’s a skill I never acquired, and it is essential to running down well hit baseballs. Outfielders spend countless hours studying other players, watching videos, reading scouting reports, watching the pitch and watching the batters’ swing. Having all that knowledge on top of knowing where to stand and having great speed will bring you great success to running down line drives into the outfield. By the end of the day in the outfield, I had managed to remember who hits what and where, and I was able to make one running catch at Kauffman Stadium. It felt awesome to make that running catch. I looked up to the empty seats pretending I had just caught an inning ending catch and the crowd was cheering me on.
I finally slapped on a batting helmet, grabbed some lumber, and dug in inside the batting cage. I used a Jorge Soler bat to take my cuts. Al Fitzmorris was tossing BP to my group. The first pitch thrown to me, I made good contact and sent a short flare to left field. The next few were either fouled off or completely missed. I made excellent contact on the sixth pitch that boosted my confidence. I got a couple good compliments from Les Norman who was standing behind the cage giving pointers. The eighth pitch I fouled off. The ninth pitch was in on my hands but I drilled it out of the infield, and the tenth pitch I absolutely crushed it. And by “crushed it” I mean it landed about 15 feet shy of the warning track. I could feel how well I connected with the bat which prompted me to watch it fly which further prompted me to strut out of the batting cage like I had just taken Fitzmorris deep into the Royals bullpen. Such was not the case, though, and Les Norman rightfully put me in check:
“Hey, Fitzy! Did he just watch that one?” Norman yelled.
“Yeah, I think he did!” I started laughing as Fitzmorris and Norman ribbed me over my showboating. I was proud of myself. I hit that ball farther than expected, and it felt good to crush a baseball like that on a Major League level. Fitzmorris and Norman made it fun. They joked with us, told us stories and they really made it a special day. To have played as long as some of these guys have, to retire and still come back to the stadium to hangout with some fans was very commendable, and to me, it meant the world.
After taking some cuts in the cage, I trotted to the infield where Jerry Terrell and Shawn Sedlacek were hitting infield fungos. Fielding grounders looks like the easiest thing to do as a professional baseball player. I am here to tell you that it is not. It is probably the most difficult thing to master. Not to just master it but make it look easy. I tried to field the baseball my way. The way I have seen Major Leaguers do it for years. My fielding percentage was around 20%. I missed a lot and bobbled a lot of grounders. Jerry Terrell gave us pointers and brought us back to the basics and my fielding percentage climbed to about 60%. Still not good enough to be a pro player.
After failing miserably in the infield, I joined a small group who were busy taking fly ball fungos from Jamie Quirk. He would smack those baseballs with the fungo bat farther than most of us could hit out of the cage. He hit them over our heads, we’d chase them down, and try to throw the ball back to him. From center field to right field was quite a distance. After about three throws, my elbow started to hurt. The trick to fielding a fly ball is to turn away from the ball and run back a few paces until you get a good read on where the ball is projected to land. The wind started to pick up considerably so that impacted the trajectory quite a bit. Jamie Quirk was good, though. He could smack that ball with the fungo bat and drop the ball directly into your glove without you taking one step forward or one step back. It was incredible.
I have major respect for baseball players. These guys are tremendous athletes. When I’m at baseball games, I routinely hear from fans (mainly the drunk ones) that baseball players just “stand around a lot” and aren’t very physically active. These four hours on the field at Kauffman with the Royals alumni proved those statements to be very false. I already knew it took a lot to make it to the Big Show but after spending some time on the field shagging fly balls, taking grounders and getting a few cuts inside the cage, I understood that it takes a lifetime of determination, dedication, countless hours of work and there is constant failure looming over their heads. It is not an easy task to make it to the Big Leagues, and it’s an even harder task to stay in the Big Leagues. These guys have sacrificed a lot to make it to the pros, and that is truly defining what it means to gut it out. Thank you to the Alumni for being available to us dreamers of being on The Stage, a special thanks to Mrs. Dina Blevins for making this happen and a big thank you to the Royals organization, the grounds crew on hand and the trainers for taking care of us while we played Major Leaguer for a few hours. It was pretty cool.