By Lynn Worthy
The Kansas City Star
Spend 30 seconds around Nick Heath and his infectious exuberance, and you'll realize he can't help it. The Kansas City Royals minor-league outfielder exhibits a naturally boisterous personality in his interactions with teammates, coaches, support staff and reporters.
Going into the first major-league camp of his career and having no standing in the big leagues, Heath expected he'd need to figure out a way to squelch that energy and liveliness in order to blend into the background and fly under the radar of the established big-leaguers in the Royals' clubhouse.
Before the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic put the entire sports world on hold, Heath, 26, came into spring training as one of 25 players with no big-league experience who were invited to big-league camp with the Royals. That group made up more than a third of the players originally in camp for Mike Matheny's first camp as the club's manager.
"There were definitely some things that took me by surprise," Heath said during the last week of Cactus League play, before MLB suspended spring training. "One of those things was how well the veterans in our organization are taking us in."
One of the big question marks about former St. Louis Cardinals manager Matheny was what kind of environment he'd create for KC's young players. The clubhouse dynamic with the Cardinals became a hot topic after a report that reliever Bud Norris had bullied rookie reliever Jordan Hicks.
The organization and Hicks subsequently downplayed the report. But that situation gained new attention with Matheny taking over a relatively young and inexperienced Royals club.
The only evidence available at this point in Matheny's early tenure with the Royals comes in the form of spring training. Four weeks in, the Royals' established players seemed to embrace the youngsters as equals — guys they expect to play key roles in the near future.
Heath described the camaraderie and openness of the Royals' major-league veterans, and their effort to make the minor-leaguers feel like they belong, as "definitely something that caught me by surprise."
"When I'd come up here previously and you kind of run into some of those guys, they kind of just give you a head nod and keep going," Heath said. "Now you're up here for two or three weeks, four now, and these guys are asking us what our dinner plans are and if we want to come join them for dinner."
He's asking me?
Heath, a former 16th-round pick, earned a spot on the Royals' 40-man roster this winter. He led all of the minors in stolen bases last season, with 60, and garnered a promotion to Triple-A before the end of July.
Still, his approach for his first big-league camp was decidedly old school — keep your head down, don't say anything, listen up and don't stand out.
Instead, what Heath found was an All-Star, two-time MLB hits leader and former stolen-base champion — Whit Merrifield — asking him about his approach to the game.
"Whit asked me questions about base-stealing," Heath said. "I'm like why is he asking me questions? I should be asking him questions. You know what I mean? He said they did things a certain way last year. Asked me what I did in the minors last year. We kind of bounced ideas off each other."
Heath came away with a greater appreciation for what can be picked up from video study — in the minorsm he'd get a lot of his tells and cues from pitchers by watching closely from the dugout.
During Cactus League games, Merrifield sidled up next to him from time to time to discuss a certain pitcher's pick-off move or which ones threw over to first base frequently and which pitchers hated to throw over.
"We understand the talent that we have, but at the same time I'd never gotten to see Nick play before this year," Merrifield said, "I'd never gotten to see any of (the organization's top pitching prospects)."
For Merrifield, this was as much about finding out how Heath viewed the game as anything else. Merrifield wanted to understand Heath's mindset and thought process. He wanted to know if he was "just running to run and outrunning the ball."
One of us
Why did it matter to Merrifield?
In the case of guys like Heath, or the Royals' talented young starting pitching crop that includes highly rated prospects and first-round draft picks Brady Singer, Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar and Kris Bubic, Merrifield expects them to contribute to the big club sooner than later.
As far as accepting those young players, Merrifield pointed to the example set by predecessors such as Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer and Alex Gordon: They wouldn't allow hazing and set a tone that even the newcomers were viewed as "one of us."
Royals veteran pitcher Ian Kennedy didn't come up through the club's farm system, but he believes the clubhouse atmosphere and willingness for guys to get along has always been a strength here.
"It doesn't matter where you go in the clubhouse, winning or losing, our clubhouse has been pretty dang good," Kennedy said. "Fun guys to be around, go to dinner together. We know how talented the young guys are. Some of them got sent down, but they're going to be here at some time."
After his first Cactus League outing, Singer quipped that his locker was stuck in the corner but that he was happy to be where he was — tucked among Trevor Rosenthal and Jakob Junis and within shouting distance of Mike Montgomery and Danny Duffy. He just wanted to listen.
"I didn't see any egos from any of the young guys," Kennedy said. "Kowar, Lynch, Bubic, (Tyler) Zuber ... Zuber is awesome. I've talked to him more because he has been in the bullpen. Then you've got Josh (Staumont), who has been around big-league camps."
Kennedy credited part of that to the amount of focus and time the Royals put into knowing the character of each player they bring into the organization.
Kennedy, who has slightly more than 10 years in the majors under his belt, sees value in picking the brains of younger players and veterans alike — whether that's finding out how they throw their off-speed pitches or simply what makes them tick.
"There's a lot of different types of guys that gel together," Kennedy said. "I think that it all comes down to ego."
A new day
While the clubhouse was still open to media, it was nearly a daily occurrence to walk in and find established big-league guys playing cards with or eating breakfast alongside minor-leaguers who hadn't thrown a pitch or taken a single swing in the majors.
Matheny appreciates that dynamic — one that's very different than when he broke into the majors in the mid 1990s.
"That's radically changed," Matheny said. "I'd sit in the back of my locker, and I had 'seen not heard' told to me many times by veteran players. I'd just sit and I'd listen. I wasn't allowed to talk, so I didn't. I had great respect for them, but I'm glad that's not how it is anymore.
"It makes me smile inside to hear that these guys — I'm seeing it too — but that Nick would notice that this is really special that these guys are investing into each other. That's how guys get better."
Matheny believes that veterans can gain from their interactions with newcomers, but primarily he hopes to have a clubhouse atmosphere where those young players can show their ability and feel comfortable jumping in as part of the club when they're needed.
The Royals started significantly trimming the numbers of players present in big-league camp in the last week before MLB suspended spring training. Heath, Lynch, Kowar and Bubic were among the first-time invitees sent down to minor-league camp.
Matheny said part of the conversation as players exited big-league camp was telling them he and the staff see them as part of this club, even if they don't know when and how their arrival will play out.
The message to each of them: "Now, go get ready."
"I think the biggest point and the reason I like having the big numbers in spring training is these are possible guys that can come in at some point this season," Matheny said. "If they start feeling a part of this in spring training, it makes that transition easier that they feel like they're part of the club from the beginning. They're following us close — can't wait."