Royals hope to take their ’best shot’

Todd Fertig
Special to The Capital-Journal
Kansas City Royals manager Mike Matheny, middle, talks with players during summer workouts Friday at Kaufmann Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.

After months without professional sports, baseball is inching toward making the 2020 season a reality. It will be a season unlike any in history.

Players on Friday morning trickled into Kauffman Stadium to begin workouts for the first time since spring training was abruptly halted in March. Plans for social distancing and sterilization were as prominent as those for stretching and conditioning.

New Kansas City Royals manager Mike Matheny laid out plans for workouts, describing how the team will prepare to play baseball while safeguarding against the spread of COVID-19.

“Walking through these doors right now is a bunch of guys who have been reinforced in themselves how much they love this game, and how much they care about each other and believe in this brand,” Matheny said. “Just to be out on the field, everyone has been walking around here just giddy. We can’t wait to get out there and compete.”

Matheny wore a catcher’s mask for 13 years as a big league player. But Friday he wore a different type of mask – a blue fabric one – around his neck while meeting with media via Zoom.

Matheny said players will have drilled into their heads the protocols that will keep the team healthy as it prepares for games in late July. He said players will fill out a questionnaire and have their temperature taken early each morning before beginning any baseball activities. Workouts for small groups of players will be staggered throughout the day to prevent overcrowding of the clubhouse.

“We’ll just try to figure out the best practices, how can we take the best shot at this possible,” Matheny said. “We certainly aren’t going to back off from every single protocol. (COVID-19) isn’t something we want going through the clubhouse, and it isn’t something we want to take out into the community somewhere.

“This topic is going to be non-stop. It’s probably going to be overbearing for these players for these next couple of days. They are going to hear the importance of the selflessness that it’s going to take, doing the little things that it takes to keep each other safe. This isn’t about me, this is about us.”

Unlike the NBA, baseball players aren’t living in a bubble. They will come and go from Kauffman Stadium, interacting with their families and potentially coming in contact with people in the community. Matheny said each player must recognize all that is at stake.

“Once we leave here, we have a responsibility to be very diligent about how we spend our time,” Matheny said. “One of the strengths of this organization is they like each other. They want to spend time together. They want to have social time, not just at the field, but away from the field, to build those bonds that I believe can make you a better team.

“We’re going to have to figure out how to do that in a different way. It’s part of the discipline, part of the sacrifice that we need to do for each other, that we need to do for this community, for our fans, and for the good of the game. We’ve got to do our part.”

The 60-game schedule, which as of Friday morning still hadn’t been released by MLB, will be a unique sprint unlike the usual endurance test of a 162-game season. The three weeks of preparation for the season will be a sprint as well. Matheny said it was essential that players arrive physically ready for live action. There will be no ramp up of activity typical of spring training. In order to begin simulated games on July 7, players had to be ready for full-speed activities from Day 1.

“It’s going to be amped up a little bit,” Matheny said. “Normally you wouldn’t jump right into those live (activities) on the very first day. Live bullpens and live batting practice will be our focus for the next couple of days. The minute we walked in here, the evaluation process began. We’ve only got three weeks to find 30.

“We were hopeful that these guys would show up ready to rock. (We’ve explained that) when you show up, we’re going to need you ready to go. I can’t tell you enough how impressed I am how these guys responded to that. They are truly ready to go.”

Matheny hinted that strategies will be different in the 60-game sprint. Preparing players, particularly pitchers, to be used in non-traditional ways will be part of the next three weeks.

“It’s going to have a whole different look,” Matheny said. “We might think about how we use people differently. How can we maximize everyone we have to take this chance right now? This is a unique opportunity we have and we want to give it our best shot.”

Every team was allowed to bring 60 players to preseason workouts. Because only 30 will be active when games begin, there was an opportunity to bring in some prospects for long-term development. A handful of players in Kansas City for workouts had never been on the Kauffman Stadium field. Matheny noted the excitement those prospects are feeling, but said veterans and rookies alike are seeing the game in a new light.

“I (recently) had my first day in the stadium as a Royal, and that was a big deal,” the new manager said. “Just watching the guys come through, not just the young players, you could see that awe of being a part of it. It’s a big enough deal to be a part of it at spring training. But when it happens on a major league stadium like here at The K, you can see it hit everybody. Even the veterans walked in and looked around and were like, ‘It’s so good to be back in this kind of setting.’

“So many guys have talked about, ‘I didn’t realize how much I would miss this game.’ Until it’s been taken away, sometimes you don’t realize just how much you need it, how much you love it, how much you miss it.”

Kansas City Royals manager Mike Matheny (22) talks to relief pitcher Ian Kennedy during summer workouts Friday at Kaufmann Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.