The early bird catches the worm
Royals getting head start on competition in Spring Training
KANSAS CITY -- Volunteers, you might think, congregate around Tennessee or the local firehouse or Salvation Army kettles. We have another site to consider.
There will be all kinds of guys with their hands in the air, volunteering their time on Thursday at the Royals' training fields in Surprise, Ariz. The calendar says that's on Thursday, but the official first workout for pitchers and catchers isn't until a week later on Valentine's Day.
Yet, if hearsay is correct, there could be about 20 volunteers with their upraised hands clutching baseballs and hurling them at early arriving catchers or other bystanders. It's all unofficial, but new manager Trey Hillman's first Royals camp will be under way.
"I like the fact that we're doing this," general manager Dayton Moore said. "It's something we did last year. It's not mandatory, but they'd just as soon be down in the warm weather."
Yep, it beats working out in Kansas City or some other frosty environ. Just in case anybody might have any questions, Hillman, his pitching coach, Bob McClure, and mound guru Bill Fischer are likely to be in the vicinity for consultation.
"It says a lot about the guys on the club," McClure said. "For that many of them to show up early like that says a lot about what I think is the root of having a good team -- good teammates who are willing to do more.
"They're all volunteers, but this kind of a turnout is really special."
Most of the frontline pitchers, such as Zack Greinke, Gil Meche and Brian Bannister, have passed along word that they'll be in early.
Early work last spring helped left-hander Jorge De La Rosa refine his approach, and that helped him get off to a fast start last season. There's anticipation of similar cases this season.
"I think it's really beneficial for starters, especially much more than relievers," McClure said. "A starter has to maintain his mechanics a lot longer than a reliever does -- when he gets up to 80 or 90 pitches -- so a lot of that work is done early in Spring Training and the build-up is better."
The early gathering also gives the can't-wait Hillman a chance to get acquainted with his pitchers and catchers. Communication is a big part of his approach to managing.
"That early camp is going to help my learning curve tremendously," Hillman said. "Not only on stuff and pitchability and watching these guys get ready to go ... but it's going to give me a real good character read on establishing relationships. That's going to be a real big advantage with my style."
Hillman was on the phone often with his players this offseason, but he relishes face-to-face byplay.
"I've always been open and somewhat gregarious my whole life, and I don't try to make these guys take on my personality," Hillman said.
"But what I certainly do expect is for them to find a way in their own way to communicate effectively, so a high majority of the time we're on the same page, so there's not miscommunication and there's not hurt feelings and hurt egos for no reason other than not saying what's on your mind. I think I've already established with everyone that I'm not going to put my platform above anybody else, and I'm a pretty easy guy to talk to."
Hillman, coming from five years of managing in Japan, jokes about bringing that league's work schedule with him ("We'll have those 12-hour days on the field," he likes to say). But he's only kidding -- the players hope.
What he'll be real serious about, of course, is making sure that Meche, Bannister and Greinke are really his "Big Three," and that the right arms are selected for the fourth and fifth starting spots.
That's one of the primary reasons for the early February get-go. It also will prime arms for Hillman's plan to have pitchers throwing live batting practice on Feb. 14, much earlier than usual.
Throwing to whom? Just a wild guess, but infielders and outfielders might start arriving in advance of the first official full-squad workout on Feb. 19. Volunteers will be running amok, and they just could be hankering to take a swing or two.
"As a pitcher, I always felt I got a lot more out of throwing BP than I did throwing on the side," McClure said. "It's a lot better throwing to a hitter and getting a reaction from him than it is throwing to a glove."
So here we go. Tune into the early show. The Royals are getting ready for prime time. That "thwuuump" you hear on Thursday could be a fastball pounding into a catcher's leather at Surprise.
"Spring Training," Moore said, "is all about getting pitching ready."
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.