With a combined zero at-bats in regular-season major-league action, it’s easy for outfielders Brett Eibner and Bubba Starling to feel inexperienced among the veterans at Royals spring training.
But the prospects in the clubhouse aren’t the only youth movement happening in Surprise.
Valley Vista High School and Parkview Elementary School sit across Parkview Place from Surprise Stadium, leaving students and school officials in position to get close with their neighbors from Kansas City. Having grown up a Royals fan and only 45 minutes from Kauffman Stadium, Starling said he remembers what it’s like to idolize the boys in blue.
“I’d go up every summer and watch some games, follow them close and watch Mike Sweeney and Carlos Beltran when they were there,” Starling said.
That quick commute is small compared to the cross-country trip many fans make for a chance to get a ball from their favorite Royals. But it was a trek compared to the short walk from either of the two nearby schools.
Those young fans don’t even need to cross the street to grab a souvenir.
“A lot of the power-hitter guys have hit some over there — I might have, a couple of times,” Starling said. “If there’s not fans out there, there are probably some balls out there that the kids can pick up.”
Yet the Royals are leaving more than just souvenirs for local kids. Eibner said he recognizes how big of an impact meeting a big-league player at spring training can have for a young baseball fan.
And according to Zachery Fountain, a spokesman for the Dysart Unified School District, plenty of Surprise students have been impacted by the World Series winners.
“It’s nice to know we have … champions across the street,” Fountain said. “And it’s nice to have great role models for our students to look up to — not only in sports, but in business, as well.”
Players like Eibner take that position as a role model seriously. Eibner said he always finds a way to make young fans feel recognized when they’re along the fence at spring training, whether it’s with a baseball or a conversation.
“You just try to have fun with it, because the last thing you want to do is burn a kid off from baseball,” Eibner said. “You don’t want them to think ‘that guy’s not someone I want to be because he pushed me away.’”
When he was younger, Starling knew he wanted to be a baseball player. Now that he’s in such a prominent position, he said he does his best to help kids chasing the same goal because he remembers what it’s like to be in their shoes.
“I was there at one point. When I was a little guy, I had dreams of playing professional ball,” Starling said. “It’s good that we interact with them and motivate them, because I know they have dreams and aspirations, too.”
That outreach, along with a healthy dose of winning, apparently is paying off when it comes to attracting young fans. Eibner, Starling and Fountain all said they’ve noticed more kids in Royals merchandise the past few years.
Fountain cited the number of families from the Midwest in Arizona as the cause of the team’s popularity, and Eibner said anyone hopping on the championship bandwagon is fine with him.
“Any time you win, people are going to jump on, which is great,” Eibner said. “Walking around, you see a lot more KC gear and it’s great to see.”
Jayson Chesler is a senior at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.