The residue from October resides in gold lettering on each of the 68 lockers inside the Royals’ spring clubhouse. Just past 8 a.m. on Wednesday, first baseman Eric Hosmer stood in front of his cubicle. Behind him gleamed the title this club collected four months ago: American League champions.
“It gives you a certain swagger about your team,” Hosmer said, “to know that you’re defending something this coming year.”
The events of last season restored the credibility of a long-dormant franchise, awakened a nation to the charms of a old-fashioned baseball club and buoyed the confidence of a group of players maturing into manhood. On Wednesday morning, 119 days after the World Series ended and 40 days before Opening Day against the White Sox, the latest edition of the Kansas City Royals gathered for their first full-squad workout. It was the start of a campaign the team hopes will end in champagne, rather than the tears of Oct. 29, 2014.
Wednesday’s workout lasted less than two hours. But it provided a panoply of the characters expected to star in the sequel: Hosmer, the budding leader. Alex Gordon, the homegrown hero approaching free agency. Lorenzo Cain, the breakout star of October. Yordano Ventura, the prospective ace. Greg Holland, Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera, the relentless relief trio.
For these men, motivation cannot be hard to find, not with the memories of Madison Bumgarner’s dominance in the seventh game still so fresh. Manager Ned Yost pointed to that bitterness as a balm against complacency this season.
“You didn’t see the looks on their faces five minutes after game seven,” Yost said.
The industry takes doubt about their chances. The American League Central reloaded in impressive fashion. General manager Dayton Moore has said it could be baseball’s toughest division. The road back to October will be pitted with potholes.
Bovada, the online gambling hub, set Kansas City’s over-under for total victories at 79 1/2. PECOTA, the projection system of Baseball Prospectus, predicts 72 wins. The prognostications have caused eyes to roll within the Royals’ clubhouse.
“Hearing that, you don’t care about that, because that’s just ridiculous,” Hosmer said. “For whoever to make that prediction, to come in here and tell a bunch of guys who has been through an experience like last year, and went through a ride like that — to tell us we’re going to win 72 games is just ridiculous.”
A few lockers away, Gordon offered one nettlesome reminder swept about by October’s bliss. The Royals have never won the American League Central. The division title drought still stretches back to 1985, when the Royals played in the Western Division. Gordon pointed to Detroit, the winners of four consecutive Central crowns, as the division’s team to beat.
“We still have a lot to prove,” Gordon said. “You always hear about people predicting who is going to win the AL or who is going to win the Central. And, really, we’re not on the list. You still have your doubters. But I think everyone in here still feels confident that we’re going to make October.”
Yost is planning for the same result. When he and his staff mapped out this spring, they sought to ease their veteran players into action. During the first couple weeks, the team may be more willing to use minor-leaguers in games. Their calendar now must account for an extra month of work.
The primary recipient of rest should be the catcher, who knelt behind the plate in 158 games last year. Salvador Perez reached into a refrigerator and retrieved a 16-ounce bottle of water as the day began. He guzzled half of the container in one pull. As he ambled to his locker, he caught sight of Mike Sweeney, the latest inductee into the Royals Hall of Fame. Sweeney represented Kansas City in five All-Star Games. Perez has already achieved the same honor in both of his full seasons.
“Niño!” Sweeney shouted as they hugged.
“Caballo!” Perez said.
Perez exited the ray for a session of early batting practice with the catchers. The rest of the roster continued to fill into the room.
The soundtrack for the day emanated from Jarrod Dyson’s locker. As the players settled down for breakfast, the drum machines and horns of Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” filled the air. A few songs later, “P.Y.T.” shuffled onto the speakers. Dyson looked up from his omelet and stumbled through the chorus. “You don’t even know the words,” Greg Holland crowed from across the table.
Yost called the group together after breakfast. He introduced his support staff to new faces like Alex Rios, who occupies Billy Butler’s old locker, and Kendrys Morales, who occupies Butler’s old position. Yost veered into valedictory territory, praising the returnees for their performance in 2014, and challenging them to surpass it in 2015.
The players streamed from the clubhouse at 10:22 a.m. Erik Kratz waved to the small assemblage of reporters. The pack flocked around Yost as he emerged in the sunlight. Yost spoke as his team lined up on the field behind him. Dyson and Lorenzo Cain straggled near the back of the pack.
“Day one, let’s try to have a fun one,” Dyson called out to all within earshot. Cain followed behind him, repeating a chorus, “We just get ready,” culled from a B.o.B. single.
Cain burst into living rooms across the country with his performance in October. Dyson grabbed Cain and asked nearby photographers to capture the moment as he posed with “The MVP,” a reference to Cain’s award from the American League Championship Series. During the winter, the Royals said Cain emerged as the top jersey seller on the roster.
Cain experienced the trappings of sudden fame during the winter. Fans recognized him at a bowling alley in Oklahoma. He filmed an ESPN “Sports Science” segment in Los Angeles. Here at camp he noticed a sense of poise that had solidified throughout the roster. “Confidence is definitely through the roof right now,” Cain said.
After stretch the pitchers departed for the back fields, a four-pack of diamonds ringing Art Stewart Tower. On Field 3, Yordano Ventura left his jersey untucked as he played catch with Edinson Volquez, About 20 feet away, Danny Duffy wore a hoodie pulled over his cap despite the rising sun and escalating temperature.
The organization hopes this trio can offset the departure of James Shields. Volquez filled the rotation’s vacancy on a two-year, $20 million contract. Duffy added 20 pounds of muscle in his quest to log 200 innings. But it is Ventura who will likely start Opening Day, who still inspires hyperbole from his contemporaries.
“The sky is the limit,” Duffy said. “I think you’re going to see some things this year that you’ve never seen before out of him.”
The pitchers breezed through fielding practicing, keying on bunts and comebackers in a brisk workout. Into the clubhouse sauntered Herrera, Davis and Holland, all of whom received raises in the offseason. As the players walked toward their lockers, they passed a smoothie station set up inside the weight room.
Greg Holland bypassed a verdant, vegetable slurry of cucumbers and assorted roughage for a purple, protein-heavy concoction. He sipped through a straw in his chair.
“I think most people have come into camp with the mindset of getting back to the World Series,” Holland said. “But you’ve got to do that by worrying about today, and worrying about tomorrow. It gets you ready for the season, but it also keeps you from thinking too far down the road and getting ahead of yourself.”
Back on George Brett Field, the first official round of batting practice took place. First base coach Rusty Kuntz threw to the first group and filled the air with encouragement.
When Moustakas slashed line drives, Kuntz punctuated several of his trademark “Oh, player!” exclamations. When Omar Infante hooked one over the fence and inside the left-field foul pole, Kuntz hollered, “Oh-mar!” When Hosmer finished his final round by booming a drive over the fence in right center and near a parking lot, Kuntz impersonated a car alarm.
By 12:20 p.m., the workout was all but done. Only a few players searching for extra activity remained on the field. Hosmer fetched a green smoothie as he headed toward his locker, where Cain was fiddling with his iPad and Dyson was crooning along with Boyz II Men’s “End Of The Road.” This time, Dyson knew the words.
Hosmer downed his drink and scanned his phone. The sign earned last October hung above his head. The first day of the defense was in the books.
“We’re defending the American League title,” Hosmer said. “Of course you want to be defending the world championship. But as a team, that gives you a boost of confidence.”