Inside a bar in Fort Worth, Texas, waves of people surrounded Brandon Finnegan, eager to document the moment. He had returned to campus last fall as a conquering hero, bombarded for autographs at the places he haunted as a relatively anonymous student five months before.
On this night in November, he witnessed the ultimate in post-millennial athlete debauchery: He had a front-row seat as his hometown got Gronk’d.
With the New England Patriots on a bye week, Rob Gronkowski came to see his brother’s Kansas State football team play Finnegan’s alma mater of Texas Christian University. During the game, the 45,000 fans at Amon G. Carter Stadium rose to applaud Finnegan. A “Let’s Go Royals” chant echoed through the air. Someone from Team Gronk suggested the source of the spectacle should join their traveling party.
Finnegan met the Gronkowski family that night. Rob and his brothers towered over him, but still fans besieged Finnegan. He recalled he could barely move. Inside the throng, Gronkowski kept a low profile. At least, at the start.
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“He was kind of ducked down,” Finnegan said. “Until they started dancing.”
The scenario would have seemed pure fantasy just two years ago, back when Finnegan was a 19-year-old southpaw who still lived with his parents.
Then he undertook a 14-month expedition through a winless sophomore season, a revelatory summer with USA Baseball, a starring role in the 2014 College World Series, a selection with the No. 17 pick in last June’s draft, a brief apprenticeship in the minor leagues and finally a place in the Royals’ bullpen. Last October he became the first player to appear in the World Series and its collegiate equivalent.
Finnegan reported last month as the youngest pitcher in Royals camp and the most fascinating component of their roster construction.
Team officials consider him their best left-handed option for the big-league bullpen. The organization also drafted him with the hope he could anchor a starting rotation. His fastball touches the upper 90s, his slider “just disappears,” one teammate said, and he felt confident enough in his change-up to whiff Jacoby Ellsbury with it in his first big-league encounter.
Finnegan will stretch out as a starter when the Cactus League opens this week. When camp ends, he will either rejoin the bullpen or depart for Class AAA Omaha. Down the road, Royals officials emphasize they see Finnegan as a starter. But for 2015, general manager Dayton Moore insists each route is feasible.
Finnegan doubles as both a source of intrigue for fans and a subject for gentle ribbing from his teammates. Some of them purposely call him “Flanagan.” He is still learning the etiquette of his clubhouse, and experiencing the rights of passage inflicted on rookies.
As he begins a new chapter this season, the wonder is if his head has finished spinning from the last. After his trek from the Big 12 to the big leagues last year, he needed this winter just to decompress.
He moved into an apartment near campus with a few old teammates. He let his arm rest. He slept in and played golf. For the first six weeks at home, he felt uncomfortable in the spots he once frequented, because “I would go out, and people would just want to take pictures,” he said. The night out with the Gronkowskis opened his eyes to the flipside of stardom. After an hour, he decided to leave.
“I’m there and hanging out with them and his five brothers, who are 6-5 and tall, and I’m just watching them go crazy,” Finnegan said. “I’m just like ‘This is not for me.’”
One day last week, Gary Finnegan leaned against the bleachers beside Frank White Field at the Royals complex. He had escaped a freak ice storm in Texas to spend a week at his son’s first spring training. This time last year, Brandon was preparing for a start against Sam Houston State. Now he was jockeying for a position in baseball’s most devastating bullpen.
“Really haven’t even recovered from last year yet,” his father said. “You’re right. It was a whirlwind. It still feels like one.”
Brandon is following a path Gary started to blaze more than three decades ago. Gary still owns the single-season strikeout record at Southwest High in Fort Worth. Brandon came close to matching the mark as a senior, but still felt short, Raiders coach Frankie Gasca said.
An arm injury halted Gary’s career at TCU. Two weeks later, he went to work for his father’s roofing company. The company is now his. He coached both his sons into high school. Jonathan played some college ball in west Texas.
When Brandon turned 10, Gary sensed his athletic potential. Brandon came home from school one day that year with a sore foot. There was an all-star game that night. The boy still wanted to play.
“On a scale of one to 10, what is it?” Gary said.
“About a six.”
“Do you think you can play if we tape it up?”
Brandon notched three hits, Gary recalled. The next day, the foot still ached. A doctor discovered it was broken.
Gary told this story as the lone injury of his son’s career. Finnegan missed a start because of shoulder soreness last year for the Horned Frogs, but the belief is he just slept on his arm wrong. Gary takes pride in his boy’s sustained health.
“Of course, as a parent, you want him up in the bigs,” Gary said. “But I want him to do what the Royals need him to do. And if they want him as a starter, that’s great. If they want him a reliever, that’s great.”
One afternoon in the fall of 2013, Finnegan told two Royals scouts exactly what he wanted. He sat inside the press box of TCU’s Lupton Stadium with Chad Lee and Gregg Miller for a pre-draft interview. Finnegan believed he could start as a professional, but he was also open to relieving at the start of his career.
“I think my stuff is good enough to get big-leaguers out right now,” he said.
The phrase stuck with Lee. Most prospects, he explained, lack “the nerve” to express such confidence. In the reports he filed to scouting director Lonnie Goldberg, he made sure to mention Finnegan’s “edge.” Finnegan honed this quality during the previous summer as a member of a collegiate all-star team.
Finnegan had gone 0-8 during his sophomore year, and he initially wondered if he belonged. Jim Schlossnagle, his skipper at TCU, managed the USA Baseball squad. At the start of the summer, Finnegan sat down with Mike Bianco, the Mississippi manager and USA Baseball pitching coach. Finnegan told Bianco he hoped to improve the most pressing deficiency in his arsenal.
As a freshman, Finnegan “had a very bad, poor breaking ball,” Schlossnagle said. The pitch improved during his first two seasons but was still an issue. It lacked velocity, bite and reliability. Finnegan ached to pitch in the majors, and he knew he needed a second weapon.
“He was talented enough, but he was also open-minded enough to ask people (for advice),” Bianco said. “There’s some people that their egos won’t allow them to do that.”
Salvation arrived in the form of a teammate. Carlos Rodon possessed a sizzling slider, one that would compel the White Sox to select him with the third pick in last June’s draft.
One day in July, Finnegan asked him about the pitch while they were playing catch at Wrigley Field. Rodon told him to throw the pitch like a fastball, let the arm action increase the velocity and trust the grip would cause the pitch to break.
The advice clicked that day. Bianco saw the revamped pitch in Finnegan’s next bullpen session. Schlossnagle saw it when Finnegan faced Cuba soon after at Werner Park, the home of the Omaha Storm Chasers. Finnegan twirled seven scoreless innings of three-hit ball. He notched seven strikeouts, including two at the expense of Yasmany Tomas, the Arizona Diamondbacks’ $68 million offseason investment.
“He just undressed them,” Schlossnagle said. “They had no chance. And that’s when I was like ‘Oh, baby. Here we go.’”
The summer instilled a confidence in Finnegan that spilled over in his meeting with the Royals scouts and into his junior year. Lee handles the team’s amateur scouting in Oklahoma and northern Texas, and he watched all of his starts from May up to the draft in June.
Before Finnegan’s shoulder scare, Lee pegged him as a potential top-five pick. He sensed an opportunity after the minor ailment subsided. Lee appreciated Finnegan’s competitiveness. His fastball displayed life and movement. His slider could emasculate hitters. As the season progressed, he saw Finnegan wield his change-up with increasing nerve.
“The big tie breaker between being a starter and a reliever is having a third pitch,” Lee said. “Especially a change-up. Because it allows you to pitch to both sides of the plate. I think you have to give a lot of credit to the kid, for just his aptitude.”
The Royals appreciated the package. They saw a future mainstay of their rotation — and a potential contributor to their historic run in 2014. At his introductory news conference, Finnegan sat next to Dayton Moore and said he wanted to reach the big leagues before the season ended.
“We are not going to put limitations on Brandon,” Moore said.
Jarrod Dyson looked up from a Cholula-slathered omelet and narrowed his eyes. Across the table, Brandon Finnegan was laughing at him. Finnegan was part of a group, but he was the only rookie in the group, so Dyson could not abide this. He strayed Finnegan for the impropriety and shifted the conversation to a potential sin of clubhouse etiquette: where Finnegan parked his car that morning.
The lot yields a hierarchy. The established seize the front. Young players occupy the hinterlands.
“When you first come in here, you turn to the left,” Dyson said, smiling, as he wound down his salvo and returned to his breakfast. Finnegan claimed the offending Escalade did not belong to him. His protest rang on the deafest of ears, those belong to veterans on a baseball team.
The banter was genial but forceful, meant to draw laughter and inflict an ounce of torment. Dyson was a 50th-round pick. It took him nine professional seasons to earn his $1.23 million salary for 2015. The Royals paid $2.2 million just to sign Finnegan. Yet in this room, experience trumps all and the adage applies: Veterans prefer to see rookies, rather than hear them.
Two days later, Finnegan ate his breakfast in silence. Eric Hosmer described him as a “perfect rookie,” who shows up early, leaves late and stays quiet in between. But even that can create a target. As Finnegan forked eggs at the end of the table, Dyson and Hosmer wondered aloud why he wasn’t willing to join their conversation. Finnegan sensed the paradox — whether he spoke or didn’t, he would still hear about it.
It makes for an interesting dichotomy. Finnegan must earn the respect of his veteran peers. Yet he is coming off a winter where he felt the furnace blast of fame. Fans salivate over his presence; as part of the Royals’ caravan in January, multiple parents asked him to hold their children.
“Everybody was treating me a little bit differently,” Finnegan said. “It was something I wasn’t used to.”
The other rookies in camp treat him like an icon. When Finnegan reported to Class A Wilmington in July, he became catch partners with Sean Manaea, a first-round pick in 2013. Manaea’s eyes widened when he recalled those exchanges. Finnegan is a “stud,” he said. Manaea picked his brain for breaking-ball tips.
“His slider is one of the nastiest pitches I’ve ever seen,” he said.
Finnegan started in five games for the Blue Rocks and gave up five hits. The organization promoted him to Class AA Northwest Arkansas and placed him in the bullpen.
“Everybody knew when he came in that he had a shot to get up there,” said pitcher Christian Binford, the organization’s lone representative at the Futures Game last summer.
During September, Finnegan created a highlight reel that delighted his friends, family and former coaches. He struck out Derek Jeter and David Ortiz. He earned the trust of manager Ned Yost and pitching coach Dave Eiland.
October was less blissful. Finnegan was on the hook for the losing run when the final half-inning of the American League Wild Card Game began. He recorded a victory in game two against Anaheim and blew a lead in game one against Baltimore. He helped connect the bridge to his veteran teammates in the third game of the World Series but was charged with five runs the next night.
His challenge shifts this spring. Finnegan worked solely out of the stretch as a reliever. Eiland is curious to see how Finnegan adapts.
“I’m anxious to see how he handles it,” Eiland said. “How he’s able to get up and down between innings, repeat his delivery. There’s going to be a point of controlling the running game. There’s other things he’s going to have to think about.”
On Thursday morning, Finnegan stood behind Tim Collins, his chief competition for the southpaw spot in the bullpen, during fielding drills. When his turn came, Finnegan jogged to the mound with the starting infield assembled behind him. The corner infielders crashed the plate as Finnegan fielded a bunt. He pivoted toward third base and skipped a throw wide of Alcides Escobar.
“Do it again, Finny,” said Mike Jirschele, the third-base coach and infield coordinator.
The group reconvened behind him. Jirschele chopped another bunt, this one a tad slower.
“One, one, one, one,” Mike Moustakas said as Finnegan fielded the ball.
Behind the mound, Escobar created a diversion. “Two!” he shouted. “Three!”
Finnegan hesitated. He threw a lollipop to first base. He loped back to the group of pitchers with a sheepish look on his face. Jirschele pulled him aside when the drill ended. Moustakas offered a few more words.
As his teammates filed off the diamond, Finnegan stopped for a second to speak with Gary. Then he turned and walked alone to the clubhouse.
“I’m going to give it what I’ve got,” Finnegan said. “And if what I’ve got’s not good enough, then there’s a lot to be done. There’s always room for improvement.”