Danny Duffy was in the fifth grade when he began to track the weather in his hometown of Lompoc, Calif. And at first, it was just kind of a fad. A local meteorologist had visited his school. A 9-year-old boy was mesmerized by the weather patterns of El Niño. A somewhat nerdy hobby was born.
But pretty soon, the interest kept growing, and Duffy, the future ace of the Royals’ rotation, wanted to learn more. So he found a spiral notebook and began to fill it up with numbers and trends, taking a turn as an amateur Al Roker.
He scribbled down the daily temperature. He noted storms, patterns and strange events. Every day, Duffy says, he would draw a little diagram on the page, reflecting whether it was cloudy, party cloudy, sunny or rainy.
“I did that for weeks at a time,” Duffy says.
Even then, as a skinny tween in central California, as a kid making his way in the world, he was gifted with an abiding intellectual curiosity, a disposition that tilted toward obsessive. It was the kind of quality that never ceased, the kind that would cause him to devote himself to baseball in high school; the kind that would launch a professional career; the kind that would help him survive a bout with Tommy John surgery and a series of growing pains early in his career.
But before all that, before Duffy evolved into a frontline starter with the Royals, before he signed a five-year, $65 million extension in the offseason, before he prepared to make his first career opening day start Monday in Minnesota, he gravitated toward a first obsession: The Weather.
“Some people would wake up and watch cartoons in the morning,” Duffy says. “I’d watch The Weather Channel. I was kind of a nerd.”
The nexus of the hobby began in Lompoc, a blue-collar hamlet in Santa Barbara County where Duffy grew up. In most years, he says, the area saw little variation in its weather and seasonal patterns. But when it did — such as El Niño in the late 1990s — the effects were drastic. Around that time, Duffy says, a well-known meteorologist from a local television station visited his school. He was transfixed by the science.
In adulthood, Duffy says, the interest has waned to a slightly less obsessive level. Sometimes a life in baseball can feel all-consuming, of course, leaving precious time for hobbies. But Duffy remains fascinated by the subject.
He passes time in the clubhouse by scrolling through articles on The Weather Channel website. His favorite television show is “It Could Happen Tomorrow,” a program that delves into extreme weather phenomena and the havoc it can wreak. On an afternoon last summer, as a thunderstorm pelted downtown Detroit, Duffy hustled out to the dugout at Comerica Park, just so he could enjoy the crashes of lighting and thunder.
“Pretty enamored,” he says.
These days, Duffy’s fascination with weather has morphed into a full-blown interest in the subject of climate change. He worries about drought and its impact on his home state. He can recite — quite accurately, in fact — the water levels of Lake Nacimiento, located 115 miles north of Lompoc. On a February morning at spring training, he spent 20 minutes reading up on the declining sea ice levels in Antarctica.
The sea ice has eroded to levels not seen since 1969. The science and root causes are still debated, yet increases in global temperatures have exacerbated the problem.
“That whole sea ice thing in Antarctica is no joke,” Duffy says. “I’m not going to sit here and say I’m like some ‘Sierra Club’ kind of guy. But I definitely at least wonder where the Earth is going to be in 10 to 20 years now.”
The statement is classic Duffy, funny and honest in the same moment, insightful and self-aware at the same time, the distillation of a 28-year-old left-hander, fully comfortable in his own skin. He’s also genuinely intrigued by the future of sea ice.
“It’s at an all-time low,” he says. “And you’re thinking about where it’s going to be in 10 years.”
Six years into his career, Duffy has never profiled as a archetypal jock. Maybe it’s the sense of humor, fueled by bear suits and clubhouse pranks. Maybe it’s his public love affair with his adopted hometown. Maybe it’s his roots in Lompoc. Whatever it is, Duffy says, it works. There’s no sense in changing.
“I always say, ‘man, there’s no wrong way to eat a Reese’s,’ ” Duffy says. “A lot of people get to the promised land in different ways.”
In this moment, after an outing last week, Duffy is talking about his pitching style, specifically the changes that sparked his emergence in 2016. But he might as well be talking about his worldview. He found balance last season, he says. He found comfort, too.
He spent a month in the bullpen. He learned to attack. He added a slider and starting pitching solely from the the stretch. Then he headed back to the starting rotation and devastated hitters across baseball.
The adjustments resulted in a 12-3 record, a 3.51 ERA and a career-high 188 strikeouts in 179 2/3 innings. Yet they also offered peace of mind — and a nice contract extension. After five years of working, he found that his way was good enough. The Royals believe his left arm can anchor their rotation for years.
“He can’t put any extra pressure on himself because of the year he had and where he’s at in his career,” Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland said. “He’s just got to go out there and continue to keep things simple and be on the attack. Just be the new Danny Duffy.”
For Duffy, the goal remains uncomplicated. He knows who he is now. It’s plenty good enough. Yet as he makes his first opening day start, there is much of the Old Danny Duffy still here.
On a morning back at spring training, he sat near his locker and finished up a conversation about his love of weather. A while back, he had learned that Angels superstar Mike Trout was also a weather groupie, sharing an affinity for Weather Channel meteorologist Jim Cantore.
Duffy has been a Cantore fan for years, so this led to a question. He wants to know if you’ve seen this video — the one where Cantore is standing in 2 feet of snow, freaking out over thunder in the skies above.
“Thundersnow,” Duffy says. “I love it. I love it. It’s very interesting. It’s still something that I keep up with. Not as much as I used to. But it’s still fun.”