On the last Friday in March, Danny Duffy stood on the pitcher’s mound he loved most and choked back tears.
He had flown home to Lompoc, Calif., for a few days before his season at Class AAA Omaha began. As the Royals completed a game at Miller Park, Duffy ventured to watch his alma mater, Cabrillo High.
Earlier in the week, Cabrillo head coach Jon Osborne spotted Duffy walking along the sidewalk near the school. Osborne asked his former ace to throw out the first pitch that Friday. He did not alert him to the impending surprise.
Duffy settled into his familiar spot in the center of the diamond, and the two teams queued along the foul lines. He felt confused when the Cabrillo athletic director read Duffy’s resume and sang his praises. When a pair of players walked toward the mound holding a fresh jersey, the No. 21 he cherished as a teenager, he understood. Never again would a Conquistador wear the number. Weeks later, Duffy beamed as he recalled the retirement ceremony.
“Oh, it was so cool, man,” Duffy said. “It was the biggest honor I could ever get.”
Duffy spoke those words inside the visitors’ clubhouse at Progressive Field in Cleveland. In a few days, he would experience a disastrous pair of bullpen mishaps that confounded team officials and nearly cost his team two games. Asked where Duffy stood after Wednesday night’s fiasco, manager Ned Yost said, “That’s a good question.”
Yost tabbed Duffy, who’s 1-1 with a 2.16 ERA, to replace injured starter Bruce Chen on Saturday against Detroit. The assignment serves as the latest upheaval in a turbulent career. At 25, Duffy remains an enigma, capable of both brilliance and battiness. Rival evaluators question his mental toughness.
Royals officials refer to him, more affectionately, as “a bull in the china shop,” an intense, team-oriented man. If his affinity for his hometown is immense, so is his desire to provide for his current team, a quality which can sometimes be counter-productive.
“He’s an interesting guy,” assistant general manager J.J. Picollo said. “A little bit misunderstood. I think he cares almost too much at times. And he expects so much out of himself, that it can work against him.”
When Duffy blew a lead against Toronto on Wednesday, he lamented he cost rookie starter Yordano Ventura a victory. When Duffy imploded in Baltimore last week, he swore at a photographer who lingered near the dugout capturing his misery. In that moment, Yost suggested later, Duffy felt “like he let the whole world down.”
To understand the psyche of Danny Duffy, a task this organization has spent more than half a decade trying to accomplish, one must trace his roots back home.
Lompoc is “mainly just a farm town,” Duffy said, a city about two and a half hours north up the coast from Los Angeles. The area is home to Vandenberg Air Force Base, a complex of federal prisons and, in the winter, a left-handed pitcher the Royals still hope can anchor their staff.
Duffy departed in 2007, when the Royals selected him in the third round. But he returns each winter to a house he owns a couple miles from his parents. During the season, a trio of friends crashes at his place and dog-sits Sadie, his Alaskan Malamute. He expects a group of 60 to traverse more than four hours south to San Diego to see him on Monday, when the Royals play the Padres.
When his career ends, he has a plan. He intends to enroll at Santa Barbara City College and transfer into UC-Santa Barbara. He will need a degree, of course, to live out his post-MLB dream: To coach the Conquistadores baseball team and run Cabrillo’s athletic department.
“I’ll never leave, dude,” he said. “I love it out there.”
Duffy’s home fortified him during the two major crises of his career. He spent three months there after walking away from baseball in 2010. As he recovered from Tommy John surgery in 2012 and 2013, he soothed his mind running along the nearby beaches.
After his first high-leverage relief appearance of the season, a two-inning eye-opener in Houston, Duffy once again cast his eyes homeward. A reporter asked when he last enjoyed himself that much on the mound. His response was immediate: His final game against the crosstown rivals from Lompoc High.
Duffy relishes this story. He recalls his line as 17 strikeouts, 10 walks, two hit batsmen and … 170 pitches. When Osborne heard a reporter recount his tale, his wince was almost audible. “The 170 pitches is a big fat lie,” he said. “It wasn’t even close to that.”
The story hints at the critical flaw in Duffy’s profile, a blemish he figures will follow him throughout his career. His command has never been superb. It’s one of the reasons the Royals shifted him to the bullpen this spring. They felt he could better harness his mid-90s fastball in short bursts.
As early as last summer, while he floundered through rehabilitation from Tommy John surgery, Duffy asked friends about relieving. He lobbied team officials for the opportunity this spring. Part of the reason, he explained, was he relished the chance to contribute to the major-league club. He worried not about the financial considerations, about how starting is that much more lucrative than relieving.
“I just don’t care,” he said. “I just want to be happy. I just want to be part of the crew.”
Duffy expressed gratitude to the organization for putting him in the bullpen. Whether he stays there is a matter of ongoing debate. General manager Dayton Moore is reluctant to lock the organization into a path with Duffy. He seeks flexibility.
“It’s not something that I’m consumed with right now, what Danny Duffy’s role’s going to be in the future,” Moore said last week. “Because I really believe that he’ll be successful in whatever role we put him in.”
As Duffy embarks on starting once more, the organization hopes he retains the advice that sustained him in his first quartet of relief appearances. Before his most recent follies, he struck out 11 batters in 8 1/3 scoreless innings. His delivery was clean and his control was present.
He made a minor mechanical alteration after leaving camp, focusing on keeping his chin level to the ground, as if connected on a string to his waist. During bullpen sessions, he sharpened his slider, a new pitch suggested by pitching coach Dave Eiland, and dumped his curveball. Eiland instructed Duffy to simplify his process, and trust his arsenal.
“It’s the same thing you try to get across to them when they’re starting,” Eiland said.
Duffy resents the implication he can’t handle his emotions on the mound. But he understands he can only silence critics with his performance. He did himself few favors with his last two outings.
In his youth, he admits, there were lapses in maturity. When he was a 22-year-old rookie in 2011, Duffy recalled, at one point the relievers decided to wear mohawks and the starters opted for mustaches. Duffy chafed at this. He shaved his prematurely.
“I just tried to be above the law, above the rookie status,” Duffy said. “And that doesn’t get you anywhere. And you lose a lot of respect from teammates when you prove that you’re not a part of the cohesive unit.”
It was a little thing, he explained. But he came to understand its greater meaning, the importance of clubhouse cohesion.
A combination of factors helped Duffy grow. He remembered the grief he received after he lost the mustache. His maturity rose as his age grew. And he believes his Tommy John surgery was critical for retaining perspective. He considered hellish his 20 months of rehabilitation and recovery.
“He’s never been hurt playing baseball,” Osborne said. “And all of a sudden, he gets hurt. Something like that is kind of a life-changing moment in regards to realizing how hard it is to get to be a professional. And how fast it can end.”
Osborne knows Duffy better than most. When Duffy returns to Lompoc, he often finds himself in Osborne’s office, talking about the current squad. His investment in the program is both emotional and financial.
Duffy sponsored a series of night games for Cabrillo about three hours south in Lake Elsinore, the home of San Diego’s Class-A affiliate, in 2012 and 2013. He donated cleats and training sneakers to the varsity team. At a baseball camp this past winter, he gifted signed baseball cards to kids 8 to 14. He’s contributed items to charity auctions and even paid for the basketball program to play at the UC-Santa Barbara gym.
“He’s been very, very generous in all the things that he’s done for Cabrillo baseball,” Osborne said.
The retirement ceremony was part of an attempt to repay him. Duffy grew up near the school. His father helped coach basketball. As a kid, Duffy told Osborne his dream was to play for him one day.
2014 marks Osborne’s 21st season coaching the Conquistadores. Duffy had never spoken to him about his post-playing goal to follow in his footsteps. Osborne does not want his former ace to come home just yet.
“I hope that I’m retired, so that he doesn’t have to worry about taking my job,” Osborne said. “Because that means that he’s been in Major League Baseball for lots of years.”