Columnist Vahe Gregorian offers musings about the sports scene in and around Kansas City
Friday Five from Surprise: Rusty Kuntz, Bruce Chen, Art Stewart
03/07/2014 7:01 AM
03/07/2014 7:01 AM
Seems it’s always sunny in Arizona, so let’s go around-the-horn to a few of the brightest personalities in the Royals organization:
First base coach Rusty Kuntz seems to be about the happiest guy I’ve ever been around. Since I arrived in Kansas City last year and started going regularly to Royals games, I honestly don’t believe I’ve ever seen him not smiling or laughing.
Kuntz is the club’s outfield and base-running coach. Behind the scenes, he plays a key role with the team.
He is highly regarded in baseball circles, so much so that an unscientific BostonGlobe poll of GMs, players, scouts and writers
who cover the game rated him tops in the game among outfield/base-running coaches.
The Royals led the major-leagues in stolen bases last season with 153, and here’s the way the Globe poll summarized his outfield coaching: “Kuntz’s outfielders are fundamentally sound and get great jumps on balls. Kuntz has been able to improve arm accuracy.”
Kuntz doesn’t mind telling you that some of his coaching is based on his own misadventures in a seven-year major-league career that ended in 1985.
“Most of the things I teach happened to me,” he said, laughing. “Happened TO me ... (The players) look at me like, `You did that?’
“ `Yeah. That’s why I bring it up.’ ”
For instance: Early in his career, he recalled sliding into second on a bunt only to get duped.
“The shortstop goes, `Hey, that was a foul ball. You’re going to have to go back,’ ” he recalled. “Well, without checking with the umpire or a base coach, `Oh, OK,’ I take off back to first. And now I’m in a rundown for a double play.”
Then there was what would otherwise have been his only big-league triple.
“I hit a ball down the right-field line, and I go running into second base and the shortstop comes over and dekes me, like he’s receiving the throw form the right-field corner,” he said. “I go sliding in, (get up), brush off the pants. I’m standing there feeling sexy about myself.”
Trouble was, “Right-fielder hadn’t even picked up the ball yet. And I’m almost asking for time out so I can come off the bag and clean it up. So about two seconds later, here comes the ball.”
“Why do we pick up the third-base coach coming around first? That’s exactly why, boys, because it happened to me All my mistakes, I’m trying to help them with.”
As for the outfield, Kuntz is thrilled with this year’s group.
“I’ve got five or six I’m working with who are just absolute thoroughbreds,” he said, crediting the front office. “Dayton Moore, thank you so much. I’ve got something to work with that’s off the charts.”
From Alex Gordon’s work ethic and mastery of the position to Lorenzo Cain’s range to Jarrod Dyson’s speed and Justin Maxwell’s improvement.
“Now all of a sudden you’re giving me Nori (Aoki), too – really?” he said, before gushing about the prospects coming his way, too. “It’s a gold mine for an outfield guy.”
It hasn’t always been this way in his coaching career.
Without specifying any of the organizations he’s worked with, he said, “I’ve had a lot of stiffs in the outfield. You’re going, `OK, this guy was a backup catcher, but we think he can play right? Really? That ain’t happening.’ ”
• Every morning when Royals pitcher Bruce Chen arrives, he seems to try to greet every single person in the clubhouse of about 60 players and another 10-15 others of us around. The amiable Chen is of Chinese descent but was born in Panama and speaks Spanish, and he’s what you might call a glue guy of a 40-man roster that features 11 foreign-born players.
• Best hour of my day Thursday was spent in the first row behind home plate chatting with Art Stewart, the scouting icon who has been with the Royals since their inception in 1969.
Stewart has been in the game since he was hired as a Yankees scout in 1953, and he was his usual fountain of observations and tales even as he reflexively pointed his radar gun and logged each pitch.
As he considered the dynamics in the Royals system the last few years, the depth he believes they’ve cultivated and the seasoning key players got last year, Stewart said he’s reminded of the way the Royals were coming of age in 1984 before going on to win the 1985 World Series.