Frank White answers the phone on the second ring. He had to be expecting the call.
The day before, he’d announced through social media that he would be on the Kauffman Stadium field for the first time in nearly four years. My interest (or obsession; depends on your perspective) in the broken relationship between the Royals and one of their best players ever has caused a few eye rolls. Enough that, two years ago, I decided no more columns until something changed.
But now something has changed. White will return to a hero’s welcome during a ceremony Sept. 1 as part of Major League Baseball’s “Franchise Four” promotion. Fans voted White one of the four most impactful players in Royals history. That was expected. The man won eight Gold Gloves, batted cleanup in the 1985 World Series, and is one of only two Royals players with his number retired. So that was easy.
Here’s what wasn’t as easy: deciding whether this would be the event he would end a nearly four-year cold war with the team over.
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And here’s what won’t be as easy: walking on that field again, even as he has to know he’ll receive a thunderous welcome from what has become baseball’s loudest fanbase.
“It’ll be overwhelming,” he says. “I hope I don’t trip.”
White stayed on the phone for nearly an hour. He had a lot to say. I had a lot to ask. By the time we hung up, I felt naive hoping for any clear or easy answers to the most complex and unnecessarily diminishing relationship between any team and great player in Kansas City.
Frank White could’ve returned to the Kauffman Stadium field long ago. The Royals have invited him to many official events over the last four years. The playoffs. Opening day. Team Hall of Fame ceremonies.
White turned them all down. In the beginning, he was too angry. He felt the team had wronged him. Taken advantage of him in some ways, taken him for granted in others, and dismissed him in a few more. He had grown tired of it. He was done with the Royals. Once the feud went public, each side was worse off without the other, and knew it.
At some point, the sharpness of those feelings dissipated. Particularly for White. He moved on. He was a landslide winner for a seat in the Jackson County legislature, does sales for a local roofing company, has a radio show and is an assistant coach for the T-Bones. Most days, he’s too busy to think about the past.
“It’s been a long time, you know?” White says. “Things change. Your career changes. Things that were important aren’t as important anymore. When (baseball) is your life from the time you’re 19 years old to 60, you’re thinking one way.
“But now that I’ve been away for a while, I’ve got other things that pique my interest. It’s not that I don’t care, but it’s not the No. 1 thing on your table when you wake up in the morning.”
White has been to a handful of Royals games in the last few years, but always in the context of a man dipping his toe in the water. First, a friend invited him. Then, as part of his job with the county legislature, he attended opening day. He sat in a dugout suite as part of a trip with his roofing company.
But this will be the first time he returns as Frank White The Former All-Star, the man with his No. 20 on the Hall of Fame building.
He probably always knew that at some point this day would come, and says he wanted to make sure the situation was right. Kevin Uhlich, the Royals’ vice president of business operations, made the invitation with a phone call. White wasn’t sure at first. It’s a big step. But this is entirely positive, his career being honored as part of a fan vote.
Maybe this can help people — and here White specifically mentions the players — see him as a former ballplayer and not the man involved in all of this drama. Also, he had to know it would’ve been a bad look to skip.
“I think it’s great, and it’s great for the fans,” Uhlich says. “Whatever differences we’ve had with Frank in the past should never have been aired out in the public like that … Frank is one of the greatest Royals who’ve ever played.”
White is still bothered by some things. He doesn’t talk in specifics, but mentions things he’s heard from former teammates and people in the organization that made him feel misunderstood by some he previously felt understood him.
In the beginning, he missed the game. Missed the team. And how could he not? Baseball, in one form or another, had been his life for more than four decades. The vast majority of that had been with the Royals.
He still hears from people who say they miss him on the television broadcasts, and that makes him feel good. He says he roots for the Royals, not just for the players, but for the fans and city and local economy.
But it’s not the same. He doesn’t schedule his life around the games. Doesn’t rush home to watch. If he’s in the car when they’re playing, he might listen on the radio. If he gets home after the game is over, he might catch the highlights. If he doesn’t, that’s OK, too.
“It’s hard to express your feelings on something like this,” he says. “I don’t know. I don’t know. Some guys have a desire to be around the players, some guys have a desire to be around the ballpark. I used to be one of those guys. But then once I left, and started doing other things, I don’t have that desire to be at every game, that I have to be there every day, that I have to get free tickets.
“I don’t have that desire. It’s not that I don’t care about the team, or how they’re playing, because I know what that team means. I’m just as happy as everybody else these guys are playing the way they’re playing. But, I don’t know. Maybe it’s age. I’ll be 65 in a couple weeks.”
White says he’s happy. At peace. He said that in the beginning, too, in the wake of the split, but he was not believable. There is a different tone to him now.
This could be what happens when time turns flesh wounds to scar tissue. This could be that White has moved on, and made a new life for himself. This could just be age, like White says. None of us are exactly the same person we were four years ago.
White isn’t sure if his return will lead to anything — whether it means he’ll go to more Royals events, or become more involved with the team again. He pushes most of this onto the team, saying it wasn’t his decision to leave — which is revisionist history – but for what it’s worth, Uhlich isn’t sure where the reunion will lead, either.
In that way, the relationship is in an interesting place. The worst of the feelings are gone, but so too is the urgency to reconcile.
In the early days of the split, each side readily acknowledged it was hurt without the other. But life moves fast. White is as busy as ever and proud of his work in the community. The Royals are the best team in the American League, and perhaps more popular than they’ve ever been. Neither side is hurt anymore. Neither side needs the other.
Perhaps it’s telling that White analogizes his relationship with the Royals to a divorce. In the beginning, you’re furious. You’re raw. But then you either find something new or drown. You either move on or let sadness turn to depression.
David Glass hosts a group of local politicians in his suite every opening day. That’s what White went for this year. He saw Dan Glass — the owner’s son, team president, and man White most directly feuded with — and exchanged pleasantries. On Monday, White downplayed the idea that this represented a significant step.
“I still talk to my ex-wife, you know?” he says.
But stepping onto the Kauffman Stadium field is significant. White will attend the game as a guest of the Royals, be honored by the team, and receive one of the loudest cheers of his life.
Who knows, he says. Maybe this is a start. He is happy, and at least five times during our conversation on Monday he mentioned how appreciative he is of the fans for voting and the Royals for inviting him. He is no longer dismissing the very idea of working with the team in the future. That’s something.
It’s more than we’ve heard since this whole fight started.
Sometimes, on those nights when White is home and the Royals are on, he’ll turn the volume off for a few innings and just watch.
Particularly if he thinks the broadcasters missed something on a replay, he likes to see the game the way he did in his old job, in the booth. Nobody in his head.
So he’ll go back to that, his voice the only one in the room, and do his own analysis right there at home. He used to do this work for thousands. Now it’s usually just his wife.
Talking through the replays was one of his favorite parts of that old job. As a broadcaster, White always wanted to find a detail in the replay that a fan at home would’ve missed. To this day, he hears from people who say they learned something from him on the broadcasts. It’s his favorite compliment.
So, every once in a while, he recreates the old challenge as best he can. Like he’s said over and over again, even through the drama of the last four years, you never know what the future will bring.
“I just do it for practice more than anything else,” White says.