Royals’ Holland stays true to roots after improbable rise

06/01/2014 12:09 AM

06/03/2014 2:23 PM

Greg Holland grew up in a trailer park in rural Marion, N.C., and so be it if that conjures a mean-spirited stereotype.

“I tell everybody we’re the epitome of trailer trash … and that I’m the biggest riffraff here,” said Holland’s father, Scott, laughing.

In fact, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, this was an idyllic place for the carpenter and his wife, Kim, to raise three children who became a nurse, a professional baseball player and a pro golfer.

Around the mobile homes, there was plenty of grassy space to romp around and trees to climb. In the woods, maybe 100 yards from the back door, they could hunt deer.

In the summer, the boys — Greg and younger brother Chase — might pack up ball gloves, a football and fishing gear and disappear until dark.

If they weren’t watching their father play what he called “old-man” softball, they might spend all day with friends wading into a stream in just gym shorts and sneakers and fishing until “the sun started falling a little bit,” as Greg put it.

“That’s what life’s about,” Greg Holland said. “Not having a huge house and stuff like that. But … doing the things you want.”

Those roots and that perspective explain something about Holland’s implausible journey from unrecruited, undersized high school infielder to the pinnacle of his profession as the Royals’ closer — the most dynamically dependable player on a team otherwise hard to figure.

His background also helps explain how and why Holland remains so unspoiled and at ease in both his own skin and uniquely stressful role.

By nature and example, Holland always has appreciated the little things and wrung the most he could from life.

“Anything worth doing,” his father ingrained in him, “is worth doing to the best of your ability.”

So Holland, 28, probably would be applying that credo with as much conviction as a park ranger if baseball hadn’t turned out.

Instead, he’s pretty much made it in baseball after converting 62 of 66 save opportunities the last two seasons, including a franchise-record 47 (of 50) in 2013 and 15 of 16 in 2014.

“You take it for granted,” manager Ned Yost said, “because he’s that good.”

That would have been an absurd notion about 10 years ago when Holland, perhaps 5 feet 7 and 150 pounds, enrolled at Western Carolina University and walked on to the baseball team.

“I never really was big, never really was the fastest or could jump the highest,” he said. “I just wanted to compete and see how far I could push myself and how good a player I could be.

“Because I never knew where that limitation would be.”

In high school, he’d mostly been an infielder. He pitched a few innings as a junior and then a bit more as a senior out of necessity, his father said.

Even that was a limited engagement after his jaw was wired shut from being thumped by a catcher’s pickoff throw.

So when he joined the Catamounts, he hardly was set on pitching. He just wanted to keep playing.

“I didn’t really care what the gig was going to be,” he said.

Holland made an indelible impression with his work habits, which for a while was the only reason he was kept and finally was deemed a pitcher.

By 2006, his mechanics and velocity had improved substantially with the tutelage of then-Catamounts pitching coach Paul Menhart.

“That was probably the biggest change in my career,” he said. “From being raw to someone who kind of had an idea.”

A year later, he became someone the Royals had an idea could help, and they picked him in the 10th round of the draft.

A screaming fastball informed their thinking, but so did a hunch about his mind-set that has proved evident now.

“He’s got something that really can’t be taught,” pitching coach Dave Eiland said, “and that’s the mental makeup that he has.”

Yet his trajectory wasn’t immediately clear.

In 2008, he started seven games with the Royals’ Class A affiliate in Wilmington, Del. He gained traction in this direction by saving eight games for Class AA Northwest Arkansas in 2009.

Two years later, after a winter stint in Venezuela, he was with the parent club for keeps and, shazam, ascended into the closer role after apprenticing as the eighth-inning man behind Joakim Soria.

“I knew if I could throw the eighth inning and be successful,” he said, “why couldn’t I come in in the ninth and be successful?”

That difference hardly is automatic, something the Royals must consider as they weigh budget and options going forward.

In Holland’s case, though, it’s clear that a combination of resolve and a certain sense of peace have helped him avert the pitfalls that seem to be occupational hazards.

In addition to consistently being able to throw strikes, he said, maybe nothing matters more than being able to “slow the game down when stuff starts going bad.”

“Being able to take a deep breath, step off the mound, slow the game down and focus on what you need to do,” he said. “When bad things start happening as a young player, it’s really easy to kind of come unraveled. And the game speeds up, and you don’t think clearly.

“Your head’s kind of spinning, and then at that point you’re just kind of looking at the catcher, getting a sign and throwing it. And that’s when stuff gets really bad.”

As for how he controls that, Holland laughed and said he had no idea … then offered one.

He’s able to distract himself with … what’s actually happening.

He immerses himself in the count, the score, the hitter’s strategy, etc., and it gets him to this: “I’m thinking about what I need to do right now.”

Eiland also correctly says Holland has “no panic in him,” though that’s not the same as being fearless.

“Fear can go a long way in this game if you harness it the right way,” Holland said, laughing and adding, “You don’t want to get in jams, but when you do, you should really embrace it.

“And, for me, that’s really helped. Because I take it as, ‘Let’s see what we can do here, because it doesn’t really get any harder than this.’”

If it seems as if Holland has it figured out, though, he figures this, too: He has no idea when “this game’s going to come to a screeching halt.”

So success has only redoubled his work ethic, if for no other reason than he can always look in the mirror and say he did all he could do.

“He expects to be perfect,” Eiland said.

That he’s stayed grounded shows up all over Holland’s demeanor and life, which he’s grateful hasn’t had the trappings of celebrity.

“That’s one of the beauties of being average height, maybe a little bit overweight,” he said. “I don’t have any problem in the grocery store; I’m not getting tracked down by paparazzi.”

He’s not suddenly “a big spender, or anything,” he said, smiling. “It’s not really in my nature.”

Entirely in his nature is that “the finer things” remain the same as they’ve ever been: to be with family and friends, or just outdoors, and to keep living life to the fullest like the way it feels when he’s back home.

“Sitting on the porch under a shade tree, listening to the birds chirp, having a beer and heating the grill up,” as the father described the son’s favorite moments. “That’s about how it is around here, and that’s not a bad way to be.”

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868 or send email to vgregorian@kcstar.com.

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