Becoming Yordano

Royals Academy teaches more than baseball

The road to the Royals Academy in Guerra is shared by the academy of the Houston Astros. All 30 major-league clubs have training installations in the Dominican now.
The road to the Royals Academy in Guerra is shared by the academy of the Houston Astros. All 30 major-league clubs have training installations in the Dominican now. The Kansas City Star

Adorning a wall in the reception office of the Royals Academy for Latin American players is an oversized photo of Kauffman Stadium, a sort of Holy Grail for those who come through here.

But getting to Kansas City has been attainable only for a chosen few of the hundreds who’ve passed through this program.

Such academies have become an essential link in the chain for aspiring Latin American players, making for a dynamic that some believe exploits even as it furnishes opportunity.

Signing with any team and being invited to the all-expense-paid academy might be a passport to playing major-league baseball. But it ensures nothing to the minority that so much as reach the minor leagues, only a few of whom then make it to the bigs.

Even so … it all starts here.

“Yes sir, that’s why they don’t want to leave,” said academy field coordinator and native Dominican native Victor Baez. “They cry when you tell them, ‘Kid, sorry.’”

Among current Royals, the academy was a launching pad for Dominican pitchers Yordano Ventura and Kelvin Herrera and a way station for Venezuelan catcher Salvador Perez.

Each of those three was signed within about two years of Moore’s hire, meaning the Royals in that brief span alone cultivated more lasting and impactful players in Latin America than they had in the previous 37 years of their existence.

That, and those to come, reflect scouting by the Royals and ongoing development at the academy, a multipronged venture that extends beyond putting players in Royals gear and teaching them baseball fundamentals.

Bunking eight to a room and with 10:30 p.m. curfews (when the Wi-Fi goes out, too), they also are taught training regimens and diet education (new concepts to nearly all) and English (particularly as it applies to baseball) through Rosetta Stone online classes. They are also given lessons in everything from Royals history to U.S. culture.

“My No. 1 job is to prepare them for life in the States,” said Jeff Diskin, the former Pembroke Hill baseball coach who now is the academy’s coordinator of cultural development.

Diskin will spend much of the summer here, working with his charges on things mundane — eye contact, ordering food, how to open and use a bank account, responding to interview questions and simply the importance of being on time — to the more substantial.

A workbook the Royals use asks players to respond to questions such as “Which supplements are safe to use?” and “What is the drinking age in the United States?” and even “What does the word ‘rape’ mean?”

Asked about all that’s entailed in the book, Diskin said, “Those are things we have to address.”

Said Baez: “Nothing is taken for granted.”

That’s part of it, too: teaching that nothing can be taken for granted.

Most of the players who come here won’t make it past this phase, what Diskin and Baez call “Plan A.” But Baez and Diskin also consider it a priority to instill Plan B, the backup plan, and to harp on the ramifications of Plan C — the trouble that lurks ahead without a Plan B.

“There aren’t too many kids who are going to make it in the big leagues,” Baez said. “So we feel good about them having another opportunity in life.”

That’s part of why Baez begins every day with a motivational talk or life message, whether it’s about respect for family or dealing with failure within the game or making good decisions …

And the potential consequences of making poor ones, like budding star Oscar Taveras did when he drank excessively before driving himself and his girlfriend to their deaths in an October automobile accident.

“That kind of success, that kind of money so quick like that, it’s dangerous, man, it’s dangerous,” Baez said. “That’s why I try to make that point to guys. They need to learn, because life is the same movie with different actors.

“You either learn or it’s going to happen again with somebody else.”

All of which is what the Royals want players to leave here with, whether it’s as they move up or just move on.

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868 or send email to vgregorian@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @vgregorian. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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