Baseball

KC T-Bones, a factory for developing baseball talent on, off field, open season Friday

The Kansas City T-Bones are coming off their first championship in the American Association, though not their first championship overall.
The Kansas City T-Bones are coming off their first championship in the American Association, though not their first championship overall.

Nestled near Kansas Speedway and Children’s Mercy Park, T-Bones Stadium has been home to one of the most successful squads in Kansas City pro sports the past few seasons.

The Kansas City T-Bones baseball team won a franchise-best 57 games in 2017, and topped that mark in 2018 with 62 victories and the club’s first championship in the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball — the T-Bones’ best season since moving to Kansas City from Duluth, Minn., in 2003.

And while the T-Bones might be minor-league, they boast their share of major-league pedigree.

In the last two seasons alone, some 24 T-Bones players have had their contracts bought by Major League Baseball teams — including 14 last year.

The amount of talent and turnover has surprised even T-Bones general manager Chris Browne, whose club opens the 2019 season on Friday.

“The turnover we’ve had the past two years is kind of astounding,” Browne said. “Credit to the T-Bones’ coaching staff for enabling the kind of players we have to make strides and send them to the majors.”

The T-Bones haven’t just been busy winning hardware and preparing players for the majors, either. They’ve also afforded opportunities to local off-field talent — young men and women who want to work in sports not as players but around the game.

Browne said the T-Bones’ “proud” internship program recruits 30 to 40 high school and college students yearly from around the KC area. Each works within the T-Bones’ baseball operations department, from learning the ins and outs of communications and player development to trying their hand at groundskeeping and sales.

Like the players they support, past team interns have also gone on to become integral members of MLB organizations. Browne mentioned former broadcaster Tommy Thrall as one good example: A member of T-Bones’ broadcast crew from 2004-08, Thrall was the radio voice for the Cincinnati Reds’ Class AA affiliate, the Pensacola Blue Wahoos, from 2012-18.

Then, before opening day this year, Thrall got the call to join veteran Reds broadcaster Marty Brennaman for his 46th and final season as the team’s secondary play-by-play man and postgame show host. Once Brennaman retires, Thrall, a Smithville native, is expected to succeed him in the booth for the Reds.

“Broadcasting is something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and the T-Bones were starting out in Kansas City when I was in high school, so I thought that would be a great place to get started,” Thrall said. “The sports business is tough to get into, and the T-Bones allow that opportunity to see what it’s like to get into professional sports. It’s a point in my life I think very fondly of.”

Other T-Bones alumni have moved on to positions with teams around KC, such as the Royals and Chiefs. Browne said the T-Bones have good working relationships with both franchises.

Former intern Nick Relic, for instance, is now an assistant for player development/video coordinator with the Royals. A lifelong Kansas Citian who played baseball until college, Relic credited his T-Bones work in 2009 and 2010 for confirming that he wanted to make baseball a career.

“Getting some pro baseball experience while finishing school isn’t easy,” he said. “Major-league organizations want a lot of time and commitment out of you, so being with the T-Bones, working summers in the city where I grew up, was huge.

“Getting exposed to the lifestyle of professional baseball made me realize that I wanted to do this. I owe a lot to Chris and the rest of those guys. ... I wouldn’t be working in baseball without my time with them.”

As much as past interns are appreciative of Browne, he’s appreciative right back. Having started his career in sports through humble beginnings himself — he was a bat boy on the Royals’ 1985 championship team — Browne knows how tough it can be to break into the sports world.

“The amount of fine young ladies and gentlemen we’ve had come through the T-Bones has been fantastic,” Browne said. “In the sports business, you’ve got to start somewhere, and we provide a starting point for people who are interested.

“We’ve got a lot of guys with high-level jobs — lot of guys with great success stories overall. We’re so proud of that. ... We’re glad to be an early part of a good career.”

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