Rusty Kuntz has spent the last two offseasons trying to convince his superiors to let him take on a new role.
Kuntz, the Royals’ long-time first-base coach, would be fine taking on a roving-instructor role that would allow him to teach throughout the organization’s minor-league system. At age 62, he could do without the grind of major-league travel. A master of base running and outfield defense, Kuntz enjoys teaching above all.
But each winter, Royals manager Ned Yost and general manager Dayton Moore have offered the same response: You’re coming back.
Kuntz laughs at the stories. In some ways, the decision is not his. So he has spent the last three seasons training a protégé, former Royals outfielder Mitch Maier, a man who could eventually replace him.
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“A baseball guy,” Kuntz says. “The more information you give him, the more he loves it.”
Maier, a former first-round draft pick, played for the Royals during 2006-12. He is filling in as the Royals’ first-base coach this September after an eye procedure left Kuntz with issues in his peripheral vision in his right eye. The problem is not permanent, Kuntz says, but it was affecting his ability to pick up line drives off the bat while coaching first base.
“When Moose pulled it [the other day], I didn’t see it,” Kuntz said. “And so I just panicked. I just ducked my head, and I took my helmet and I put it in front of my face, and I heard it hit that dugout suite behind me. And I went: ‘This is stupid. This is not going to work.’”
Maier, 35, began his coaching apprenticeship under Kuntz during spring training in 2015. The role continued in 2016, and he’s spent this season as the club’s minor-league outfield/base running/bunting coordinator, spending time with the major-league club and moving from Class AAA Omaha all the way down to rookie ball.
“Implementing the stuff I was taught as a player and now through Rusty, trying to get them from day one,” Maier said. “[Teaching] what we expected on the bases, getting better in the outfield, teaching them how to bunt.”
The goal, Maier said, is to offer players the same terminology and instructions in the minor leagues so they’re ready to understand Kuntz’s system once they arrive in Kansas City. Maier has spent much of the last three years by Kuntz’s side, soaking in the knowledge and mastering the art of outfield placements, scouting reports, and the keys that opposing pitchers offer potential base-stealers.
“It’s hard to find them that are that good,” Kuntz said of Maier’s coaching potential. “So if you got them, you got to use them.”
So in time, perhaps Maier can become the next Kuntz. But here’s one question: Does he have a catchphrase like Kuntz’s “Hey, player!”?
“I don’t,” Maier said. “I’ve been working on it. I’ve been brainstorming.”