Royals

Royals top pick Bobby Witt Jr. follows his father’s footsteps — and makes his own mark

The tears that came rolling from the eyes of Bobby Witt Jr. and Sr. had been building for years, and they weren’t a result of pain or sadness.

The tears held the memories of hours spent at tee ball games and in the backyard, sweat poured while working to master a swing or backhand scoop as well as traveling from one ballpark to the next.

The Royals’ selection of Witt Jr. as the No. 2 overall pick in the Major League Baseball Draft came with a wave of emotions along with one huge step towards the realization of a big-league dream.

“I have really no idea what was going through me,” Witt Jr. said Tuesday afternoon. “I felt like I was dreaming yesterday, then I woke up this morning and looked at my phone and it’s still true. I’m just happy to be a Royal.”

Less than 24 hours after Witt Jr. received the life-changing phone call from Royals scouting director Lonnie Goldberg, sat on the couch and watched his name appear on the television, the nation’s top high school player and recent graduate of Colleyville Heritage High School sat in the same spot for an interview with The Star.

His father, Bobby Witt Sr., who pitched for 16 years in the majors, monitored the second day of the draft one room away. Witt Sr., the No. 3 overall pick in the 1985 draft, now works as an agent and senior client manager for Octagon.

The Witts reign as the highest-drafted father-son tandem in MLB history. They passed Tom Grieve (sixth overall in 1968) and Ben Grieve (second overall in 1994) for that distinction.

“Personally, I’ll never forget it,” Witt Sr. said of the tearful moment of celebration Monday night. “I feel like I’ve had an opportunity to do a lot of cool things in baseball. I was on the ‘84 Olympic team. I was here in Texas when we won the first championship, as far as a division championship, with the Rangers. Then I was fortunate enough to be with the Diamondbacks when we won a World Series.

“Watching him this year go down to Panama and playing for the USA and get a gold medal was really cool. But this without a doubt as far as any type of baseball thing, it tops everything. It trumps everything that I’ve ever done. To be a part of this and be able to see this was just phenomenal.”

Baseball in his heart

It doesn’t take long upon arriving at the Witts’ home in the Dallas/Fort Worth suburb of Colleyville to realize a ball player resides inside.

A poster on one gate shows Witt Jr. in his high school uniform holding the age-old pose of resting a bat on a shoulder while looking into the camera. Another poster shows members of his senior class at Colleyville Heritage posing side-by-side in uniform.

Rest assured, it only seems only seems as though Witt Jr. was born into the sport. In fact, a bat never found its way into his hand until he was 4 or 5 and enrolled in tee ball.

Of course, it didn’t take him very long to decide he didn’t want to put the bat down. Well, unless he was swapping it for a baseball glove. That exchange seemed amenable.

“It’s America’s pastime and every since I was little, I don’t know, I’ve felt like it’s been my first love truly,” Witt Jr. said.

Witt Sr. didn’t steer his son towards a career in the sport he loved, but he recognized how his son gravitated toward the game and yearned to master it.

A moment still stands out in the elder Witt’s mind from when his son was around 9.

“I was hitting him ground balls and we were out there for probably, oh, 45 minutes to an hour — just me and him,” Witt Sr. said. “It got to the point where I was good, I was like, ‘That’s plenty. Let’s break for the day, shut it down now.’ He was like I need to have a few more, so I hit him a few more. Then he goes ‘Let me get a couple more, work on the backhand.’

“Right then, I kinda felt like he has the work ethic that you ‘re looking for. He’s not afraid to go out and work. He wants to try to get better. This was simple stuff over in the backyard, and it went from there.”

A family game

The Texas Rangers drafted Witt Sr., a 6-foot-2 right-hander, out of the University of Oklahoma, in 1985. He pitched 11 of his 16 major-league seasons with the Texas Rangers during two stints (1986-92 and 1995-98), and he posted eight years of double-digit win totals, including 17 wins in 1990.

Witt Sr. appeared in 430 career games, making 397 starts, and also pitched for the Oakland Athletics, Florida Marlins, St. Louis Cardinals, Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks.

The younger Witt didn’t get to see his father’s career in person, at least not that he can remember. The youngest of four siblings and the only boy, Witt Jr. was born in 2000. Witt Sr. last pitched in the majors during the Diamondbacks’ championship season of 2001.

What Witt Jr. knows of his father’s career has come from looking it up online, watching video clips and hearing stories.

One story that Witt Jr. partially remembered was that of a no-hit bid ruined by a controversial call.

Well, that came in a June 23, 1994 game against the Royals in Oakland. Witt Sr. pitched nine innings and allowed just one hit, striking out 14 with no walks. Greg Gagne recorded a bunt single, which Witt Sr. still contests decades later on the basis that he beat Gagne to first base.

While Witt Sr. served as a pitching coach during his son’s early years in youth baseball, he stepped aside after he reached age 12.

“I think the thing that I just wanted him to be able to do whatever he wanted,” Witt Sr. said. “As a parent as a dad, it was just the opportunity for him to just go out and play.”

The majority of Witt Jr.’s up close and personal experiences in major-league clubhouses as a youth came through his brothers-in-law, pitchers James Russell and Zach Neal. Yes, two of his older sisters married professional baseball players.

Russell, who also attended Colleyville Heritage High, played for Cubs, Braves and Phillies and now plays in Mexico. Neal pitched for Oakland and the LA Dodgers and is now playing in Japan.

One of Witt Jr. most memorable baseball moments was shagging balls as an 8-year-old during batting practice at Wrigley Field. During the summer he’d take a trip out to see his brothers-in-law wherever they were playing and soak up as many ballpark experiences as he could.

Familiar footsteps

Logically, comparisons and some pressure figure to accompany being the son of a former big leaguer and having the same name.

Witt Sr. contends his son has never let any of that bother him.

“He’s just embraced playing the game,” he said. “He doesn’t really care about what’s being said outside and all that. As long as he’s able to go out and play a game in between the lines or in the backyard, he’s a happy kid.”

Witt Jr. played football and basketball as well as baseball growing up. He ran track in middle school. Through his freshman year of high school, he remained a member of the football team as a wide receiver and cornerback for the junior varsity.

Ask Witt Jr. about the “son of a big leaguer” label and the first thing he’ll say is he loves pressure. At the same time, nothing about Witt Jr. indicates that he’s ever looked at his name or his dad’s legacy as pressure.

“With having the same name as my dad and everything, people would say, ‘Oh, you’re following his footsteps,’” Witt Jr. said. “Well, he was a pitcher and I’m a position player, so we’re kind of going different ways. But yeah, I’m following his footsteps.

“He played 16 years in the major leagues, and if I ever get that opportunity it’ll be amazing. I’ll keep working for that. He’s always been a role model for me. Getting to have him here in my house as my dad has been amazing. It’s almost like a little cheat sheet that I have.”

Witt Jr. certainly distinguished himself through his play. He’s been the highest-rated prospect in his high school class for several years. The 6-foot, 180-pound shortstop won 2018-19 Gatorade National Baseball Player of the Year honors.

In 2018, Witt won the High School Home Run Derby at the MLB All-Star Game as well as MVP honors at the Under Armour All-America Game, the States Play Series and the U18 Pan American Championships.

A right-handed hitter, he went into last weekend with a .515 batting average, 15 home runs, 15 doubles, eight triples and 54 RBIs. He also had a .579 on-base percentage and 17 stolen bases.

His bloodlines only add to his impressive list of accomplishments.

“Professional baseball is every single day,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. “There’s no mental and there’s no physical break. So you want to be able to find players who understand what that is like, what that challenge is all about. There was no doubt in our mind that Bobby Witt Jr. understands that. He’s grown up in it. It’s been part of his life.”

A special athlete

Only Alex Rodriguez, according to MLB.com, was rated higher than Witt Jr. as a shortstop draft prospect. He’s viewed as a five-tool player, with the potential to hit for power and average, as well as field, throw and run.

Witt Jr., who turns 19 on June 14, is in line to earn about $7.79 million in a signing bonus per his slot in the draft. His primary focus this week will chasing a state championship with Colleyville Heritage (37-3), starting with Thursday night’s state semifinal.

The Royals current shortstop, Adalberto Mondesi, another son of a former big leaguer (Raul Mondesi), appears on the verge of stardom with his breakout season at 23. But both Witt Jr. and Moore expressed confidence that Witt can play multiple positions if needed.

“A guy like Troy Tulowitzki comes to mind, although (Witt Jr.) is more of a speed player,” Moore said of Witt Jr. “He actually has some very similar tools to Mondi other than he’s not a switch hitter. Mondi absolutely flies. Bobby Witt Jr. is a plus runner, plus arm, has plus raw power. He’s hit home runs in major-league ballparks against the best competition his peer group has to offer.”

The Royals locked in on Witt Jr. so closely that he didn’t play an inning this season without a member or multiple members of their scouting department watching. About a month ago, that included Moore spending two days in Colleyville.

“I went in there and spent a day with him,” Moore said. “He worked out. Then I stayed the night and watched him go through pregame and then play a game the next day. I spent time with the family as well. It’s a big part of what we do. It’s important to set the tone.”

Witt Jr. still sounded awestruck a month later that the Royals GM visited his home. Witt Jr. listened to Moore expound on the organization’s philosophy, how he fit as a player who brought energy and joy to the playing field and represented the franchise off the field.

Witt Jr. bought in wholeheartedly. He’s already describing the Royals like family.

“They’ve pretty much been at every single one of my games,” Witt Jr. said. “That shows you the respect they have for me. I just want to pay them back in some shape, form or fashion. So I’ve got to work hard, be myself out there and have some fun.”

Related stories from Kansas City Star

Lynn Worthy covers the Kansas City Royals and Major League Baseball for The Star. A native of the Northeast, he’s covered high school, collegiate and professional sports for The Lowell Sun, Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin, Allentown Morning Call and The Salt Lake Tribune. He’s won awards for sports features and sports columns.
  Comments