The initial meeting came four years ago, Brett Eibner says. He packed a bag. He prepared for a weekend. He showed up ready for anything. It was 2012, and Eibner, a minor-league outfielder in the Royals system, had traveled to spend a few days with a man named Jack Curtis, a Wisconsin-based author and motivational speaker.
Curtis specialized in working with young baseball players — in sorting through the mental side of the game. Eibner, in many ways, was a special case. A second-round draft pick out of Arkansas in 2010, Eibner’s baseball career, to that point, had been ravaged by injuries, its pace slowed to a frustrating crawl. The season before, he had torn a ligament in his thumb, missing half the season. Royals officials were looking for a way to free his mind.
A two-way star in college, excelling as a pitcher and outfielder, Eibner was also something of a perfectionist. Club officials viewed him as a thinker, the kind of player who was always looking for an advantage, who wore the slights of failure harder than others. With his career struggling to get off the ground, Eibner had a meeting with Royals general manager J.J. Picollo, who suggested a weekend refuge with Curtis.
“It was about rebooting my mind,” Eibner says. “We just talked about things in baseball. We talked about my thought process. We went back to a time when everything was going great and I had a great year.”
Four years later, Eibner points to the meeting as an axis point, a moment he stopped dwelling on his failures and started focusing on a ritual of preparation. There were daily affirmations and visualization techniques and sessions with other staff members in the organization. There were positive thoughts and mind exercises. The tools that Curtis bestowed, Eibner says, have remained as Eibner gutted through more injuries and re-burnished his prospect credentials with a sterling performance at Class AAA Omaha in 2015.
“Brett has always had a ton of ability,” Picollo says. “It was just a matter of putting it together, staying healthy and being productive.”
Four year removed from his weekend with Curtis, Eibner, 27, is right where he wants to be, on the cusp of the big leagues after batting .303 with 19 homers and 23 doubles in 103 games at Omaha.
As big-league camp opened in Arizona, he profiled as an intriguing outfielder who could perhaps put pressure on Jarrod Dyson and Paulo Orlando, the prohibitive favorites to share the duties in right field. But then Dyson went down with an oblique strain on Wednesday, an injury that could sideline him for six weeks. As the Royals reviewed their other options in the outfield — including Reymond Fuentes, Travis Snider and Jose Martinez — Eibner emerged as a candidate to claim a 25-man roster spot.
“I like his athleticism,” Royals manager Ned Yost says. “I like his ability to play defense. I’ve watched him over the last couple years grow as a hitter. He was very impressive in big-league spring training last year.”
Eibner, of course, has already shown he can rake in the thin air of Arizona. A year ago, he showed up to big-league camp and batted .500 (16 for 32) with six homers and four doubles in 16 games. The performance turned heads on the coaching staff, re-fueled his confidence and set the tone for the best year of his career. But when the Royals broke camp and headed for Kansas City, he was assigned to Omaha. This year, Eibner would like to push for a spot in Kansas City.
“It’s all part of growing up in this game,” Eibner says.
For the moment, club officials view Eibner as an intriguing athlete in an outfield cluster, a player who fits the franchise’s signature style. At 6 feet 3 and 200 pounds, he cuts an imposing figure in the locker room. As a former collegiate pitcher who has also played center field, he possesses an arm that can play in a corner outfield spot.
“There’s a handful of players in our system that have multiple tools,” Picollo says. “He can run, he can throw, he’s got power. He can really play defense. He was one of those guys we felt like, even if he’s not doing one thing well for a period of time, he’s going to do other things well. So guys like that fit on a major-league team.”
The question, of course, is when that fit may occur. With Dyson on the mend, the Royals possess at least one open spot in the outfield. But after years of long rehabs and days in the minor leagues, Eibner has learned to take nothing for granted.
“Baseball is mostly mental,” Eibner says. “That was a big part that I needed to pick up.”