Sam Mellinger

Art Stewart, involved in every draft the Royals ever had, is ready to make it one more

He is 92 years old, a legendary baseball man hellbent on working back to his seat behind home plate, and the first thing Art Stewart wants to talk about is my kids.

He’s never met them, but has seen plenty of pictures and knows their names and that the older one is in tee ball. I exaggerate a hit from the other day. Art makes the same joke he’s made a dozen times before.

“We’ll have to get an information card on him!”

I laugh every time, but I’ve always heard a genuine part of Art in the joke. The only scout inducted to the Royals Hall of Fame is always looking for talent. That search has taken him to baseball diamonds coast to coast, from farmlands to urban cores. It’s led him to sign one kid for a furnace, and convinced a stranger to siphon gas for his broken down rental car along Alligator Alley.

That search will likely continue sometime this afternoon, when Royals officials are expected to continue a tradition by letting Stewart make the team’s last draft selection. Stewart’s career is older than the Royals, and older than the draft. The club has never conducted a draft without some input from Stewart — from making the last selection to running the whole thing.

He’s got some stories. In 2006, his last pick was a raw outfielder that turned out to be Jarrod Dyson, the best 50th round selection in baseball history. Once, it meant selecting Shoeless Joe Jackson’s great grandson, whose family was so excited a scout showed up that they retrieved the old World Series ring from a safe deposit box.

“But he never made it,” Stewart said.

Stewart hasn’t been at the ballpark much the last year or two. For years, he color-coded scorebooks in a seat across the aisle from Buck O’Neil. Stewart hopes to be back in his seat by the end of the season. He’s always been optimistic.

He’s still working, by the way. He’s watched every pitch of the big league team, read every word of the minor league reports, and talked to scouts and coaches throughout the organization. He fills out his own reports.

He’s disappointed, like everyone. Encouraged by Hunter Dozier and Adalberto Mondesi and others but he knows it’s not enough. The most talented pitchers in the organization are a year or two away. He watches many of their starts, too.

“They’re coming,” Stewart said. “We know they’re coming.”

Stewart has been thinking a lot about fathers and sons lately. The Royals just took Bobby Witt Jr. with the No. 2 overall pick, and some believe he’s the game’s best shortstop prospect since Alex Rodriguez. Witt Jr. could be the single best prospect to ever enter the Royals system.

Stewart looked through his files and, sure enough, found a report from watching Witt Jr.’s father at Oklahoma. Great arm, good makeup, command needed time to develop.

Mondesi’s father, Raul, played 13 seasons in the majors. Brian Bannister’s father, Floyd, was the No. 1 overall pick in 1976. Before Witt Jr., the highest-profile son-of-a-big-leaguer the Royals ever drafted was probably Brian McRae — 17th overall in 1985. Hal McRae helped the Royals to their first World Series championship that fall. Brian spent 10 years in the big leagues.

“If the guy’s got some ability you never discount genes,” Stewart said. “Genes are a big thing. You’re seeing more of it all the time.”

By the time we’re off the phone, it’s been a half hour or so and we’ve talked about Patrick Mahomes (“is he going to win the MVP again?”), Ben Zobrist (“we had to go get him”), Kelvin Herrera (“I saw his fastball is down to 93, 94”) and of course tee ball.

A conversation with Stewart is often the best part of a day and if it’s not, you’ve had an exceptional day. He is relentlessly positive, but also open about mistakes. He has personal stories about some of the most prominent people in baseball history, from Bob Feller to Ted Williams to George Brett to Derek Jeter.

Stewart’s life is the story of baseball, in many ways, even now as he’s been away from the ballpark. Because no matter where he is physically, the reality is he’s never far from the game. He’ll be particularly close this afternoon, if the call comes.

They’ll give Stewart a few names, with the scouting report basics. Stewart will have an answer. He always does.

“The talent is always out there,” he said. “You just have to look.”

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.