Vahe Gregorian

Vahe Gregorian: Bubba Starling’s Dominican adventure speaks to Royals’ priorities

The Royals’ Bubba Starling went 1 for 1 with a walk in a 7-3 loss to the Reds on Tuesday in Goodyear, Ariz.
The Royals’ Bubba Starling went 1 for 1 with a walk in a 7-3 loss to the Reds on Tuesday in Goodyear, Ariz. jsleezer@kcstar.com

Kelvin Herrera is sitting in front of the vacant locker in the Royals clubhouse that honors the dearly departed Yordano Ventura as he considers their common launch point at the Royals Academy in the Dominican Republic.

“It’s kind of a little resort,” he said, smiling. “It’s a different world there.”

A sign out front of the academy in Guerra, near Santo Domingo, proclaims, “It all starts here.”

Indeed, that enterprise is so essential to the Royals that the proclamation speaks to more than merely the host of players who have been nurtured there — including Venezuelan catcher Salvador Perez.

It also explains why general manager Dayton Moore considers it significant to send some inherently more privileged American-born players there to help them appreciate from what and where many of their teammates come.

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While Moore says the idea isn’t unique to the Royals, the gesture resonates all the more in the wake of the death of Ventura in a car accident Jan. 22 in the Dominican, a startling circumstance that has left Ventura on the minds of many since.

It also stands out in a time in which empathy and acceptance seem in short supply, particularly when it comes to foreigners, because the Royals treat those dwindling values as fundamental to their cause and way.

“It’s important to get out of your comfort zone in anything you do, and it’s important to understand where many of your teammates come from, some of the challenges that they have,” Moore said. “And let me say this: Everybody has challenges in this game, whether you grow up in the (United States) or not. But I think it just helps you become a better teammate, and ultimately that’s what you need to be.

“The most important thing about playing this game is that you end up being a great teammate.”

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Which is how Gardner native Bubba Starling, the No. 5 overall pick in the 2011 draft, came to spend 10 days in the Dominican this offseason with a handful of younger Royals prospects.

Staying for several days in what Herrera considered luxury, the man who received a $7.5 million signing bonus slept in a room with eight bunk beds next to a communal bathroom and woke up to multiple shrill alarms.

Like his Hispanic counterparts, Starling showered in cold water and brushed his teeth not with water from the sink but from buckets they’d fill with clean water from outside.

He’d get on buses to take part in community service, handing out food or painting houses and playing ball with kids, relishing the smiles and natural joy of the people he’d meet … even as he was jarred by the sad spectacle of poverty and the anxiety of how people drove.

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“There are people living under tin roofs with just nothing, no clothes, running around naked; it’s just tough seeing that,” he said. “They’re fighting every day to get food … and just live.

“And the traffic got me. My hands were sweaty riding on the bus every day, because they legitimately have people coming at you, and they don’t move out of the way. People just dart out in front of everyone.”

“It just makes you stop and think,” he added, “how fortunate we are here.”

The enlightening experience was similar to what third baseman Mike Moustakas felt when he made the same journey several years ago.

Both the natural splendor of the country and its squalor had left a deep impression, he said on the Royals bus on the way to Ventura’s funeral in January after the 25-year-old pitcher had died two days earlier.

“Just being able to experience what they were experiencing was definitely eye-opening,” Moustakas said Monday. “Until you actually see it, until you’ve been there and lived it for a little bit, you can’t really understand what these guys go through just to get over here and how hard it is to get over here — let alone make it to the big leagues.”

The expedition may or may not have a substantial impact on Starling’s growth as a player.

While Moore has been saying for nearly two years that Starling could play the outfield for the Royals right now, he regressed at the plate last season when he hit .185 at Class AA Northwest Arkansas after apparent breakthroughs in 2015.

Starling all of a sudden is 24, a fact he jokingly said means he’s “getting old now” but also logically says … if not now, when?

“I don’t look at it as a make or a break year,” Moore said, “but it’s an important year for him.”

Of course, hope springs eternal here.

So Moore adds that “we believe in his future,” manager Ned Yost says his swing looks better and Starling said he has shed “some distractions around me” and is ready to make true strides.

Only time will tell on that, of course.

But at least through his offseason journey he has grown as a person — and automatically become the better teammate Moore seeks to cultivate — one Herrera was thrilled to hear had been to the Dominican and now eager to speak with him about it.

The Royals front office “feel that it’s crucial,” Moore said. “It’s not only good for the American players, but it’s good for the Hispanic players to see that the players from the States are making an effort to be a part of their culture.

“It breaks down barriers.”

From one different world to another.

Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian

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