Vahe Gregorian

What star-crossed but unyielding Royals pitcher Kyle Zimmer has learned... and teaches

Kyle Zimmer dreams of pitching for Royals at Kauffman Stadium

Kansas City Royals pitcher Kyle Zimmer spent last year rehabbing and going through free agency, before signing back with the Royals. Zimmer's goal is to make a difference playing for the big league club and someday pitching at Kauffman Stadium.
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Kansas City Royals pitcher Kyle Zimmer spent last year rehabbing and going through free agency, before signing back with the Royals. Zimmer's goal is to make a difference playing for the big league club and someday pitching at Kauffman Stadium.

From his view behind the plate for Kyle Zimmer’s spring training debut in 2013, reserve Royals catcher Cam Gallagher recalled Wednesday, the No. 5 overall pick in the 2012 draft had “electric stuff’ and routinely was throwing 97 or 98 mph.

“’This guy is going to be in the big leagues for a long time,’” Gallagher thought then.

That apparent inevitability, we all know, has been interrupted by an unfathomable conspiracy of injuries and twists — including the Royals releasing him last year after his latest health setback and declaring that time had run out on him.

His path has been so full of pitfalls that many quite reasonably assume Zimmer never will throw even his first big-league pitch, and it’s tempting to dismiss his baseball career as myth or mirage.

But the scoffing and cynicism don’t account for the hunger of a man on a quest.

So there is nothing illusory about the meaning of Zimmer’s presence in the Royals’ spring training clubhouse on the 40-man roster after being resigned in January. His resilience is remarkable and exemplary, particularly considering how often he was in what he called “dark places” and asked himself, “Why am I still doing this?”

His dazzling potential may or may not ever be realized, but he is living testament to the trite-but-true notion that you only fail when you stop trying.

“I’m not going to give up,” he said, “until someone takes my jersey away.”

Especially after his hopes were resuscitated last year by an exhaustive program with Driveline Baseball performance training that left him again throwing in the mid-90s through three-inning stints.

“Hopefully nothing new crops up,” he said, smiling and adding, “because anything could happen any day.”

Few know that better than Zimmer does, at least in baseball terms: Elbow surgery in 2012; bicep tendinitis in 2013; shoulder surgery in 2014; shoulder soreness in 2015; thoracic outlet syndrome surgery in 2016; debilitating shoulder soreness in 2017, the last time he so much as pitched in a minor-league game; shoulder fatigue in 2018 that effectively ended his season after retiring one batter in spring training.

“Obviously, it’s been a rocky road, and it hasn’t been the script that we all planned out,” general manager Dayton Moore said.

Other than one point of small consolation in the moment that may yet prove pivotal: before the Royals draft a player, Moore said, they ask themselves if he might be able to handle setbacks such as injuries or other issues.

“Our people felt that he could,” Moore said. “And so far, he has.”

Zimmer obviously would have preferred the original plot, but he has found purpose and meaning and perspective in how this has unfolded, too.

Stuff that resonates as it is but will reverberate all the more if he ever pitches in Kauffman Stadium.

For one thing, he gets that it’s just baseball.

“This is nothing compared with some things people are dealing with around the world,” he said.

Even as the anguished times have reinforced what this dream really means to him, it’s made him more prepared for whatever comes next. Turns out there are worse things than learning to appreciate patience and perseverance.

“I think that everything happens for a reason, and my faith is something that also helped me get through all this,” he said. “So just digging myself deep into faith and the belief that there’s a greater purpose for me has helped a lot, as well. … I’m definitely better equipped going forward just in life, not only just in baseball.”

More than once, he’s wondered if that time had come. “Am I ever going to catch a break?” he’d ask himself.

More to the point, he’d tell himself, “Man, I’m so over this,” and half-heartedly drift toward moving on with his life. Maybe it was time to go back to college and set a new course.

“Not really, but yeah,” he said, smiling and adding, “Then the next day I wake up, and it’s like, ‘Alright, let’s go.’”

While surely cursing his luck at times, he insists he never lost confidence in himself or his belief that he can do this.

His latest surge of revived hope stems from his time at Driveline in Seattle, where he believes soft tissue work and more refined weightlifting and flexibility programs have given him a much stronger foundation of strength and mobility than ever before.

To say nothing of a mental reset.

“I was able to sort of slow everything down and rebuild a foundation from the ground up,” he said.

As it happens, the Royals weren’t the only team that believed this could propel Zimmer. He heard from several other teams in the offseason. And he listened. But …

“I never thought of myself as anything other than a Royal,” he said. “And then I didn’t really have any interest in going anywhere else other than the Royals.”

That’s part of another reason to root for this story to come to fruition.

Even after the Royals released him last year, they were frequently in touch and helped fund his time at Driveline. That’s why he has such reverence for the Royals’ front office and Moore, believing that Moore finds a way to put players first even amid business.

“It’s just great to be a Royal,” Zimmer said.

It’s funny, though. It’s possible he’s closer than ever to a breakthrough for a team that would love to see him in the bullpen in Kansas City this year.

Zimmer doesn’t allow himself to envision that day right now, a mindset that Moore endorses.

“It’s too unpredictable,” Moore said. “If you get (too) attached to the outcome of any situation, you get derailed and deflated in the day-to-day process.”

An outcome that’s easy to be skeptical about. But the pursuit is plenty telling about Zimmer when it comes to the journey. And it’s sure to be stirring if it ever becomes about the destination.

“He’s going to give you everything he’s got, and he’s going to go until his body tells you he can’t any more,” said Gallagher, who has felt a kinship with Zimmer since that day in 2013. “If he gets back to where he was, which I know he will, it’s going to be fun to watch.”

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.