Vahe Gregorian

Kyle Zimmer’s emotional debut for Royals ends one chapter and sets up the next

Kyle Zimmer talks about making his debut for the Royals at Kauffman Stadium

Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Kyle Zimmer spoke with reporters after making his major-league debut in Kauffman Stadium on Sunday, March 31, 2019. The often-injured prospect had nearly given up on his dream before having a stellar spring.
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Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Kyle Zimmer spoke with reporters after making his major-league debut in Kauffman Stadium on Sunday, March 31, 2019. The often-injured prospect had nearly given up on his dream before having a stellar spring.

When a tearful Kyle Zimmer called his father, Eric, to tell him he had made the Royals’ 25-man roster after nearly seven years of cruel twists had sabotaged his once-promising baseball career, Eric Zimmer was so moved that he couldn’t speak for 15 minutes.

But that was only a prelude to Sunday, when he watched Kyle warm up in the bullpen and, at last, saw him begin to trot in to the mound at Kauffman Stadium.

There was emotion enough inherent in that sight, which evoked dozens of text messages in the minutes to come. But perhaps none was more poignant and telling than the one sent by assistant general manager Lonnie Goldberg.

Attached to the congratulatory text was a triumphant photo from June 2012, the day the Royals made Zimmer the fifth overall pick in the draft and he sat surrounded by friends and family who were basking in his bright future.

Before anyone could have known the grueling path he would have to traverse to pitch his first big-league inning, as he did on Sunday with two strikeouts in a scoreless eighth inning in a 6-3 loss to the Chicago White Sox.

So as Kyle walked off the field with a feeling he later said was like “floating” and a smile stuck on his face for easily the next hour and immersed in the moment, Eric Zimmer and other family members couldn’t help but reflect on the way here.

“Overcome” was the way Eric Zimmer put it outside the Royals clubhouse after he hugged his beaming son goodbye and started misting up again. Or was it still?

“This was a long journey, a long journey. It’s a story about perseverance and his resolve,” Eric Zimmer said, later adding, “He had to crawl over maybe a little more broken glass than some.”

The broken glass came in the form of an absurd onslaught of injuries that led the son to what he has called “dark places” and wondering when he’d ever get a break. He often contemplated whether this was what he was meant to be doing.

After all … 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; shoulder fatigue in 2018 that ended his season after retiring one batter in spring training.

Somehow, the answer always came back to this: “I’m not going to give up,” he said a few weeks ago in Surprise, “until someone takes my jersey away.”

On Sunday, he laughed and rephrased it this way: “I’m too stubborn to give up. That’s not who I am.”

The most radical move was last year, when the Royals simultaneously released Zimmer but essentially stayed at his side as he underwent a new form of performance training with Driveline Baseball.

“The definition of insanity is repeating the same thing and expecting a different outcome,” his father said. “So (he had to) take a block of time off.”

By the fall, he was throwing in the mid-90s again through three-inning stints. Promising stuff, but with his miserable fortune who knew if it would all hold up to ever get him here … let alone this year?

The ideal low-leverage situation for his debut presented itself Sunday, with the Royals trailing 6-0.

Zimmer warmed up in the bullpen with catcher Cam Gallagher, who caught Zimmer from the start in 2013 and could tell he had butterflies.

But he figured it best to let Zimmer work through that on his own on this occasion. And by the time Zimmer came out the bullpen door and tapped his heart and pointed to the sky and jogged in, he felt he had his breathing under control and was “actually not too nervous.”

The record will show that he hit the mid-90s repeatedly as he struck out the first man he ever faced, Daniel Palka. Then he induced a fly-out and allowed a single before striking out Yolmer Sanchez to end the inning and head into the dugout with this phase of his tale finally complete.

“That was pretty great,” he said, speaking specifically of the first strikeout but aptly of the whole stint. “That’s what you’re looking for; that was pretty special.”

Zimmer certainly deserves to pause and appreciate this moment, and so he thought about everyone from his family to his faith to fans to the people at Driveline to Royals trainers.

“They were in the trenches with me this whole time,” he said. “It’s just as much of a success for them as it is for me.”

But it’s also clear he is only pausing to appreciate this.

Because this also can be, should be, not just the end of a trail but the deferred start of something substantial.

With the Royals bullpen in flux, it sure could use someone to emerge as a force. No need to rush it, but it seems that nurturing him towards that possibility would make for a worthy project.

Heck, he could still turn out to be a starter down the road.

Whatever the case, Zimmer has the toolkit if he’s not snakebit.

As manager Ned Yost considered his breakthrough on a day Chris Ellis also made his first major-league appearance with a scoreless ninth inning, Yost noted no one can ever take away the fact that after all the chaos Zimmer struck out the first man he ever faced.

He thought about how the Royals soon will present him with a “nice shadowbox” that will have the ball and a photo (and likely his jersey), something he can keep in his den forever.

But he also thought about the window that finally opened.

“We’re just scratching the surface. This is nothing,” Yost said, later adding, “He’s got the ability to put together a nice run this year and establish himself as a major leaguer. And that’s what he needs to do now. The first step is over.”

A small step, perhaps, but a giant leap, too.

“We’re hoping it’s a long, multi-chapter story,” Eric Zimmer said.

One that begins with a stirring first chapter: from the night he was drafted to a much-anticipated premiere after an overcoming of odds that understandably enough overcame his father.

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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.