Vahe Gregorian

What a backyard batting cage reveals about Hunter Dozier’s path to a breakout season

Just over there is the window Hunter Dozier’s father, Kelly, told the kids not to play near. “For some reason” they did anyway, his little sister Kenzie said, gazing that way and smiling.

Naturally, her brother fouled off a pitch and shattered the glass.

“We finished the game, though,” Dozier, a potential cornerstone of the Royals’ future, recently said with a laugh.

That was par for a trail to the major leagues, or at least the foundation of it, laden with broken ceiling fans, lights, cratered walls and a cavity in the garage door that may still need repair.

Out in the back yard, though, sits the most telling testament to Dozier’s path from being undrafted and virtually unrecruited coming out of high school to becoming the eighth overall pick in the 2013 draft to, at last, a breakthrough 2019 season.

There sits the batting cage fashioned by his father, once an arena in itself and a priceless symbol in so many ways.

Ask Dozier how much of where he is today stems from the dynamics of that setting, and he’ll instantly say, “All of it — all of it.”

Never mind that 16 years later, beset with wind storms and pine needles and squirrels, the cage is perhaps more a monument than anything else.

Time in the cage

A year or two ago, Dad was behind the L-screen he’d fashioned with baling wire, pitching again to the boy he’d thrown to tens of thousands times before. About four half-speed swings in, the boy called it off, worried he’d smash a ball through the screen.

“I just wanted so bad to throw to him again, but I could see his point,” Kelly Dozier said, laughing and adding, “I’ve still got both eyes.”

Through the family’s eyes, you can see the root of all that was to come from that scene.

It speaks to the power of loving family, including Dozier’s older brother, Devin, his greatest fan; Kenzie, who considers both brothers her role models and particularly admires Hunter’s insistence on finding the good in everyone and a warm-hearted mother also named Kelly.

(If having the same names poses some confusion, at least it comes in handy when solicitors call and say, “Is Kelly there?” Here, honey, she’ll say, “it’s for you.” Many who know them call him Big Kelly and her Little Kelly, or “Kelly Boy” and “Kelly Girl.”)

Among other nurturing touches, she has texted Hunter enthusiastically reviewing every … single … game he’s played since he left for college at Stephen F. Austin in 2010.

“I guess I want him to know I saw everything he did,” she said, laughing and adding, “Like he doesn’t know what he did.”

Vahe Gregorian

The time in the cage also is testimony to Dozier’s pure admiration of his father, an American Airlines pilot and Air Force veteran and the work ethic that is a defining trait of them both.

When the man his son considers the hardest-working person he’s ever known took a 40% pay cut after the tragedy of 9/11 ravaged the business, the family in 2003 moved out of the dream house they’d designed and built (with its modest batting cage) to a more affordable property.

One caveat: The move required enough land for a proper batting cage for the then-12-year-old, who also loved playing ice hockey and football but never could get enough baseball.

When they’d go to Texas Rangers games, the father always noticed how intently he observed and analyzed the action. And even after he might hit 300 balls off a tee, he’d still typically be waiting, bat in hand, for his exhausted father to get home from a week-long trip to ask, “Can you throw to me?”

“I didn’t know if his swing was going to go out, or if my arm was going to go out first,” he said.

So when they made the move in 2003, the father put it all together with a little help from a welder. And from the nearby University of North Texas, from where the father and sons extracted and cut up some surplus artificial turf to put over the pea gravel that became painful projectiles with hard-hit balls.

But the batting cage didn’t just represent a substantial message of love. To the impressionable boy, his time invested within was a subconscious expression of his appreciation of his father’s work as he came to make tenacity one of his own trademarks.

Looking back now, he figures his resolve then and through all the challenges he’s faced since being drafted go back to one thing.

“The same work ethic that he showed me through everything: Don’t every take anything for granted; hard work is how you earn things in this world,” said Dozier, who through Wednesday was hitting .284 with 22 homes runs and 66 runs batted in. “I always thought I could outwork the guy next to me … (And) all I can do is work hard, and whatever happens after that is kind of out of my hands.”

In for the long haul

With that work ethic came related senses of persistence and commitment that help explain the character that ultimately fueled Dozier.

Before the Royals drafted him in 2013, at which time they hadn’t been in the postseason since 1985, his father remembered general manager Dayton Moore telling him that they need prospects who understand it’s a long haul.

Kelly Dozier used his son’s high school football experience to tell Moore why he didn’t need to worry about that. The team had gone 2-28 in three seasons, and some wondered if Dozier might be better served quitting and focusing on baseball instead of running for his life as the quarterback behind a drastically undersized offensive line.

When a coach from a major college came to a game and told Big Kelly that “they really need to see Hunter drop back and read the defense,” he remembers telling him, “‘Well, you can leave now, because that’s never going to happen. Because if he’s not running left to right, he’s on his back.’”

But when people asked him why he didn’t walk away, Hunter would say, “I’m not quitting on my team or my coaches.”

The admirable attitude made for ripples, though. He suffered a broken left collarbone his junior year, an injury so severe that it required surgery and left him missing the entire school baseball season … typically a crucial evaluation time for colleges and pros.

So while a number of his friends in summer ball were getting major scholarship offers, Dozier didn’t have so much as a junior-college feeler.

Stephen F. Austin only took notice after he excelled in a summer tournament on its campus in Nacogdoches, Texas.

He’d never heard of Stephen F. Austin, his mother recalled. But best to go where you’re really wanted, his father said. Plus …

“That was literally the only offer I got,” he recalled. “I didn’t even think (at that point) about playing professional baseball.”

But what’s that expression about luck being hard work meeting opportunity? Dozier, still growing into his frame, didn’t have a good fall and was scheduled to be redshirted.

Opportunity knocks

When Dozier came back from Christmas break, a decision was made to lift the redshirt because a teammate had failed a chemistry class and would be ineligible.

He began the season on the bench, but when the starting shortstop labored …

“They threw me in there, I had a good game and it kind of just took off from there,” he said.

Future Royals infielder Hunter Dozier strokes a double for Stephen F. Austin during a game in 2013. Andrew D. Brosig AP Photo/The Daily Sentinel

His junior year, he finished in the top five in the nation in batting average, slugging percentage, doubles, home runs and total bases. He then became the first SFA player ever selected in the first round of the Major League Baseball draft.

SFA coach Johnny Cardenas summed it up deftly in a statement at the time: “A lot of times we like to take credit for the development of players, but when it comes down to it they have to want it. Hunter has done that with every fiber of his being.”

That fundamental fiber came in handy over the last few years.

After thriving with Royals’ affiliates in Idaho and Lexington in 2013 and being named player of the year for Class A Wilmington in 2014, Dozier hit .213 and struck out 151 times in 475 at-bats at Class AA Northwest Arkansas in 2015.

While he’d tell his family in the moment that “it’s all good,” he was struggling.

“I lost complete confidence …,” he said when we spoke last season. “I was thinking stuff like, ‘Is this for me?’ ”

In hindsight, he figures all the struggles made him a better player and a better person. Funny, too, what else he’s learned: He’s prone to overworking, exhausting himself physically and mentally before even playing.

But he also knows that’s how he got here, a route he sees as a family triumph as much as his own … and one that has some full circle elements in place.

Dozier and wife Amanda’s not-yet-2-year-old son, Bodhi, already has broken a TV swinging a bat. And how could Hunter do anything but laugh after all the lights and windows he broke?

“Payback,” his father said, laughing.

Which is about right.

“I owe everything to them,” the son said.

Subscribe to Sports Pass: Only $30

If you already subscribe to The Kansas City Star, thanks for your support. If not, our digital sports-only subscription is just $30 for the first year. It's your ticket to everything KC sports.

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.