Vahe Gregorian

Packed with Royals, Cincinnati becomes ‘Kansas City East’ for All-Star Game

The American League’s Lorenzo Cain (left) of the Royals and Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels congratulated each other after a two-run fifth inning Tuesday night at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati.
The American League’s Lorenzo Cain (left) of the Royals and Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels congratulated each other after a two-run fifth inning Tuesday night at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati. The Associated Press

Much like before any Royals game, bench coach Don Wakamatsu crafted an ornate, freehand lineup card. When he finished, he no doubt fretted over the microscopic bleeding of pens that no one else would notice.

Meanwhile, Royals clubhouse men attended to logistics in the inner sanctum, where as usual Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas’ lockers were alongside each other, just like those of Alcides Escobar and Salvador Perez.

Same as ever, the shrill, exuberant voice of Rusty Kuntz, the first base and outfield coach, resounded even across a room blaring with music. Reliever Wade Davis went to a side room to get some space, and fellow reliever Kelvin Herrera conducted some interviews with Spanish-speaking media outlets.

On the field for batting practice, behind sunglasses as always, Ned Yost took his customary perch alone behind the batting cage; first base coach Mike Jirschele fielded throws at first base from Escobar and others; and Perez pranced around the field making mischief.

None of which was so notable, except that all of these Tuesday afternoon mundanities had been transported to another reality: right in the center of the 86th All-Star Game at Great American Ballpark, a game which the American League went on to win, 6-3.

This city might have been the epicenter of baseball once again for a night, but that was just a frilly wrapper around what was in the middle of it all: your Kansas City Royals, wall-to-wall and in Sensurround.

“You’re here to see your team play, huh?” a stadium security guard said upon being informed a visitor came from Kansas City. “This is Kansas City East.”

It at least had that tint, especially when Cain doubled in Albert Pujols to give the AL a 3-1 lead in the fifth inning and particularly as the teams were introduced:

In that iconic All-Star moment, Yost and most of the procession of aforementioned Royals were tipping their caps and beaming in rapid succession.

The invasion would have been more evident if Perez hadn’t been in the bullpen warming up starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel and if not for a groin injury to Alex Gordon, who would have been the seventh Royal and fourth one starting for a team that hadn’t had as many as one voted into the lineup since Jermaine Dye in 2000.

Notwithstanding the faded outrage over some early fan voting results (eight Royals led the race to be starters at one point), this was none too many.

Cain went 2 for 3. Alcides Escobar got a hit. Every Royals starter got on base, Wade Davis struck out two in the eighth and Yost made all the right moves.

As it turned out, the Royals represented the AL just fine, thank you very much.

“They deserve to be here and to represent,” said Pujols, who attended Fort Osage High. “It’s pretty exciting as a guy growing up in Kansas City to see them do their thing.”

The introductory scene in itself was a moment to cherish, testimony to the Royals’ resurgence from perennial bummers to electrifying 2014 American League championship — and to the fan base that playoff run, and this year’s encore performance, has galvanized.

All those improbable elements had to converge to make this spectacle happen, which is why it’s not likely to be repeated ... or at least shouldn’t be counted on.

“You never know if it will happen again,” said Cain, who thus was trying to just “live in the moment” at the game.

By way of example, this was a first for Kuntz, 60, who says he is planning to retire from day-in, day-out coaching when this season ends after spending most of the last 40 years in professional baseball.

“This is another ‘thing you can kind of check off the bucket list’ kind of deal,” Kuntz said.

His thrill was amplified by the fulfillment of seeing the ascension of protege Cain, who came to the game late and was gifted but raw when Kuntz began working with him.

“It’s a storybook kind of career for him right now,” Kuntz said. “What little boys dream of doing. And (he’s) actually going through it and living it. From a coach’s perspective, those are things you never forget.”

In the bustle of the Royals’, uh, AL clubhouse, Jirschele passed by, compelling Kuntz to refer to him by his choice for nickname of the moment, anyway: “The Gift.”

“Because he keeps on giving,” Kuntz said, laughing.

Jirschele, you may recall, is a case study in perseverance in a different sort of way than Kuntz.

He played minor league baseball for nearly 13 seasons without reaching the big leagues, and then he spent another 20-plus years coaching and managing in the minors before the Royals made him a coach for the 2014 season.

At 54, after windmilling players through to the big leagues for all those years, Jirschele finally was among them all.

“How ’bout Jirsch? You walk in your first year in the big leagues, and you go to the World Series,” Kuntz teased him. “Your second year in the big leagues, you’re coaching third base in the All-Star Game.”

Befitting a man who still works at a furniture shop in his hometown of Clintonville, Wis., in the offseason to stay in balance and help pay bills, Jirschele was even-keeled about this week’s experience

“It’s not overwhelming,” he said, “but it’s exciting to be in this atmosphere.”

One that might never again be duplicated for the Royals.

Even if it looked like any other day at the same time.

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