Vahe Gregorian

Royals’ Kendrys Morales is renewed after freak injury five years ago

Royals designated hitter Kendrys Morales follows through on an RBI double to score Eric Hosmer in the seventh inning of Thursday's baseball game against the Angels at Kauffman Stadium.
Royals designated hitter Kendrys Morales follows through on an RBI double to score Eric Hosmer in the seventh inning of Thursday's baseball game against the Angels at Kauffman Stadium. JSLEEZER@KCSTAR.COM

From the visiting dugout in Anaheim, Calif., then-Seattle manager Don Wakamatsu watched the Angels’ Kendrys Morales circle the bases on a walk-off grand slam May 29, 2010.

He saw the emerging superstar leap to punctuate his landing on home plate before he disappeared into a thicket of teammates.

“How many times do you see guys jump up like that and come down?” said Wakamatsu, now the Royals’ bench coach.

From the broadcasting booth, Angels broadcaster Jose Mota remembers Morales flashing his contagious smile as he approached home.

He, too, saw Morales leap. Then he put his head down to write the play into his scorebook.

When he looked back up, Mota was puzzled to see the team still gathered at the plate.

At first, he thought maybe it was a celebratory dogpile.

Then again, no one was on the ground with Morales, third in the American League in RBIs for the Royals entering their game against the Angels on Thursday at Kauffman Stadium.

At a distance, manager Mike Scioscia thought Morales might have been horsing around, as he tended to do.

But it took only seconds for Scioscia to realize something was terribly wrong: The body language all around Morales was what former Royal Mark Gubizca, like Mota then and now an Angels broadcaster, called close to “horrific.”

Then a camera zoomed in on Morales’ face, Mota recalled, and in Spanish a tearful Morales said, “I can’t stand up.”

“No, no, no, no, no,” Mota remembered thinking.

Not after what it had taken for Morales to get to the United States: 13 attempts to escape Cuba.

“We knew what he went through to even get over here,” Scioscia said.

Not as he was putting together an encore to finishing fifth in the 2009 American League MVP voting.

“It just made you sick,” said Scioscia, who called it “one of the worst things I’ve witnessed on a field.”

That was even before anyone understood the full implications of an awkward landing that broke and dislocated the left ankle of Morales, whose injury necessitated six screws and a pin to fuse the bones together … in the first operation.

He didn’t play in the major leagues again for 22 months, and he wasn’t really the same when he made his way back.

“It was tragic, really,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said, noting Morales’ passion to play and well-known professionalism.

So there was nothing inevitable about Morales’ revival, at least not to the level he’s been this season with 82 RBIs — the most he’s had since driving home 108 in 2009 — after he added one during a two-for-four night Thursday in the Royals’ 7-6 loss.

He had fine, productive seasons in 2012 and 2013, but his numbers were a tier below what he’d been conjuring in his first full season and truncated second year.

Then came 2014, when Morales hit .218 with eight home runs and 42 RBIs in 367 at-bats.

From the most superficial perspective, that wouldn’t seem to have made him an appealing candidate for the Royals’ designated-hitter job vacated when they pleaded no contest to Oakland’s three-year, $30 million offer to predecessor Billy Butler.

Especially considering the Royals’ offer to Morales: $6.5 million in 2015, $9 million in 2016 with a mutual option of $11 million or a $1.5 million buyout in 2017.

So the Royals took some guff around baseball for the venture, which was less a gamble than it might have seemed even if it’s doubtful they could have envisioned him to be on pace to become only the second Royal since 2004 (along with Billy Butler in 2012) with 100 RBIs.

For one thing, Royals scouts firmly believed Morales’ feeble 2014 was a reflection of rustiness from holding out for a contract, missing spring training and having his timing disrupted before he signed with the Twins on June 8.

Believing his strength, bat speed and approach all were intact, just thrown by the lost time, they essentially threw out his 2014 stats as they evaluated him largely on 2012 and 2013 — when he averaged a serviceable 22.5 home runs and 76.5 RBIs.

“He still had plenty of game left in him,” manager Ned Yost said.

That was less apparent after the unfathomable injury in 2010.

He’d make strides, then be set back again.

That led to another surgery in 2011, after which he still was hobbled for months.

“I didn’t envision him ever getting back to where he is now,” said Gubizca, who considered Morales’ plight reminiscent of Bo Jackson’s hip injury when they were with the Royals. “He was never going to quite be the same.”

As Moore tracked Morales from afar back then, he remembered making no assumptions about whether he’d be able to resume his career.

“You’ve always got to wonder when a player misses time, because it’s a game that especially at the major-league level requires so much skill and repetition to be successful,” Moore said. “When you miss that much time, there’s always a little bit of doubt.

“If players are honest, (even) when you go from the end of the season to the next spring training, there’s always a little, ‘Can I still do this?’ ”

Mota was among those who believed it as much as he hoped it for Morales, especially after the relatively minor setback last season.

“He always had the drive,” Mota said, smiling and adding, “When you take (13) times to get out of Cuba and you have (six) screws in your ankle …”

For his part, Morales can smile about this now, as he did during an interview with The Star earlier this season.

“No more jumping, no celebrations,” he said through a translator. “It was tough. But I knew I was going to come back and be on top again. I’ve had worse things that have happened in my life than that injury.”

Just not many more freakish.

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868 or send email to vgregorian@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vgregorian.

  Comments