Friday, September 2, 2011

My Batting Practice With The Stars (And Jerry Terrell)

I think the moment when it became real to me, when I realized that what was about to happen would be one of the most memorable experiences of my life, was when I was standing on the right field foul line at Kauffman Stadium. Looking up at all those seats, the Rivals sports bar, and that huge scoreboard, it hit me. I was about to do something that would be far different from any baseball experience of my life.

This was the Royals Alumni Batting Practice, and it was truly amazing. I received this opportunity as an early birthday present from my dad and stepmom. I found out a couple of weeks before the Aug. 27 event that I would be participating, but the nervousness didn't really start until the drive over to the stadium that morning. It was more of a first-day-of-school nervousness, because my only goal was to hit one ball out of the infield and, in general, not embarrass myself. After all, I probably hadn't swung a bat at a baseball since high school, or possibly college. Sure, there had been plenty of slow-pitch softball, but that's not quite the same.

There are very few reasons to be awake at 6:30 on a Saturday morning, but this was certainly a good one. We arrived at the stadium about 7:30, a good 15 minutes before we were supposed to be there, but we were hardly alone. I think most of the participants were already there. We went inside the stadium, which was a rather unusual experience, as the place was quiet and almost eerily still. We proceeded into the Diamond Club and took the elevators down to the Crown Club.

You can see the Crown Club seats on TV every night--they're the ones directly behind home plate. But I really did not know there was a restaurant behind those seats, under the stands. The Royals provided a continental breakfast for those of us participating in the batting practice, and soon Fred White, former Royals radio broadcaster, introduced the alumni who would be joining us:

At last, it was time to head out to the field. Fred White read off our group assignments--there were four groups, with eight or nine of us in each group. I was happy to hear that my group would not be hitting first--I wanted to get some of the butterflies out of my system before I got in the cage.

Before there would be any hitting, though, we all gathered on the right-field foul line. Under the direction of former Royals trainers Paul McGannon and Nick Swartz, we jogged across the outfield and gathered in left field for some stretching.

An observation related to the Royals: That outfield is HUGE. I mean, you can tell it's big when you sit in the stands or even watching on TV. But when you're out there, you get a new appreciation for just how much room is out there. Now I would love to see the Royals trade Melky Cabrera for starting pitching and bring up Lorenzo Cain. I just don't think Melky can adequately cover all that ground, particularly when Alex Gordon and Jeff Francoeur aren't really above-average rangewise. They are good outfielders, but I don't think they can make up for Melky's lack of range.

Anyway, the first group headed to the batting cage, and we proceeded to center field to catch some fungoes. While Jamie Bluma hit to us, Willie Wilson alternately encouraged us, coached us, and entertained us with stories from his playing days. Since I didn't identify myself as a blogger, I don't feel like I should repeat the stories, but they were entertaining. As a long-time Royals fan, it makes me happy to see Wilson involved with the Royals and seemingly at peace with his place in Royals history. When he played for the Royals, it always seemed like he was a little surly (of course, given the much more limited media coverage in those days, that is just the impression I had). And then the Royals let him go, and I'm sure he felt like he could still play (and he would
have three more decent seasons).

Before we got to hit on the field, we were allowed to head to the batting cages behind the Royals dugout. If you didn't know, there are two batting cages back there where players can go to take extra swings during the game, or if the weather is bad, the entire team may take batting practice there before a game. John Mayberry and Willie Aikens were kind enough to pitch to us--well, it was more of a short toss. From behind screens about 10 feet away, they threw baseball after baseball to us underhanded. It was so good to see Aikens involved with this sort of thing after all he's been through.

Finally, it was time to go out and hit. But first, I had to take care of the blister that had developed on my left hand while I was in the batting cage. Nick Swartz was kind enough to fish a bandage out of his bag of supplies, plus put some tape on the bandage to keep it on. I know the blogging community wasn't always kind to him, but I had no complaints. I will be sure to invest in some batting gloves if I am lucky enough to do this again, though.

As we clustered around the batting cage, I had my first exposure to a treasure of man, Jerry Terrell. I have to admit, I knew very little about him before I got home from this event and looked him up on In fact, I thought he was a backup outfielder, when he was actually a utility infielder. He gave me an impromptu hitting lesson on staying loose while batting, holding a bat between his palms and swinging hard, not closing his hands around the bat until the imagined moment of impact. Armed with this newfound knowledge and confident after smacking line drives all over the batting cage, I stepped in for my turn at bat.

Brian McRae was pitching to our group. Apparently B-Mac likes to throw inside, and hard. I was having trouble getting my hands around fast enough to do much. But somewhere in there, I did hit a couple out of the infield. But those 10 swings were a blur.

Each member of the group got 10 swings, then a second round of five swings, then a third round of two swings. In between turns, we were entertained and encouraged by Jerry Terrell. He is the nicest man you could hope to meet, and quite a storyteller, too. After five minutes, I felt like I'd known him for years, which is why I feel comfortable teasing him (on the off-chance he would read this) with the headline of this post. Really, meeting him and hearing his stories was one of the highlights of the day. I think he could probably make a decent living selling an hour of his time to hear him tell stories--personally, I would love to hear what it was like to be a Royal in the late '70s.

After we hit, it was time to go back out and field for the next two groups. After I'd been in the outfield for a while, Fred White ambled over to the small group I was with. If you're my age, you grew up with Fred and Denny Matthews, and in those days, not nearly as many games were televised. So Denny and Fred were THE way to follow the Royals. So it was cool to talk baseball with Fred for a few minutes.

It didn't take long before it was my group's turn to hit again. This time, our pitcher was Al Fitzmorris. Brian McRae was all business on the mound, but as you might expect, Fitzmorris was a little less serious. One member of our group smacked a couple of line drives, and Fitzmorris said, "Big deal, everyone did that against me!"

Alas, I did not. I think I was a little tired and swinging a little slow. I even swung at one pitch that was at least neck-high, which was not one of my finer moments. I never was much of a hitter, but I always did have a good eye. So that session wasn't as successful as the first one.

Back out on the field, I got to meet and have a little conversation with one of my all-time favorite Royals, Jim Eisenreich. I'm happy to report that he is as nice in person as I hoped he would be. I don't know what he does with his time now, but he obviously spends a decent amount of time working out. He looks like he could still play!

Soon our day was at an end. There was time for some pictures with the Royals alums (see below) and it was over. We gathered our things and walked up the stadium steps to ground level, with memories for a lifetime.

Taking my cuts in the batting cage

Jim Eisenreich and Jerry Terrell with your humble correspondent. I told you Jerry was a cut-up.

Two great first basemen (John Mayberry and Willie Aikens). Oh yeah, and some doofus.