So 2020 thus far has been a series of Royals firsts for me as a Royals fan: I finally pulled the trigger on getting a ticket package of some sort (decided to go with the 15-game-package of the Keep…we will see how it goes and whether or not I will continue it for year 2) and I attended Royals FanFest for the first time in my seven years of living here in Kansas City.
I did not do both days, but rather spent a majority of Saturday afternoon at Bartle Hall taking in everything from the Royals kickoff to the 2020 season, where I got to see many of the exhibits, as well as listen to a lot of the Q&A’s on the main stage. Hence, from all of that, I came away with five takeaways from Royals FanFest that I will share below:
FanFest is an overload for young fans and baseball geeks alike
It’s obvious who the Kansas City Royals are gearing FanFest toward: families looking for some kind of weekend distraction for their kids, and hardcore baseball geeks who are into the plethora of memorabilia and regalia available.
As a 32-year-old without kids, I fall firmly in the latter category. So safe to say, I was in my wheelhouse on Saturday.
What probably stood out to most Royals fans who attended were the plethora of attractions geared toward younger baseball fans: the Steal Home Challenge, the Batting Cage, the radar gun, etc. However, those above the age of 14 had plenty to distract themselves. The Royals popup team store was chock full of deals on discounted apparel, including discounted hats and banners. (Unfortunately though there were a couple of hats I wanted, I struck out on my head size).
Furthermore, for memorabilia hounds, autograph lines were packed, even for the more under-the-radar Royals player booths. I mean, you know Royals fans are loyal and passionate about getting authentic Royals souvenirs when they are waiting in line for Kelvin Gutierrez and Jesse Hahn John Hancocks (or is it Herbie Hancock?) on their favorite items, be it jerseys, hats or baseballs.
And if that was not enough, the Royals Authentic popup store was loaded up with collectibles, each costing as much or more than a Keep season ticket package. I am all for getting an autographed Salvador Perez bat or a game-worn Alex Gordon jersey…but I’m not willing to sacrifice a paycheck to do so. Power to those Royals fans who are not educators and make more than me.
But, I did splurge (I tend to be tight with money…unless I am a few domestic light lagers deep), as I bought a Royals blank away jersey for $50 bucks, which was a steal in my opinion. Great quality, and a 100 dollars less than a player jersey. Here is a picture of me sporting it with an awkward selfie literally moments after I dropped the the 50 spot on it.
I want to wait at least one more year before I get that Jorge Soler jersey. I am hoping that he will sign an multi-year extension after 2020, which will make me comfortable buying his jersey, knowing he’ll be in KC for the long haul. For the time being though, I will settle on pictures with life-size cutouts of him at Royals FanFest.
Josh Staumont stood out the most from the Royals bullpen panel
Staumont, Ian Kennedy, Jake Newberry, Kevin McCarthy, Richard Lovelady, Scott Barlow, and Tim Hill participated in a Q&A panel with Fox Sports play-by-play analyst Ryan Lefebvre. It was interesting to see how the bullpen mates interacted with the Lefebvre as well as the crowd and their questions. Relievers can be interesting cats, as they tend to not get much spotlight, with the exception of the closer.
As expected, Kennedy spoke the most out of the crew, and he did fine as the center of attention of the pitchers on stage. After all, Kennedy had a great year and story in 2019: many felt Kennedy was dead weight on the Royals roster going into Spring Training last year, and he turned it around, and earned 30 saves in 63 appearances by the end of 2019. Kennedy’s number was the most by a Royals closer since Greg Holland had 32 in 2015 (while Wade Davis is more beloved by Royals fans, the most saves he had in the regular season was 27 in 2016; Kelvin Herrera had 26 in 2017; and it was a revolving door in 2018, so I’m not even going to mention it).
However, one of the more engaging speakers on the stage was Staumont, who made his big-league debut after rosters expanded in September. A former starter, Staumont, who has an electric fastball but command issues, was well-spoken and remarkably candid on stage, surprising considering he only pitched 19.1 IP in 2019, most of it coming in mop up duty. I expected relievers like Scott Barlow and Tim Hill, who both had breakout seasons, to be more vocal, but they were more reserved and quiet during the 30-minute session.
One of Staumont’s best statements came when asked about “Opening” in Omaha, and whether the Royals should do that (basically start the game with a reliever for a couple of innings and then bring in the starter). Staumont proceeded to talk about how much different it is to start or “open” in comparison to coming in relief, and Staumont talked about how much he respected the guys on stage for doing what they do. He mentioned the amount of warming up and the anxiety of not knowing when “he would come in to pitch” was tough, and something he wasn’t used to, since he has always been a starter prior to this year. I think Staumont’s comments shed some light on how difficult relief is, and while we think going to the bullpen and pitching significantly less innings seems easy on paper, the pressure and adjustment it takes to move to the pen in higher leverage situations isn’t always a quick transition. After all, it was until the second-half that Kennedy turned into a lock down closer for the Royals last year.
This gives me hope that not only Staumont, but other starters turned relievers like Kyle Zimmer and maybe Jesse Hahn will be more successful with the more repetitions they get out of the pen this Spring and early into 2020.
Salvy’s presence will make a difference in 2020
The main position player consisted of Jorge Soler, Salvador Perez, Nicky Lopez, Ryan O’Hearn, Bubba Starling, and Alex Gordon. Lefebvre hinted at it before the six arrived on stage, but this core could make the difference on whether the Royals win more or less than 65 games in 2019 (well…Ryan didn’t mention that over/under specifically…this is a family friendly event after all). It was interesting to see Bubba on stage with the other five, as it seems like he is being seen as the odd man out of the outfield with Alex Gordon coming back on board (he’s out of options, so if he doesn’t make the 26-man roster, he’ll be designated for assignment). However, whether they are still milking the “he’s from Gardner, Kansas” thing for publicity, or they truly believe he can break out, it was nice to see him interact with the top Royals players on stage (sans Whit of course).
One thing that was evident on stage was Salvy’s presence and charisma. If Royals fans felt that Salvy relinquished any leadership after missing all of 2019, FanFest proved that Salvy is still the head honcho in the club house. Gordo was pretty reserved during the 30-minute session, which probably stemmed from fatigue from the previous day where he was on the spot talking about him signing a new contract to stay a Royal. Salvy on the other hand didn’t shy from the spotlight, even though he was front and center on Friday during his naturalization ceremony. He was joking with the young guys like Nicky Lopez, making a dig at the young infielder’s new, longer hair, as seen below.
He also translated for Soler and helped him feel more comfortable as the session went on, which is nice to see as Soler grows into his role as the team’s biggest power producer in Kansas City. Though Soler broke out in a big way for the Royals in 2019, breaking Mike Moustakas’ home run record by 10 (he hit 48 total…which was also the most in the AL and most for a Cuban-born player in history), the spotlight is something unfamiliar for Jorge. His English is pretty sparse, and early on in the session, one could sense Soler was still a bit uncomfortable talking on the stage.
However, once Salvy helped him with translating, we got a more relaxed Soler, who proved to be charming, even though he talked in Spanish entirely (I got some of what he was saying…yo necesito practicar mi espanol mas).
Salvy stole the show and in the process, didn’t steal the spotlight from anyone else on stage. That’s the sign of a good leader, and it’s not surprising that Salvy is so revered and beloved in the clubhouse in Kansas City. I think the year off will have an effect on Salvy in various ways in 2020, simply due to the fact that he hasn’t seen Major League pitching in over a year.
However, when it comes to impacting the clubhouse and being a mentor in the dugout…well…Salvy is going to make a difference, and it’s going to have an impact on wins as well. This club missed his personality in 2019, and Royals fans will welcome Salvy helping this club on and off the field in 2020.
John Sherman isn’t shying from the spotlight as new owner
David Glass was one of the more underrated owners in baseball. He got a lot of grief for being a penny-pincher early during his ownership tenure in the early 2000’s, but he hired Dayton Moore in 2006, stayed out of his way as he rebuilt the farm system, and supported management during learn years, all which led to two AL Pennants and a World Series title in 2015. Some owners would not have been patient with Moore after lackluster results at the Major League level, or they would have inserted themselves into the roster building process, which often does not work out (ask Yankees or Sacramento Kings fans how it works when owners override general managers). Glass ran the Royals like Wal Mart: trusting his management, while still keeping an eye on the bottom line, much to the benefit of his customers (i.e. Royals fans).
Sherman seems to be cut from the same cloth. He understands the importance of empowering the best people in his organization, and Sherman truly believes in Moore and his plan to rebuild this organization back to competitiveness. In his talk with Lefebvre, Sherman talked about how much he respected Moore, and how he believed in what they were doing as an organization. One fan asked Sherman if he felt tempted to make a “big name” free agent signing, and Sherman waved it off immediately, showing that Sherman won’t be too much different from Glass when it comes to trusting Moore and his people in the front office.
However, unlike Glass, Sherman seemed comfortable and personable with the crowd and with Lefebvre. While Glass was a great owner, he tended to stay out of the spotlight unless it was totally necessary. Granted, at his age and with his health during the past couple of years, that may have been necessity, but the aloofness could drive Royals fans a bit mad, especially ones who demanded more transparency from their owner.
That will not be a problem with Sherman, at least not right away anyways. Sherman shot straight with Lefebvre and fans, though he was wise to spin things properly over a couple of tough subjects (he supported the commissioner’s decision over the Astros situation but really made no personal remark about the situation itself). I also think Sherman’s ownership history as a minority owner with the Indians is already paying dividends, as he credited a lot of his decision-making early as an owner from his days in Cleveland. Many will point that Sherman is being conservative, but after his session, I felt more confident that he has a plan and it fits well into what Moore is doing currently.
It will be interesting though to see what Sherman’s talk will look like at next year’s FanFest. As of now though, Sherman is a more personable and outspoken Glass, and Royals fans should be happy that the franchise is in such good hands.
Royals fans seem optimistic going into 2020
As I left FanFest, I could not help but feel that there was a whiff of optimism in the air. Maybe it’s the residue from the Chiefs’ AFC Championship. Maybe it’s the promise of a new owner and new manager in Mike Matheny. Maybe it’s all the free stuff they pass out throughout the day. Maybe it’s the crappy weather, and the idea of baseball makes Royals fans excited for the better weather and days off that baseball season promises to offer.
Whether it’s one or all of those factors, this much is clear: Royals fans came to FanFest pumped and ready for this team to surpass expectations in 2020. Hell…one fan during the Q&A with the bullpen straight up said that the expects the Royals to make the playoffs in 2020. While I think that’s overly zealous, I appreciate the blind optimism of the Royals fans in attendance at FanFest, which definitely contrasted with the more pessimistic ones you can sometimes see on Reddit and Twitter (not that those fans are bad…they are necessary and entitled to their beliefs; furthermore, they are great to interact with online when it comes to discussing the Royals).
Granted, Spring Training has not started yet. Maybe things will change after a full campaign in Surprise. Maybe that optimism will fade after April and May, especially if the club gets off to a slow start. But as of now, the fans in attendance not only showed support for this club, but it felt like they believed in these players and this team, and for the players, that was probably a good boost in their preparation for the Cactus League play in a couple of weeks.
FanFest is not for everyone. In many ways, it’s like Comicon for baseball geeks. For just the casual fan, it can get kind of boring after an hour or so. And I don’t blame you. You have to really bleed Royals blue and white to get the most out of an event like FanFest.
It was awesome to be around so many Royals fans that were as passionate about the team as me…even if they differed in opinions or outlooks from myself. It was uplifting as a Royals fan, and made me more than ready for not just their first Spring Training game this February, but their home opener against the Mariners on April 2nd (I’m seriously considering calling in sick that day to attend my first Opening Day).
Safe to say, I’ll be back at Royals FanFest in 2021 next January.