By Jeff Montgomery
Like most young baseball players, I grew up dreaming of playing in the Major Leagues and since I was from southern Ohio, I wanted my dream to come true in a Cincinnati Reds uniform. I was fortunate to have grown up following a team that was full of All-Stars which included the likes of Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, Davey Concepcion, George Foster, and Ken Griffey Sr. to name a few.
As I grew older my dream of playing in the Big Leagues never faded but I did come to realize that just because a player wanted to play in the Major Leagues there was no guarantee it would happen. After being drafted in the 9th round of the 1983 June Draft by the Cincinnati Reds, my dream became a more realistic possibility. However, after spending just a few seasons in the Minor Leagues it was obvious to me that earning an opportunity to play Major League Baseball was enormously more difficult than anyone can imagine.
Fortunately my dream became a reality in 1987 when the Reds promoted me to the Big Leagues for the first time. After a lackluster finish to the ‘87 season I was blessed by being traded tot the Kansas City Royals. It was the opportunity provided by the Royals that allowed me to earn three American League All-Star Team berths.
July 14, 1992 – 63rd All-Star Game, Jack Murphy Stadium, San Diego, California
Although I do remember that our American League team won the game big when we scored early and often against National League starting pitcher Tom Glavine, and that we would go on to win the game 13-6, I don’t remember most of the details of the game, but I do remember that Ken Griffey, Jr. was the Most Valuable Player of the game. I pitched 2/3 of an inning in the game and left with 2 runners on base which scored when Rick Aguilera relieved me and gave up an opposite field home run to Will Clark, who was the first batter Aguilera faced after replacing me in the game.
After traveling with my Manager, Hal McRae, who was named as a coach in the game from Milwaukee to San Diego, with a stop in Las Vegas, we arrived a the Marriott Marquis and Marina which was the spectacular team hotel. One of things I remember was the amount of activities going on in connection with the All-Star Game itself. I don’t remember if Major League Baseball had an official “Fanfest” at that time but there seemed to be activities and parties taking place around the clock. As a first time All-Star, I felt almost obligated to attend every event that I was invited to and by the end of the All-Star Break, I need a break! One bit of advise I always passed on to my teammates in later years that were attending their first All-Star Game was to enjoy as many events and activities as they could, but don’t get worn out trying to do everything.
The Home Run Derby on Monday evening before the All-Star Game was the highlight of the trip for me. Being on the field cheering on Mark McGwire, Ken Griffey Jr., Joe Carter, and Cal Ripken Jr. was a blast. Seeing Mark McGwire hit 12 Home Runs during the contest was unreal. He hit line drives that reached the stands in what seemed like less than a second as well as long, towering shots that could have made it rain.
July 13, 1993 – 64th All-Star Game, Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Baltimore, Maryland
I enjoyed the 1993 All-Star Game more than any of the three I was selected to for a number of reasons. One big reason was that the ballpark was my second favorite behind Kauffman Stadium and because of the venue; I knew it would be a great experience. The ballpark had opened the season before and had been given great reviews by everyone who had seen it. Another reason I enjoyed this All-Star Game so much was because I knew more about what to expect since it was my second selection. I was able to enjoy time with my family more than the previous year and everything was within walking distance from the team hotel, with several activities, including the All-Star Gala taking place at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.
My locker was in a corner next to Kirby Puckett and Cal Ripken Jr., which was especially cool because Kirby was a non-stop trash talker to everyone. He never let anyone off easy, including Vice-president Al Gore. I remember Puckett giving him a hard time about the new higher tax rate and surtax the Clinton administration had just implemented which obviously impacted most every player in the room. Vice-president Gore was speechless when Kirby posed the question as to why they made the higher tax retroactive by one year.
Lining up on the foul line for introduction to the baseball world watching on television was very memorable in each All-Star Game, but what followed in Baltimore was most special as my friend and lead singer for the band Rush, Geddy Lee sang the Canadian National Anthem. James Earl Jones followed by reciting the United States National Anthem in his big, deep voice.
The game itself went well for our American League squad as we won the game 9-3. I was fortunate to pitch a scoreless inning and got the final out of the inning by striking out Darren Daulton. I remember I was able to use all four of my pitches (fastball, curveball, change-up, and slider) to record the strike out.
On Wednesday after the game I flew to Toronto to open the 2nd half of the season and was seated by Geddy Lee and his family on the flight to Toronto. It was great to have a chance to sit by him and recount the game and talk to him about his music and how he had me on his fantasy baseball team but the bonus came when we arrived at Canadian Customs and Geddy was able to get us through as VIP’s without any delays.
July 9, 1996 – 67th All-Star Game, Veterans Stadium, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
After posting good numbers in the first half of the ’96 season I was selected by Mike Hargrove of the Cleveland Indians to be in his bullpen as the Royals representative for the game. Manager Bob Boone and Trainer Nick Swartz were also selected to represent the American League.
The Home Run Derby was the most memorable element of the ’96 All-Star celebration as Barry Bonds outdueled Mark McGwire to win the contest. It was the first year the Derby had multiple rounds so it added a new twist to the event.
The Home Run Derby was not the only contest the National League won that year; they also won the All-Star Game by a score of 6-0. Philadelphia native Mike Piazza who was the Los Angeles Dodgers’ 62nd round draft choice had quite a homecoming and won the All-Star Game MVP after hitting a towering Home Run to help the National League prevail.
In retrospect, having the chance to represent the Kansas City Royals in the Mid-Summer Classics were some of my biggest thrills in baseball. The chance to play baseball with and against the great players in the game was a truly unforgettable experience. The opportunity to share a clubhouse and mingle with the players you try so hard to beat each night during the season is even more special, even if it last for just a few days in the middle of the summer.
Imagine, this all began as a dream, many summers ago while watching my boyhood heroes representing their teams and their leagues in the National spotlight.
By Jeff Montgomery
It is often said that all good things must come to an end at some point but the Royals recent 10-game winning streak should carry the current version of the Royals for an extended period. While the streak was tied for the third longest in team history, it should be noted that two of three of the other teams that won at least 10 in a row went to the postseason. Those teams were the '77 and '78 Royals (two winning streaks of at least 10 games by the '77 Royals). The other team that had at least a 10-game winning streak was the '94 Royals, who won 14 in a row but never went to the postseason because it was cancelled by the players strike - but that team was likely going to qualify for playoffs too as it would have been the first year with the Wild-Card system.
The most encouraging part about a team that has the ability to reel off 10 consecutive victories is that it cannot be accomplished without talent. There may have been some doubts about the level of the much advertised talent of this year's Royals during the first two months of the season when they were not hitting much at all and showed no ability to win unless the pitchers threw a gem. But looking back a little before the winning streak started the Royals had played better baseball and especially had hit the ball better. That improvement coincided with the shuffle among a the coaching staff which included the reassignment of Dale Sveum from third base coach to hitting coach. During the 19 games since the shuffle the Royals were 15-4 through the winning streak.
Also, during those 19 games, the Royals were able to play well enough to get their run differential to +18 - which was the best in the Central Division. Winning 3 of 4 against the Detroit Tigers should also pay huge dividends to the Royals as they were 0-5 on the year against the Tigers before winning the first three games of the most recent series. The turnaround showed enormous improvement in most every department. In the first five games against Detroit, the Royals only scored 12 runs while hitting .180 with only one home run and the Royals starting pitchers were tattered at the rate of almost 6 Runs per game. In the just ended series against the Tigers, the Royals scored 25 runs while hitting around .350 with four home runs and the starters' ERA was around 2.50.
Beating the Tigers at Comerica Park should eliminate any doubt that may have existed in any Royals mind that they can compete with the mighty Tigers for the Central Division title throughout the rest of this season. It should be a fun ride!
By Jeff Montgomery
Even though the Royals have not caught fire and played really good baseball for an extended period like last season’s second half performance, they have seemed to have moved past the phase of losing games because of lack of hitting. There were numerous games earlier in the season that were not won when the pitching had performed well enough for several victories. The normal culprit in those games was the Royals terrible Batting Average with Runners in Scoring Position (RISP). From March 31-May 17 the Royals only hit .230 with RISP and since then they have hovered around the .300 mark which has taken much of the focus of the offense which is still last in hitting the ball out of the ballpark.
There will be a significant amount of discussion as the summer moves forward about the impact of reassigning 3rd Base Coach Dale Sveum into the Hitting Coach’s role. So far the change has shown positive results. In 52 games before the reassignment the Royals averaged only 3.8 runs per game. We all know the Royals success rate of winning games when they score at least 4 runs in a game in off the charts (around 85%) so the 3.8 runs per game were just not going to be enough regardless of the pitching staff’s performance.
Since Sveum has commanded the hitting ranks they have averaged around 5 runs per game. Even though it is a small sample size, it appears that Royals hitters are taking a much better approach to the plate in their At Bats. Sometimes any coaching change will have a positive effect on a team that is struggling to score runs. We saw a positive change when George Brett and Pedro Grifol took over last summer. I’ll compare the change to a restart of your computer when you are having issues. Sometimes it just comes back on and works perfectly. Sometimes it comes back on and does not work and everything is the same as before you restarted it. So far, it seems like the restart may be the only thing the team was in need of. It has only been a little over a week so only time will tell if the change will solve the hitting problems from earlier in the season. Stay tuned!
By Jeff Montgomery
It has been said thousands of times that “Pitching and defense win championships!” Most baseball experts will agree that those two important ingredients are essential elements that almost all championship teams have had in common. It is also easy to recognize that the Kansas City Royals have had those ingredients the past two seasons.
We only need to search our memory banks back to last May to understand how devastating a slumbering offense can be on a teams record as evidenced by the Royals 8-20 record last May. It was a month that essentially eliminated the team’s chances of playing in the post season last year even though they had more wins than any other team in the American League after the All-Star break.
Even though the team has been basically a .500 team through the first quarter of the 2014 season, it has had very good pitching and defense and as a result the teams Run Differential is basically even, having scored almost as many as the pitchers have allowed. It is hopeful that the Royals pitching staff continues to dazzle opposing hitters at the same pace they have in the first quarter of the season but I feel it is equally important for the offense to make strides in the right direction.
The offense does not need to lead the majors in an array of offensive categories but it will need to be more productive if the team hopes to play in the post season for the first time in twenty-nine years. Just a glimpse at the teams record when they score at least four runs in a game will make it very how clear important the offense will be to the teams long term goal of playing into October. (To date, they have only lost 2 games in which they have scored 4 or more runs.)
Hopefully the big offensive day by Alex Gordon and company in the last game of the Baltimore Orioles series will be a jump start for an offense that finally flexed its muscles for the first time in a week. Fortunately the team was able to win because the pitching was strong but at some point the offense will be asked to carry the team in the same way the pitching has allowed the team to maintain respectability during the first quarter.
By Jeff Montgomery
Watching young Yordano Ventura earn his first Major League win against the Houston Astros was certainly enjoyable. Every pitcher who plays long enough will get his first win at some point but Ventura earned his at age 22. He certainly deserved to have accomplished the milestone in one of his earlier starts when he pitched equally as good as he did against the Astros but it didn’t happen. To Ventura’s credit, he did not allow this to alter his approach on the mound.
He has demonstrated that he is able to pitch effectively in high leverage situations when he needs to. He has the confidence and the composure of a much more seasoned veteran on the mound, which is something that is very difficult to teach. These traits normally come with years of experience in the major leagues and at times even veterans do not reach the level of poise that Ventura has displayed.
There will be games when “Ace” does not have his best stuff and may end up backing up the bases more than he cares to. It could be after one of these type games that we truly learn what Ventura is made of. But if I were betting, I would bet that he would rebound just fine and possibly even be better.
The biggest reason I am so excited about this kids future is because of the “stuff” he possesses. He is able to effortlessly generate fastballs that leave his hand at 100 miles per hour as well as keep hitters honest with a knee-buckling curveball and very well developed change-up that he is brave enough to throw in any count against any hitter in any situation.
The Royals have been criticized for years about their inability to develop starting pitchers that are able to contribute once they arrive in the Major Leagues and rightfully so as there have been only a small handful of consistent starting pitchers that have come through the system in the past several years. Ventura’s success and the pipeline of other starting pitching prospects that are likely to hit the Majors in the next 2-5 years could quickly erase the criticism that has surrounded the organization for years.
Since it appears that James Shields will likely be able to capitalize on a mega contract following this season, it will be important to see pitchers like Kyle Zimmer, Miguel Almonte, and Jason Adam fill the shoes of some of the veterans as they move on. It could be a fun ride for many years if any more “Aces” are dealt into the Royals hand.
By Jeff Montgomery
Although the Royals were on the short end of the stick on two plays that were reviewed and overturned in Game 2 of their opening series in Detroit, the new rule should be good for the game overall.
The umpires will be held to a higher level of accountability than ever before, as replays will now be shown in MLB ballparks as part of the new Replay Regulations. Having witnessed the first challenges in Royals history at Comerica Park, it was evident that fans were enthralled during the review process that was taking place in a studio somewhere in New York City. Video shots from every available angle were being shown on the in-stadium televisions as well as the video portion of the scoreboard.
There has been a significant amount of discussion as the new rules went into effect on Opening Day but whether you are a fan, a player, or even an umpire, at the end of the day you just hope the plays are called right. With the amount of cameras that are in ballparks today there should be at least one viewing angle that will allow the Replay Umpires who will be sitting in the control center in New York to make the proper ruling for the plays under review.
The only issue I can see as being a negative will be the time factor involved in making decisions on whether to overturn a ruling on the field or not. Time issues will be eliminated to some degree, as each Club will only have only one (1) Manager Challenge to start the game. If the Manager challenges a play and it is not overturned he will lose the right to challenge another play. If the challenged play is overturned, the manager shall retain his Challenge, which is why Tigers manager Brad Ausmus was able to challenge two plays during the Wednesday’s game. After two Challenges, the manager will not have the right to another Challenge, regardless of whether his second play was overturned. If the Manager does not have a Manager Challenge available the Umpire Crew Chief may at his discretion review a play.
There are certain plays, such as Balls and Strikes, that cannot be reviewed and it will take fans some time to get familiar with all the rules, but in general the list of plays that are able to be reviewed is as follows: Home Runs, Fair/Foul Balls, Boundaries, Force/Tag Plays, Catches in the Outfield, Base Running, Hit By Pitch, and Collisions at Home Plate. There are entirely new rules regarding Collisions at Home Plate that are being instituted to protect both Catchers and Base Runners.
So, as we move forward into a New Era of Baseball with a new set of Replay Regulations someone will be keeping score on how many plays are overturned. I think it will likely show just how good Major League Umpires are, regardless of how many fans let them know they are “Bums”. It will also allow them to do what everyone hopes will be the case anyway, and that is for them to get the plays right.