DETROIT — Before him stood the 25 men deemed the most promising Royals club in 20 years. The sun shone as the players stretched. The temperature was in the low 50s, crisp enough for hoodies, but comfortable enough to enjoy Opening Day.
The setting was idyllic. Unless, of course, you are Royals manager Ned Yost, one of baseball’s most committed non-romantics.
“I like playing baseball,” Yost said. “I don’t like all the stuff that comes with it.”
The pomp, the pageantry, the extended introductions and elaborate ceremonies — they all grate Yost’s nerves. But he categorizes similarly to how he feels about dealing with reporters. It’s an occupational hazard in a job full of them.
Players seek routine. The familiar provides comfort. So as Opening Day dawned at Comerica Park, with Tigers ace Justin Verlander set to throw the first pitch at 12:08 p.m. Central, the team attempted to keep their keels even.
The clubhouse opened to reporters at 9:35 a.m. local time. Most of the team had already arrived.
Inside the trainer’s room, outfielder Jarrod Dyson soaked in a tub. Inside the players’ lounge, James Shields sipped coffee and chatted with pitching coach Dave Eiland. Inside the clubhouse, Greg Holland, Aaron Crow and Brett Hayes sat at a table and pored over crossword puzzles while “Free Bird” played on the stereo.
As Allen Collins and Gary Rossington dueled on guitar, Billy Butler left the room and returned with a plate of bacon and eggs. “We’re wearing blue today?” he asked those around him. Silence greeted him. He asked again.
Gray, the answer came back.
“Was that a bad question?” Butler said.
The day before, Yost wondered aloud where the Tigers intended to bat catcher Alex Avila. He learned the answers Monday morning: He would bat sixth, with former leadoff hitter Austin Jackson in the No. 5 spot. The reigning division champions sought to rearrange their roster in the offseason. Yost was not exactly complaining.
“Was I glad they got rid of Prince Fielder? Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I was glad about that.”
Detroit shipped Fielder to Texas for second baseman Ian Kinsler. Kinsler offered an element of speed the team lacked in years past. Told the Tigers planned to run more this season, Yost welcomed the challenge. He referenced the dynamic arm of Salvador Perez.
“We’re ready for any team to run on us,” Yost said. “We’ve got one of the best throwing catchers in baseball.”
Kinsler replaced Omar Infante, who left Detroit for a four-year, $30.25 million deal with the Royals. He sat out of big-league action for the final two weeks of camp because of a bone spur in his right elbow.
Infante still feels pain when he throws and hits. But Yost stressed Infante was not in any more danger of the bone spur breaking off and causing more serious inflammation.
“It’s the equivalent of a headache,” Yost said. “It comes and it goes. It’s not fun when it hurts. But you can still manage through it, for the most part.”
The clubhouse was all but empty when Yost finished with reporters. In strode the man of the hour, this team’s best player and their most critical asset for 2014.
Shields wore a black beanie over his head. He came bearing questions. He quizzed a team official on the day’s schedule. Shields needed to know if the teams would be introduced individually. He asked about whether the Tigers planned a moment of silence, and who would perform the National Anthem.
“Brian McKnight’s singing it?” Shields said as he pantomimed a referee throwing a flag. “That might be a delay of game.”
As the clock approached 11 a.m., the room began to fill back up. The players dressed for batting practice. Eric Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain sang along with a Weezer song on the stereo. “I used to play this on Rock Band,” Cain said.
The Royals filtered down a flight of stairs and onto the diamond. Gleams of sunlight and the start of 2014 greeted them. Inside the dugout, Yost did his best to stay detached.
“I’m always glad,” Yost said about Opening Day, “when it’s over with.”