Ned Yost clasped his hands over his head and leaned back in his chair. The motivation for the next eight months hung in a framed portrait behind him. Behind the glass was a photograph of the 1985 World Series trophy, an artifact from the Royals’ last trip to the postseason.
For this franchise, mostly woebegone since those days, 2013 served as an oasis after a decade-long desert of losing seasons. The opening step in the proposed route to October lay in white sheets of paper spread across Yost’s desk. The paper contained the schedule for the first full-squad workout of the 2014 season, the collection of hitting groups, fielding drills and pitching schedules designed to shuttle this club one morning closer to Opening Day.
“We’re a lot better,” Yost said, “then we’ve been in quite some time.”
The 2014 Royals cannot be considered playoff favorites. But they must be considered contenders, a meaningful designation after so many lost seasons. On Thursday they displayed small signs of the confidence, chemistry and capability that have generated such promise for this year.
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Even at 7:30 a.m., the clubhouse brimmed with life. Eric Hosmer emerged from his yearly physical with a cotton swab taped to his right arm. Greg Holland pored over his daily crossword puzzle. As teammates spooned Cheerios and slurped orange juice, Alex Gordon toiled in the weight room.
Gordon debuted as a Royal in 2007. He was 23. The team lost 93 games that year, and 87 the next, and then averaged 92 losses for the next three years. Before 2013, Gordon had never experienced more than 75 wins in a season. Now, he said, he finds himself on a team with “no weaknesses.”
“We’re not trying to win,” Gordon said. “We know we can win.”
Only one player has been with this organization longer. The Royals drafted Billy Butler in 2004. He reached the majors at 21. Now he’s a couple months away from 28, and a leader in this room. Before the workout, he looked to his right, where he saw the lockers for Gordon, Hosmer and Mike Moustakas. On Butler’s left was the locker for James Shields.
“This is the best team we’ve had,” Butler said. “The best team I’ve been a part of.”
Yost called a team meeting for 9:45 a.m. When speaking with reporters, he distilled his impending message into the simplest terms: “Go get ’em, boys.” At 10:26 a.m., Holland took the field, spitting into a Styrofoam cup. His teammates followed soon after, as wind rustled leaves along the walkway. “Here we go, boys,” Moustakas said as he hauled a bag of bats over his shoulder.
On days like this, the mundane feels meaningful. The meeting ran about 10 minutes long in part because of an impromptu ceremony. Earlier this week, top prospect Kyle Zimmer told a reporter he was “learning from the old guys” here at camp. The quote caught Shields’ eye.
A series of jerseys were fashioned for Shields, Bruce Chen, Jeremy Guthrie, Luke Hochevar, Brad Penny and Jon Rauch. The nameplate for each read “OLD GUY.” For 40-year-old Guillermo Mota, trying to make the club as a reliever, a special jersey was crafted. His read “REALLY OLD GUY.”
The veterans posed for a photo, with Zimmer in front, sheepish and flashing two thumbs up. Then Zimmer jogged back into the clubhouse. “I thought I said ‘old er,’” he said as he exited the scene.
The wind gusted through the complex as the workout began. Jarrod Dyson led a a group of position players in base-running drills. “Lead by example!” shouted first-base coach Rusty Kuntz as Dyson sprinted down the line.
The morning became a blur of efficiency. Yost strove to eliminate wasted energy from his camp. Pitchers completed rounds of live batting practice. The more experienced players teed off later. The time flew.
Most of the complex was empty when the infielders gathered on Field One. They ran a spirited fielding drill, with grounders spraying in all directions. Butler, the team’s designated hitter, backed up Hosmer at first. After a particularly tricky grounder, Butler called out to Chino Cadahia, the former bench coach-turned-special assistant to player development, who was tormenting him with a fungo bat.
“What are you doing to me, Chino?” Butler asked. “You hitting it to second base?”
“You’re a cat, Billy,” Cadahia said.
When the drill ended, the group tromped back to the clubhouse. They downed Gatorade and laughed along with Jerry Springer. It was one day in a seemingly endless string, all leading toward a goal that hasn’t been tangible in decades.
“We’ve got a lot of confident guys that believe in ourselves and believe in our team,” Gordon said. “But this is all talk. We still have to go out there and try to catch Detroit and Cleveland.”