• Video Below: Bubba Starling at extended spring training
• Photo Showcase: Bubba Starling at extended spring training
* * *
SURPRISE, Ariz. — It's 10:30 a.m. and the temperature is creeping toward triple digits.
Bubba Starling rises from the aluminum plank in the dugout, grabs his bat and slips his blue helmet over his buzzed head.
Then the 19-year-old millionaire strides to the plate, where he takes a violent cut at a pitch from a Los Angeles Dodgers minor leaguer. He makes contact, but his bat breaks.
One year ago, Starling was finishing high school in Kansas, a folk-hero staring down a bases-loaded, full-count pitch: Football at Nebraska — he may have started at quarterback before sellout crowds at Memorial Stadium. Or his first love, baseball.
He chose the Kansas City Royals and a $7.5 million signing bonus, beginning a long, arduous road to the major leagues.
While most Royals prospects are playing this spring in towns like Geneva, Ill., or Wilmington, Del., Starling is honing fundamentals in the back corners of sprawling baseball complexes carved out of the desert. “Extended spring training,” they call it.
No statistics are kept. Some fields don't even have scoreboards. Attendance consists of a handful of girlfriends. Curfew is 10 p.m.
Early morning practices and midmorning games are complete before the suffocating heat arrives. Starling naps, eats at chain restaurants — he hasn't had a home-cooked dinner since Easter — and sleeps in a hotel room.
It's baseball boarding school.
“It gets very tiring,” Starling said. “There's days when I just want to sleep through my alarm clock, sleep in and say, ‘Give me a break.'”
* * *
A day in the life of Bubba starts early, sometimes at 5 a.m., in Surprise, Ariz.
Today he's on the field at 7 for warm-ups. Team meeting at 7:20. Base-running drill at 7:30.
Starling and the outfielders work on fly balls. Then he heads to the batting cage, where a coach feeds him fastballs from a pitching machine.
Keep the ball in the middle of the field, he tells Starling. Try not to pull everything.
Starling packs his bat bag and boards a bus for a 15-minute ride to the Dodgers' facility in Glendale. A narrow road winds around the back edge of the property. From there, it's a dusty walk past the batting cages to Bubba's game on Field 5. Maybe 30 yards away, another Royals team gets ready to play on Field 6. A few minutes before game time, Dodgers farmhands straggle out to the fields, one here and two there, making the 100-yard walk from their clubhouse.
The diamonds are well-maintained, but the setting compares to a small-town American Legion game in Nebraska.
|See a detailed look at a full day's work in extended spring training.|
(Click image to launch)
The backstop and dugout are chain-link fence — only mesh shields players from the sun. Space between the dugout and home plate is narrow — the on-deck hitter flirts with danger. Balls hooked or sliced down the lines turn into ground-rule doubles — the fence doesn't extend all the way around the field.
Starling has no regrets about his decision to pursue baseball. The sport demands patience. Every tool that made him the fifth pick of the 2011 draft is still there.
Power. Arm strength. Speed. Instincts. Intangibles.
“With draft position and signing bonus, a lot of kids can get an ego and it makes it really difficult to get through,” said Aaron Guiel, a Royals instructor who works with outfielders. “But Bubba doesn't have that. He's a very humble kid. I've been very surprised by his character and personality.”
Starling stands at the bottom of the developmental ladder, but he isn't alone. Of the 33 draft picks Kansas City signed last year, 27 are in extended, including all 10 high school players.
This is where the Royals want their prized prospect.
“Some guys don't make full-season clubs that probably could,” said Tony Tijerina, Kansas City's minor league field coordinator. “But these kids, in April and May, probably play more games and have more at-bats than the ones who broke with full-season teams.”
There are four levels of “full-season” leagues in the minors, ranging from the closest to the majors in Class AAA (like the Omaha Storm Chasers), down to Class AA and to two levels of Class A: high A and low A.
But even in low A, the average age of the players is just under 22. Only a handful of teenagers, many of them players from Latin America who turned pro at 16 or 17, play full-season baseball.
Starling doesn't turn 20 until August.
“Everyone would like to break (from spring training) with a team, but I honestly think it's better for me to be down here,” Starling said.
Professional baseball, with minor league seasons of 140 games or more, is a grind. Extended spring training helps players get accustomed to the routine without having to worry as much about performance.
“The biggest part of baseball is the mental side of it, figuring everything out, handling adversity,” Tijerina said. “It's one good day, one bad day in baseball. (Success is) not letting one bad day turn into another.”
A smooth center fielder, even at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, Starling has more than just the great speed required to play the position. He's at top speed the instant the ball is hit, taking the quickest route to catch up to it. He's a natural.
Offense is a bigger challenge.
|THE LEGEND OF BUBBA STARLING|
|In December 2010, Dirk Chatelain took an in-depth look at the high school superstar.|
(Click image for story)
“In spring training, I wanted to shoot myself,” Starling said. “I'm not used to striking out, or even getting out. I'm used to going 3 for 4, or 4 for 5, every game.”
He's adjusted his swing. He's become more familiar with fastballs exceeding 90 mph. He's reading breaking balls sooner out of the pitchers' hands and getting more aggressive against them. He's learning to recognize which pitches will be strikes and which will be just a fraction of an inch outside the zone.
He's not going to hit .500 like high school. That doesn't matter here.
“You can hit 1.000 or you can hit .100, and no one is ever going to know,” said Scott Sharp, Kansas City's director of minor league operations. “No one will ever find these stats on the back of a baseball card.”
When Royals fans converged on spring training three months ago, Starling was a celebrity.
“I've never seen a minor leaguer swarmed like Bubba,” Sharp said. “A five-minute walk would take him 20 because he was trying to sign autographs for everyone.”
But when the major leaguers left to start the 2012 season, the crowds left with them.
* * *
Up again in the fourth, Starling breaks another bat on a foul ball and eventually strikes out swinging at a breaking ball down and away. In the seventh, Starling has a long at-bat against a pitcher bringing low- to mid-90s heat. The last pitch drills him in the back of the left shoulder. Starling steals second base, but gets no farther. The game ends in a tie.
“That's part of it,” Starling said of his rough day. “You've just got to move on to the next day and go get 'em tomorrow.”
While there is a possibility that an extended player could join a full-season team at any point — typically because of injuries creating roster openings — their stay is close to its definitive end now.
In mid-June, Kansas City's minor-league evaluators and roving instructors all converge on Surprise for a mini-camp and make decisions on their short-season rosters, which are made up of players from extended as well as from players selected in the June draft who sign quickly.
Some players are sent to Royals affiliates in Idaho Falls or Burlington, N.C., and others may stay on campus to play in the rookie-level Arizona League, practically repeating the extended spring cycle.
Mike Montgomery, a 22-year-old in his second year with the Storm Chasers — you've seen him on billboards around town — had signed for just under $1 million before spending six weeks in extended three years ago. He got an assignment to a low Class A team about a month before the program ended.
Like any necessary evil, there are memories both good and bad.
|ALWAYS AN NU FAN|
|Starling said he watched nearly every Nebraska game on television last fall.|
(Click image for story)
“The things I remember most about it are the early mornings and how happy I was to get out of there,” said Montgomery, rated by some as a better prospect than Starling. “But I learned a lot while I was there.”
Starling's bus returns to Surprise, where he showers and gets some more ice for his back. He passes up the Royals' lunch offering (breakfast is served on campus too) and grabs a burrito on the way back to his hotel room. Some players' routines on this day call for conditioning, weight training or additional therapy, but Bubba's day is done around 2 p.m.
Nap time. And he's got a load of laundry to do — if he's lucky, he can use the hotel's washer and dryer; otherwise, there's a laundry down the street.
The players are on their own for dinner, and because they're living out of hotel rooms, that means dining out.
“I try to stay away from the fast foods,” he said. “Eating out every night gets old sometimes.”
Relaxing in the evening is a highlight.
“Guys will knock on my door, or I'll knock on theirs, we'll go to Olive Garden or just hang out, relax, talk about whatever,” he said.
Tomorrow, they do it all over again.
Contact the writer: