The sun is still bright over west Baltimore this time of year. As we walk downhill toward the “bend in the road” for a 7:10 p.m. start at Camden Yard, the flood of orange hats and t-shirts matches the sky above. It’s not yet the true night games of fall that Oriole fans are hopeful for this year. It’s still mid-August, where days start warm, then get hot and stay hot. Come evening, around the fourth inning, fans are hopeful for any slight, mid-Atlantic breeze they would avoid in December.
When we watch professional athletes, we wonder how they become what they are. The question, “how do you get to Carnegie Hall?” and the response, “practice, practice” comes to mind. Lucky for me, I’ve had somewhat of an insider’s view.
My Miss Vickie has a cousin who has made it to the major leagues. His name is Greg Holland and he pitches for the Kansas City Royals.
Every time I shake Greg’s hand, I get nervous. It’s not the onset of fame for young Holland, recently named the closer for the ever-rebuilding Royals. It’s not the rarified air he is beginning to breathe in being one of just 30 closers after having been drafted in the 10th round in 2006. The hand I shake is attached to his pitching arm. It’s simply about the arm and what it’s worth to the young man.
The Royals and much of Holland’s family were here in Baltimore last weekend for a series against the still contending Orioles. We went all to four games, sitting in box seats provided by Greg, hoping for the chance of viewing the young fella at work. Having followed him only in the box scores, this was my latest chance to see him live for the first time.
I’ve been accused of always rooting for the underdog. Maybe it’s true. I’ll root for black guys in hockey, Arabic guys in football and Canadians who can dish the rock in the NBA. I rooted for Akeem “the Dream” Olajuwan over most Americans playing basketball because he grew up using his feet in soccer before his hands and managed to win two championships with the Houston Rockets.
Greg Holland’s high school coach didn’t think he was good enough for college baseball and refused to help him with recruitment. He was a walk-on for his college team at Western Carolina University. Even so, he was drafted 306th by the Royals after his junior year. Kansas City also promised that his last year of school would be paid for, should he not make the big club. Since then, he has progressed from Single A ball, year by year, making it to the majors full time in 2011.
Holland doesn’t come by his athletic talent alone. Back in McDowell County, N.C., both his father and grandfather were fine athletes as were two of his uncles. One still has to ask, what makes him better? Maybe the difference came in high school, when he was hit by a baseball while running to third base. That he finished both the game and the season with a broken jaw. Maybe it is that he stood on the shoulders of his athletic family and reached just a little higher? Or maybe it was that this good student and athlete just wanted to prove his high school coach wrong.
Kansas City hasn’t had much success since the days of Willie Wilson and George Brett in the 1980s. Ownership issues have prevented a steady hand from guiding the Royals to winning for two decades. Still, with manager Ned Yost and GM Dayton Moore, the Royals are loading up with young talent. As it stands Greg Holland, at 26, is the old man of the relief staff. Still, a question for fans and professionals lingers: can a small market team contend with wealthier teams?
The answer, of course is yes, with patience, good coaching and expectations. We need only look to the Yankees. Yes, the hated and wealthy Yankees, who are strong up the middle. The Yankees drafted Posada, Jeter and Williams, along with Andy Pettite. They also brought in high-priced free agents throughout this recent run of success. Not all the free agents have worked out yet the players they drafted and groomed have been the backbone of their success. Their five championships speak for themselves.
Sitting with Greg’s parents, Kim and Scott, through the first two games was enjoyment enough. Their quiet ease in public, waiting for their son to perform belied the subtle nervousness they felt inside. Only the incessant chatter of a pandering agent offering his services kept game one from being an easy win for Kansas City. Game two went the way of the Orioles as they got to Royal pitching early. Neither game required Holland’s expertise.
Game three gave us Eddie Murray Night, a miniature replica of Murray for the fans and a three-hour rain delay. The Hall of Famer was enshrined at 10:10 p.m. with a life-size statue along with other Orioles greats, Frank Robinson, Earl Weaver and Jim Palmer. Though I am never one to leave a game early, waiting three hours before it starts is another matter. Still, when Kim Holland told me they’d sat through a game in Boston that ended after 2 a.m., I knew I wasn’t going anywhere.
As they had Thursday, the Royals jumped out ahead of Baltimore early. To the Oriole fans credit, most stayed not only to hear Eddie Murray speak. They also stayed for the game, a rout by Kansas City. I roamed the stadium throughout, meeting the same fans, stadium workers and policemen through the seven hours we spent together at the Yard. By 1:35 a.m., most of us were tired but had dried off and were thankful the night had ended. My hopes of seeing Holland pitch were pushed back 12 hours later to the last game of the series.
A sunday afternoon, with the humidity low and the breezes light yet abundant, gave us reason to believe that for one day in summer, Maryland is the land of easy living. I asked my friend Mark Connor, a native of Baltimore, to come along and share in the hope that at last, Greg would pitch. It seemed payback enough for enduring the previous nights’ length.
I watched intently for number 56 as I had all series. When he did get up to stretch in the bullpen during the seventh inning, I thought, finally, I’ll get to see this guy wind up and toss in a major league game. Alas, it was not to be. He didn’t even throw a warm up pitch and the Royals lost by two. Though I enjoyed all four games, here was the latest reminder that baseball may often sate but not satisfy the fan.
There are many young men like Greg Holland in professional sports. Athletes whose loyalty and talent work in tandem to make a person capable of achieving what we wish we could. Still, the Royals have drafted well before. We’ve seen Jermaine Dye, Carlos Beltran and Johnny Damon leave the organization. If they hold this current group together, they have a chance to return to prominence in the major leagues.
Holland is going to get better as he smart and learns from his mistakes. He has five saves and one win in six outings since he has been named closer for Kansas City. I hope Holland can achieve with and for the Royals. Even so, I worry about another Royals fire sale.
If that happens, it’ll be hard for his parents not to say how good he may look in Yankee pinstripes.