Publish date:

To the tune of a hickory (well, ash) stick

Readin', 'ritin' and 'rithmetic—and baseball. That is the curriculum at a revolutionary school in Florida where the Kansas City Royals are striving to turn good football and tennis players into baseball champions

They laughed when Ewing Kauffman, the rookie owner of the Kansas City Royals, announced to an unawaiting baseball world that he would build an academy devoted to the development of young major-leaguers. They laughed, too, when Judge Roy Hofheinz mentioned something about a stadium with a roof. But Houston's Astrodome was built, and the Royals' Baseball Academy is now well launched and functioning handsomely in Sarasota, Fla. So far it has cost Ewing Kauffman more than $1½ million, and one day they—baseball's entrenched conservatives—are going to have to stop laughing.

From the road the Royals' academy looks no different from any of the hundreds of small-business developments that have sprung up on the west coast of Florida during the last 15 years. Two white, flat-roofed buildings crouch low under the hot sun and, at a distance, could be taken for fruit-processing plants or computer-card countinghouses. But in back of those buildings are five new baseball diamonds, each built to the specifications of the field that will sit inside the $43 million domed stadium scheduled to open in Kansas City in 1972.

As early as 6 a.m. the 39 students selected for the academy are up and getting ready for their day's business. As night falls, many of them still can be found in the batting cages working on hitting flaws or throwing baseballs up against the front walls of handball courts to sharpen their fielding techniques. Five months from now the majority of the first class at the academy will be playing as a team in the Gulf Coast League in Florida, one of three rookie leagues in professional baseball. Like the Appalachian and Pioneer Leagues, the Gulf Coast starts as soon as colleges let out and runs through a 60-game schedule. Unlike the other teams playing in rookie leagues, however, the Kansas City team will not be made up of the top draft choices or college All-Americas produced in 1970-71. The Royals' team will be composed of many youngsters aged 17, 18 and 19 who were chosen primarily for their athletic ability—their strength, their speed and coordination, their proven desire to succeed—and not for their past experience in baseball. Many of the young Royals did not even play the game in high school.

The new Royals are pioneers much in the sense the astronauts were, and they will be watched almost as closely. Once they take the field in the Gulf Coast League, scouts from all other major league clubs will be on hand to see what the academy has been able to teach its first class. Should the academy produce what scouts call "prospects," some of the other teams might even consider following Kauffman's lead.

The idea for a baseball academy came to Kauffman not long after he had bought the expansion Royals in 1968 and had carefully scrutinized what the brotherhood of owners had done for him. For the exquisite privilege of paying $175,000 per head, Kauffman received 30 players who, he noted, occasionally could be counted on to catch a thrown ball. Kauffman, at 52, already knew something about expansion franchises. He is a native Kansas Citian, which means that for 13 seasons he, like the rest, had remained remarkably temperate while watching the local version of a major league club lose anywhere from 90 to 100 games a year. Although Kauffman was happy to get the Kansas City franchise, he was aware that the restless citizens were not going to dump buckets of money into his lap merely to see teams play .400 ball forever.

As a young pharmaceutical salesman, Kauffman decided he could make more money by manufacturing products than by pushing them. From a start in his mother's basement, with an investment of $4,500, he built Marion Laboratories into a firm that is presently valued at $166 million. Kauffman, in other words, knew a little something about getting ahead, and after scouting the possibilities of what could be done to improve his team, he was not exactly overjoyed with his prospects. "Even before we drafted those 30 players at $175,000 each we had put $300,000 into scouting," he said. "I was only beginning to understand how truly complex a business baseball could be. But I wanted to bring Kansas City a winner in the quickest possible way. It became apparent to me that there were only four ways in which we could get better players, and not one of them was going to do us much good."

The four methods were the free-agent draft; the minor league draft, at which all but 40 players belonging to each club are offered for sale at $25,000 each; trades and buying players from other teams.

"In the free-agent draft," Kauffman says, "just about every club has nearly the same chance, so there is no advantage. The minor league draft does not provide many prospects. [Only eight players were selected from about 1,500 in 1970.] To trade well you have to be either lucky or have a lot of players other teams want. Money? It doesn't do that much for you. I tried to buy Reggie Jackson from Charlie Finley for $1 million, and I offered him $3 million for four of his players. He turned me down on both deals. The only thing I could do was go outside the normal baseball avenues open to us and try to find better players."

Kauffman's original idea was to go only after boys who had seldom played baseball and to make the Sarasota development into an athletic version of a Marine boot camp. By last winter, when the search for talent began, it was decided that anybody who was dying to go to Parris Island probably would be bored with baseball and academic training—which was another facet of the Kauffman plan—and it was decided further that just because a boy had tossed around a baseball once was no reason for excluding him. Syd Thrift, a onetime Pittsburgh Pirate scout, was appointed director.

In February, Thrift asked high school coaches around the country to nominate boys who might want to attend the academy. In June and July, tryout camps were set up in 41 states, attracting 7,682 athletes. Among the boys who survived and were invited to school are a former New Mexico high school wrestling champion, a two-time Missouri high school sprint champion, a pole vaulter from Wichita State, a boy who played no high school baseball at all but excelled in bowling and weight lifting and a quarterback from Topeka who set his school's record in the javelin throw.

Many of the students were baseball players, however—good ones. Orestes (Minnie) Minoso-Arrieta is only one of those, but because his father is the durable and exciting Minnie who played for 15 seasons in the majors and compiled a .299 lifetime batting average young Minnie has drawn a lot of attention. When asked recently what kind of a chance he thought he had to make it to the majors, he said, "I have a 100% chance. I'm learning things at the academy that are going to help me get there a lot faster than other kids."

The students accepted at the academy must take 12 hours of credits at nearby Manatee Junior College, which is coeducational. So much for Parris Island. Among other things, Kauffman wants them to learn enough about business and public relations to insure that they will not lose their shirts in investments he expects them to make with the money they earn from baseball. Each morning the player-students pile on a bus and go off to school. They return to the academy for lunch and then go out to play and learn baseball. The baseball faculty consists of two former major league managers, Johnny Neun and Jim Lemon; Steve Korcheck, a catcher for the Washington Senators from 1954-59 and later baseball coach at George Washington; Bill Easton, the onetime University of Kansas track coach; Wes Santee, the famous miler; and former major-leaguer Chuck Stobbs.

The academy opened Aug. 10, and Thrift is encouraged by the youngsters' development. "I believe that when these boys go into the Gulf Coast League 80% of them will do well," he says. "For one thing, they get 30 minutes of live hitting every day, and that doesn't go on anywhere else in baseball. We believe we can do as much here to help an athlete along as anyplace else in sports. And certainly more than anyplace else in baseball."

On a bulletin board in the hallway of the main dorm at the academy is a rating chart. Some of the categories: producing sacrifice flies, swinging to aid a player in a steal, aiding the runner while in the on-deck circle, signs and pickoffs. There are no batting averages. Each student has been asked to try switch hitting, and those who find it comfortable press forward with it. Running speed is constantly being tested at a distance of 60 yards, and the majority of players now cover the ground in seven seconds or less, an average figure for major league players.

Before starting the tryouts, the Royals tested some 150 professional players to find out their physical attributes. The results of this study of abilities helped in selecting candidates for the school and in judging their progress. The instructors, in fact, feel they have a better line on their players than most scouts ever do, if for no other reason than that their boys appear in a lot more games than most prospects.

"At the academy we really believe we can put our boys over many hurdles without having them discouraged at an early stage," says Thrift. "In the time we have been at the academy we have noted tremendous changes in individuals from month to month. The fear of failure is the biggest hurdle of all for an athlete, and if we can get him over that, it would be something."

Aside from two years of junior college education, including room, board and books, a student at the academy receives $100 a month for the first 90 days; $150 for the next 90 days and then $200 up to the time the Gulf Coast League opens. He may stay in the academy two years.

Walter Shannon, the director of scouting for the Baltimore Orioles, paid a visit to the academy and said, "I'm excited about it. It's the type of forward thinking in player development that has been needed, and the ideas and results that will come out of there are things that could change many of the ideas people have held on to for perhaps too long a period of time."

Kauffman is convinced that his idea will work and the day will come when a world championship team made up of graduates of the academy will take the field for Kansas City. In August, when Kauffman spoke to his first class, he told the players, "The eyes of the baseball world are on you. When you succeed, the other 23 clubs are going to try the same method. They will be so far behind they will never catch up."