KANSAS CITY -- As Royals general manager Dayton Moore spoke of prospect Bubba Starling's long road to the Major Leagues, which finally came to fruition on Friday, Moore shared something personal.
“Probably the most asked question I’ve ever had in this position since I’ve been here is, ‘When is Bubba going to get here?’” Moore said.
Finally, eight years after the Royals selected Starling in the first round (fifth overall) of the 2011 MLB Draft, after they gave him a $7.5 million signing bonus, after staying patient with his failures season after season, Starling arrived at Kauffman Stadium early Friday afternoon and was penciled into the starting lineup in the 8-5 win over the Tigers. The question has been answered.
“It’s very special, and I dreamed about this since I was growing up, coming to games here in Kansas City,” Starling told a room packed with reporters and cameras. “And now that it’s finally happening, it’s very exciting. The front office stuck with me throughout all of this.”
Starling got a standing ovation from the crowd before he stepped to the plate in the bottom of the second inning, and the crowd remained standing through a five-pitch walk. Starling later scored in the inning on a fielding error. He went 0-for-3 on the night.
“[The ovation] was really, really special,” Starling said. “Kinda gave me goosebumps walking up to the box. Just kind of settled in after that first at-bat. Definitely had a little bit of nerves walking in there.
“You know, you get out there and you look up, and you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m playing center field for the Kansas City Royals.’ Very, very special. It’s stuff you dream about. I’ll cherish this the rest of my life.”
Starling’s story has been well-documented over the years. He was the three-sport standout from Gardner, Kan., the local kid done good, growing up less than an hour from Kauffman Stadium. He was so gifted at football that the University of Nebraska signed him to play quarterback.
Starling chose baseball instead.
But at least offensively, Starling found life in the Minors overwhelming. Injuries slowed his progress, and in 2016, he nearly reached rock bottom, hitting .183 combined between Double-A Northwest Arkansas and Triple-A Omaha.
Rock bottom came the next year. It was near the end of May and Starling stared incredulously at his .121 batting average.
"I thought that was it for me," Starling said the following spring. "I remember sitting in the batting cage the next day just thinking it was done. I remember calling my parents that night and I was bawling. I said, 'I can't do this anymore.'"
Starling’s parents, though, urged him to persevere some more. He did. He made a point to try to have more fun on a daily basis. The results were modest -- he raised his average to .248 by season’s end -- but encouraging.
But 2018 brought more hardship. An oblique injury slowed Starling in Spring Training. By the time he came back in May, he dislocated his little finger on a rehab assignment. He wound up playing in only 20 games.
Worse yet, the Royals took Starling off the 40-man roster last offseason. But though humbled, he was still committed to the team that drafted him.
“That’s why I signed back with the Royals,” Starling said. “I still knew I could get here.”
Royals manager Ned Yost noticed an immediate change in Starling during Spring Training.
“When he came to Spring Training here this year, he was just a different guy,” Yost said. “Much more confident. He wasn’t a swing-and-miss guy anymore.”
Starling’s 2019 season has been his best ever. By mid-June he was hitting .347. While fans on social media howled for his promotion, the Royals remained patient.
Moore and Yost finally started to discuss the real possibility of that promotion two weeks ago.
Starling said he had no issues with the wait this season.
“I showed up to the park every day and had fun with my teammates,” said Starling, who was hitting .310 with seven home runs and 38 RBIs when promoted. “[The Royals] know exactly what they’re doing so I wasn’t going to worry about something I couldn’t control.”
Yost plans on using Starling regularly in center field. Alex Gordon will play left, Whit Merrifield will play right, Jorge Soler will DH, and Billy Hamilton, who could still be a trade chip, moves to the bench.
Neither Yost nor Moore said they have any doubts that Starling can last in the big leagues, mainly because they believe his defense has been Major League ready for some time.
“Some people don’t know how tough baseball is, not only physically but mentally,” said Starling, 26. “When I was coming out of high school, I didn’t know that. It took me a lot of years in the Minors to realize that.”
And now all those who supported Starling, including perhaps most of Gardner, Kan., will be on hand for his debut.
“I know there will be tons of people from my community here,” Starling said, “people who have been with me all the way. It’s Friday night. It’s going to be fun.”