Be the Ball, Danny
Embracing Kansas City as his own, popular pitcher Danny Duffy wants to spend his whole career as a Royal.
Moving at a million miles per hour to pack up and get ready the day before pitchers and catchers report to Surprise, Arizona, Danny Duffy calls on a Saturday morning, eager for another season of Royals baseball while remembering a close friend and teammate.
Fresh off the best season of his career, Duffy made it his intention to stay with the organization for the long haul by signing a five-year, $65 million contract in January. Players can be pretty nomadic in this game, but Duffy loves Kansas City too much to play anywhere else, and it would've been strange for him to don any other jersey. As he put it succinctly: "I couldn't even fathom it, dude. I don't even want to think about it."
Continuity is a big reason why. The southpaw from California is one of four fan favorites — Salvador Perez, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer being the others —who made his major league debut with the Royals in 2011, and they all knew each other even before then.
"I've been playing with Salvy since we were 17 and 18. I've been playing with Moose since we were 18, Hos since he was 18 and I was 19," Duffy says. "I've known Jarrod Dyson as long as I've been a Royal, and that was hard to see him go. I could go on forever. There's a big chunk of people who I've played over a decade with. You feel a little bit more of a bond with people who you basically sort of graduated high school with.
"The way they've approached everything in my career and a lot of my peers' careers has played a part too. These guys, this organization, is just class from top to bottom. I wanted to do everything I could to stick around as long as I can."
Few people exemplify the connection that Royals players have with fans, and the love that is reciprocated between them, quite like Duffy. And there was no greater example of that than when the news broke of star pitcher Yordano Ventura's death Jan. 22 in a car accident in the Dominican Republic.
As distraught fans showed up at Kauffman Stadium that afternoon, so, too, did Duffy and Christian Colón, offering hugs and solace.
"We knew that there was a memorial set up there, and we felt that it would be right to go," Duffy says. "Knowing that there would be fans there, the fact that we'd show up would probably help them. But we knew how much it would help us too. It may sound a tad selfish, but we really appreciated the love and support that our fans showed when we went out there on that hard day."
Emotions are still raw for Duffy and for everyone else with the Royals who were close to Ventura during this exceedingly difficult offseason. But Duffy looked back fondly at the soaring talent he was, and the man he was becoming.
"He learned a lot in the last year and a half on how to conduct himself," he says of Ventura. "He always had our back. But when you put a kid in the big leagues, I mean, you saw it with me. It's hard to adjust sometimes. It's hard to adjust to the fame that comes along with it. It's hard to adjust to all the attention that's thrown your way. He just started to realize that baseball isn't who he is; it's just what he did. He was always loyal, man. I think that was probably the most admirable thing about him, which is saying a lot, because his stuff was incredible."
When Duffy returned to Twitter in February after a long hiatus, he chose a photo of him and Ventura celebrating the Royals' playoff berth in the locker room in 2014 as his profile photo. And he's on Twitter again primarily to be a voice for kids with pediatric cancer.
Duffy befriended Noah Wilson from Olathe, who was diagnosed with Ewing Sarcoma at the age of 6. As Noah noticed the boring bandages that were being applied on him, he started Noah's Bandage Project to give kids bandages with a lot more personality that stand out while they were in the hospital and to encourage people to donate to pediatric cancer research.
Noah died in 2015 at age 7, but his legacy is stronger than ever thanks to the efforts of Duffy and his wife, Sara. He is donating $500 for every strikeout he records in the 2017 season to Noah's Bandage Project.
"I just feel like it would be almost irresponsible to not use the platform that we have to promote positive things," Duffy says. "You're not going to see me tweeting a gazillion tweets a minute. It's going to be all constructive stuff."
Duffy posted a career-high in strikeouts with 188, which was good for ninth among American League pitchers, and was one of the most reliable guys in the rotation for the Royals in 2016. More importantly for him, his walks were down considerably compared to his previous two seasons in about the same number of starts, which speaks to the adjustments and maturity he was referring to, and any command issues that he may have had were tempered last season.
Entering his seventh season in the big leagues, Duffy's points of focus are his health and stamina down the stretch.
"I think I can keep it right where it's at as far as last year goes command-wise," Duffy says, "but late in the year, I started to get a little bit tired. We worked hard in the offseason to try and put on a little bit more weight, and I'm not going to sit here and use the cliché 'the best shape of my life.' But I feel really good."
He's also expecting big things from guys like Jason Hammel who, along with Travis Wood, joins the Royals' pitching staff after winning a World Series with the Chicago Cubs. Hammel won 15 games in 2016, five more than his previous best. "I've always really enjoyed watching him compete and seems like a really cool dude," Duffy says. "He seems like a stud, man, and I'm really looking forward to having him on our side."
Several computer projections don't paint a rosy picture for the 2017 Royals. PECOTA, the projection system from Baseball Prospectus, predicted a last-place finish for the Royals last year. That didn't happen. And it also projects another last-place finish, to Duffy's amusement.
"They never are kind to us, man. They never have been kind to us. It doesn't matter," he says. "We can't sit there and argue with a computer. The computer doesn't have any feelings. Who cares? We don't even think about it. We see it, but it's like, oh, wow. A Dell computer just told us that we're gonna stink this year. Yeah. We know what we have in the tank. When projections are wrong, people are just like, 'Oh, they're just for fun!' But when they're right? 'See, we told you!' It's funny, man. We don't pay it no mind."
There were many times in 2016 where Duffy looked like the ace of the staff. After a year away from the playoffs, one of the keys to being a factor again in the American League Central is his effectiveness on the mound, playing in honor of someone who meant so much to him.
"I think we're going to be pretty close-knit this year," he says. "With all the events that have transpired, it gives us more incentive to maximize time with each other."