Looking In From Down Under

This afternoon I had the pleasure of speaking with the voice of the Northwest Arkansas Naturals (The Kansas City Royals’ Double A Team), Benjamin Kelly. We spoke about his passion of the game, who the next Eric Hosmer is, the Kansas City Royals and their amazing farm system, and the World Baseball Classics.

You’ve been the voice of the Northwest Arkansas Naturals for two years now. What got you into broadcasting?

“Well I always had an idea that I wanted to broadcast. I went to college specifically to play baseball and to talk on the radio. I played baseball at a small school in Indiana, Goshen College, and..always kind of knew that I wanted to do baseball broadcasting. So when I graduated college I didn’t have any baseball play-by-play experience at all. So I took an independent league job as a number two broadcaster in Schaumberg, Illinois. After that season I spent 6 months as as sports information director for a small school and I’ve been in Northwest Arkansas since March 2014.

As a broadcaster, do you try to model your own game off someone else like Joe Buck, Tim McCarver, or do you try to call your own game?

Getty Images: (Left) Tim McCarver (Right) Joe Buck

“I consider myself a student of broadcasting too. I’ve read Ernie Hardwell’s books…and their biggest thing was that you can try to be somebody else, but you’re not going to go very far. So you have to be your own personality and develop your own style, and just talking to other broadcasters throughout my career, that’s what they say too. You can try to model your style off [Vin] Scully, but that’s going to be looked through in a minute. You gotta be your own voice. You gotta be your own personality. So, to answer your question, I just bring my own personality to every game.

So what does that entail? Every broadcaster adds their own touch to the game. So give me an example of a Benjamin Kelly game.

“So, the biggest thing for me is to be descriptive. If I’m listening to the game on a radio, I want to know what color shoes the guy is wearing. Where exactly was that bunt down the third baseline? I can remember a call I had last year, ‘[Cam] Gallagher bunts it down the third baseline equidistant between the mound and third base’. As a listener, you can see where exactly that baseball is. That to me is the biggest effort, to bring descriptive qualities and the small nuisances of the game, and those really go back to the basic roots of radio play-by-play. Setting up the defense, setting up the batters, setting up the sequence, that type of thing. And I try to be…you know, like how I’m talking to you now. That’s how I want to talk on the radio, conversationally. Vin Scully says that you want call a ballgame like you were sitting on the third row behind the dugout, having a beer with a buddy and you just talking about the game. So that’s kind of how I try to approach every broadcast.”

The Naturals stocked their coaching staff with experience. Manager Vance Wilson, hitting coach Leon Roberts and Steven Luebber collectively played 24 years of experience. How important is experience when it comes to coaching these players?

“I think from a manager perspective…these players at this level, they’re old enough. They’re 22, 23, 24, they’re old enough to…remember seeing them [their coaches] play. I think from that perspective, it’s important that these guys listen and have a mentor who’s been there, and knows what it takes to be an everyday, or just a big league player and Vance [Wilson] was a back up most of his career. But the guys he backed up were both in the HOF (Ivan Rodriguez and Mike Piazza), so he was clearly doing something right. So I think it’s important for these young players, who are trying to get to the big league level, to have that type of mentorship and that type of experience to pick the brain of. Steve [Luebber] and Leon [Roberts] both bring a lot of experience. So I think that’s important to have, and I think that’s what every organization is looking for when they hire their minor league coaching staff. They want to bring in guys who have been there, and have the ability to teach the game. And that’s what this coaching staff does.”

Okay, let’s talk about the minor leagues. The Kansas City Royals consistently have one of the best farm systems. A lot of young players that came up through the Royals farm system later emerged as stars in the MLB, what do you think makes your system one of the best?

Getty Images: (Left) Dayton Moore

“I think that the transition really happened when Dayton Moore took over as the GM for Kansas City. Because he had a plan, he came over from Atlanta, and he was a member of the Front Office when John Schuerholz was the GM over there, and they won 14 straight division titles, and the WS, and you know working with Glavine, Maddux, Smoltz, Javier Lopez, Andrew Jones and Chipper Jones. So he’s modeling what the Braves did for their consistency, to what KC is. So, they’re relying heavily on scouting and in my mind, they have one of the best scouting department in all of baseball, because you look at the guys I just named off. Those are homegrown guys. They didn’t go out and trade for them. They haven’t had to trade many of their prospects, they’ve trusted the process by picking the right guys for their system. [Eric] Hosmer is not a 40 home run guy, but he plays outstanding First Base, he hits for a decent average, gets on base, he can hit 25 home runs a year, he’s a doubles guy, Moustakas is the same way, great third baseman. Gordon is an outstanding outfielder. They model that they have right now is built on defense and playing to their own ballpark. Kaufman Stadium is a huge ballpark, so you’re not going to see a 40 home run guy there. You’re going to see a 30 home run guy with a lot of doubles. So I think Dayton Moore has done a tremendous job in finding those right guys to be in the minor league system, and then finding the right coaching staff to develop that and relay the Royals message, and that is what makes them so consistent in the lower levels and continuing to pluck the farm and to bring a guy up from Double-A to go pitch in the big leagues. You saw that with Matt Strahm last year. So that’s what makes them so good.

The Royals are known to retain their star prospects. So what do you make of them basically depleting their farm system in 2015 when they traded for Ben Zobrist and Johnny Cueto?

“…You know it’s funny all those prospects came from the Northwest Arkansas Naturals… but the ultimate goal in Minor League baseball is to develop players. Winning is really secondary, maybe even tertiary for a Minor League baseball team, the number one goal is to win at the Major league level, and I think you saw that with Kansas City is that this [2015 season] is our window to win. We hadn’t won a world series since 1985, we got a lot of the right pieces. We’re just missing a couple, and their minor league system was really prospect laden, and so trade those guys to get the players they got back…looking back on it, obviously it worked because they won the World Series. So I think every GM in MLB will say when you have an opportunity like that, you have got to win at the Big League level. You have got do what it takes.”

In 2006 Alex Gordon won the Texas League Player Of The Year Award and in 2010, Mike Moustakas won the award. Both of them are currently stars in the MLB, with four All Star appearances, and four Gold Gloves between them. In between those two All Stars, Kila Ka’aihu, won the award in ’08. He’s been out of the MLB since 2012. How do you predict which stars will carryover their success into the Bigs?

“I mean that is the million dollar question. Bill James, back in the 70’s, wrote a ‘Ten Commandments’ of what he believes. One of them was: how you perform in the Minor Leagues, is going to translate in the Major Leagues. I actually asked Vance that question over the offseason, and he’s like “That’s the million dollar question”, you got guys like Ka’aihu who raked in this league and were outstanding players in the Texas League. But it doesn’t always translate to the big league level. You can look up another guy, back to the 2010 team, Clint Robinson. He led the league in batting average, home runs, and RBI’s. Well Clint right now, is a good bench player for the Washington Nationals. Those numbers that he had in Double-A ball, from 2010, he’s not having those same numbers in the big leagues right now. So, I think those guys do have a better chance of getting to that star status in Major League Baseball. But, like I said, the diamonds are in the rough…one thing I’ve learned over the past three seasons is that any, really any player can get into the Major Leagues, and sticking in the Major Leagues is the hard part. That’s the million dollar question. It is so hard to be an everyday player in the Big Leagues right now, and you can really never tell. You have a good idea but you hope that they can be an everyday big league player. But you truly just don’t know. So if you can figure that one out, you can be running the LA Dodgers one day.”

From 1995–2012, the Royals only produced one winning season. After a copious amount of turmoil, fans have quieted down when they saw the results of the team “tanking.” The Royals have produced stars such as Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Zach Greinke and Billy Butler. However, after a dismal and mediocre season, what inspiration can you give to fellow Royals fans that this is just a speedbump and the Royals are still for real?

“Well I think the Royals fanbase is still optimistic. I think they understand what happened last year. You know, you had some injuries. You had Kendrick Morales still hit 30 home runs, but it wasn’t the Kendrick from a season ago…Gordon got hurt. Moustakas got hurt. It was sort of a rotation by committee by stretch. Injuries plague every team. I think to win a world series, and do it consistently like the Yankees did or the Braves did back in the day, you gotta have the stars align perfectly, and in 2015, those stars aligned. So I think, for the Royals’ overall fan base, I think they really do trust the process. That Dayton Moore has instituted into this organization. They believe that the team that’s put out there for 162 games, that is going to be the best possible team that they can put out there. I think overall there is optimism. I don’t think you’re going to see a Royals stretch like you saw from ‘95-’12 within the next 15 years. Offensively they are going to be fine. Pitching right now is the biggest question. They got some guys like Travis Woods in Spring Training. I think they’re going to be over their projected 71 wins. That’s for sure.”

In 2017, we live in such a “fast paced” society where kids are automatically turned off to baseball because it’s “too slow” or “takes too long”. What do you think of that? Do you love baseball for what it is, or do you think MLB should try to speed things up and get with the times?

“I think that if you’re not trying to progress the game then you’re not doing it justice. I think, you know you look at any other major sports- hockey took away the two-line pass to speed up the game and make more scoring. I think that was good for the game, it made it more exciting. The NFL, with all the rules they’ve implemented, I think that’s to help the game and, even the NCAA is saying they want to reset the fouls after 10 minutes…so you’re always looking for ways to better your game. Now, do I agree that after nine innings you put a runner on second base at the top of every half inning? Absolutely not. I don’t agree with that at all. But, with the replays and putting a 30 second pitching clock, I think that’s good. I think that’s where the lull of the game drags. You got two and a half minutes in between innings, so that’s frustrating but that’s the way it is. That’s how you make your money.

I like baseball because of the small game within the game. You know, ‘where is the defense lining up?’ I like it from that aspect. But I think if this game doesn’t try to find ways to make it appealing to the fan and younger generation, then it’s going to continue to struggle to find a true fan base. So I think it’s good what they’re trying to do. Some of it is is ‘umm I don’t know about that,’ but they got smart baseball guys up there. I mean Joe Torre is one of the smartest baseball guys in the game, and if he’s going to try to put this rule in (for the runner on 2nd base after the 9th inning), then I mean, maybe give it a try. If it falls flat on its face, then okay. I haven’t really seen a difference with the time clock down here in the minors. I don’t know if it helps, but I think it’s good that they’re taking the steps to make the game quicker.”

Are you aware that Wade Boggs and Bob Gibson grew up in the same city as you? Did either of them have anything to do with your interest in baseball as a kid?

“Omaha is such a great baseball city. The college baseball world series had more of an impact on my love for the game of baseball than I think professional baseball did…I remember going there every single year for the first 15 years of my life, and going down to Rosenblatt and seeing Trevor Bauer and Matt Perks, and those guys, playing in the College world series, and then see them play in the big leagues five years later. That had more of an impact. I grew up a Cardinals fan so Bob Gibson, is obviously one of the greatest pitchers of all time, and going to high school I used to pass the old Omaha Tech High School, where he played everyday on the way to school. So it was just a reminder that this really is a great baseball city, and it’s awesome. As a ten year old kid you’re like “if Bob Gibson can make the Big Leagues out of Omaha, Nebraska then so can I. So that’s the way I looked at it.”

Are you excited for the World Baseball Classic?

“I think it’s good, since it’s not in the Olympics anymore. I think it’s good…you want to see the best players in the world play against each other. So you can really see, who is the best out there. Managers in the Big Leagues kind of grind and groan about this because they lose their best players for a couple of weeks in the month of March. But, as a fan, I think it’s great for the game. I think it’s for the good of the game, it raises the interest level for overall everybody, and I’m a big fan of the WBC. I’ll watch Mexico take on Venezuela just to see Miguel Cabrera play one more time.

What do you think the World Baseball Classic needs to do to entice superstars like Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw to play in the tournament?

“I don’t know if you can do anything to entice them. I think it’s based on their personal preference. If they want to, great. If not, I mean I don’t blame them. Those are expensive players. I can’t blame them for not wanting to put their own careers at risk with their own teams. I’m happy that players like Danny Duffy and Salvador Perez will play. But for Team USA, it’s a good chance to spotlight some of the guys in the mid level talent to put them in the forefront and let them build their own stock…you know the olympics was actually build on mid level talent, that’s the way it was. But now it’s turned into such a commercial industry. I don’t fault them at all for not playing.”

Fill in the blank “In 5 years, _______ will be a star in the MLB.”

“I really think Ryan O’hearn, who’s a first baseman for us, can be the next Eric Hosmer. A big left hander bat, good defensively. He can play the outfield if needed. Good athlete. He can be the next player to come up. He has a great fire and passion for the game. That’s what separates him from the rest. I mentioned Matt Straum, in five years maybe he can be the ace of the staff. Maybe a Danny Duffy. “