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Return to Omaha for exhibition brings back memories for many Royals

Despite an exhibition washout, the Royals say they are ready for the season.

Werner Park, home of the Omaha Storm Chasers.
Minda Haas Kuhlmann

The Royals and Storm Chasers were supposed to play an exhibition last night, the first such matchup in Omaha since 2000. Workers loaded up equipment in trailers, and players and coaches hopped on planes for a one-night-only affair. However, rain and cold temperatures made it too risky for the Royals to play an exhibition game. It was up to the Royals to make the decision to play, and General Manager Dayton Moore cited player safety as the reason for the cancellation. Moore, along with Storm Chasers president Martie Cordaro and owner Gary Green, emphasized that this is worth trying again next year.

Despite the logistical challenges of gathering everyone in Omaha for the day, Kansas City manager Ned Yost said the exhibition game was an exciting idea. “It’s special because it’s part of our fan base. We have such huge support up here from our fans,” he said. “It’s a big deal for us. I’m a little bummed out the weather is what it is, but we were really excited about coming here.”

On the weather, he added, “The whole idea is to get here and let your fans see your big boys, but when the weather’s like this, you’ve got to be a little more cautious about how long you’re gonna leave those big boys in.”

Against a backdrop of bats cracking in the indoor batting cages, several Kansas City visitors spent time with Omaha and Kansas City media. Many of them were returning to a part of their career’s past.

Third base coach Mike Jirschele managed in Omaha for so long, he still considers it his second home next to Clintonville, Wisconsin. The area around Werner Park has changed since he left for the Majors in 2014. Where there was once only corn, several new housing developments have popped up. Jirschele joked that Omaha general manager Martie Cordaro should have built one for him.

“I was very excited to see that we were gonna play here,” Jirschele said. “I was hoping for a little bit better weather, but I knew at this time of year it could be snowy, rainy, whatever. At least when we looked out today it wasn’t two or three inches of snow.”

While Jirschele talked, Salvador Perez sneaked up behind the group of reporters and raised his hand to ask a question. “What happened to your hair?”

Jirschele rubbed his head, which is newly free of hair. “This is from managing Salvy down here a few years ago and then putting up with him at the major league level.”

Perez also invited himself into Alex Gordon’s media time, deploying Drew Butera to ask Gordon what his favorite memory was from his playing days at the University of Nebraska. The typically reserved Gordon suddenly spoke very loudly, making sure one particular teammate could hear:

“Probably when we had the [Miami] Hurricanes come to town in the super-regional, and we beat the Hurricanes to go to the College World Series. I think Jon Jay was on that team.” Jay, clad in a Miami stocking cap and holding an orange and green bat, sat nearby. Gordon grinned and continued.

“I got thrown out of that game. It’s probably one of my favorite memories.”

This will be the first full season Gordon plays under the tutelage of one of his peers, Mitch Maier. Maier temporarily took over first base coach Rusty Kuntz’s job last fall, when Kuntz had medical problems and took some time off. The switch is permanent now, and Gordon is happy with it.

“Mitch has really taken over Rusty’s job in a good way. Me and Mitch kind of grew up together in the organization. We were roommates for like five years - he’s almost like my best friend. I thought it was gonna be kind of weird, and I didn’t know how he was gonna do. But the first day of spring training, he took off running, and really took control of this team where Rusty’s old job was.”

As for his spring training woes? Gordon said he had mechanical issues. “I wasn’t comfortable at the plate. But this last week, I got in the cage and did some extra work. I feel ready to go now; that’s really all that matters,” he said.

Whit Merrifield returned to Omaha, a place he had to play a lot after being the final cut out of spring training several years in a row. This time, he was in town as a big leaguer. He said having a secure space on the roster made spring training more peaceful, and that he got a lot more sleep at night. He echoed a sentiment that other Royals brought up all afternoon: this team will surprise people.

“Inside the clubhouse, we’ve got a lot of talent. we’ve got a lot of guys that are itching to prove themselves, and itching to play,” he said. “We’re looking forward to getting the season started, looking forward to proving a lot of people wrong.”

Opening Day for the Royals is this Thursday at home against the White Sox, and the Storm Chasers begin their season at home on April 5.