Last week, I ventured south to the state of Arkansas. Down in the Natural State, it was evident baseball talk was dwindling and the thought of it being mentioned was a distant afterthought. Following the Razorbacks’ quick exit from the College World Series on Monday, the focus of many shifts to football if the interest. But not 15-20 minutes from the campus in Fayetteville sat a little stadium in Springdale called Arvest Ballpark and it’s home to the Northwest Arkansas Naturals, the Double-A affiliate of the Kansas City Royals.
On the evening of June 18th, the Naturals played the Amarillo Sod Poodles (slang for a prairie dog). Parking was five bucks and I drove up about 15 minutes before first pitch. It cost just $13.50 ticket to sit five rows back from home plate. Finding a spot to park was far from the usual hassle as a chunk of of the stalls held nothing but asphalt towards the entrance. Engulfed by a sea of trees that seemed to encompass the stadium like a picket fence, it almost pops out of nowhere when coming in off the highway. There was no line out front. There was no constant clamor from fans about daily life. The only thing audible was a distant voice from the PA inside, spilling out promotions for Slim Chickens and free giveaways on the next home stand.
Walking into the concourse area just past the gates, I took notice to the homage paid to former players who made their way through Springdale over the years. Standing front center was a sign dedicated to Yordano Ventura, with the numbers “1991-2017” printed in bold white letters at the bottom of the frame. The image is captured of the young pitcher, head tilted towards the sky with both arms pointing towards the heavens.
Not 20 feet from that hangs a mural of former Naturals greats Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez, and Wil Myers dressed in minor league attire. Passing through, I find my seat, located in the middle of a row of scouts with radar guns honed in on the pitchers mound, clocking each warm-up toss Naturals starter J.C Cloney slings. As the field was split between the shadows and the glaring brightness of the sun, the Naturals right fielder paced around in the grass to pass time before the words “play ball” were bellowed. His name was Khalil Lee, a 5’10, 170 lb outfielder from the D.C. area. At just 20 years of age and ranked the #3 prospect in the Kansas City farm system, Lee’s sudden surge offensively caught my eye and convinced me to see the tools in person.
Hitting cleanup in a lineup that included Hunter Dozier on a rehab assignment, Lee strutted to the plate with a runner on. Tapping the catcher and umpire on the foot with his bat as he greeted them, the 20-year-old looked immensely composed for his age at this level.
Hoping to capture him crack a double off the wall or club one beyond the lawn over the wall in right-center field, I pressed record on my phone. Eventually running the count to 3-1, Lee managed to walk in his first at-bat. I stopped recording. At the time, I shrugged it off. Nothing miraculous came from chance number one to observe Lee produce “oooohs and ahhhs” from the crowd. Only pressing the little red circle on the bottom of my phone was the dumbest thing I could’ve done at that point in time.
Look, I’m aware of the blinding speed at the big league level in Kansas City. Adalberto Mondesi dashes around the bases so frequently, the opposing pitchers head goes dizzy. Billy Hamilton and Terrance Gore pose a threat every time a ball is put in play. But what happened next is something I haven’t witnessed in person before. On a routine chopper to shortstop, many fans in the section over groaned as it seemed to conclude the inning and waste on opportunity to drive in a run with Dozier on second. The shortstop shuffled a few feet and received a perfect hop to flip to the second baseman standing on the bag for the force out. He flipped the ball underhand to his counterparts glove without much hesitation. But sliding in and stirring up dust came the runner. The foot smashed the bag before the ball even entered the glove. He was safe.
The crowd cheered in unison but not as wildly as I presumed it would be. It seemed as if this occurrence happens more often than not. I did a double-take at the scoreboard replaying the events that just unfolded. There was no bobble or poor footwork. Lee flat out beat the flip. His strides looked smooth and his slide wasn’t sporadic. With 30 stolen bases on the season, it’s no wonder those who attend regularly were not as wide-eyed as myself when the play wrapped up.
Fast-forward to the next plate appearance. The left-handed Lee steps up with a runner at third and less than two outs. I get my phone ready once again. First pitch swinging and he taps the ball to the right of the mound. Seemingly routine, the pitcher and first baseman began to panic causing a frenzy of shouts and frantic movements. With Lee roaring down the line, the first baseman grabs it and dives to tag out Lee trying to slide under the glove at first. The run came across to score as all the attention had been centered on Lee and not the runner dashing home.
On the defensive side, it had been relatively quiet. Then in the top of the third, a fly ball slicing towards to wall in foul territory sent Lee in route. Crouched low to keep his eyes from bouncing, Lee battled the fading sun and leapt over the foul line to snatch the ball out of the air. It wasn’t so much of the catch as it was the reaction time. As soon as the ball was struck, he had a bead on it. Off the bat it was cutting away from him until it found his glove but his awareness of his surroundings of the line and the wall allowed him to haul it in without much of a struggle.
In the top of the fifth, Drew Storen (who has since been released) continued to be battered around the yard. Lee’s chance to show off his arm came on a screaming liner down the right-field line. Disappearing into the corner from where I was sitting, the ball came soaring back in. On one hop, the runner dove in just ahead of throw on a double he should’ve had no business sliding on. Before the ball was struck, Lee was shaded slightly towards center. Off the bat, the ball was smoked down the line passed a diving Travis Jones at first. Using his speed to pounce on it after the first ricochet off the wall, Lee’s surprisingly strong throw from someone who is just 5’10 stuck with me. What proved to be more impressive is he had no momentum of coming in on the throw. With his back turned towards second base, he was forced to pick it up and fire on one crow hop. So in recap, speed, reaction, and arm had all been on display before the seventh inning stretch.
However, I was still yearning for the opportunity to see Lee put a charge into one at the plate. At the very least, the idea of witnessing a well struck base hit would give me a glimpse offensively of what is sure to come to Kauffman Stadium in the near future. That chance nearly came in the bottom of the sixth.
Facing Dauris Valdez, a 6’8 right-hander who repeatedly touched 100 mph against previous hitters, Lee came to the dish with a runner on. Not only did the ball explode from Valdez’s hand, his command at times made him dangerous...and not in a good way. Already spiking a wild pitch in his outing, the 20-year-old outfielder was set to go toe-to-toe with him. Tallying two walks in his first three at-bats, Lee worked the count to 2-0 once more. On the third pitch, Valdez lost control and slung a 99 mph heater towards the legs of Lee, sending him spiraling back in the direction of his dugout.
Missing his golden tickets by a few inches, Lee gathered himself with a breath and stepped back in. Digging in, if not closer to the plate after being dusted off, he still looked eager to swing. Taking a strike to push the count to 3-1, the whole park understood the Royals top position prospect was going to be hacking anywhere close on the next pitch. In came the pitch at 100 mph. WHACK.
His follow through mimicked Robinson Cano, dropping that head of bat inches behind his back foot. The ball sailed toward the corner in right but landed just foul. Missing a double by a slim margin, Lee still appeared to be in full swing mode for pitch number six. He proceeded to foul off the next three pitches, two of which ended up in the netting behind home plate, indicating he was right on it. His bat speed was matching the velocity so this was sure to be leading up to scorched extra base hit or a triple digit strikeout. Only neither of which happened. On the tenth pitch off the at-bat, Lee took outside for ball four and recorded his third walk of the evening.
A little under an hour or so later, the Naturals won and I proceeded up the steps to exit the park. There I passed the signs again, illuminated by the dimly light lightbulb placed firmly just above them. A few thoughts crossed my mind. “Five years from now, if Lee is placed on the wall among those names, what thought will run through the fan base’s mind?” Will he replace the void left by Lorenzo Cain in center? Will he be competing for Gold Gloves and challenge Mondesi for the stolen base title? What if he takes as long as Bubba Starling to crack the majors? Most importantly, can he be apart of the next contending Royals club? Pondering the thoughts and taking into account he is just 20 years old, it’s more than likely he falls into that window. The question of his production level at the highest of levels remains to be seen. But then again, how many players can still impress you on an night in which they didn’t even collect a base hit? Well, Khalil Lee did just that.