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A salute to Lorenzo Cain

The Royals great returns Saturday.

Arizona Diamondbacks v Kansas City Royals Photo by Brian Davidson/Getty Images

The Royals franchise has a proud tradition in centerfield, with greats like Amos Otis, Willie Wilson, and Carlos Beltrán patrolling the position over the years. Centerfield in Kauffman Stadium requires being able to cover a spacious outfield and deep alleys. A Royals centerfielder needs great speed of course, but the best have also had a certain grace in movement - a seeming effortlessness in running.

When Dayton Moore took over in 2006, he sought for years for his ballhawk that would patrol centerfield at the K. Joey Gathright, Coco Crisp, Rick Ankiel - all were unable to fit the bill. Melky Cabrera played well but was a temporary stop gap. An opportunity arose in 2010 when star pitcher Zack Greinke requested a trade to a contender. The Royals had a chance to make a fill their needs and make a franchise-altering deal. And that’s just what they did when they acquired outfielder Lorenzo Cain, shortstop Alcides Escobar, and pitchers Jake Odorizzi and Jeremy Jeffress for Greinke and shortstop Yuneisky Betancourt on December 19, 2010.

Lorenzo Cain grew up in Madison County, Florida, near the Georgia border, having never played baseball as a kid. He was cut from the high school basketball team and was forbidden by his mother from playing football, but he was too good of an athlete to sit on the sidelines. The baseball team needed bodies and he volunteered despite being so clueless about the game he wore his glove on the wrong hand.

He worked hard to catch himself up to speed on the game. He learned to chase down balls in the outfield and before long he was attracting scouts. The Brewers took him in the 17th round of the 2004 draft, and by 2010 he was in the big leagues. The winter, the Royals acquired him in a blockbuster deal that was met with a tepid response in Kansas City. The usually perpetually optimistic Joe Posnanski wrote that the Royals “will get some production out of this deal” but “there are no potential stars in the group,” adding “someone like Cain could emerge as a star, but it would be a surprise.”

Well, surprise!

It didn’t happen immediately. In 2012 he made the Opening Day roster and made a sensational catch in Oakland in April that would be a harbinger of things to come. But he injured his groin, keeping him out for three months. In 2013, he missed 40 games with an oblique injury. He figured he had to do a better job taking care of his body, and began working with University of Oklahoma strength and conditioning coach Tim Overman. No one had ever taught him how to run correctly.

Again, Cain worked his butt off, and he was able to stay on the field more while becoming one of the best defensive outfielders in the game (yet Gold Glove voters ignored him for years!) His reads were impeccable. He glided towards the ball with long strides, tracking it with his eyes. His glove always looked like it was about to fall off his hand, yet the ball found its way in there more often than not. Fans quickly came up with the saying, “70% of earth is covered by water. The rest is covered by Lorenzo Cain.”

It all came together for Lorenzo in that magical 2014 season. The Royals went on an amazing second half run to grab a Wild Card spot, with Cain’s defense in center a big reason why. He also enjoyed his first .300 season in 2014, finishing in the top ten in the league in batting average and in steals (28). In the memorable Wild Card game, he doubled and singled, scoring twice, driving in two runs, and stealing a base. He demoralized the Angels in the ALDS by catching everything in the outfield. He won ALCS MVP against the Orioles with the ridiculous line of .533/.588/.667. Lorenzo had arrived.

The 2015 season would be where Lorenzo would prove Posnanski wrong, as he finished third in MVP balloting with a line of .307/.361/.477 with 16 home runs and 28 steals and 7 rWAR as one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball. He also won over the hearts of Royals fans with his playful hermano relationship with Salvador Perez, his achy gaunt anytime he walked, and his infectious smile.

League Championship - Toronto Blue Jays v Kansas City Royals - Game Six Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

It was in the playoffs that year that we saw the culmination of his preparation, hard-work, and skill. In the 2015 ALCS, the Royals noticed Blue Jays right fielder Jose Bautista always threw the ball to the cut off man at second base. The Royals could take advantage - if they had the right situation. In Game 6, with Lorenzo Cain at first base, Eric Hosmer smoked a line drive toward the line in right. Cain took off - and didn’t stop. He had already surpassed second by the time Bautista got to the ball, and by the time second baseman Ryan Goins had the ball, Cain was a freight train headed home. It was easily the coolest baserunning moment I have ever seen.

The Royals won the game and the pennant, and went on to beat the Mets in five with Cain stealing four bases (including the first one that won America a free taco!) The kid from Florida who had never played baseball before high school was a World Series champion.

Cain had some moments after the World Series - he tied a club record with a three-homer game in 2016. He also gave us a beautiful serenade of Purple Rain.

But free agency was looming. Cain was reportedly open to a six-year deal with the Royals that would have run through 2021, but the Royals did not want both Cain and Alex Gordon tied up to long-term deals. Instead, Cain departed after the 2017 season and signed a five-year, $80 million deal with the Milwaukee Brewers.

Cain was a solid player the first two years in Milwaukee, finishing top ten in MVP balloting in 2018 and winning a Gold Glove in 2019. He reached the playoffs three more times with Milwaukee, hitting .303 in the 2018 NLCS against the Dodgers. Cain skipped most of the 2020 COVID year, and his body began breaking down after that. Last summer, the Brewers designated him for assignment and Lorenzo went back home to Oklahoma to be with his family.

Some players are great. Some players are just fun to watch. Some players seem like good dudes. Lorenzo Cain and his hermano Salvador Perez were all three. We were blessed to have Lorenzo Cain patrolling centerfield for seven seasons in Kansas City, and Royals fans will welcome him back to thunderous applause Saturday when he returns to retire as a Royal.