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Royals prospect Michael Massey returns to big leagues, fulfills dream near hometown

CHICAGO — What do you do in Omaha, Neb., during the trade deadline? If you’re a player for the Omaha Storm Chasers — Michael Massey, let’s say — you do what the rest of the professional baseball world does. You grip your phone tightly and you scroll.

Even players are not often privy to behind-the-scenes machinations of trade conversations. On Tuesday, for example, Massey did not know that the Royals were speaking with other clubs about moving Whit Merrifield. That is, until the deal popped up on his screen; until he learned Merrifield was headed to the Toronto Blue Jays.

Because Massey was written in Omaha’s lineup, the second baseman with the sweet left-handed swing did not take much time to assess the Royals’ maneuver. Instead, he headed up toward the cages at Werner Park to prepare for a game. Triple-A Omaha manager Scott Thorman interrupted those preparations with a mandate: Find a flight and meet the big-league club.

This was not his first rodeo. Massey debuted a couple of weeks ago, going 3 for 8 over three games when 10 Royals players missed the Toronto trip due to their unvaccinated statuses. This opportunity, though, was different. Not solely because it signaled the full-time beginning of his Major League Baseball career. It also mattered whom he’d be playing and where: Against the Chicago White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field — which sits about 23 miles northwest of Palos Park, Ill., where he grew up.

“I don’t think it’s hit me yet,” Massey said Wednesday morning, hours after he’d arrived home.

Before the Royals lost 4-1 to the White Sox, which included two Massey singles, the 24-year-old wanted a moment to himself so he strolled quietly past first base and into right field.

“Have to do this now,” he said, glancing up at the forest green seats. “Because when I come back out, it’s all business.”

Fans had not yet filed in; the seats were mostly empty; the humidity made you feel as if you’d just jumped in a pool.

Massey glanced up at right field, where he’d sat so many times with his father, Keith, mother, Lisa, and brother, Andrew. They would purchase $20 tickets, then go see a baseball game.

Still walking up the right-field line, Massey spotted the seat in right-center that all White Sox fans know belongs to Scott Podsednik, who in Game 2 of the 2005 World Series crushed a walk-off home run that clanked off the ocean blue seat, marked for where the ball landed.

As memories scrolled through Massey’s mind, his family was en route to the ballpark. His brother had plans to sit a few rows near the on-deck circle with a college buddy who had season tickets. His parents also knew they would attend and sit behind the Royals’ dugout alongside the family of his Michael’s girlfriend, Jane. Michael said he would have 60 to 70 total friends and family present, cheering him on as he did what he’d long dreamed.

“Every time I drove on the Dan Ryan Expressway,” Massey said, citing the highway close to Guaranteed Rate Field. “I envisioned doing what I’m able to do today.”

Massey’s road has not generated the hype of some of the Royals’ recent debuts. Even though Midwest scouts were well aware of his feel for the barrel and his defensive range when he played for the University of Illinois, he was not a first-round pick nor even a second- or third-rounder. Massey fell to the Royals in the fourth round of the 2019 MLB Draft, partially due to a back injury he suffered during college.

The Royals’ Midwestern area scout, Scott Melvin, said recently that many teams crossed Massey’s name off their lists on health alone. The Royals, though, could see how much his teammates respected him and knew that, when healthy, his bat and defense would play. So, they drafted him and he played for short-season Burlington in 2019 and then spent the offseason refining the way he thought about hitting.

The result?

His arrival.

On this stage, first and foremost. But also, for a day, at the ballpark he grew up visiting.

More than a month ago, Melvin was in Omaha eating breakfast at a hotel with Royals president of baseball operations Dayton Moore. Melvin planned to scout a game that afternoon at the College World Series. Moore had other ideas, as Melvin recalled.

“Mel, what are you doing today?” Moore asked.

Melvin relayed his plans. Moore shook his head.

“Put on a pair of shorts, and let’s go watch Massey play,” Moore said.

At the time, Massey had recently been promoted from Double-A Northwest Arkansas, continuing the strides that were vivid as early as last spring. This improvement was not random. Massey, who batted above .317 in each of his collegiate seasons and never posted a college OPS below .831, got healthy and then altered the way he approached hitting.

Health, of course, came first. Massey had suffered herniated discs while deadlifting after his sophomore season in college. He played through the injury, traveling to Aruba with his team. As a junior, he was not full strength and his college coaches would let Melvin know whether it was worth his while to come to the game.

“I had to send in information on a weekly basis (to our staff),” Melvin said. “I remember on my Sunday night emails, Massey will be in the lineup but as a DH only. The following Monday, we’d get an email from Illinois, saying he would try to play defense.”

One day that spring, Melvin road-tripped to Minnesota to watch Massey play. Before the game, Illinois coach Dan Hartleb waved Melvin over and relaying that Massey had tweaked his back. Still, Melvin, crosschecker Gregg Miller and senior advisor Mike Arbuckle were sold on the swing and the makeup. Once the Royals drafted him, they allowed his back to heal, then sent him to Burlington, where he learned the see-ball-and-hit-ball approach would not work.

His numbers were not horrible. He batted .272 with a .737 OPS. Yet he could sense the need for changes.

“I kind of saw the writing on the wall,” Massey said. “It was like, ‘If I keep going the way I’m going, I’ll stick around, but I don’t know it’s ??? going to be an impact-type of player if I keep hitting the same way.’ When you start seeing guys throw it 97 mph, cutting it, sinking it, it’s like, I can’t hit with my hands anymore or I’m going to get smoked.”

Fortunately for him, that fall, the Royals had revamped their hitting development department, placing Alec Zumwalt in charge and adding new perspectives in the form of Drew Saylor, Keoni De Renne and Mike Tosar. During a meeting with Saylor in Surprise, Ariz., he asked why he was hitting so many groundballs.

“You swing with the upper half a little too much,” Saylor responded. “Once we get the lower half and hips working and put it on a plane, you’re not going to have to manipulate the barrel.”

They didn’t work on it immediately, and recalling the conversation Massey said he understood why: His body wasn’t moving optimally due to the effects of the back injury. He expected to refine his movements in 2020, but then the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the season, pushing back the process.

That fall, ahead of the 2021 season, Massey learned that the swing starts with the hips, and the way they rotate. He compared the feeling of swinging with these lower-body movements to doing a hang clean.

“If you’re doing a hang clean the right way, the bar becomes weightless at the top,” Massey said. “It’s kind of the same thing with hitting. If you use your body the right way, once you rotate correctly, the bat is weightless.”

A hitter’s body is always changing, which means the movements are never completely stable. But there are times things can feel on autopilot. And that’s how Massey described the feeling at times in 2021 at High-A Quad Cities, a season that saw him post an .882 OPS with 21 homers and 87 RBI, and a season that set the stage for his promotion to Arkansas and, as of a month and a half ago, to Triple-A Omaha.

Melvin, of course, had followed Massey’s path. So, when Moore mandated that he come to watch the player he had signed, Melvin caved. They showed up and sat away from the players’ view. Melvin, wearing long pants — “I’m an old-school scout,” he said — and toting a stopwatch, was wowed by Massey’s physicality.

“I was sitting 25 rows up,” Melvin said, “but he just looked more physical. He was still every bit as athletic as I’d seen him, but he looked strong.”

The afternoon offered a vivid look at the arc of a player whom he believed in. A player who would soon reach another level: the big leagues.

As much as Massey’s two singles on Wednesday will resonate, the most notable highlights may be his quick turns on double plays at second base. Royals manager Mike Matheny identified his seamless transfers, from the glove to his hand to the air toward first base. Last year, these types of plays earned him a minor-league Gold Glove Award. They’re the types of plays that will likely lead to daily opportunities throughout the rest of 2022, even if The Athletic’s Keith Law wrote in February he thought Massey fit as a “strong side of a platoon (at second base) in the majors.”

Asked about his defense this spring in Surprise, Ariz., Massey smiled and looked down at the orange dirt.

“It’s always been a strong suit,” Massey then said. “My dad played at Illinois. He was a second baseman. He always tells me, ‘Teach what you know.’”

As Michael was growing up, Keith taught him what he’d been taught.

“He’d never go out there and hit me groundballs,” Michael said. “It was always hand-eye coordination stuff.”

Massey would sling a racquetball off the wall and shift over to corral it. He would field short hops without a glove. These drills prepared him for Ilinois, where assistant coach Adam Christ ran him through an early work gauntlet. Once he became a Royals draftee, special assignment coach Eddie Rodríguez would stand behind him at second base and hold his shirt, yelling, ‘Stay back! The ball is coming 102 mph!’”

In recent years, Massey has passed on the tutelage. He returns home in the offseasons and gives lessons to young kids.

Kids who ride along Dan Ryan Expressway, dreaming of playing at the White Sox’s ballpark. Kids who dream of playing in front of their families as big leaguers.

(Photo of Massey from July 16: Cole Burston / Getty Images)

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