Fans turn out in force for Royals FanFest

Cody Thorn

For those avid fans, it seems baseball fever always strikes in the dead of winter. Case in point was the Kansas City Royals FanFest held this weekend in Overland Park, Kan.

Not even weather in the single digits and wind chills with the word negative before the number kept die-hard Royals fans from missing the first Royals FanFest held Friday and Saturday in the Overland Park Convention Center. An estimated crowd of 4,000 filled the center Friday, and the crowd doubled Saturday.

Fans young and old were there to get a glimpse of their favorite Royal players of the present and the past, ranging from current starts Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, Mark Teahen and Gil Meche, to former stars Frank White, Dennis Leonard, Brian McRae, Kevin Seitzer, John Mayberry and John Wathan.

The lines for the autograph tables, located on opposite sides of the convention center, snaked throughout the room.

To help limit too much overcrowding, fans were left in the dark as to who was going to show up until 30 minutes before each autograph session was to start. A combination of six players and coaches would sit down and sign and then a new group of six would show up and sign on a rotating basis.

There was also plenty for those who didn’t want to brave the long autograph lines.

The Royals set up batting cages, a pitching cage to test how fast your fastball was -- or wasn’t -- and a speed challenge where people of any age could see how fast they could run between two bases.

There was also a home run derby contest and a wild pitch challenge, where those brave enough put on catchers gear tried to block baseballs coming at different angles from a pitching machine.

Various Royals players, coaches and administrators took part in question-and-answer forums on the center stage area, led by broadcasters Ryan Lefebvre and newly hired Steve Stewart, who comes over from the Reds.

All proceeds from the event went to the Royals’ sponsored charities, including the Royals Wives Food Drive, the Johnson County Christmas Bureau and the John “Buck” O’Neil Education and Research Center.

The FanFest was a glimpse of the team before the squad heads off for Surprise, Ariz., for spring training the second week of February. Kansas City opens its season March 31 at Detroit.

Questions and answers from three Royals players:

Gil Meche, RHP

What is this FanFest like for you?

“It is kind of neat. I heard they would put it on for the first time. I talked to the PR department how important it was for the fans. In Seattle we had it. I went to it when I was younger, two or three in a row. It was good; the fans get to come out. The kids, more importantly, get to meet us. I’m sure we are like ghosts to them, they just see us on the field and never again. They get to put our face together with our uniforms. A lot of cool events for them to come in and enjoy.”

So what was it like in Seattle?

“It was the same type of setup. The batting cages, the mound, different activities. The kids could come here and get our autograph and get pictures. Make a day out of with your family. Bring the little guys out and just enjoy it.”

How excited are you building on what happened last year?

“I think everybody is excited with the addition of the new guys we brought in. We played really good in the second half. I think the biggest key is to get off to a good April. Getting off to quick start and build confidence right from the get-go, instead of doing the same thing we did last year and build gradually. The biggest thing for is the young guys, they got a year under their belt and hopefully the butterflies are gone and they realize they belong in the big leagues and they can compete with anybody else. Having some fun -- that is what it will be about. We got enough guys we brought in to help us out in the holes we needed filled to make us competitive and I think that will happen.”

David DeJesus, OF

You have moved to Kansas City, what is that like?

“I love this city. This is where I want to be and hope to be here for a long time.”

Was there anyone you looked up to that you got to meet?

“Kenny Lofton. I met him when he was with the Pirates. When I first saw him, I didn’t know what to say, I was star-struck. This past year when he was in Texas, he autographed a jersey for me and that means a lot to me.”

What was it like for you when the Royals were pursuing Andruw Jones and Torii Hunter, both players that play the same position as you?

“Those are all-star players and maybe Hall of Fame center fielders. …  I don’t really check and see what’s going on. I will get the information from friends back home (New Jersey) that will text me and asked me if I’m leaving the Royals. They will tell me they want me to go to Atlanta because the weather is nicer there (laughs). Dayton (Moore, Royals’ GM) told me that I was his guy. I am the leadoff hitter and he told me my job is to get on base and do what you do.”

Mark Teahen, OF

What is it like to be part of the FanFest?

“This is the first Royals FanFest I was part of and I was amazed by everything that is here. It is really cool, they have done a great job of it.”

What is it like to meet the fans and sign autographs?

“It is fun. I have done caravan for two or three years now and this is cool because you actually get to meet the people that are out at the stadium every day and really support the team. It is nice to do something in the city you are playing in and give a little back to them.”

Obviously you guys had an up and down last year. You started slow, picked up and tailed off at the end. How much are you guys picking up from the positives last year?

We definitely started out slow and I think we figured a lot of things out in the middle, and the last month you get a lot of guys up from AAA and it’s not exactly the team you will go with all the time.

For you, personally, are you comfortable playing right field after switching from third base?

“Yeah, I am. I have a full year under my belt and I learned a lot. I put a lot of extra work in to make sure I felt comfortable. I feel pretty good out there and I’m looking forward to another under my belt.”

The problem the last few years has been a slow start. How do you avoid that this year?

“I don’t know. Trey’s approach is a little different. He acts like we will get out there and hit live early and doing all that early on in the spring. Hopefully that correlates us into us being that much more ready. Like you said, everybody comes out of the gates hoping for a great start and we haven’t done that the past couple of years and I think that is really important. Especially for a young team to get going in the right direction early.”