Bubba Starling finally reached his goal of getting to the major leagues with the Kansas City Royals.
It was a long, hard trek.
The three-sport star from nearby Gardner-Edgerton (Kan.) High School was taken by the Royals in the first round of the 2011 draft. While many people in his hometown expected him to be patrolling the outfield and hitting home runs for the big-league club very quickly, it took 7 1/2 seasons in the minor league system before he was called up and inserted in the starting lineup on Friday night against the Detroit Tigers.
"It's very special. I dreamed about it as a little guy coming to the ballgames in Kansas City," said Starling, who will turn 27 on Aug. 3. "I've been waiting for this my whole life. Ever since I was a kid coming to the stadium."
Starling donned uniform No. 11 and was in center field and batting seventh for his major league debut.
He was greeted by a standing ovation from the crowd of 25,059. He walked in his first at-bat in the second inning and scored on a throwing error. He struck out and grounded out twice.
Playing center field, Starling tried for a diving catch of a sinking liner off the bat of the Tigers' Victor Reyes in the sixth inning, but it went off his glove for a run-scoring double.
The 6-foot-4, 220-pound right-handed hitter has been plagued by subpar performance and injuries throughout his career. He missed all but 20 games in the 2018 season because of two oblique injuries. During the offseason, the Royals took him off the 40-man roster. Rather than trying to go to another club, he re-signed on a minor league contract.
"I told him and his agent, just give us one more year, just give us one more chance," Kansas City general manager Dayton Moore said. "Let us see this thing through. We had some bad luck with injuries last year. We'll figure this thing out."
Starling certainly figured something out, adjusting his hitting mechanics a bit and staying healthy. He came back strong this year, hitting .310 with 20 extra-base hits and 38 RBIs in 72 games for Triple-A Omaha.
"The front office was really patient, they knew exactly what they were doing and that's why I signed back with them this year," Starling said. "I had one goal — to be here in Kansas City and so I kept working every single day."
Starling has been the focus of intense expectations from fans ever since he began hitting well this year with Omaha.
"No doubt I've had great support from teammates, coaches, family along with way. Without them I wouldn't have made it to this point," Starling said. "Sticking to it and working my butt off every day and showing up and having fun. I think that's been the biggest difference, just having fun the last few years and staying positive through it all."
Just out of high school, Starling was recruited by the University of Nebraska and was seen by Cornhuskers' fans as their future quarterback. But Starling opted for baseball and a $7.5 million bonus from the Royals.
"Some people don't know how tough baseball really is. You might be as physically gifted as you want but most of it is mental. And coming out of high school, I really didn't realize that," he said.
So through stops in Burlington, Lexington, Wilmington, Northwest Arkansas, Omaha and, last year briefly, even Surprise, Ariz., and Idaho Falls, the road was long, winding, hard and often frustrating.
Starling's arrival summoned up comparisons with Whit Merrifield, who fought his way through 6 1/2 seasons in the Royals' system before surfacing in Kansas City in 2016 and making the All-Star team this year.
"It's fun to see what he's gone through and the success he's had now," Starling said.
Merrifield hadn't had time to counsel Starling but offered some advice.
"Take advantage of it," Merrifield said. "In this game, there's always somebody coming up behind you. So when you get your shot, take advantage of it."
Starling expected a large cheering section from the Gardner area to be in his corner Friday night.
"A ton of people from my community are going to be here. They've stuck with me through this whole process which is great. They're excited to see me and the Royals play. It's going to be awesome." he said.
He got the word of his promotion in El Paso, Texas, where he was playing in the Triple-A All-Star Game. Moore said the Royals felt playing in that All-Star outing was a good, final step to Kansas City.
Always regarded as an outstanding fielder, Starling spent the pregame working with outfield coach Mitch Maier to learn the intricacies and vast expanse of the Kauffman Stadium outfield.
Left behind were 694 minor league games, many injuries and many setbacks. Now he's arrived.
"I'm just ready to go," Starling said.