Redemption in Tokyo?

Bubba Starling, a local baseball product who has struggled to maintain a foothold in the Major Leagues, will get a shot at redemption this month. The Kansas City Royals player will be a part of Team USA in the Tokyo Olympics.

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July 13, 2021 - 9:51 AM

Bubba Starling of the Kansas City Royals bats in a spring training game in March. Photo by Abbie Parr / Getty Images / TNS

Eight years into his star-crossed professional baseball career in 2019, Bubba Starling was in El Paso, Texas, for the Triple-A All-Star Game when he received a three-way phone call from Royals assistant general manager J.J. Picollo and scouting director Lonnie Goldberg.

After all the time and agony and injuries and twists and potholes in a not-so-linear 35-mile-ish journey to Kauffman Stadium from Gardner, Kansas, Starling wasn’t assuming anything when he answered. So when Goldberg asked if Starling could get him tickets to the next Royals game, Starling promptly started crying knowing he’d finally gotten The Call.

Somehow, though, the other day he got a call that he said “honestly might top that”: to play for Team USA in the Tokyo Olympics.

To clarify, Starling’s point wasn’t that this exhilarating opportunity replaces or means more than a hoped-for return to the big leagues a decade since the Royals made him the No. 5 pick overall in the draft out of Gardner Edgerton High.

But this development has myriad meanings to him, including in part his belief that it may boost his ongoing career aspirations.

First and foremost, though, this is about the singular honor in itself.

It’s a chance for a self-described “home body, small-town Kansas boy,” by all indications the first from Gardner in the Olympics, to represent his country and take in the spectacle (such as it will be under the pandemic playbook and with no fans in the stands amid a state of emergency).

And maybe along the way the basketball zealot will get to see the likes of Kevin Durant around at, say, the parade of nations during opening ceremonies — assuming that still is performed as scheduled amid pandemic protocols.

“Probably getting ahead of myself,” he said, laughing.

Even so, like he felt after that call-up from the Royals, it’s a moment he’ll tell his kids about, and then their kids, and a scenario he already is feeling butterflies over.

While USA Baseball hasn’t won gold in the Olympics since 2000 in Sydney (baseball wasn’t part of the Games in 2012 and 2016), he can picture chills and tears if the team wins a gold medal and he gets to hear the Star-Spangled Anthem played in the accompanying tribute — feelings he’s heard his friend Jack Sock describe after winning a tennis gold medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Meanwhile, Starling also thinks this experience will broaden him as a person — and perhaps even enhance his credentials for a return to the major leagues. Even if it’s not quite baseball’s grandest stage, the world is watching.

“It’s just good for my future,” he said, later adding, “Whether I’m with (the Royals) or another team moving forward, I think this will open up a few doors, hopefully.”

More immediately, he is to begin training with Team USA on July 16 in Cary, North Carolina, where it will play a three-game exhibition series against the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team from July 18-20.

Then it will be off to Japan, where Starling hopes to get plenty of sushi after his first flight of such duration, and be part of a six-team field at the Olympics featuring Japan, the Dominican Republic, Israel, Korea and Mexico. The U.S. team makes its Olympic debut against Israel on July 30 at 5 a.m. Central Time.

Maybe he’ll return an Olympic champion, an Olympic star or both. And maybe some way or another that will lead to a lasting return to the major leagues.

But 10 years into that quest, the only thing Starling knows is that he’ll soak up every minute of these next few weeks.

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