The KC Royals were set to welcome back Rusty Kuntz as first base coach this season. Kuntz has elected an off-field role and will be replaced by a former big league outfielder and veteran minor league coach.
The recent but long expected cancellation of 2020’s minor league season could have reduced the otherwise heavy summer workload of Damon Hollins, a long time KC Royals minor league coach who the club named Coordinator of Outfield, Base Running and Bunting in January.
But just a few days after the ramifications of COVID-19 officially wiped out minor league ball until at least next year, they worked another change to Hollins’ season itinerary when the Royals announced Rusty Kuntz, the capable and beloved first base coach scheduled to return to that role after a two-season absence, will work instead in an off-field role. At 65, Kuntz is in an elevated coronavirus risk group, which made his decision to delay his return completely understandable.
It is now Hollins, a baseball man since Atlanta made him a fourth-round draft pick in 1992 and whose professional playing career spanned the minors, majors and Japan, who will man the KC Royals’ first base coaching box this season. No stranger to the Kansas City organization, he played his final professional season at Omaha and spent the last 10 as one of the Royals’ minor league coaches.
As a player, Hollins was an outfielder with moderate power, which he began proving in his third minor league campaign in the Braves’ organization when he clubbed his pro career 23 home runs in High A ball; he also drove in 88 runs and hit .270. He added 18 homers in 1995, 20 in ’97 and 13 in ’98. His best power seasons in the big leagues were with Tampa Bay in 2005 and ’06 when he hit 13 and then 15 homers.
Hollins averaged 64 games in parts of four years in the majors and holds the distinction of getting hits in his first and last big league at-bats. He worked Arizona’s Brian Anderson to a full count before singling in his April 24, 1998 debut (former Royal Michael Tucker pinch hit for him later in the contest); after leading off his last major league game with a home run off Cleveland’s Cliff Lee on October 1, 2006, he touched Lee for an eighth-inning single to close out his career.
After spending 2007 playing in Japan, Hollins attempted a comeback in Philadelphia but didn’t make it through spring training. He then hit .220 with 16 homers for Omaha in his last pro season in 2008.
The Royals, clearly impressed with Hollins, hired him and assigned him to their Burlington Rookie affiliate in 2010. He spent the next several years moving around the low minor leagues, levels critically important to player development, before working the last three seasons at Rookie affiliate Idaho Falls.
Coaching his teams’ hitters consumed much of Hollins’ minor league instructional duties before his winter reassignment to his new coordinator role overseeing outfield, base running and bunting. Working with outfielders is also a Rusty Kuntz specialty (his tutoring was instrumental in making Alex Gordon a seven-time Gold Glover), so the club’s outfielders should be in good hands with Hollins this season.
And his years of mentoring young players just starting their careers, followed by his elevation to an important system coordinator position, prove the Royals have faith in Hollins’ global coaching and instructional skills.
Now comes further evidence that the Royals trust and value Hollins–instead of working in the front office and touring the minor leagues, he’s the choice to fill in for Kuntz and join new manager Mike Matheny‘s first KC Royals staff, a group made up almost exclusively of veterans of the Kansas City system. (Only John Mabry, who coached for Matheny in St. Louis, hasn’t spent time in the organization). Hollins’ selection proves he has an excellent future with the KC Royals.
Although no one knows what 2021 will bring, Kuntz is expected to return to his on-field duties with the big league club. Whether Matheny will want to find room for Hollins on his 2021 major league staff, and whether general manager Dayton Moore would accede to such wishes and find another coordinator if Matheny wants Hollins on the field and in the dugout, remain to be seen. But a coach entrusted for so long to help develop KC’s prospects will certainly have a job with the organization no matter what happens.
Rusty Kuntz won’t be on the field for the KC Royals this season. Until he returns, the club will likely be well off with Damon Hollins in the first base coaching box.