Leonard brings veteran eye to caravan

Leonard brings veteran eye to caravan

TOPEKA, Kan. -- Dennis Leonard does not know exactly how many Royals caravans he has attended over the years, but he knows the number is on the plus side of 20.

But oh, how the caravans have changed since his first one, in 1975.

"We didn't have the luxury of the rock-star bus," said Leonard, a Royals Hall of Fame pitcher. "We used to go in a little van, six jammed in there, and just drive on a five-day tour. Now it's a little bit different. We used to stop at banks because they were ticket outlets. Now we stop at sports bars."

Leonard and current players Joey Gathright, David DeJesus and Billy Butler, along with general manager Dayton Moore, plus announcers Fred White and Steve Stewart, completed a three-day, nine-city tour of Kansas on Wednesday.

Leonard was not kidding about the "rock-star bus." The bus toting the Royals around Kansas formerly belonged to the band ZZ Top. There is a Z on the door and a Z next to the driver's seat.

"Oh man, it's cool," Leonard said. "It's got TVs and bunk beds, not that anybody sleeps in them. It's all high class."

Fans still remember Leonard, the only three-time 20-game winner in Royals history.

"If they're 30 and over," Leonard said and laughed. "A lot of the young kids don't remember me. A lot of the older ones say, 'You used to be my favorite. I used to love the Royals.' It is kind of fun -- you're not in the limelight anymore -- but to come out here, it kind of gives you a little thrill that people do remember you. The main thing is, I have all my memories as a kid watching baseball, and these are some of the people that when they were a kid, they watched me play."

Leonard stressed the importance of the caravans. The Royals had four in January, with stops in five states.

"You can see the reaction of what it means to go out to these small towns in the caravan," he said. "People will never forget you're in their little town."

And Leonard will never forget Tuesday's caravan stop in Greensburg, which was devastated by a tornado last year.

"We saw pictures of all the rubble," he said. "I'm expecting to see something crazy. They did get a lot of it cleaned up. We went to a school. Those kids aren't going to forget our visit. It's a temporary school, because they're building a school. Right now the school is basically made up of FEMA trailers."

When the caravan went to a mall in Hutchinson, Leonard said, the line was stretched outside when they arrived. At Jeremiah Bullfrogs, a sports bar in Topeka, the meet-and-greet line for autographs and pictures was so long that the Royals extended their stay and finally had to cut off the line. They still had another stop, at the Hy-Vee grocery store in Lawrence, and arrived about a half hour late. The caravan remained at Hy-Vee -- where two long lines of fans broke into applause upon the entry of the players -- until everybody got autographs.

The caravan was capped off with an appearance at the Iowa State-Kansas basketball game at Allen Fieldhouse, where the participants were introduced during a timeout in the second half.

Leonard, who retired after the 1986 season after coming back from knee surgery, was part of the Royals' glory years. The Royals were in the playoffs seven times from 1976 to 1985, and in 1985 they defeated the Cardinals in the World Series.

"You look at the teams we had when I played," Leonard said. "How many guys came out of the Minor League system? Most. So what they've got to do is start building that Minor League system up, so they can filter players up."

Leonard was the Royals' second-round Draft pick in 1972. Other players from that era who came through the Royals' farm system include George Brett, Paul Splittorff, Frank White, Willie Wilson, Steve Busby, Dan Quisenberry, U.L. Washington and Al Cowens. When the Royals won the 1985 World Series, the starting rotation included Bret Saberhagen, Mark Gubicza and Danny Jackson, all Royals Draft picks.

"Our teams are different now, for the simple fact that we had a veteran team," Leonard said. "Then you'd slip in a Clint Hurdle or one or two players here and there, but the nucleus was together. So the rookies weren't expected -- obviously, they were expected to perform -- but they had a lot of backup help by the veterans. What they contributed until they got used to what was going on was great.

"But you look at these young teams that don't have a majority of veterans. Now you've got a lot of young kids, and it's not so much how they handle winning -- everybody handles winning great. When you win, you don't think about it. But how do you handle it when you're losing that much? How do you keep your spirits up in a 162-game schedule? You don't have a lot of shoulders to lean on, so to speak. What I learned as an individual, they try to learn as a group.

"You're looking at a very young [Royals] team that is trying to learn how to win, how to play, how to get through the tough spots. It's just a matter of them believing in themselves, going out there.

"Talking to Dayton, I think he's got a pretty good plan. You've got to start somewhere. It's just putting the pieces together, and that's why Dayton gets paid to do that. It's all going to start around the pitching."

Spoken like a true pitcher.

Alan Eskew is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.