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By spring the Royals were advanced enough to play major colleges, semi-pro teams and even minor-league clubs. At one point the Royals ran off a 24-game winning streak as their percentage climbed to .700. They also took a trip through Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia, winning 10 of 14 games while drawing 106,000 people.
The team's top players now are Minnie Minoso-Arrietta, son of the old White Sox star, and Ron Washington, a catcher. Young Minnie, 19, is hitting over .330 and will probably make White Sox fans cry in the future. Not drafted by any major-league team despite a fine high school record in Evanston, Ill., Minoso was found by the Royals and brought to Sarasota. He has remained one of the most dedicated students in the academy. Washington has remarkably swift moves for a catcher and is not afraid to throw when he sees a chance to pick a runner off base. He also is fast enough to steal a lot of bases himself, something catchers do not normally do.
It is Syd Thrift's contention that there is no shortstop in the league who can go deeper into the hole and throw the runner out at first better than Frank White. White is one of the athletes who never played an inning of high school baseball, having concentrated on football and basketball. Another is Gary Rahe of Harper, Texas. An outstanding football player, Rahe turned a deaf ear to the blandishments of college recruiters and decided to attend the academy instead, even though he had played only a few games of baseball in his life.
Word of the academy has now spread to young athletes throughout the country. In June a 17-year-old right-handed pitcher named Bob Gipson showed up in Sarasota, having paid his own expenses from Plainfield, Ind., and with a name like that, why he was never drafted is a mystery. The Royals thought it was even more of a mystery when they saw Gipson throw. So far he has won five games and saved two others. Another Hoosier walk-on is Stu Hosking of East Gary, a three-game winner who gives up less than a run a game.
The academy succeeds probably because it does things differently from other organizations, and more thoroughly. There are videotape replays, bodybuilding sessions and classroom lectures, and any time a boy feels he is doing something wrong he can get an instructor to take him out on one of the four diamonds and work to correct his mistake. Every day each student gets a minimum of 20 minutes of hitting against live pitching. There are many major-leaguers who do not get that much hitting time in a week. "Our aim," says Joe Tanner, the hitting instructor, "is to take a boy who is having problems and work with him in such a way that when he is through he walks off the field with a smile on his face because he knows he has accomplished something."
There is no team in baseball today with the overall speed of the young Royals. Manager Buzzy Keller does not hesitate to use the double steal, which has set up a number of big innings. To increase defensive speed, the instructors came up with a novel idea. For years everyone thought a pitching machine should be used only for batting practice; the Royals turned it around and aimed it at their infielders. It throws a ball at exactly the same spot every time, and the fielders move closer or farther away, perfecting their technique with various bounces. And because the bounces are uniform, the players' reactions can be measured and compared. For trickier bounces the staff uses a curveball pitching machine.
The rookie-league season ends this month, which will not be too soon for the academy's opposition. After all, they are the chosen ones of baseball, and it gets tiresome being beaten by football players. In fact, it's no laughing matter unless you are Ewing Kauffman. Then it's hilarious.