Next chapter in legend of Starling is about to be written
Bubba Starling escorted his father, Jim, and mother, Deb, as Gardner Edgerton seniors and their parents were recognized recently before the season’s last game.
Twenty minutes after the game’s final pitch, after his teammates had left with their families, Bubba Starling sat in a chair in the Gardner Edgerton dugout holding a pen.
A line had formed. It was pushing 8 o’clock on a school night, and Starling is an 18-year-old kid with homework to do and dinner to eat, but there were demands on his time. His parents fear the attention is wearing on him, but you wouldn’t know it watching him sign autographs and pose for pictures.
“You want my number on it?” Starling asked one autograph seeker, chalk-white baseball in hand.
“You want me to stand up?” he offered an appreciative mother with a camera.
Buffy Hilton, a mother of two young boys, waited her turn. She was Starling’s fifth- and sixth-grade teacher.
“These are my boys,” Hilton told him. “They get compared to you a lot.”
Odds are, for the next few decades at least, any child growing up in Gardner who has any athletic ability whatsoever will be measured against the legend of Starling. A quarterback good enough to sign with Nebraska. A basketball player who could have played Division I ball. A slugging center fielder who routinely swats 500-foot home runs and in a matter of weeks is projected to be picked among the top five in major league baseball’s amateur draft.
With many student-athletes specializing in just one sport, Starling, who today graduates with the rest of Gardner Edgerton’s senior class, could be the last great three-sport star to come out of the Kansas City area. The sport that is willing to pay him millions now — as evidenced by the 20 or so scouts on hand for the game (he drew as many as three times that on some days this year) — is major league baseball.
Starling’s incalculable worth is what prompted a middle-age man to take photographs of Starling playing baseball, develop them and bring them to be signed.
“It does surprise me,” Starling said later, “especially because that was last week’s game, and he already had those pictures done.”
Then Starling tells another story. He’s got a lot of them these days.
“I went to the Royals game,” he said, “and I was in just a polo and some khakis. People recognized me, and I signed 13 autographs.”
This is Starling’s life now, and it isn’t going to change much whether he decides in coming months to be a football-playing college student at Nebraska or take the first steps on the path toward a professional baseball career. The lights are always on, and people are always going to be watching.
But on this night, once he was finished with autograph requests and the place had emptied out, he could relax. He hugged his mom and grandma, and as they walked to their cars, he found some genuine excitement.
“I went three for three today,” he said, “and my batting average jumped from .436 to .526.”
Bubba Mania began at 2:30 on a Tuesday afternoon a couple of weeks ago. Gardner Edgerton athletic director Kent Glaser had blocked out an hour for Starling to do media interviews before his last home game.
A newspaper reporter and a TV reporter both made the trip down from Nebraska to get the latest on Starling’s big decision. Five outlets jockeyed for their crack at Starling, who has already been profiled in ESPN the Magazine and Sports Illustrated.
Starling gave mostly stock responses as the baseball scouts observed his demeanor from behind the fence. They’re just as interested in Starling’s character, the way he handles the spotlight, as the swings he was about to take in batting practice.
“Because his athleticism speaks for itself,” Gardner Edgerton coach Jerald Van Rheen said.
At 6 feet 5 and 193 pounds, Starling runs like a gazelle. He first drew scouts’ attention during his sophomore season when his pitches were clocked in the low 90s. He has since given up pitching to concentrate full time on the outfield, but the stream of scouts remained steady. The crowd maxed out a few weeks ago when 60 scouts (there are only 30 major league teams) showed up for Starling’s first game back after missing 10 because of a quadriceps injury.
That day, under a fine microscope, Starling hit two home runs. The scouts turned out in droves for the next game, too.
“I think it’s funny that you’ve got grown men chasing high school boys around,” Van Rheen said. “They want to see them, they want to wave at them, just to make sure that they’ve been seen. It’s kind of like my 12-year-old daughter and Justin Bieber.”
Starling didn’t hit a home run in the recent Tuesday game, but he put on a show nonetheless. He laced a line drive between the third baseman and shortstop so hard that it went all the way past the left fielder, coming to rest near the fence for a triple. He turned a single into a double, taking advantage of a quick bobble. And nothing landed in left-center or right-center field during his watch in center field.
“He hasn’t played much baseball either,” one scout marveled, since Starling played two other sports.
The scouts’ presence this spring has made one thing clear: Just being in Starling’s sphere of influence can change lives. Catcher T.J. Martin is only a freshman, but he has already gotten some interest from scouts on hand to watch Starling. Martin said he chose to move from Blue Springs to the Gardner Edgerton School district so he could learn from Starling.
For senior teammate John Means, it’s something he will tell his kids about.
“I remember our first game, and we saw, coming up there, about 30 to 40 scouts,” Means said. “It was pretty intimidating, pretty scary, and I’ll remember it for the rest of my life.”
Things in Gardner will certainly be different without Starling around. From ESPN televising a school football game this past fall to the current hoopla surrounding his decision, he graced the cozy suburb with a touch of the big time.
“Personally, I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Kevin Kuzma, whose 7-year-old son, Charlie, idolizes Starling. “I grew up in Kansas City, Kan., and we didn’t have individuals like this there. This is a whole different atmosphere.”
Not long after the June 6-8 draft, Starling will either be off to college or turning his attention toward a pro career. Teams have until Aug. 15 to sign their draft picks, so he has that long to make his decision.
“It’ll be sad to see that go,” Kuzma said. “During football season you drive through town, and everyone’s got the numbers written on their glass storefronts. I don’t know if we’re gonna have that, the real community feel behind it, the way we did before.”
When the show goes on the road, the hysteria follows.
A week ago Thursday, a large group of Blue Valley West students gathered behind home plate for a game against Gardner Edgerton. BV West athletic director Cindy Roach said it was mostly because of Starling. She, too, had caught the bug, bringing a copy of ESPN the Magazine for him to sign after the game.
“There’s been a lot of well-deserved attention for a high school athlete,” Roach said. “He’s the real deal. We’ve seen him now in three major sports.”
During the game, Starling drew no mercy from the BV West faithful. He struck out in his first at-bat.
“Easy out!” one boy yelled before Starling’s second turn at the plate.
“I’m feeling oh for two!” another said.
In his fourth at-bat, Starling launched a ball over the left-center-field wall. Watching from the right-field line as Starling rounded the bases, all Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck could do was hope that Starling really likes football.
As the home run ball bounded down a hill, BV West seniors Lee Snell and Justin Craner jumped out of their seats to find it.
“We want him to sign and date it,” Craner said.
Snell played defensive end for BV West’s football team and remains in awe of Starling.
“The first play (against BV West), he went 80 yards for a touchdown on an option play,” Snell said.
Starling later obliged and signed the baseball. Maybe his last high school home run will be worth something someday.
On Monday, one of the greatest high school sports careers in Kansas City history ended somberly and with little fanfare 100 miles south in Pittsburg, Kan.
Starling went oh for four and twice struck out swinging on slow curveballs in a 5-4 loss to Pittsburg High.
After a Gardner Edgerton teammate struck out, ending the game, Starling jogged over, put his arm around the boy and escorted him out to left field for the final team huddle of the season. Moments later, Starling cried as he talked to his father and a family friend about the game.
“Just wish it had ended differently,” said Starling’s mother, Deb.
But Monday marked a beginning, too. Super-agent Scott Boras, who most notably negotiated $160 million-plus contracts for noted big leaguers Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez, had taken a late-night flight from California to watch Starling in Pittsburg. Boras is serving as an adviser to Starling and his family as they decide what course of action to take. Boras got to talk with them in person for the first time later Monday night.
“Being that skilled and playing multiple sports, it’s a very complex decision,” Boras said.
It’s a decision that will have to be made soon. But as Van Rheen watched Starling leave the ballpark with Boras, all he could think about was how lucky he had been to coach him.
“We’ve had the opportunity in our town to see one of the best — if not the best — athletes who ever came from this state,” Van Rheen said. “The kid’s life is just starting. He’s been blessed with a lot of things.”
To reach J. Brady McCollough, send email to email@example.com.