BALTIMORE — Bob McClure, the Royals pitching coach, popped out of the Kansas City third-base dugout and was quickly followed by catcher John Buck to the pitcher's mound in the fifth inning last Thursday afternoon.
They paid a visit to Royals' starting pitcher Luke Hochevar, who faced a bases-loaded situation against the Orioles in the finale of a four-game series. Taylorsville High graduate Buck, after a few words from McClure, returned to his position, but just a few pitches later Hochevar served up a three-run double to Aubrey Huff, who had been in a slump, and the Orioles went on to a 7-3 win.
It has been that kind of season for the Royals, who lost 61 of their first 101 games. Manager Trey Hillman recently got a vote of confidence from general manager Dayton Moore, who was named to that position June 8, 2006.
"I believe they have the right guy in Dayton," said Buck, standing behind home plate before Thursday's game at Camden Yards. "It is not an overnight fix and I think everyone knew that. As we move forward we have to keep making strides and listen to how he is leading us and not look for the quick fix, and buy into his plan and weather this year."
"I believe he is the right man," Buck added of Moore. "I was here before and I am here now. The stuff on the field hasn't been the way we wanted. We expected to be better. The simple fact we expected to be better is a step forward."
This has also been a rough season for Buck, the Salt Lake resident who missed 32 games with a back injury before returning to the active roster in early July. He was hitting .224 with four homers and 24 RBI in 107 at bats, after he hit a two-run homer in the eighth inning here Thursday against the Orioles in a game he started at catcher.
"I feel great now. I never had any back problems before," Buck said.
But he is among three catchers on the Kansas City roster, along with Miguel Olivo and Brayan Pena, and Buck is finding playing time hard to come by.
"Since I have been here since 2004 people think I am 35 or something," said Buck, 29, with a laugh. "I am still in my 20s. I want to play every day. As long as I am here I will be prepared to go with whatever they want me to do. I will just be prepared as much as I can for whatever happens."
"He would probably like to play more," said Ryan Freel, a Royals infielder who experienced the same situation when he began 2009 with the Orioles.
How will the Royals handle three catchers on the roster? "I am going to still keep mixing and matching," Hillman said. "I am doing lineups one day at a time."
Despite challenges getting on the field this season, Buck remains a pillar off the field in Kansas City.
Buck and his wife, Brooke, were named ambassadors for the 2008 Blue Jean Ball, which raised money for the March of Dimes. He and teammates Alex Gordon and David DeJesus donated $15,000, which was matched by the Royals. Buck has participated in a camp for kids age 6 to 18 with developmental disabilities. He was nominated in 2007 and 2008 by his peers as the Royals representative for the Marvin Miller Man of the Year Award, which is presented annually to an MLB player who demonstrates both exceptional on-field performance and community service.
"Kansas City, to me, the people are so friendly," said Buck, a member of the LDS Church. "It just feels comfortable. The people are so friendly."
Buck said he and his wife were given a lot of support when their twin boys, Brody and Cooper, were born prematurely in May 2008.
"They have supported me. I felt inclined to help out any way I can," he said. "The Royals are a big part of that because they are involved as well. I began doing things with the team and then things that interested me." Among his endeavors is paying the cost for local foster children in Kansas City so they can spend a day at the ballpark and watch the Royals.
Freel joined the Royals on July 7 after playing earlier this season with the Orioles and Cubs and has been impressed with Buck. "He is one of the best character guys I have played with," Freel said of Buck. "The way he carries himself, the way he prepares himself … He is just a baseball guy. He really appreciates where he is at. He is one of my favorite guys."
The Salt Lake resident, who walked when he faced former prep teammate Brandon Lyons of the Tigers earlier this season, has been tough in the clutch for the Royals. He had 14 hits in his first 43 at bats (.326) with runners on base this season, and he had 12 hits in 28 at bats (.429) with runners in scoring position through Thursday. He entered Tuesday's game here in the ninth inning to catch and then drove in the game-winning run with a two-out hit in the 11th inning against the Orioles.
Buck missed 32 games with a herniated disc and muscle spasms in his back and returned to the starting lineup July 10. He said he felt some discomfort in a home game against the White Sox when he leaned over to pick up something while at the on-deck circle in late May.
Kansas City lefty pitcher Ron Mahay said Buck pre?sents a big target, at 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, behind the plate. "For me he is a great receiver. He studies the hitters as well as anyone should," said Mahay, who has also pitched for the Red Sox, A's, Marlins, Cubs, Rangers and Braves. "He kind of has an aura. He is always here on time. He is getting his work in."
Freel quickly learned that Buck is very involved in the Kansas City community. "He interacts with the fans very well. He understands the fans pay our salary," Freel said. "He has the right attitude. He gets it. He really, really gets it. He knows what it is all about."
Editor's note: David Driver is a free-lance writer in Maryland. He can be reached through his Web site at www.davidsdriver.com