CHICAGO — Royals first-base coach Damon Hollins knows he has big shoes to fill when it comes to replacing Rusty Kuntz, the longtime Kansas City coach who took a step back this year and became a special advisor.
Kuntz, 67, is working with Minor League players now, with occasional stops back at Kauffman Stadium to check in on the Major League players.
After serving as the first-base coach during the 2020 season — when Kuntz opted out during the pandemic — Hollins, 47, is back full-time on the Royals’ Major League coaching staff, working with the outfielders and baserunners. I sat down with Hollins a few days ago so you can get to know the new face at first base.
(Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
MLB.com: First, can you walk me through your playing career and how you ended up with the Royals?
Hollins: It’s been a journey. I was drafted by the Braves in 1992 (in the fourth round). Made my debut in 1998, but didn’t really stick until 2005 with the Rays (then the Devil Rays). Spent really two seasons in the Majors with them. In 2007, I played in Japan with the Yomiuri Giants, which was one of the top teams there. It was late in my career but an amazing experience. The Tokyo Dome was pretty much sold out every night, we went to the playoffs. It was just amazing.
I got back in 2008 and played for Triple-A Omaha, and I already had a relationship with (Royals president of baseball operations) Dayton Moore and (general manager) J.J. Picollo when they were in Atlanta. Once I decided to stop playing, I still had the itch to compete. J.J. was the first person I called. He called me back and offered me a job as a hitting coach. I started at the lowest level, but that’s how I started my coaching career. And I’ve been trying to learn as much as I can ever since.
MLB.com: It seems like you’ve earned your time to get to the big leagues, too.
Hollins: Spent a lot of time in the Minor Leagues, but I don’t think I would have wanted it any other way. My last year in Spring Training (2009), I was with the Phillies before they released me. And Chuck LaMar (then an assistant general manager) was calling me to be a player-coach over there. But I was missing my daughter so much at that time, I needed to go home. Maybe I would have been a big league coach sooner, but I don’t know if I would have been ready. I think the timing was perfect. It allowed me to learn from the whole organization, especially Rusty, to prepare me for now.
MLB.com: Speaking of Rusty, what are some of the things that you’ve learned from him?
Hollins: How much time do you have? Let’s see if I can narrow it down. I had the luxury of being here in 2008, when he was a coach in the big leagues and I was in big league camp. I think the defensive stuff, like the footwork when it comes to the first step or two — being in the outfield, the depth and direction, the route you take to get to the ball.
I find myself saying the same things he used to say to me, and what I’ve heard him say to players. In my early playing days, a coach like Rusty didn’t exist. No one can dissect pitchers like he does. He’s picking up keys constantly and taught me how to have an eye for that, learn how he sees it. It’s so beneficial to our ballclub.
MLB.com: A huge part of a coach’s day is game planning. What does that look like for you?
Hollins: It depends a little bit on what I get done the night before, but when I get here, we’re working through the defensive positioning, all the pitching we’re about to face and seeing if we can find any little thing that we can use to our advantage. Lots of video, lots of analytics. And then I’ll set up the early work stuff. I’m here for these guys, so it’s asking, “What do you need?”
It’s such a different level of preparation than what I’m used to in the Minors. There, you’re eye-balling a lot of it, and here, you have to be spot on with every little thing, including your decision-making. You have to have the “why” behind everything. So all of my day is really making sure I’m as prepared as possible.
MLB.com: We always talk to players about their “big league moments,” when they have this realization that they’re in the Majors. Did you have that as a coach in 2020, or even this year?
Hollins: Honestly, the conversation with J.J. about this job, coming up to shadow Rusty last September and kind of picking up where I left off in ’20 — that was such an amazing moment for me and my family. I’ve been working for this, and the Royals have invested in me, which is such a blessing, but they could have chosen anyone.
Even now, I’m getting goosebumps. When I played, I only had one daughter at the time, and she was born in 2006. That was my last full year in the big leagues. So she doesn’t remember much about it, and I never even imagined in 100 years that my kids would be able to see me on this level in the big leagues as a coach. I never thought that moment would happen, and now I have three daughters — Tahari, 15, Ameerah, 11, and Averi, 9 — and they get to see me live out my dream, which I hope inspires them to live out theirs.