See also: Northwoods League Notes – August 2
As the summer of 2019 came to a close it seemed likely that Robert Moore was destined to be a professional baseball player within a year’s time. Identified early in his high school career as one of the top players in the nation, and a dazzling defensive player, the son of Dayton Moore – the Kansas City Royals’ General Manager – was about as polished as they come and might even be a candidate to be fast-tracked once being added to a minor league system.
For those very reasons it also made a lot of sense for the young middle infielder to instead consider the college route. And not just according to the previous plan – the conventional plan – but for him to graduate high school early and join the Arkansas Razorbacks.
That’s exactly what Robert Moore ended up doing after talking with the Arkansas coaching staff a year ago and spending a lot of time contemplating which course of action would suit him best. The decision may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s important to note that he would miss the spring season of his senior year in high school.
The Hogs had an opening at second base, and shortstop was expected to be open within a year’s time. Moore’s contact-oriented approach, from both sides of the plate no less, could allow him to slide in and enjoy success from Day 1, fully knowing there were plenty of other pieces in the lineup that helped the high-powered Razorbacks make it to the College World Series in back-to-back seasons (2018, 2019).
So while every player was dealt the same fate regarding the 2020 season when things were shut down to the pesky coronavirus in mid-March, it seemed particularly unfair that Moore didn’t get to finish what he started.
“Obviously no one expected COVID, but I made the decision and I got there on campus and it was great,” Moore said this past summer while playing with the Rochester Honkers in the Northwoods League. “Playing 16 games at Arkansas was so fun, what a great experience, I got to play with two draft picks (including) the second overall pick, (Heston) Kjerstad. I got to learn from (incumbent shortstop Casey) Martin, I got to learn from our coaching staff there and it prepared me a little bit for this next year and the coming fall so I’m thankful for that.
“I will say when the season ended I was like ‘wow, was this really worth it?’ That was my first, initial thought, because I didn’t expect the season to end like that. But I would 100 percent do it again even if the season got canceled.”
Of course, not everyone has the opportunity to play for an SEC team, not to mention one that has one of the best ballparks (Baum-Walker Stadium) and training facilities in all of college baseball. Head coach Dave Van Horn and his staff are also among the best in the business when it comes to player development and overall success.
As the son of a big league General Manager, Moore is well aware of what world-class facilities look like.
“It was an eye opener when I realized all of the food we could get, as bad as that may sound,” Moore said with a laugh when asked what stood out the most about the University of Arkansas experience. “But yeah, they do a great job there, they fundraise a lot for us, we’re very fortunate and blessed to have those facilities. People have (spent) a lot of time to help us develop and it’s our job to take advantage of it.”
It’s important to note that the SEC schedule hadn’t even begun yet when the 2020 season was shut down. Moore’s first test in-conference was set to come the very next weekend – a series that never happened of course – against a fellow preseason Top 10 opponent in Mississippi State. Both teams were College World Series participants in 2018 and 2019 and part of an incredibly deep SEC West Division that includes Alabama, Auburn, Ole Miss, Texas A&M and LSU.
And while Arkansas had experienced some adversity as part of their early 11-5 start to the season, which included losing five games in a row and going 0-3 at the Shriners College Classic in Houston, Moore had already established himself as one of the team’s best hitters.
Through 16 games he was slashing .317/.403/.444. He had already hit two home runs and his 17 RBIs were third-best on the team. He had stolen three bases, in three attempts, and had committed only one error while playing second base as part of a loaded lineup one-through-nine.
He may not have faced the grueling 10-week SEC schedule and a seemingly endless number of high-octane arms, but he had already faced a pair of ranked opponents, Oklahoma and Texas, as well as a few dangerous mid-majors in Gonzaga and South Alabama. Moore, who played with and against the best players in the nation while in high school, was used to an elevated brand of competition.
“The thing I noticed with the top tier high school guys, and the difference between them and the college guys, is it’s relatively the same stuff,” Moore said. “The college guys locate better. They throw a lot more breaking balls, a lot more off-speed. With the high school guys it’s more ‘grip and rip.’ You don’t get very many fastballs in fastball counts.
“If I go back and look at my at-bats very rarely do you get a ‘get-me-over’ fastball. That’s part of the reason I came out here to play summer ball. Keep adjusting, keep learning.”
When the season, and campuses, were shut down Moore returned to Kansas City to train and stay in baseball shape as best he could with limited options to do so. He then began to set his sights on the summer and what opportunities existed for him to receive quality at-bats to continue the development process. He eventually decided to take his talents to the Northwoods League, spending the summer of 2020 in Rochester with one of the league’s original franchises.
Beginning in 1994, the Northwoods League prides itself on most closely mirroring the minor league experience. In a normal year, there are 22 teams spread between six states (Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota and Wisconsin) and one Canadian province (Ontario). That means a lot of travel under normal circumstances. But of course 2020 was far from normal.
The 2020 season saw the league break up into regional pods, with several of the league’s teams opting out of the season completely with a few other temporary teams establishing themselves to give the teams that were playing regular opponents. The Honkers played in a pod with three other Minnesota teams (Mankato MoonDogs, St. Cloud Rox, Willmar Stingers) and one from Iowa (Waterloo Bucks).
“That surprised me a little bit, I thought more guys would be playing, especially some of the big name guys,” Moore said of summer collegiate baseball as a whole. “I really needed to get college at-bats, I really needed to see pitching. As far as development, 16 to 21 are the ages where guys mainly develop, so if I wasn’t playing this summer I would be cheating myself out of development. Coach (Deskaheh) Bomberry let me (come) here to Rochester and I’ve loved it since.”
Even the regional format couldn’t prevent the coronavirus from penetrating the Northwoods League clubhouses, as Rochester’s season was put on hold barely before it got started in early July after a player tested positive for COVID-19. The Honkers season would resume after a week of shutting down – the Rockford Rivets season was also put on hold in August for positive COVID-19 tests – adding further complications and concerns for those that participated.
“It’s never fun getting shut down but it didn’t hurt as bad as when the college season got shut down, I think because we were a little bit numb to it; we kind of expected it,” Moore said. “But yeah, when you’re shut down for a week you’ve gotta adapt. I went home and I tried to stay in shape. You obviously lose your rhythm a little bit at the plate whenever you’re not seeing live pitching every day. You just have to stay positive through everything.”
The experience made it worth it, and more than just the opportunities playing baseball provided Moore. The Northwoods League, like so many summer collegiate leagues, wouldn’t exist without host families taking players into their home, a thought that seemed significantly more daunting amidst a pandemic.
Playing somewhat close to home in Minnesota allowed his parents to come watch him play. His father, who usually has his hands full in the middle of the summer with the day-to-day baseball operations of the Royals, had a unique opportunity to see his son Robert play in person since the NWL season began before MLB’s.
On the field Moore took care of business. He was named to the Northwoods League’s 2020 Postseason All-Star Team, one of 39 total players and one of only two shortstops. His .303/.417/.437 slash line, while swinging a wood bat, looked remarkably similar to his spring numbers, while hitting nine extra-base hits (three of which were homers) and stealing 20 bases.
Heading into the 2021 season it appears as though a lot of teams are primed for a big season given the number of players returning with an added year of eligibility. Arkansas did lose two key players in Heston Kjerstad and Casey Martin, but a program with their reputation for recruiting some of the nation’s best is used to losing impact players on an annual basis.
With players back on campus preparations are well underway for the 2021 season. Moore will enter his second season at Arkansas with an added year of eligibility, which was already a unique circumstance since his freshman season began in what should have been his senior year in high school.
From a rookie second baseman to a now experienced potential SEC shortstop, his journey to reach the highest levels of baseball has never stopped.
“You learn mainly during practice,” Moore said of his own college experience. “The fun part is watching (my teammates) in games and seeing all of the highlights, seeing what they do well in games and reaping the benefits of of their talents as a teammate.
“I didn’t get to see a full year of that, so that kind of stinks, but those guys kept in touch during quarantine and it was fun to see them go, get picked and see their dreams become a reality.”