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As Bubba Ball begins for Royals, fans in Gardner watch with pride, anticipation for hometown hero Starling

Data pix.

GARDNER, Kan. -- To appreciate Bubba Starling's MLB debut, it helps to know the road he's walked.

The Johnson County city of Gardner was riding high on July 12, watching its hometown boy make his first appearance as a Kansas City Royal, which happened that Friday night.

Fans around Starling's hometown said they were stoked for their first look at Bubba Ball since he was a high school sensation. It's these people that have watched him grow from a little kid into a 26-year old, taking baseball's biggest stage.

Starling, who spent eight years in the minor leagues, was the fifth player chosen in the 2011 Major League Baseball Draft. The Royals gave him a signing bonus of $7.5 million, which, at the time, was the second-highest signing draft day bonus ever paid to a high schooler.

The voices in Gardner are usually fairly positive, but on Friday, the air of anticipation was tangible. Starling rose to sports celebrity status as a three-sport athlete in high school, and won the coveted Simone Award as Kansas City's best in 2010.

"I`ve been here all morning. That`s what people are talking about," Steve Hines, Groundhouse Coffee owner, said.

Hines' store has been in business in downtown Gardner for seven years. On Friday, he said his customers were stoked to see Starling, who still makes his home in the area, wear the colors of his hometown Royals. The team announced Starling's call up from AAA Omaha on Thursday.

On Friday, he started in center field and batted seventh for the Royals. He was batting .310 in the minors at the time of his promotion. Starling has survived at least two injuries during his time in the minors, which held back his movement to the bigs.

"It`s just cool to see somebody local do well. That`s the main thing. It`s just excitement," Hines said. "There are a lot of Royals fans in this community. To have the added bonus of having someone who went to school here, and came up through this school system, and is playing for them."

Few people saw more of Bubba's high school heroics than Marvin Diener. Diener, the retired Gardner Edgerton football coach, was on the sidelines when ESPN came to town to cover a GEHS game against St. Thomas Aquinas for a worldwide audience. Starling was signed and sealed to play quarterback at the University of Nebraska, but he passed it up to become a minor league baseball player in the Royals organization.

"This is not a two- or three-week kind of thing. We`re ready to watch years of this. This is just the start," Diener smiled. "I hope that he hits one into the gap, and he runs first to third the very first time up, but if we have to wait weeks for that, it will be well worth it."

As many as 25 members of Starling's family were scheduled to pack into a luxury box at Kauffman Stadium for Friday's game against Detroit. However, Diener said he'd rather have a seat in the outfield sections. That was, as he explained, he could keep a closer eye on his quarterback as he makes his long-awaited debut as a Royal.

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