Sal Perez is surrounded by baseball and also a little sadness. Royals fans know how foreign this setup is. For years and years — seven, to be exact — they have known their catcher for his smile and his splashes and his goofy videos and especially his smile.
There has always been a bit of a gap with Perez depending on whether the cameras are on, but the smile is the biggest in the room no matter the room. For years and years — seven, to be exact — the room has been mostly the same.
Sal. Moose. Hosmer. Cain. Davis. So many friends, so many teammates, all gone. He has to call Eric Hosmer now. Text Mike Moustakas. FaceTime Lorenzo Cain.
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"It's sad," Perez said. "It is. You build relationships. Hosmer is like a brother. We're like family here. We played together for 10 years. We're used to seeing these guys, all of us, together but at the same time it's about business. It's about his family.
"It's not all about money, but you think about your family and that's a big part of it. To leave $40 million on the table to stay here, that's not easy. Maybe $10 million, maybe $15 million. But 40? Forty-five? You can't leave that on the table."
Perez is talking about the reported difference between the Royals' final offer and the contract Hosmer signed with the Padres worth up to eight years and $144 million. There is some dispute about the accuracy of those reports, but even if the difference was much closer to $10 million than $40 million, the point remains.
Hosmer signed the better contract, to play in an organization with more talent. Perez is still here, with the only organization he's known since signing as a 16 year old, four years left on the second extension he signed to stay.
He misses his friends.
"It's sad," he said. "But this is business."
So, what happens now?
The strength of the Royals' rise was always in their depth. It was always in the collective. They never had a transcendent player, but they had a lot of studs, and on any particular night any of them could be transcendent. The big catcher was always in the middle of that.
You could see his energy behind the plate. You could hear it in the clubhouse, and if you had the game-winning hit, you might feel it in the form of ice water dumped on your back during the TV interview.
Already, some of that feels like a long time ago. Most of the men he's splashed are in other places now. The Royals were world champions two years ago, and building back up from the top now. No more splashes.
"I don't think anymore," he said. "I might have somebody else do it."
Perez smiled as those words came out. This is something to joke about, like most things in his orbit. Baseball demands this type of compartmentalization, and Perez has had more than most to compartmentalize. Major knee surgery. Contract drama. Fame. Success. Struggles. A championship.
Perez turns 28 in May and has played in five All-Star Games with one of the most iconic hits in franchise history. His place on a team with so much inexperience is fundamentally different than when he was 24 and the clubhouse often felt like a frat party on the way to the 2014 pennant.
What James Shields was to that team, Perez and Alex Gordon are to this team.
"It's not about me being a boss, but if they do the wrong thing, I'm going to say something," Perez said. "But if they don't do nothing wrong, I don't have anything to say. If we have a players meeting, I might say something. Alex is there, too. There's no Hosmer, no Moose. It should be us now. We need to show these guys how to be in the big leagues."
The challenge will be inherently greater if the Royals struggle. That's always the case. That's how it was the last few years, even with players who'd been to the top. Baseball players can talk about giving the same effort everyday, no matter what, but that's harder to do in real time.
Perez has struggled with that, at times, particularly earlier in his career. That's typical. He thinks he is in a good place with that now, but he's never been the older brother in a rebuild. For now, he chooses not to think much about that, and why should he?
He is a proud player, and there are proud men in this clubhouse. They know the franchise is rebuilding, but that's not their world. Their world is to play hard, today, and worry about tomorrow when it comes.
For the first time, he's one of the older guys.
"We are going to compete this year, but it's going to be hard for us," Perez said. "That's what I think. We'll see what's going to happen. Baseball is crazy, you never know what can happen. The only thing you can control is play hard every day, and see what happens. If you play hard, you do the best you can, you go back to your house and you sleep good.
"It's hard to say, you know? But we're going to see."