A ballplayer’s first big-league promotion is a dream and a blur and a forever memory, but above all it’s a blur. Everything happens so fast. Your minor-league manager calls you in and might try to stone face you before giving the best news of your life. You talk to the big-league club, catch a flight if you need to, break the speed limit toward your new life if you don’t.
Eric Hosmer called home, and told his family, “We made it.” The Royals sold nearly 10,000 tickets in the few hours between the news breaking and the first pitch. When Eric’s father picked up his rental car, the attendant noticed the last name and started reciting statistics.
This was back in May 2011 and, gosh, has been that long already? Most of seven baseball seasons, a bridge from the Royals as Baseball America’s champions to baseball’s champions.
Hosmer came to Kansas City 21 years old, all promise but nothing promised. This week, he will play the last homestand of an ultimately disappointing Royals season, and perhaps his last homestand with the Royals.
If it happens the way most expect, Hosmer will be back at Kauffman Stadium in someone else’s uniform, dressing in the visitors’ clubhouse, an appreciative standing ovation for his first plate appearance since leaving KC. After his hair turns gray and he’s done playing, he’ll be back for an induction to the team’s Hall of Fame.
The hype over baseball prospects is almost always a lie, because minor-league stars hardly ever do what Hosmer has done — become a star, create iconic memories for a franchise he helped pull from the bottom, wave to thousands on a parade, and make himself a real part of the city that knew him long before he knew Garozzo’s from Gates.
He will be perhaps the most sought-after free agent on the market this winter, and no matter what, Kansas City will be a place that remembers when he was just a know-nothing rookie caught off-guard by the promotion and in desperate need of a haircut.
“You look bad, kid,” veteran David DeJesus said that first day. “You’re in the big leagues. You need a big-league haircut.”
That’s when DeJesus introduced Hosmer to Dejuan Bonds.
“We’ve been linked by the hip from that day,” Bonds said. “I’ve seen him mature in his physique, and in how he approaches the game, and life.”
The relationship started on a whim. Noah Wilson was 6 years old, stuck in a hospital bed with Ewing’s sarcoma. His birthday was coming up, Oct. 28. His favorite player was Hosmer, whose birthday is Oct. 24. Noah decided to make a birthday card, and his father decided to send the picture through social media.
Kind of cool, right? Worse ways to pass the time, to distract from a brutal fight.
Then, the next day, a response.
That would’ve been plenty, Noah’s favorite player calling himself Noah’s biggest fan. It’s more than the Wilsons expected. Then, a few months later, Noah’s father, Scott, received a call from an unknown number. Hosmer wanted to see if they could meet.
Hosmer came without cameras. He sat down, asked Noah’s favorite subjects, favorite sports. Noah asked what Hosmer eats before games, the worst pitcher to face, and whether he works out with Alex Gordon. He spent an hour and a half there.
“It was just friend talk,” Scott said. “You know, just shooting the (spit).”
Hosmer gave Scott his cell phone number. Noah used it to send videos. Hosmer sent videos back. Noah sent pictures. Hosmer put them in his locker, then texted the pictures to Scott.
“He’s become more than just a player to us,” Scott said. “He had an impact and gave us lasting memories that my family will hold forever. I think he realizes that, and has invested more time going forward. I think it impacted him, and I know it’s impacted us.”
Noah passed away in June 2015, at the age of 7. The Wilsons are legitimate heroes, turning every parent’s worst fear into Noah’s Bandage Project, which has raised money for pediatric cancer research and provided bandages to kids across the world.
They started a 5K for the foundation, and Hosmer has gone. Last year, Hosmer told people there that when he made that wild dash home in Game 5 of the World Series he was sure that Noah kicked the ball out of the way.
“He said he was thinking about that when he was sliding,” Scott said.
Looking back, in many ways, the least surprising thing that’s happened in Kansas City sports recently was Hosmer and Travis Kelce becoming friends.
Kelce is, basically, a more flamboyant version of Hosmer: high energy, friendly, wildly talented, at least a little cocky and fully intent on enjoying the life of a star athlete.
“Without a doubt,” Kelce said. “We got the same vibe from each other.”
They met sometime in 2014. There was a lot of reaching out across the Truman Sports Complex parking lot that year. Maybe that sounds basic, but it was new. For years and years, there was very little relationship between the Chiefs and Royals.
Each front office griped about the other, usually privately. Occasionally business overlapped, but it was more cultural. The Royals, very generally and institutionally, viewed the Chiefs as arrogant and dismissive. The Chiefs, with the same descriptors, viewed the Royals as petty and losers.
Around 2014, that started to change. The Chiefs invited some Royals to practice. Jarrod Dyson joked — actually, there is no chance he was joking — that he was faster than Jamaal Charles. It was all fun.
Hosmer and Kelce were, in many ways, the center of that. They each had friends in their own locker rooms across racial and cultural lines, so the relationship webs grew. It wasn’t just about those two, obviously. General managers Dayton Moore and John Dorsey became friends, which lessened the coldness between front offices.
But Hosmer may have been the best example of Kansas City’s two biggest and most established sports franchises growing closer. He worked with Eric Berry in helping Big Brothers Big Sisters, one of the few examples of athletes from both teams partnering like that.
Hosmer and Kelce went out together after Game 7 of the 2014 World Series. They went to the Power & Light District, and ended up at Hotel Nightclub, with a big group.
“This is Travis Kelce,” Hosmer would tell friends as an introduction. “He’s our tight end.”
That night, Hosmer saw another friend. It was a man named Tim Grimes, who did sales for a local construction company, and three months earlier received a cancer diagnosis that a doctor said might kill him in seven months.
Grimes had come to relate his fight with cancer to the Royals’ improbable playoff run. That felt good when the Royals were winning. But now that they were done, what did that mean for him?
A few hours after losing the last game of the World Series, Hosmer saw his friend and smiled.
“Hey, you ready for next year, baby?” he said.
That's how Hosmer has always been with Grimes. Let's go back to Oct. 5, 2014, the night the Royals finished a sweep of the Angels in an American League Division Series. Hosmer homered that night, the Royals won 8-3, and they decided to take the party from the clubhouse to downtown.
Hosmer used Twitter to invite all of Kansas City to McFadden's for a drink. When he got there, he saw Grimes walk in, and invited his new friend to the VIP section.
“Here you go,” Hosmer said at one point, handing Grimes a bottle of champagne. “You’re as much a part of this as we are.”
Grimes had been diagnosed with Stage IV melanoma. He was the kind of Royals fan who would get physically upset if someone insulted Billy Butler, so his friends went to games with a sign that said, “Tim drives the bus against cancer.” They got on TV, and people got curious. The day after his diagnosis, Tim had written on Facebook that “despite receiving a death sentence yesterday, the past 24 hours have actually been pretty great.”
The Royals invited Grimes to sit in the Buck O’Neil seat, and had him out for batting practice. He met a lot of the players, and hit it off particularly well with Hosmer and Butler.
“I went from being a fan to being a friend,” Grimes said. “That meant a lot, especially at that time.”
Hosmer invited him to a fundraiser, and talked to him at games. Once, when they were playing the Tigers, J.D. Martinez walked up.
“This is my friend, Tim,” Hosmer said.
It’s always simple with Hosmer. That’s what you hear, anyway. Money and fame and success can change people. Usually does, and for understandable reasons.
At some point, everybody wants something from you without anything to offer in return. Some can’t deal with it, and that doesn’t make them bad people, but it does mean appreciating those able to go the other way.
Hosmer, by all accounts, will take the picture and talk to the stranger and bring them in. Much has been made over the last few years about the bond between a team and a city, and Hosmer certainly has not been the only part of that.
But it was his idea to invite everyone to the bar after the Wild Card Game.
“As much as I’d like to say Kansas City is just that special,” Grimes said. “I think he’s just that special.”
Eric Hosmer is all grown up now. That happened here, in Kansas City, which for at least one more game is as much home to him as South Florida, where he grew up.
He knew nothing about Kansas City when he was drafted. He played a tournament here when he was 13 or 14, and hit a walk-off homer (to left field, obviously), but that was the only time he’d been here. Before he was drafted, he met a big-leaguer and asked his favorite stadium. Kauffman Stadium was the answer.
“Basically,” Hosmer said, “that’s the only thing I knew about Kansas City.”
Now, he is perhaps the most recognizable person in town, but more to the point, he knows Kansas City just as well. Lots of ballplayers come and go, the cities in which they play home games serving as a stand-in, the only difference being that they stay in temporary housing instead of a hotel.
Hosmer made Kansas City his, the same way lots of young professionals have. George Brett once said the best advice he ever got as a young player was to make friends and build relationships outside the baseball bubble. Whether Hosmer heard that or not, he’s lived it.
If these are his last games for the Royals, he will be remembered forever here for some of the franchise’s most iconic moments. The triple in the 12th inning of the Wild Card Game. The night at McFadden’s. The GIVE ME A (EXPLETIVE) HUG!!! celebration with Alex Gordon after the homer off Jeurys Familia, and then the walk-off, bat-flipped sacrifice fly. The mad dash home in New York.
But he will also be remembered as part of Kansas City in a way most athletes never achieve. He’s lived downtown most of his time here, finding favorite restaurants and hideouts. Coming back from road trips, if the plane landed early enough, he’d head to Garozzo’s for a glass of wine and takeout.
Every year, every team hopes the career of every player they draft turns out this way: potential fulfilled, no off-the-field problems, community involvement and a championship. He grew from a young man to a man here. He became famous here, became rich here, delivered moments that will never be forgotten here.
Fairy tales don’t often exist in real life. Hosmer lived one, for the most part, these last seven years. No matter where this winter takes him, it’s an example the Royals will use for every young prospect who follows.