Happened again the other night, the high-pitched cries bouncing down the hallway and staircase and into the bedroom where Mike Moustakas and his wife sleep. Their daughter, Mila, is 13 months old and a terrific sleeper, really, the kind that makes other parents a little jealous, but lately she’s been sick.
Nothing serious. Same thing the Royals third baseman has, which for a baby is enough congestion that she couldn’t rest. So Moustakas got out of bed, went up the stairs in the house he’s renting from teammate Alex Gordon, and lifted his baby girl out of her crib. Mila grabbed her daddy’s arm, which wrapped around her as they walked to the couch. There is no sleep like the sleep you get with a baby on your chest.
“My favorite thing in the world to do,” Moustakas said. “I’m the happiest person ever when I get to do that. Nothing can beat what I’m doing.”
Moustakas and the Royals played their last game of the season on Sunday, a 14-2 loss to the Diamondbacks. It was a strange event. We’re taught to believe that nothing matters in professional sports except the result, but here the result was entirely meaningless but the event still somehow felt important.
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Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, and Alcides Escobar are all free agents now. Jason Vargas, too. If you’re an optimist, maybe you believe one or even two will be back. But this team won’t be the same. The Royals won’t be the same. Can’t be.
That’s why this has felt a lot like graduation week. Fans brought goodbye signs. The players packed their stuff into boxes, and made plans for the offseason.
On Sunday, each free agent took a standing ovation. The hitters lifted their helmets and looked around at all the love. Hosmer pounded his heart with his bat, then hit a home run down the left-field line. Moustakas was up next, and later said he had tears in his eyes the entire at-bat.
“I had shades on all day for a reason,” Moustakas said. “I was a wreck.”
Somehow, it was fitting that across the field, in the other dugout, former Royals pitcher Zack Greinke watched the championship core he unwittingly helped build by demanding the trade that eventually landed Cain and Escobar in Kansas City.
The moment the Royals’ stars stepped into the dugout, Craig Rookstool, the Moose Antler Guy, took his stuff to the Royals Hall of Fame — the antlers, the batting gloves he used to hold them, and the MOOSEMAN license plate off his Toyota FJ50. The walk through the concourse was the first time he’d ever turned down pictures.
“I just felt like, ‘It’s over,’ ” he said. “It was a good run. We had a lot of fun. But once he was in the dugout, I just thought, ‘That’s it.’ ”
As much as any in the 49-year history of the Royals, these next few months figure to reshape the franchise.
Just in the last 11 offseasons — Dayton Moore’s time as general manager, and the point at which David Glass allowed the Royals to again operate like a big-league organization — they’ve signed big free agents and planned for the debuts of foundational prospects and made two transformational trades.
In many ways, these next few months is when the bill comes due, and everyone here understands that. Hosmer may be the premier free agent on the market, and the Yankees are among the teams in need of a first baseman. Moustakas broke the franchise single-season home run record. Cain has been one of the best players in the American League the last five years. Escobar’s offense is up. Vargas’ 18 wins tied for most in baseball.
Nothing happens immediately in free agency. This is a waiting game. After the World Series, teams can make qualifying offers to their own free agents. Those who decline the one-year deals expected to be worth about $18 million become free agents, and the market opens with the winter meetings in early December as the unofficial kickoff.
The plans for ballplayers are different, but generally follow the same vague outline. Moustakas has talked to friends who’ve gone through free agency, including Gordon and Vargas.
Hosmer and Escobar will go home, and stay there. The grind of a baseball season can take months to recover from, and the emotions left after this particular season and what it means will be particularly heavy.
Cain told his agent he didn’t want to speak a word about free agency until the offseason and, really, it’s more than that. His son’s birthday is Oct. 7, so they’ll have the party and then he and his wife will go to their favorite spot in Jamaica.
“My phone doesn’t work over there,” he said. “So I won’t be available to anybody.”
Moustakas lives on a beach, so he’s in less of a rush. He’ll go back to southern California, be with his wife and girl, see family he hasn’t seen in a while, old friends he doesn’t see enough, and then what’s become an annual trip to Hawaii. He and Vargas and Wade Davis have been doing it for a few years now, after Thanksgiving, the unofficial end to the rest portion of the offseason.
“When you get back you’re ready to work and get ready,” Moustakas said. “Get ready for next year, wherever next year’s at.”
This is awkward. The last decade, maybe more, has been all about building. Every season, another step. Every year from 2010 to 2015 they won more games than the year before. No team had done that in 90 years. Their first winning season in a decade, the next year a pennant, the next year a parade. Even these last two seasons, you could squint your eyes a bit and see a path to the postseason.
This feels unquestionably different. Every pending free agent has said they’d love to stay in Kansas City, but they also know how this works. Guys don’t take less to play with their buddies. Alex Gordon didn’t even do that.
They built something in Kansas City that felt something like family, but now is time for business, and besides, most of them are building real families. The Royals’ last road trip was 12 games, four cities, two countries. An off day wiped out for a makeup game in New York.
Moustakas broke the franchise home-run record on that trip, a line drive over the right field wall in Toronto. But that’s not what he’ll most remember. What he’ll remember is that Mila was crawling when he left and walking when he got back.
Kids change so fast, especially at that age. Moustakas has no way of knowing what will happen in the coming months, or where he’ll go when spring training starts in February. But he does know he gets some time with Mila now, to watch her grow and play with her and if she’s sick and can’t sleep to sit on the couch and put her on his chest and be the happiest person in the world again.
Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star: 816-234-4365, @mellinger