KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Eric Hosmer boarded a flight last December bound for Cincinnati, the city he called home for two summers as a teenager. The occasion was somber, a funeral for Joe Hayden, the founder of Midland, one of the country’s most storied amateur baseball programs.
Hosmer considered Hayden, who was 85 when he died, a mentor and a role model. As Hayden battled cancer last autumn, he still called to encourage Hosmer during the Royals’ run to the World Series.
In Cincinnati, Hosmer felt he had a home away from his native Miami. Hosmer did not book a hotel room for the funeral. Instead he stayed with Brian Hiler, an assistant coach for Midland, just as he did when he played for the team in the summer of 2007 and 2008.
“It’s just like a no-brainer,” Hosmer said. “You go back and visit your parents or something like that, there’s no reason to get a hotel. That’s family.”
The kinship will be apparent this week. Hosmer expects a sizable contingent of fans to greet him at Great American Ball Park when the Royals, 71-46, begin a two-game series today against the Reds.
Hosmer planted roots in the community during those two summers. He bunked with a future All-Star starter. He learned how he wanted to carry himself as a man. He grew more comfortable as a leader, as a star. At Hayden’s funeral, attendees asked Hosmer for autographs.
“He’s freaking King Kong around here,” Hiler said. “Every Midland kid wears Hosmer T-shirts and jerseys. Before, there was no Royals stuff. Now if you come to the east side of Cincinnati, you’ll see so much Eric Hosmer Royals stuff, you wouldn’t believe it.”
Hosmer arrives in the Queen City on perhaps the most torrid streak of his career. He holds a 10-game RBI streak, the longest in the majors in 2015. Since Alex Gordon went on the disabled list July 8, Hosmer has hit .409 in 35 games, with six homers, 10 doubles and a 1.114 on-base-plus-slugging percentage.
For Midland, which has sent more than 70 alumni to the majors, Hosmer represents yet another part of its enviable tradition. In the 1980s, the program played host to future Hall of Famers Barry Larkin and Ken Griffey Jr. More recent All-Stars include the Dodgers’ Zack Greinke and Yasmani Grandal. Future Royals prospects such as Christian Colon, Johnny Giavotella and John Lamb played for Midland.
The driving force was Hayden, a businessman who ran the Midland Corporation. Hayden founded the baseball program in 1966. It was Larkin who dubbed him “Papa Joe.” Decades later, the nickname still stuck.
Hiler coached and recruited for Midland. He first met Hosmer in the summer of 2006 at the Connie Mack World Series in Farmington, N.M. Hosmer was 16, about to enter his junior year of high school. He terrorized opposing pitchers for a travel team called the Florida Bombers.
“I looked at it like,” Hiler said, “I’ve got to have that guy. I’ve got to have that guy playing with us next year. I don’t want to face that guy again.”
The Bombers broke up soon after, and Hosmer sought a new summer team. Hiler recruited Hosmer to play on a scout team for a tournament that fall in Jupiter, Fla. Another coach on the team was Lonnie Goldberg, a Braves scout who would eventually become the Royals’ scouting director.
It was obvious Hosmer possessed talent. Goldberg called him “the best player I’ve ever scouted, hands down.” But he also noticed how Hosmer operated as a beacon for the players.
“When nothing was going on, you looked in the dugout,” Goldberg said. “Everybody was hovering around him.”
Hosmer enjoyed the experience in Jupiter, and he felt Midland offered a unique opportunity. So he and Deven Marrero, his close friend at American Heritage High and a future first-round pick of the Red Sox, packed their bags for the southwestern edge of Ohio in the summer of 2007.
The two players moved in with Hiler, who lived with his wife about 15 minutes outside the city. Midway through the summer, the house added another occupant: a burly right-hander from Connecticut named Matt Harvey, who became an All-Star pitcher with the Mets.
The teenagers were obsessed with baseball. They played most days of the week, attended Reds games when they had the chance and spent hours thumbing the controls of Hiler’s Xbox. In between, they helped with the household chores.
“My neighbor comes out one day and I’ve got Harvey edging the lawn, Hosmer running the lawn mower, Marrero running the bush trimmer,” Hiler said. “My neighbor says, ‘Do you mind if I get a picture of this? This is about $400 million you’re paying for yard work.’”
At the park, Hosmer established himself as the team’s leader. He possessed physical tools that stood out even among the elite. Hosmer slid into the role with ease. It felt natural to the others around him.
“It’s hard to describe,” Hiler said. “He just has that ‘It’ factor.”
Hosmer sensed an overriding seriousness among his new teammates. He sought to “loosen everybody up, a little bit,” he said, so he and Marrero tried to organize nightly hangouts at the houses of the host families.
“He stuck up for the littlest guy on the team,” said Tigers catcher James McCann, who played for Midland in 2008. “He was the big name, Eric Hosmer. But it didn’t matter who you were on the team. He treated everyone like he wanted to be treated.”
Hayden kept an office inside the Midland fieldhouse. Hosmer and Marrero visited often, asking for advice about issues back home. Hayden impressed Hosmer with his generosity, equanimity and modesty.
The lessons served Hosmer well for his current position with the Royals. He is perhaps the most recognizable athlete in Kansas City. Kids wear a haircut called “The Hoz.” Hosmer understands he must be courteous in public, and he recognizes the responsibility that comes with his fame.
“Honestly, I try and act just like Papa Joe,” Hosmer said. “The stuff he did for other people, the way he carried himself. He had that confidence. But at the same time, he treated people with respect and he treated everyone the same.”
In 2007, Hosmer led Midland back to Farmington for the Connie Mack World Series. The schedule created a conflict. As Hosmer recalled, he could either play in the championship game in New Mexico on a Saturday night or attend the prestigious Perfect Game AFLAC All-American Classic in San Diego the next morning.
There were no commercial flights that could transport Hosmer to California in time to make both games. The Midland staff told Hosmer he should go to the showcase if he wanted. Hosmer decided he could not abandon his team.
“I don’t want to go,” Hosmer told Hayden. “I want to play for you guys.”
Midland captured the crown and Hosmer earned the Most Valuable Player trophy. Minutes after the victory, Hiler found Hosmer. There was a plane waiting for him. Hosmer boarded Hayden’s private jet, complete with two pilots and precisely one passenger.
“I was freaked out, dude,” Hosmer said. “The pilot was reading a book when we were taking off. I was like, ‘What the hell’s going on?’”
After that first summer, Hosmer returned to Miami and solidified his standing as one of baseball’s best amateur talents. The Royals chose him third overall in the draft that June. Hosmer knew his agent, Scott Boras, would haggle with the Royals over the signing bonus until the signing deadline in August. Hosmer did not want to remain idle for two months.
Boras suggested Hosmer skip another summer in Cincinnati, Hosmer said. There were millions of dollars at stake, as Boras would eventually negotiate a $6 million bonus, then the largest in Royals franchise history. But Hosmer thought about all the hours Hayden counseled him during the summer. He thought about the flight to San Diego. He thought about the warmth he felt living with the Hilers. Then he picked up the phone.
Hiler congratulated Hosmer on the draft. He told him he wished him well. Hosmer replied that he already had a plane ticket, and he would be in Ohio within a week.
“That’s when I dropped the phone,” Hiler said.
The second summer only solidified the bonds Hosmer built in the first. One day this June, Hiler paused an interview with a reporter to compose himself. He had choked up as he recalled a story he wanted to tell.
In the winter of 2007, Hiler’s wife suffered a miscarriage. When Hosmer heard the news, he grabbed his phone on his lunch break at school and called Hiler. He wanted to offer his condolences.
“Who does that? At 18?” Hiler said. “I mean, he’s just as good as they come off the field.”
Hiler has two boys now, an 8-year-old named Aiden and a 5-year-old named Taylor. Both refer to the Royals first baseman as “Uncle Eric.” The Hilers will be in the stands rooting for Hosmer tonight.
As Hosmer would say, that’s family.
“He does not forget where he came from,” Hiler said. “He is an unbelievable guy.”