Kansas City Royals

Five years ago, Hosmer’s debut sent a jolt through Kansas City

Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer during his major-league debut on May 6, 2011.
Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer during his major-league debut on May 6, 2011. Kansas City Star

The Royals jersey is still hanging on a wall in Dayton Moore’s home, the stains of dirt still visible on the glistening white, a blue No. 35 still stitched across the back.

The jersey was worn for the first time on May 6, 2011, five years ago Friday, the night Eric Hosmer made his major-league debut against the Oakland Athletics. In the months after, Moore, the Royals’ general manager, had it mounted and framed, keeping it as a keepsake. Five years later, Moore sees it as the night his organization “flipped the switch.”

On that Friday morning five years ago, the Royals were 17-14 entering a weekend series against the A’s at Kauffman Stadium. The team was in the midst of a 16th losing season in 17 years. They were poised to lose 90 games for the seventh time in eight seasons. There would be more losing to come in 2012.

Down in the minors, the club had scouted and developed one of the deepest farm systems in the history of baseball. Names like Moustakas and Hosmer and Duffy had already become household names in Kansas City. But the wave of talent had yet to hit the big leagues. In the office, Moore’s lieutenants would pester him about the gathering storm; when would the Royals unleash the system? When could they finally flip the switch?

The answer would be May 6, 2011, and five years later, the day remains a pivot point in the franchise’s history. Hosmer would arrive in Kansas City on a Friday in May, sliding in the lineup between Jeff Francoeur and Wilson Betemit, slotting into his usual spot at first. The night kicked off a summer of call-ups and debuts; the rest would become history.

Five years later, the Royals are the reigning world champions, and Hosmer remains at the heart of the franchise’s revival. He is the Gold Glove first baseman batting .333 with a .901 OPS through 27 games in 2016. He is a de facto team spokesman in the clubhouse, a steady voice in good times and bad — through two World Series appearances and a 14-13 start entering a weekend series in Cleveland. He is also still just 26 years old, and he has already etched his name in the franchise’s history, but he does not know this part of the story. He does not know his general manager took the jersey from his debut and put it up in his Johnson County home.

“No,” Hosmer says. “No idea.”

He pauses for a moment on a recent afternoon at Kauffman Stadium, hearing the specifics of the story. He thinks about that night five years ago, his first moment on a major-league field, his first game in a Royals uniform, the unofficial beginning of a new era of Kansas City baseball.

“That definitely means a lot to me,” Hosmer says. “Dayton saw this before anyone else did.”

Every career in baseball has an origin story. Hosmer’s began in a minor-league clubhouse in Albuquerque. In May 2011, the Omaha Storm Chasers were on the road, playing a series against the Albuquerque Isotopes. Hosmer was the hottest prospect in baseball, hitting .439 during the opening month of the season.

When that season began, Hosmer says, he had hoped that his major-league debut would finally come that year. He just wasn’t sure when. He had figured it might come during the second half of the season, and when he began the 2011 season raking like a Triple-A Ted Williams, his calculus didn’t much change. The Royals sent organizational types through Omaha to see him play, taking notes of his progress, but there was nothing out of the ordinary. There were no signs, Hosmer says.

Inside the front office, though, the gears were shifting. Royals manager Ned Yost says he was ready for the wave of prospects to get to Kansas City, so the next phase of the process could begin. In Kansas City, first baseman Kila Ka’aihue was struggling. Deep inside, Royals officials knew. Hosmer had already mastered Triple-A competition.

“A player will tell you that he’s ready,” assistant general manager J.J. Picollo says. “He was clearly ready.”

Yet on that afternoon in New Mexico, Hosmer was more concerned about his fielding. In the past week, he had made a series of uncharacteristic fielding mistakes. He was summoned to the office of Omaha manager Mike Jirschele, who prescribed an afternoon of early fielding work. Then he dropped in the news. Five years later, Hosmer can’t remember the exact words. Neither can Jirschele. But both agree it went something like this:

Fielding is pretty important in the big leagues.

“He called me in the office, and just made it seem like I needed to improve on stuff in the field,” Hosmer says. “I knew I had a chance that year, but I didn’t think it would come that early.”

The conversation ended with a hug. Then Jirschele, now the Royals’ third-base coach, added one more line:

“Maybe I’ll see you in September when the Omaha season is over.”

In the hours before his big-league debut, Hosmer arrived at Kauffman Stadium, met his family and faced an overflowing room of reporters. He also carved out time for an important ritual: A haircut.

It was in the stadium’s make-shift barbershop that Hosmer stumbled upon A’s pitcher Gio Gonzalez, who was scheduled to start that night. Gonzalez had grown up near Miami, not far from where the Hosmer family had lived. Like Hosmer, he is of Cuban descent. They had never met, but Gonzalez had heard about this Hosmer kid for years.

“I’m getting a haircut,” Gonzalez says now, “and he sits down and introduces himself.”

Two hours later, Gonzalez saw what all the hype was about. Hosmer finished 0 for 2 with two walks and two strikeouts that night, but Gonzalez remembers a rookie who looked like a veteran at the plate, a 6-foot-5 figure, cradling his lumber in an imposing stance.

“He was very impressive up to at-bat,” Gonzalez says.

Five years later, Gonzalez calls Hosmer a “freak of nature.” At the age of 26, he has appeared in two World Series, come up clutch on baseball’s biggest stage, and become a valuable piece in the middle of the lineup. According to FanGraph’s WAR stat, he was worth 3.5 wins above replacement in 2015. That ranked fourth among first basemen in the American League.

“He’s just incredible,” says Gonzalez, who faced Hosmer again this week as a member of the Washington Nationals.

For now, Hosmer is off to one of the best starts of his career. His manager still believes he is capable of more. For everything he has accomplished thus far, Hosmer has never hit 20 homers in a season. He’s never appeared in an All-Star Game. He’s had a batting average higher than .300 just once (.302 in 2013). Yost believes Hosmer could accomplish all of this. Maybe even this season.

I just think we’ve watched him grow into his own skin, to understand who he is and how good he is,” Yost says. “He’s a tremendous competitor.”

The final part of this story concerns another Eric Hosmer jersey from the night of May 6, 2011, but not the one hanging in Dayton Moore’s home.

In the hours after making his Royals debut, after another moment with his family and another post-game interview, Hosmer and a couple teammates went out to toast the occasion. They ended up at the Granfalloon on the Plaza, and within minutes of entering, Hosmer saw a 20-something wearing a No. 35 Eric Hosmer Royals jersey.

The fan’s name was C.J. Grover, and his then girlfriend had snagged a freshly-printed Hosmer jersey in the team store at Kauffman Stadium during the game.

Hosmer flashed a huge smile — some dude already has my jersey! — and then he asked Grover for a photo, saying he wanted to send it to his mom. They posed for the photo, Hosmer flashed another smile, and like that, the relationship between city and athlete was forged. Another career was born.

“You really can’t match that feeling,” Hosmer says, “the first time you walk onto a major-league field.”