Hosmer: The face of the franchiseBy RUSTIN DODD | THE KANSAS CITY STAR
SURPRISE, Ariz. The ball is hanging in the Arizona sky, a white speck in a cloudless blue, hurtling into the distance. Did you see that one? It clears the fence in right-center and keeps going, leaving onlookers to gawk and guess. How far did that one go? Had to be 425, right?
Another pitch, and the same sound, a pure crack straight from Hollywood sound effects. This ball is moving in the opposite direction, a screamer toward left-center, a one-hopper against the fence.
Eric Hosmer recoils, loosening his muscles for just a second before returning to that familiar pose. Hands back, knees bent, bat pointing slightly back, ready to strike. Its a warm Arizona morning in early March, and the Royals will play a spring-training game in a few hours. But for now, they are here, taking a few hacks on the clubs main practice field.
Hosmer looks at the pitcher. George Brett looks back at him. Batting practice continues.
In 2011, Eric Hosmer debuted as a rookie first baseman for the Royals, batting .293 with 19 homers and 27 doubles in 128 games. He was 21.
These are the numbers. And they are just the beginning.
Hosmer became just the fifth player in history to bat at least .293 with 19 homers and 27 doubles in his first major-league season by the age of 21. The others: Albert Pujols, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Orlando Cepeda.
Hosmer didnt win Rookie of the Year, of course. And baseball numbers can be manipulated in many ways. But the point remains: Go back through the annals of baseball history, and you wont find many players who were that good, that young.
But even after a historic rookie season, Hosmer is still being defined by what he has yet to do. He sits at his locker in Arizona, a superstar in waiting, and everything seems possible. Thirty-five homers? More than 100 RBIs? A Gold Glove? Why not?
Barring trade or injury, Hosmer has six seasons left in Kansas City, a period that you might call the Hosmer Window. If it all breaks right, Hosmer will realize his potential, and the Royals will win consistently for the first time in a generation.
This organization is at a point where it hasnt been in a while, Hosmer says.
The weight of a franchise sits on the shoulders of this 6-foot-4, 230-pound first baseman. He is a 22-year-old who must act like a veteran. But listen to those who know Hosmer best, and you realize hes been doing so his whole life.
During his first offseason as a professional, Hosmer developed a routine. He lived on a beachfront property in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., with his older brother, Mikey, and another friend from back home, Bryan Clancy. On most mornings, he would run two miles in the sand, a convenient way to maintain his leg strength during the winter months. Sometimes, Hosmer would sit on the couch with his brother and use Apple TV to re-watch games from the previous season. Most of the time, Mikey says, Hosmer would be zeroing in on a certain pitcher or team. What did the pitcher throw in that count? What does this guy have?
Just watching different at-bats, Mikey says. And studying different pitchers.
Growing up in South Florida, these types of baseball bonding sessions were a Hosmer family staple. Even at age 9 or 10, Hosmer preferred to pal around with his brothers friends. Sometimes, a friend his own age would call, Mikey says, and Eric would turn down the offer to hang out.
He didnt really want to do that, Mikey says, He just wanted to hang out with me and all my friends.
It was fishing or playing basketball or anything. He was always with us.
When Hosmer arrived at spring training in 2011, he was still just a 21-year-old who had never had one at-bat above Class AA Northwest Arkansas. He had terrorized the Texas League in the second half of 2010, leading the Naturals to the league championship. But the Royals, according to general manager Dayton Moore, were pretty confident that Hosmer would need close to a full season of at-bats at Class AAA Omaha before being thrown into the fire in Kansas City.
Once again, Hosmer slipped into little-brother mode. He mostly stayed quiet, impressing veterans with his work ethic and maturity. It was his first time at big-league spring training. And veterans said it felt like he was a five-year veteran.
When Im having a conversation with him, he seems like a peer, says second baseman Chris Getz, who at 28 is six years older than Hosmer. He seems like a guy thats the same age as me.
And then there were the batting practice sessions, the same little spring masterpieces where other first-round picks were blown away by his ability. Some marveled at the controlled violence of Hosmers swing, how he could inflict such hurt on a baseball while still driving the ball to all fields.
Hes the best talent Ive played with, says left fielder Alex Gordon, a former No. 2 overall draft pick. Last spring training, he was our best player.
Mikey Hosmer says this is the same thing his brother has done for more than a decade. Even when Eric was 12 or 13, playing on a team with the best players from Broward and Dade counties in Florida, people usually stopped for a moment to watch him hit.
Most big guys can pull the ball and hit it a mile, Mikey says, But Eric could hit the ball all over the field a mile.
Six years is a long time. Thats how long Hosmer is under contract with the Royals. Its also how many years its been since Hosmer says he first realized that baseball could be a way of life.
During the summer after his sophomore year at American Heritage High School, Hosmer was invited to play with the Florida Bombers, a select team of players who had already graduated from high school. Most had Division I scholarships and were just a few months from their first semester of college.
Hosmer was just 16. He spent that summer playing against some of the best amateur baseball players in the country. There was also this one tournament in Georgia, where Hosmer and his family were approached with an idea. Scott Boras, baseballs super agent, had heard about Hosmers talents.
It kind of opened my eyes, Hosmer says, and (I) realized that maybe I have a chance to play professionally and pursue a career in baseball.
There are so many stories about young baseball talents. Some blossom. Some fizzle out. Some have perfectly fine careers.
In 2010, Braves right fielder Jason Heyward batted .277 with 18 homers and 29 doubles at the ripe age of 20. He was declared a future superstar, one of the future faces of baseball. In 2011, he batted .227 with just 14 homers. Heyward, of course, is still just 22, the same age as Hosmer. But baseball people will tell you that sophomore slumps happen. You cant predict this game.
You just gotta be really careful about setting expectations too high, Getz says. Ive witnessed it.
The advanced projections for this season say that Hosmer will continue to improve at least a little bit. And Royals hitting coach Kevin Seitzer would agree with that prediction. Opposing pitchers tried to adjust to Hosmer last season, Seitzer says, and the result was a few slumps. Each time, however, Hosmer found a way out.
I dont think hes going to see anything new, Seitzer says. They mixed on him. They pitched him forward and backward. They pounded him in. They tried to get him to chase. They did everything.
They tried to get him to do the things they saw him doing when he was going bad. But when hes not bad, it doesnt matter what they do. Hes pretty good.
And yet, baseball is a cruel game. Sometimes players slump in their second year. Sometimes pitchers figure players out. Sometimes you just dont know whats going to happen.
We can all recognize talent, Moore says. You look at projections; sometimes theyre good, sometimes theyre not. And scouts evaluations are the same way.
And sometimes, the second year can be the hardest.
When youre coming up that first time, Getz says, youre just playing, trying to compete, trying to hold your own, and trying to survive in the league. And its almost a little bit easier versus trying to repeat that or trying to do even better.
Hosmer is sitting in front of his locker again, another early morning in Arizona. He wears his hair in his trademark fauxhawk and talks about the future.
Hes slipping into little-brother mode again. Getz sits to his left, and Gordon and Royals right fielder Jeff Francoeur are just a few feet way. Gordon says he looks at Hosmer as one of the Royals leaders. And Hosmer embraces those types of challenges. But he still sees himself as the kid who must prove himself, who must be professional, who must go about his business the right way.
I think a big way to gain teammates respect is going out every day on the field and playing as hard as you could, Hosmer says. I think once they see you playing hard, and realize you have a true passion for the game, and love playing the game, then I think it kind of opens their eyes.
Hosmer digs in, another batting practice fastball coming his way. Here comes the controlled violence, the crack, the ball flying into the Arizona air. This ones a laser that lands well beyond the outfield wall.
A moment later, Hosmer is ready for the next pitch. Meanwhile, the only Hall of Famer in franchise history stops for just a second and sneaks a peak behind his left shoulder. Even Brett had to watch that one.