A few weeks before he left for spring training in 2012, Eric Hosmer found a text message waiting for him on his phone. It was from Alex Rodriguez, inviting him to take batting practice at his home near Miami.
Hosmer grew up in south Florida rooting for the Yankees. Rodriguez loomed large in Hosmer’s world in his youth, as high school coaches raved “about how he was the best player ever,” he said. Hosmer spent a day taking hacks with Rodriguez, former Braves star Andruw Jones and a few others inside Rodriguez’s indoor cage.
“For me, he’s my favorite young player in the game,” Rodriguez told The Star on Friday afternoon. “I just love everything that he has to offer.”
Rodriguez invited him over a few other times, Hosmer said, but he had already departed for the Royals complex in Arizona. After that season, Rodriguez spiraled into a vortex of surgeries and suspensions. Hosmer plodded through two more seasons of development before breaking out to start 2015.
Rodriguez visited Kauffman Stadium this weekend as another witness to Hosmer’s renaissance, an outcome Rodriguez says he projected years ago. When Hosmer regressed as a sophomore, Rodriguez said, “I remember telling people, ‘If he’s a stock, go heavy on Hosmer. Buy it all.’”
Save for that one day in 2012, Hosmer said he has not interacted with Rodriguez away from the diamond. An association with Rodriguez, the figure at the center of Major League Baseball’s Biogenesis scandal in 2013, is considered toxic. As he returns from a year-long suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs, Rodriguez occupies a secure foothold as baseball’s premier villain. The fans at Kauffman Stadium jeered every mention of his name on Friday evening.
Yet few inside the game question Rodriguez’s baseball acumen. He delivered an extended, nuanced depiction of Hosmer’s talents, one that squared with the scouting reports proclaimed by Royals executives over the years.
“A lot of people don’t know that he throws mid-90s from the bump,” Rodriguez said. “He’s got a perfect body for baseball. I think he’s going to be a guy that can consistently hit 30 home runs. It wouldn’t surprise me if he hit 40. Plus, plus, plus defender. Very athletic. I mean, for me, he covers every check-box that I like in ball players. And he’s a phenomenal kid.”
By showering Hosmer with praise, Rodriguez joins a chorus of teammates, coaches and league executives. Hosmer mashed his seventh home run of the season on Thursday to extend a season-long hot streak. He entered Saturday ranked sixth among American League hitters in OPS (.984) and fourth in FanGraphs’ version of WAR (2.0). He is building a case to be an All-Star for the first time.
Hosmer has preserved the approach he utilized last October. He quieted the excessive movement of his legs during his swings. He relies upon his hands, which can unleash sizable drives to all fields.
“He always had the talent, he just tried to do too much,” one rival scout said. “Now he is just letting it show up.”
Manager Ned Yost identified one sequence from a recent series against Texas as an example. The victim was Rangers pitcher Nick Martinez.
“He got to 2-1 and he spit on a nice changeup that he probably would have swung at last year,” Yost said. “And then he got a fastball up in the zone and drove it into the seats.”
Rodriguez noticed this potential years ago. Rodriguez watched Hosmer as a prep superstar, where “he was kind of a star child when he was very young. You heard his name everywhere.”
The affection is mutual. Mike Hosmer is a native New Yorker, and he instilled a passion for pinstripes in his son. Hosmer idolized those teams with Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Bernie Williams. His favorite player was Jason Giambi, a slugger Hosmer emulated at the plate.
“He was a first baseman, a left-handed hitter, dropping bombs and stuff,” Hosmer said. “When you’re that young, you don’t know too much. You like whoever plays your position.”
Like Rodriguez, Giambi admitted to using steroids during his career. Giambi repackaged himself as a wily veteran, earned praise for his leadership in his final years and positioned himself to potentially become a big-league manager in the future. Rodriguez must traverse a lengthier road to redemption.
In 2009, Rodriguez confessed to doping almost a decade earlier in Texas. Four years later, MLB ensnared him in their crackdown on Biogenesis, an anti-aging clinic based in Coral Gables, Fla. Rodriguez warred with the commissioner’s office, the Yankees and his own union in 2013 before dropping his appeals and accepting a season-long ban.
The taint of his perceived sins follows him each day. Last month Rodriguez blasted his 660th home run and tied Willie Mays on the career list. Yet the discussion centered on the Yankees’ expected refusal to pay him a $6 million bonus he expected to receive to market the milestone. Hosmer understands the consequences of Rodriguez’s actions, but still sounded awed by his talent.
“It’s a tough situation, man,” Hosmer said. “Honestly, for me, I still don’t think it takes away what he’s done on the field. To physically hit 660 home runs, I don’t care how strong you are, that’s still unbelievable to do. At the same time, obviously, you’re violating some rules and stuff while you’re doing it.”
Rodriguez receives a receipt during every road game. The guttural sound of boos greeted him when he came to hit in Friday’s first inning. A few minutes later, when Hosmer stepped to the plate, the screams were lighter, the sound of adoration.
Like so many others around baseball, Rodriguez senses the potential for stardom in Hosmer. Like so many others, Rodriguez believes Hosmer’s prime has arrived.
“I think he’s fortunate to be playing for such a great organization, with the Kansas City Royals,” Rodriguez said. “And vice versa. I think the Royals are in the driver’s seat with such an incredible talent.”