At last, Mike Moustakas on Monday at Surprise Stadium trotted out to third base in a game for the first time since he suffered a freak torn ACL on May 22, 2016.
As he’s done since the 2015 death of his mother, Connie, he scratched her initials in the dirt at the back of the infield.
Wearing a wristband honoring late teammate Yordano Ventura, who died Jan. 22 in an automobile wreck in the Dominican Republic, he scrawled “Ace” alongside as the Royals prepared to take on the Arizona Diamondbacks in what would become a 4-1 loss.
Then he played in the field for the first time in the life of his daughter, Mila Constance — who has had him twirled around her finger since she was born Aug. 30.
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“That’s a lot more pressure than anybody realizes,” he said, laughing, before a game he entered with one hit 14 at-bats this spring as a designated hitter. “My wife (Stephanie) brought her other day, and I didn’t have a great game, and she said, ‘Wow, you went out there and played like that in front of your daughter?’”
Tough crowd …
More seriously, the truth is fatherhood is what he calls “the coolest thing that ever happened to me,” and that it became a sanctuary during his rehabilitation from the injury.
It’s also been a source of profound perspective amid several years of extreme swings of fortune that encapsulate an entire cycle of life that you could see compressed into the imagery of his first moments on the field.
Maybe the intervention of the real world shouldn’t be so surprising.
After all, suddenly Moustakas has been in the Royals organization nearly a decade since they drafted him as the No. 2 overall pick in 2007. A one-time face of their future is 28 years old and being teased by family that he’ll soon be turning 30.
“I’m like, ‘Oh, my,’” he said.
Physically, he still feels like he’s 22 or 23.
Mentally, though, he’ll tell you he’s a different guy than a few years ago, when he often was on a pendulum between his enormous potential and growing pains.
It’s not that he lost sight of the rest of the world. But he didn’t really much dwell on stuff outside baseball, either … until he was forced to.
“I kind of find myself just thinking about everything that’s happened over the last year and a half … I think it’s just more maturing than anything,” he said. “You play a kids game for your entire life, and then all of a sudden you become a dad and people start passing away.
“Just crazy things happen. Life kind of takes over.”
Especially new lives, as evident in person after the game Monday as Moustakas was introducing Mila to a reporter and to comedian Rob Riggle and family, then pushing her in a baby stroller as he walked off with Stephanie.
Having her as his main motivation changes the way he sees everything, he’ll tell you.
Particularly in a dizzying span that he calls a “roller-coaster” ...
▪ Being relegated to Class AAA Omaha in 2014 before rebounding to hit five home runs — and make an iconic catch sprawling into a dugout suite — in the Royals’ run to the World Series.
▪ Being named an All-Star in 2015, losing his mother to cancer weeks later, and then becoming a key part of winning the World Series.
▪ Suffering the fluke season-ending injury in a collision with left fielder Alex Gordon last season, and learning to see it as a blessing in disguise that allowed him to fully participate in the first few months of Mila’s life after she was born on Aug. 30.
Then, of course, came the shattering news of the death of Ventura.
Moustakas was one of a handful of Royals who traveled to the Dominican Republic for the funeral two days later.
Like most everybody else who knew Ventura, he’s still processing it.
“I don’t think anybody really stops thinking about him,” he said. “I think we just always have him in our hearts and in our minds and in our prayers.”
Moustakas mustered a smile as he spoke about Ventura, suggesting perhaps that he’d found a certain compartment to place all this in that brings him peace.
“But it’s the same compartment,” he said, “that can make you cry at the same time.”
Through all of these changes, Moustakas has retained, if not intensified, his sense of attachment to teammates and an organization he’s been with for more than a third of his life.
That could mean more emotional upheaval ahead since Moustakas can become a free agent after the season.
But that’s a matter for another time, especially since he is very much in the moment of his recovery now.
“Playing third base was pretty cool,” he said.
Naturally on his first day back in the field, the first play of the game came his way, drawing him to his left for one of his three assists. He went hitless in two at-bats to extend a generally irrelevant spring slump.
He looked like largely like himself again, other than on the goofy pop-up that he turned around to pursue … only for it to land in front of him.
That earned him the same response in the dugout he’d gotten on the opening play.
“The boys don’t let anything slide,” he said, smiling. “After I made the first play, I got a hat-tip (from teammates). And after the pop-up, I also got a hat-tip.”
Then he went from that family to his own: Stephanie, long a nurturing force in his life, and Mila, who was going to be happy to see him no matter how this day went.
Through all the changes, he’s always been sustained by what he called his “backbone” of teammates and his father and sisters back home.
Now, though, he has something else, too — even if Mila’s presence at the game made for “more pressure than anybody realizes.”
“It’s definitely changed the way I feel about life in general,” he said.
Especially as life in general insinuated itself into his own so intensely.