Thrilled as they might have been, maybe none of the flock of Royals who participated in the 2015 All-Star Game could appreciate the honor quite the way third baseman Mike Moustakas did.
The exhilaration radiated from him just after the news was delivered, and you could hear it in his tone the day before the game in Cincinnati.
Heck, you could even see it in his smile after he struck out on three Aroldis Chapman pitches (averaging 102.9 mph) in his only at-bat.
Moustakas so loves the game and his identity as a baseball player that this all would have been special no matter what.
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But it was the context that moved him so deeply and made it magic.
During his 24 hours or so of freedom between the game and the start of the second half of the season in July, Moustakas flew home to California to see his mother, Connie, who was in the hospital battling cancer and other undisclosed illnesses.
“I wanted to make her proud every single day …,” Moustakas said Tuesday. “And to be named to my first All-Star team when all of that was going on was pretty special.”
So was giving her his All-Star Game jersey, the thought of which still makes him think of her joyous smile and the vision of her wearing it.
“To her,” he said, “I was always an All-Star no matter what.”
Then she told him to “go back to work.”
And that was the last time Mike Moustakas ever saw his mother — at least in the material world.
Connie Moustakas died on Aug. 9, a private matter that Moustakas has not wished to share publicly until recently.
“It’s still weird. It’s still new, knowing that she’s not there,” he said. “But I do know that she’s at every single game. I know she’s watching every single game just like she has.”
His voice cracking, he added, “The first days after, I left her a ticket. I knew this would be her first stop. To come see me.”
In turn, Moustakas has taken to commemorating her memory by scratching initials “CM” in the dirt as he steps to the plate and pointing skyward after big hits.
“That’s for her,” he said. “I’ve never really done that, but I know she’s watching. So I just want to let her know I’m still thinking about her.”
Connie Moustakas always had boundless energy and enthusiasm, the sort of gift that allowed her to go to work at 6 a.m. every day to be done early enough to run her four children through a Rubik’s cube of events and be the one everyone could hear in the stands at their games and then go home and make dinner.
If there was time in between, maybe she’d go out in the batting cage they put in their front yard with little Mikey and his father, Mike, and hang out and take a few swings.
Then she’d get up and do it all again.
Moustakas can’t get away from that strange sensation that she’s no longer a phone call away, and he knows he’ll feel the void more powerfully after the season when he returns to California.
“Because she’s always there,” he said. “She’s always been there.”
Moustakas, who with a smile declined to provide her age because she wouldn’t like that, said that she began feeling the effects of illness most of the last three years.
Her boss, Moustakas said, had to make her stop coming to work as a paralegal because “she was so determined to do what she was supposed to do.”
But no one could determine what was wrong with her. Not doctors locally and not at the Mayo Clinic, not even as she became more weak and had more difficulty moving and needed oxygen.
Then the diagnosis came earlier this year: cancer manifesting on her liver.
As dark as that realization was, just being able to give it a name gave hope to the family.
“Then,” Moustakas said, “things kind of took over.”
Twice during the season, her death seemed imminent. Moustakas went on the bereavement/family medical emergency list.
Each time he went home, she was so buoyed by his appearance that he felt fresh optimism by the time she told him, “It’s time to go back to work.”
Once, he had to tell her, “Mom, I took bereavement (leave). They won’t let me go back yet. I have to stay for a minimum amount of days.”
During the leaves, incidentally, Moustakas stayed wired in to the team.
When the Royals won a game and went into their typical postgame celebration, cranking up the music, word got back to him that Kendrys Morales turned the music off out of respect for his mom.
“Those guys here are just unbelievable,” he said.
All the more so since his mother died.
His dad had let on her condition was worsening in the weeks after the All-Star Game, but Moustakas “chose kind of not to believe it.”
And when he did allow that to creep in, his inclination to go home and see her again was shut down by his mother.
“You always listen to your mom, no matter what,” he said, managing a smile.
Late on Sunday, Aug. 9, as he was watching a movie with his wife, Stephanie, his father called.
Before then, he has seen or heard his dad crying perhaps three times in his 27 years.
His sobs told him everything he had to know.
So all through the night Moustakas cried and talked to his father and his sisters, and his best friends, and he cried some more with Stephanie.
They fell asleep together on the couch, their Australian shepherd puppy, Gus, between their faces.
“He didn’t stop licking our faces,” Moustakas said. “He knew.”
The next day still seems surreal to Moustakas, but mostly he remembers being hugged by his teammates and members of the Royals organization — his other family, the one his mother wanted him to stay with.
“They wouldn’t let me feel too sad,” he said, “because I was always getting hugs from everybody.”
Literally or figuratively, he still is.
Earlier Tuesday, he said, “the guys” gave him two gloves that said “In Loving Memory of Connie Moustakas.”
“That’s why it’s nice to be here,” said Moustakas, adding that the family is planning a memorial after the season. “It’s not easy, but they make it a little bit easier.”
So does his last memory of her, surrounded by family in the hospital and laughing with his All-Star jersey on before she told him to go back to work — where he knows she’ll be watching and probably bragging about her son down there.