With two outs, the bases empty and a 2-0 count in the top of the sixth inning at Rogers Centre on Wednesday, Blue Jays reliever Carlos Ramirez spun a slider toward the bottom part of the strike zone. History would take just four seconds. In one fluid motion, Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas dropped the barrel of the bat on the pitch and sent the baseball soaring through the warm Canadian air. By the time it landed inside the visitors bullpen beyond right field, the ghost was dead, once and for all.
In a 15-5 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays, Moustakas hit his 37th homer of the season, breaking Steve Balboni’s hallowed and dubious franchise record, set in 1985. In a mere four seconds, a 29-year-old slugger, a kid from Southern California whose own rise had paralleled his franchise’s, had vanquished a 32-year-old mark that had hung over the organization like a cloud.
“I knew I hit it,” Moustakas said.
In the moments after the baseball sailed over the fence, snatched up by the glove of reliever Peter Moylan, Moustakas embarked on a historic trot. As he crossed home plate and looked toward the sky, a smile formed on his face. He reached the steps of the dugout, where a line of teammates waited to embrace him. As he moved through the crowd, receiving high fives and congratulations, he found himself swallowed up in the arms of Eric Hosmer, his longtime friend.
“It kind of really sunk in,” Moustakas said.
For nearly a month, a knee injury had slowed Moustakas’ seemingly inevitable march toward Balboni’s mark, the discomfort robbing him of mobility and power. He hit his 35th homer in Oakland on Aug. 15 and appeared ready to smash the record. But then he tweaked his knee on Aug. 23. He would not record his record-tying 36th until Sept. 1 in Minnesota.
The pain had frustrated him, Moustakas said. His home-run pace had slowed to a crawl. His team was mired in a funk. But he was bound to keep playing. Every night in Kansas City, he would return home to his wife Stephanie and daughter Mila, born last year. Sometimes his daughter would be sleeping. Sometimes she was still awake. But the time together eased his mind, Moustakas said.
“She doesn’t care if I’m 0 for 4 or 5 for 5,” Moustakas said. “It doesn’t matter to her. For me, that was one of the most important things. It makes me see a lot bigger of a picture than just baseball.”
On Wednesday, he arrived at the ballpark in Toronto in the afternoon. He had not homered in 15 games. His team had lost five of six and fallen further out of the American League wild-card race. He spent the afternoon in the batting cage with hitting coach Dale Sveum, working on a game plan. In the moments after the homer, he finally felt relief.
“It’s been 32 years,” Royals manager Ned Yost said.
Perhaps it was time.
For more than three decades, the number had stood. In time, it became synonymous with a certain era of Royals baseball. In the summer of 1985, Balboni — a bald-headed cult figure from New England — had recorded 36 home runs, the most in club history and the lowest total for any team record in baseball.
In the years since, no Royals hitter could erase 36 from the history books. Not in the Steroid Era. Not when the fences were moved in at Kauffman Stadium. Not when the franchise returned to the World Series in 2014 and 2015, changing baseball in Kansas City.
And then along came Moustakas in 2017. Motivated by a season-ending knee injury in 2016, his power unlocked after a series of swing adjustments in 2015, Moustakas began the year on a tear. He had 25 home runs at the All-Star break and earned an invitation to the Home Run Derby in Miami. All across baseball, homers have soared out of ballparks at record numbers.
But perhaps there is a reason why Balboni’s mark had such staying power. Since 1985, 355 players have hit at least 36 homers, including 10 this year. But no Royals player had flirted with 37. Danny Tartabull had 34 in 1987. Gary Gaetti had 35 in 1995. And Dean Palmer put up 34 in 1998. Moustakas has surpassed them all, even if the last two homers were among the hardest.
“For him to accomplish it with 11 games left,” Yost said, “It’s a huge, huge accomplishment.
In the moments after the victory, after the Royals had destroyed the Blue Jays with an eight-run second inning and moved to 74-77 overall, pulling within 3 1/2 games of a playoff spot, the players huddled in the middle of the visitors clubhouse at Rogers Centre. Hosmer addressed the team, noting the historic nature of the moment and toasting the record. At some point, Moustakas’ trademark veneer of intensity had melted away.
“It was pretty special to be able to hit that and come in and share that with all my teammates,” Moustakas said. “All the guys I’ve spent 10 years with. It’s definitely an awesome feeling and something I’m definitely going to remember for the rest of my life.”
As the clubhouse doors opened to a group of reporters, center fielder Lorenzo Cain appeared in a hallway and yelled across the room.
“Where’s that cake, Moose?” he said. “Get that man a cake!”
Moustakas appeared back in the room a few minutes later. Ten years ago, he had been drafted with the No. 2 overall pick in the draft out of Chatsworth High School in Southern California. In a decade since, he has played in All-Star Games and won a World Series and been demoted to Class AAA Omaha when his swing would not quite work.
And then came Wednesday night. One slider inside Rogers Centre in the sixth inning. One swing to deliver 37.
“I knew I got it pretty good,” Moustakas said. “It was a good feeling to see it go over the wall.”