Some six years ago, Alcides Escobar sat in Royals manager Ned Yost’s office at Kauffman Stadium, breaths rattling through his body and tears pooling in his eyes.
The Royals had acquired Escobar in a trade that brought Lorenzo Cain to Kansas City and sent Zack Greinke to Milwaukee ahead of the 2011 season. Although he’d been a top prospect for the Brewers organization, Escobar had hit inconsistently his first full season in the majors.
The struggles followed him. He batted .216 through the first two months of the season in a Royals uniform. He was 24 years old, had barely more than a year of service time and options left on his contract.
All of this weighed on Escobar as he sat in front of Yost, a man who had coached him seven years earlier in instructional ball.
But Yost put a stop to the emotional spiral unwinding Escobar before the heaves could turn into sobs.
“When I first got here, one day he called me to his office. I was worried about being demoted,” Escobar said. “He said, ‘Don’t worry. Don’t think about (Class) AAA. Don’t think about anything. You’re going to play shortstop no matter what happens, hit or no hit.’ That motivated me and from that moment forward, things changed.”
Since then, Yost has expressed the same unrelenting patience for his starting shortstop. Past the slumps, Yost could see it clearly: Escobar would become an All-Star.
Their journey together began long before Escobar vaulted to the top of prospect watch lists. Yost and Escobar were younger then. Escobar had range at shortstop, but at the age of 17 didn’t look anything like a major-leaguer.
“He looked like a broomstick,” Yost said. “You always knew that the hands worked. He was tremendously athletic. But the thing I remember most about him was his teeth. He smiled and his teeth went (crooked). He got braces and now he’s got a beautiful smile. … He was such a special kid.”
Eventually, Escobar grew into his body, put on muscle and fixed his smile. He rose through the minors at a steady rate. He made his major-league debut barely two weeks prior to Yost getting fired as Milwaukee’s manager in September 2008.
Escobar never would have imagined he’d wind up under Yost’s tutelage again. Then, Royals general manager Dayton Moore took a gamble.
Moore received the kind of Gold Glove-worthy athlete who would play 162 games in three of his eight seasons in a Royals uniform. He got an additional 31 games from Escobar in the postseason, as well as an American League pennant and a World Series trophy.
And Escobar got the type of manager a streaky player like him needed. Someone who would wait out his offensive droughts — he experienced the worst first half of his career in the final year of his contract, batting .185 in April and May — and let his glove speak for him, even when critics called for change.
Yost is the type of manager that, unbidden, will rattle off numbers just to prove others wrong. He did not pull punches when it came to Escobar, citing statistics in postgame conferences at moments throughout the second half.
“To see where Esky’s come, a couple of months ago with 240 at-bats hitting .170-something, now up to .240 — that’s a lot of production here in the last couple of months,” Yost said on Aug. 23, after a 6-4 win over the Rockies at home.
Escobar had indeed found a groove, however unheralded. He went from batting .199 after the 70th game of the season on June 20, to ending his campaign on Sunday with a .250 average.
When told that Yost said he’d always known Escobar would be special, Escobar paused during his interview for a breath.
“It fills me with happiness,” Escobar said, “knowing that a person who’s been a manager for more than 10 years said something like that about one of his players. For me or anyone else, that gives you so much joy.”
After playing 1,104 games in a Royals uniform, making 332 consecutive starts at shortstop, and going 33 for 100 with 13 RBIs in what could be his final 30 games in this organization...Escobar will return home to the waiting game.
He’ll play with his son. He’ll rest his body. He’ll inevitably reminisce about the seven seasons he spent battling alongside Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas. He’ll wonder if he might get a 14th year with Yost.
At 30, Escobar will become a free agent for the first time in his career when the 2017 World Series ends.
Until then, he will be a Royal.
“This was the best thing that happened to me,” Escobar said. “I accomplished so many of my goals here. There are so many memories. I could never forget anything that happened to me in Kansas City.”