The six tables stood on raised platforms along the back wall of The Presidential Ballroom on the third floor at The Westin Cincinnati. A few minutes before 3:30 p.m., six Royals filed into their assigned seats, along with the rest of their American League teammates, set to take center stage on Media Day of the 86th All-Star Game.
Salvador Perez occupied the corner table, perfect position to heckle his neighbor, Lorenzo Cain, during a 45-minute session with the media. Alcides Escobar and Kelvin Herrera took the next two seats. To their right sat Wade Davis and Mike Moustakas, with Alex Gordon absent as he rehabilitates his injured groin. The group assembled as a testament to the progress of their organization and the zeal of their fans, the partisans who voted five players onto the roster.
“For me, I can’t explain how happy I am right now,” Escobar said. “That’s everything. I feel so good. I feel like all my teammates are here, six, seven guys together. We play on the same team. We’re playing now in the All-Star Game. That’s really nice.”
The Royals burst into the national consciousness with their performance last October. The team reaffirmed its place in the game’s hierarchy in this season’s first half, heading into the All-Star break with the best record in the American League. The Royals will reap the spoils here in Cincinnati, with an MLB-high seven players, plus manager Ned Yost and his coaching staff, dominating the visitors’ dugout at Great American Ball Park.
The group had known for weeks this scenario was possible, following along as Major League Baseball released All-Star voting totals each Monday afternoon. The team had not had a player voted into the starting lineup since Jermaine Dye in 2000, but at one point, eight Royals led the voting at eight separate positions. They planned accordingly: The Royals chartered a jet after Sunday’s wild victory over Toronto. The All-Stars, the coaches and their families piled in.
This is the first All-Star Game for most of them. The concept of Kansas City taking over the Midsummer Classic may have felt preposterous 12 months ago. Now, given their ascension, the group looked at home.
“If I would have made the All-Star team last year, I probably would have been a little overwhelmed,” Cain said. “But just going through that postseason experience, it definitely helped me out tremendously. I’m just enjoying this moment right now. I feel like I’m where I need to be.”
Awaiting them all was a small piece of symmetry.
“You see the starting pitcher tomorrow?” Escobar asked Cain, and Cain realized it would be former Royal, current Dodger Zack Greinke. It was Greinke who general manager Dayton Moore traded to Milwaukee in exchange for a package of prospects including Cain and Escobar in December 2011. The move laid the foundation for their current roster.
When he found out about the trade, Escobar cried. He felt he had failed the Brewers, because he had hit .235 that season. Now he considers it a blessing.
“Right now, I feel so happy,” he said. “I feel so good to be in Kansas City.”
The setting on Monday was informal. The players mingled at The Westin before venturing to the ballpark for the Home Run Derby. Davis caught up with Detroit ace David Price and Tampa Bay pitcher Chris Archer, two of his former Rays teammates. Escobar greeted fellow former Brewer Prince Fielder. Herrera struck up a conversation with White Sox starter Chris Sale, a 6-6 southpaw who earlier this year tried to confront Yordano Ventura in the visitors’ clubhouse at U.S. Cellular Field.
“Papi,” Herrera told him with admiration, “you’re really tall.”
Then Dellin Betances, the 6-8 Yankees relief ace, walked by. Herrera assessed the situation.
“This guy is taller than you,” he told Sale.
Yost chose Astros lefty Dallas Keuchel over Sale to start the game. He heaped praise upon Keuchel and the rest of his players during a joint news conference with San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy.
The news conference was something of a clunker. Frank Robinson, the 79-year-old two-time MVP, Hall of Famer and honorary president of the American League this week, congratulated Yost and the Royals as “the world champions” of 2014. Later a reporter asked Yost about the difficulty of playing in the World Series without home-field advantage last October. The Royals, one may recall, had home-field advantage.
Yost was undaunted. He cracked jokes about Keuchel crushing his Royals last month. He referenced his mentor, former Braves skipper Bobby Cox, when discussing how difficult it was to put this roster together. He waved to a pair of reporters he recognized. His enthusiasm did not wane and his pride for his organization was obvious.
“This event is extremely special to me,” Yost said. “And to be able to take a lot of my guys, and to be able to enjoy it with them, watch them enjoy it, it’s going to be special. You watched the rise of the Royals the last couple years. And what we did last year in the playoffs was just fantastic.”
The day before, the Royals completed one of the more taxing games of the season. The group scored six runs in the first inning against Toronto, only to eventually squander a seven-run lead. Next, the bullpen coughed up another two-run lead. Then Paulo Orlando boomed an eighth-inning home run to complete an 11-10 victory.
The conditions jumbled the proceedings, as the Royals made a series of uncharacteristic errors. The heat was oppressive. The infield was rock-hard. At the bullpen, the relief pitchers saw cracks in the ground.
“It was a crazy game,” Cain said. “I don’t know what happened. I mean, we scored six early there, and I’m like, ‘Alright, we got this.’ Next thing I know, we were losing!”
Cain burst out laughing.
“It was bizarre. It was very bizarre. It was hot. It got to the point where we thought we were going to win early, then we were losing, and then at that point, no one was backing down.”
After the game, Yost, his coaches and the All-Stars boarded a jet to Cincinnati. Their families joined them. The traveling party also included Toronto All-Stars Josh Donaldson, a third baseman, and catcher Russell Martin.
There was one small travel glitch. The air conditioning malfunctioned at the start of the flight, which transformed the plane into a flying sweatbox.
“It was blowing some hot air after that 95-degree game,” Davis said, smiling, before explaining how special the opportunity was. “My wife and daughter are here. They get to come out and experience this. That’s something we may never do again. So it’s cool for them to get that experience, and be around some players that are future Hall of Famers.”
Earlier in the afternoon, Perez walked through the hotel with his son, Salvador, Jr. This is Perez’s third appearance as an All-Star. He considers it a respite from the havoc of the season.
“I enjoy it with my family,” Perez said. “We don’t have too many times like this during the season. You know how we fly every day, every two days, whenever we fly. So a moment like that, I think it’s good to be with your son.”
Moustakas was the last Royal to make the team. He won the fan voting contest for the final roster spot, and received the news the same day he returned to Kansas City after spending a few days with his ailing mother. His father was expected to join him in Cincinnati.
Moustakas wore an electronic contraption attached near his shirt’s collar. A blue light pulsed from the gadget. Sporting a sizable grin, Moustakas admitted he did not know what it was.
“I don’t have any idea,” Moustakas said. “They just told me to put it on. I think I’m filming you guys right now. So all the good questions that you guys ask are going to be recorded.”
As the afternoon wrapped up, Moustakas pulled down the sign bearing his name behind him. He stopped Davis before he departed without his. “Get your little nameplate,” Moustakas told him.
Davis climbed back up and grabbed the future heirloom. Together, they walked past the six tables that once belonged to the Royals. They ambled down a red-carpeted staircase leading them out of The Presidential Ballroom, bound for Great American Ball Park and a night together as All-Stars.