Sam Mellinger

How the Royals gave Caleb Schwab’s family their best day since their worst day

The Schwab family: Michelle (second from left), Alex (center foreground), Nathan (center background) and Scott (second from right) met Royals players including Mike Moustakas, Danny Duffy, Jarrod Dyson and Eric Hosmer in August.
The Schwab family: Michelle (second from left), Alex (center foreground), Nathan (center background) and Scott (second from right) met Royals players including Mike Moustakas, Danny Duffy, Jarrod Dyson and Eric Hosmer in August. Courtesy of the Schwab family

The haze of the awful, world-shaking nightmare hung low and thick. Scott and Michelle Schwab had lost their 10-year-old son in an unthinkable tragedy on Schlitterbahn’s Verrückt water slide fewer than two weeks before.

How do you move forward? How do you get through one day, then the next, and all the rest after that?

They had not been out of the house yet. Not like this, anyway. Not as invited guests of the Royals, sitting in a room on the clubhouse level at Kauffman Stadium watching men they’d only seen on television walk in and offer the only thing that mattered.

“I’m sorry,” third baseman Mike Moustakas told Scott.

“I just want you to know we care,” pitcher Danny Duffy told Michelle.

Scott, a Kansas lawmaker, has not talked to reporters since his son, Caleb, died at that water park on Aug. 7. Part of that has been following the advice of his lawyer. Part of it is more personal. He made an exception for this column several days ago to talk specifically about what he says is the best day his family has had since the worst day his family has had.

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He wanted to say thanks, specifically, to Royals employees Toby Cook and Mike Swanson, but also to the organization in general. They sent gift bags to the Schwabs’ three surviving sons almost immediately after the tragedy. The boys unwrapped batting gloves and bobbleheads and a stuffed doll in the likeness of Royals mascot Sluggerrr just before Caleb’s funeral.

Included with the swag was an invitation to come to a game, in private. No reporters. No cameras. Just whatever healing or happiness was possible from a night out at a ballgame.

“I think about that day all the time,” Scott said Tuesday, the day it was announced that the water slide on which his son died — at 168 feet, the tallest in the world — would be dismantled and torn to the ground. “Any tears we shed that day, they were happy tears. Even missing Caleb. They were happy tears. We just wanted to go to a baseball game. They made it so special.”

The Schwabs didn’t know what to expect that day. They figured there would be a tour, a few handshakes. That maybe a player or two would stop by for a few minutes, offer condolences, sign a ball or something, and get back to work.

They didn’t expect first baseman Eric Hosmer and outfielder Jarrod Dyson to walk in and hang out for 40 minutes, asking about their family, answering whatever questions the Schwabs had. Dyson was Caleb’s favorite player. Caleb was so fast. He and older brother Nathan would play Wiffle Ball in the backyard, and whenever Caleb outran a ball to first he’d mimic Dyson’s throttle move and drop Dyson’s signature line: That’s what speed do!

“So how did you get so fast?” Scott asked his second son’s favorite player.

Dyson paused for a moment. Then his friend spoke up.

“He was running from the cops his whole life,” Hosmer said. They all laughed.

This is how it went. Before the players walked in, the Schwabs felt awkward sitting there in an empty room. They were tired of being in the house but had come to hate going out. Caleb’s death was the biggest news story in town, the Schwabs’ faces all over television and the newspaper. Even going to dinner turned into a sad receiving line.

Once, their third son, Alex, got an oak mite bite on his eyelid. It became infected, so the Schwabs went to the doctor, which meant their pediatrician — who had been Caleb’s pediatrician, too — and all the medical assistants were soon in tears. When Michelle went to get the prescription filled, the pharmacist looked up and froze.

“Oh my God,” she said. “You’re the mom.”

The Schwabs didn’t want this day with the Royals to become another receiving line, but they figured a baseball game might be a good distraction. And the Royals had promised privacy.

They could not have expected this. Alex, who has since turned 7, wore a World Series hat ring on his head. Hosmer brought in some signed bats. They learned that Moose is a hugger. Manager Ned Yost came in, and Alex ran up to him like an old relative. General manager Dayton Moore arrived and asked Nathan about his workout and swing. To this day, the 13-year-old swears he’s going to play for the Royals because the GM is scouting him.

Catcher Sal Perez walked in, smiling of course, and Alex ran into his arms for a hug. These ballplayers were strangers, in the literal sense, but in this moment they were so much more. Alex wanted to give everyone high-fives but he couldn’t quite reach Hosmer. Moose picked him up and helped him.

“Alex was acting, for the first time, like a 6-year-old,” Scott said.

Outfielder Lorenzo Cain brought a signed jersey. Backup catcher Drew Butera stopped by, too. When that happened, Alex asked if he was Alex Gordon. Butera took it well. Gordon, the Royals’ left fielder, is Alex’s favorite player. Not just because of the name, but because Alex wears No. 4 in T-ball and likes ballplayers who play hard.

Gordon can be difficult to track down before games because of his extensive workout routine, but on this day he walked in a sweaty mess and asked where the boys would be sitting during the game. Look for me in the on-deck circle, he told them.

“Why are these people being so nice to us?” Michelle asked Scott.

They were sitting in the owner’s suite, invited guests of David Glass. That was part of the privacy they’d been promised, and the boys appreciated the free food.

The way Scott tells the story, the Schwabs caught Gordon’s eye in the on-deck circle. Alex had been screaming his name. Gordon looked back, pointed up, and then hit a home run. The Schwabs went crazy up there in the suite, and Gordon pointed again as he crossed the plate.

A few innings later, Gordon held up two fingers from the on-deck circle and then hit another home run.

“Oh my gosh,” Scott said. “There’s not a dry eye between my wife and I.”

The Royals won in a laugher that night, 10-0. The Schwabs went back downstairs after the game to say thanks. When he saw the manager, Scott joked that his Alex was good luck for Ned’s Alex.

“Well, we just wanted to score 10 runs for the 10-year-old,” Yost said.

More tears.

When the Schwabs walked out to their car, loaded down with Royals gear, they felt like thieves. A few days later, a package arrived in the mail. Duffy sent the cleats he wore the game after meeting the Schwabs, writing a personal message to go with them. Scott rewatched the game they’d attended and noticed Dyson and some of his teammates had written “RIP Caleb” on their hats.

The family has so many tangible ways to remember that day. The gloves, the bats, the jerseys, the pictures. But what Scott remembers most are the feelings. Not just the smiles at a time when those were so hard to come by, but the emotion. Watching Hosmer walk into the room was nice, but seeing his sons’ faces when they saw Hosmer was unforgettable.

Scott has come to think of this as sports at their best. He’s in politics, and the debates over legislation can feel like the most important thing in the world.

But sometimes, the most important thing in the world is the least important thing in the world.

“We go back to that, every day,” Scott said. “We go back to the pictures, all the pictures. It gave us a break that we needed. And it was more than just a break.”

A steady stream of mourners flowed into the Life Mission Church in Olathe on Friday for the memorial service for 10-year-old Caleb Thomas Schwab, who died Sunday while riding the world’s tallest water slide at the Schlitterbahn water park in Kansa

Sam Mellinger: 816-234-4365, @mellinger