Sam Mellinger

A story about Mike Moustakas and baseball and money

Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas
Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas

Mike Moustakas was 18 years old the first time we met. A kid. He had a batting cage in his yard, he loved In-N-Out, and he and his friends had this thing when they called each other sir.

We had talked a few times on the phone after the Royals made him the first official draft pick of Dayton Moore's leadership. Moustakas always took the calls outside, on his driveway. I wanted to know who he was. He wanted to know about Kansas City.

He had not yet signed with the Royals. This is an important point. This was the summer of 2007, and back then picks had until midnight on August 15 to sign. The draft was in June, but communication with clubs often didn't come until August. Serious talks often waited until the final days. With Moustakas, like many top picks, the real talk didn't happen until late on the 15th.

This meant Moose was isolated. Not from family, not from friends, but from baseball — which may have been just as lonely. Maybe that's why he was cool with me visiting him that summer.

He gave me the address, warned me that the driveway was easy to miss on the busy street, and within seconds of me ringing the bell he came to door. He held a wood bat in his left hand, extended his right for a shake, and said, "Thanks for coming, sir."

But none of that is what I most remember from the trip.

Third baseman Mike Moustakas became a free agent for the first time after the 2017 season. Here are his top five moments with the Kansas City Royals.

The Royals and Mike Moustakas are together again. The contract came together quickly.

A week earlier, Royals officials all but dismissed the possibility. Moustakas turned down a so-called qualifying offer worth $17.4 million. Early in the offseason, according to two league sources, he and his agent, Scott Boras, turned down a three-year deal from the Angels worth around $45 million.

“There was never a multi-year contract offer made to Mike Moustakas by the Angels or any other major-league team,” Boras said Friday.

In most offseasons, a man with Moustakas' track record — franchise home run record, playoff success, world champion, good defender, terrific teammate — could've signed for $60 million. Maybe more. This wasn't most offseasons, and after Moustakas turned down the Angels the bigger offers never came. The Yankees reached out about a short-term deal, but those talks didn't go far.

Royals officials always loved Moustakas. He grew so much with them. Rough around the edges when they drafted him. Young. Played hard. Sometimes after the game, too. Again, he was young.

He's 29 now. Married, with a daughter and baby boy at home, talking of them constantly. Last summer, a Royals executive said he'd never seen a player mature more from start to finish than Moustakas.

Nobody ever had to wonder what baseball meant to Moose. He loved every part of being a ballplayer. Loved the rhythms. Loved the work. Loved the late nights, the jokes with teammates, the lessons with coaches. As much as anything else, he loved that there was always a batting cage nearby.

His career was never linear. Most aren't. He played his first big-league game in Anaheim, a short drive from where he grew up in suburban Los Angeles, less than four years after he was drafted. The next night, he hit his first big-league homer. It was all happening.

He hit 20 more of them the next year, in 2012, but success is often fleeting. Opponents noticed his aggression, and used it to their advantage. He'd chase pitches, guess with two strikes, and struck out three times as often as he walked.

In 2013, he hit just .233. Club officials said they'd stick with Moustakas as long as they believed he felt he belonged. He was batting .152 in May 2014 when the Royals sent him to the minor leagues. He came back up a month later, and didn't hit much better — .235 with fleeting power the rest of the way — but you wouldn't know it by watching.

He said he felt freer, that the demotion helped him see his role within the team, as opposed to living up to someone else's expectations. When the Royals went into extra innings of the first game of their first postseason series in 29 years that fall, Moustakas homered over the right-field wall, and as he rounded first he punched the air with his right hand. Later, he'd say he didn't realize he did that.

That same postseason, he made that catch in the dugout suites, then in 2015 he made his first All-Star Game and rode in a parade. Seventeen months after being sent to the minor leagues, Moustakas was a forever part of Royals history.

Last season, Moustakas hit more home runs than any Royals player ever. Twenty-four of his 38 came on the road, signaling the capability of 45 or more with a different club, and his teammates will remind you he played the last two months or so with a limp. Bruce Rondon hit him with a pitch that sure looked intentional, and Moose's knee swelled up. He probably should've gone to the disabled list.

The Kansas City Royals on Saturday, Sept. 30 honored Mike Moustakas in a pregame ceremony celebrating his 38 home runs of 2017. Video courtesy the Kansas City Royals

"But we were playing for our lives at that point," Danny Duffy said this week. "That's who Moose is. He wanted to play."

Coincidence or not, the Royals held a playoff spot the night Moose took that fastball off his knee and began their fade almost immediately. They lost eight more games than they won after that, finishing with a losing record, five back of the wild card.

After they were eliminated, on the last day of the season, the Royals held Major League Baseball's version of Senior Day. Their intentions were pure, with a side of self-interest. The club wanted to celebrate the accomplishments of pending free agents Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Moustakas, and Alcides Escobar, and if the love gave those players incentive to return, then what's the harm in that?

Mostly, those plans centered around Hosmer. He's the youngest of the group, and the most likely to still be a productive player by the time the Royals are ready to win again. But they adored Cain's talent, respected Escobar's dependability, and always revered Moustakas' attitude.

In him, the club could see much of what it promoted itself to be. Intense. Committed. Focused on family first, but baseball close behind, the former supporting the latter.

They didn't expect a reunion with Moustakas. They didn't see more than a one-year deal fitting their plans, and they didn't expect a one-year deal to fit his.

Baseball is impossible to predict, so five months after Moustakas turned down $17.4 million, and three months after he turned down approximately $45 million, he signed for a reported $6.5 million guaranteed. Depending on the incentives, he could be taking a paycut from last year.

Even before it's official, the deal sent shockwaves through the industry. Boras, the most successful and famous baseball agent in history, lost a standoff.

It reminded me of that trip to see Moustakas, more than 10 years ago, before the parade and before the success and before the demotion and most of all before he signed out of the draft.

We sat in the family living room, a computer printout of the story announcing Moose as Baseball America's high school player of the year sitting on the coffee table. A list of past winners ran along the side of the paper. Joe Mauer. Scott Kazmir. Justin Upton. Moose's dad pointed to Matt Harrington.

"This guy," he said. "This guy's a tough story."

Harrington was offered $4 million out of high school. He turned it down, and the next year was offered $1.2 million. Turned that down, too, but as the years went on he was drafted in the 13th round, then the 24th, then the 36th, the offers dropping every time.

Moose was listening to to his dad, but only sort of, popping a ball into his glove as the financial talk dragged on. Eventually, he cut off the conversation.

"Dad," he said. "We gotta get going."

We went to lunch, and we talked about all sorts of things, but with Moose the conversation always turned back to baseball. Moose has always studied the game, always kept notes on his plate appearances, and after the draft that year he got a new notebook with a Royals logo and labeled it — PITCHERS AND SEQUENCES.

The pages were blank, of course, because he hadn't yet signed. He had a scholarship waiting at USC, and Boras had assured the family Moose's value would only rise if he went to college.

When I asked Moose if he'd get a new notebook with a USC logo if he didn't reach a deal with the Royals, he dropped and shook his head.

"I'd be pretty disappointed," he said. "It's been my dream, ever since I was a kid."

A month later, minutes before the deadline, Moose agreed to a $4 million signing bonus with the Royals. Boras, it was reported, pushed for significantly more. Moose signed the deal, and almost 11 years later, that story has never felt more relevant.