Vahe Gregorian

Royals pay respects to fallen firefighters, cast perspective on the game they play

Eric Hosmer, watching Salvador Perez take batting practice Tuesday, grew up the son of a firefighter. Like his teammates, Hosmer expressed sympathy for loved ones of the two KC firefighters who died on duty Monday night.
Eric Hosmer, watching Salvador Perez take batting practice Tuesday, grew up the son of a firefighter. Like his teammates, Hosmer expressed sympathy for loved ones of the two KC firefighters who died on duty Monday night.

Confronted with the prospect of a deflating end to their season on Monday in Houston, we’ll all remember, the Royals mustered a rally from four runs down in the eighth inning to win 9-6 and even the American League Division Series 2-2.

It would have been incomprehensible if, well, they hadn’t done the same sort of thing a year ago.

Still, it was a glorious twist, and in the exhilaration of the moment maybe terms like “heroic” came to mind for what this team did.

And the first to tell you how inappropriate that is are the Royals.

Their own euphoria was muted Tuesday after learning that two Kansas City firefighters were killed and at least two more injured fighting a horrendous fire in the 2600 block of Independence Avenue.

“I think we all woke up with heavy hearts today,” said manager Ned Yost, who wore a KCFD cap to a news conference and recounted “many, many” hours spent at firehouses with friends and family.

“It is personal, I think,” he added, “for everybody in there.”

In another city, or coming from less real people, perhaps such sentiments might ring less sincerely.

But this absolutely was personal, on many levels, for the Royals — starting with the fact many have relatives or friends called to such duties and that a number have relationships they enjoy with firemen and police at Kauffman Stadium.

None likely is more attuned to the perils of that life than first baseman Eric Hosmer, whose father, Mike, was a firefighter for 29 years at Station 9 in the thorny Liberty City area of Miami.

“If I didn’t become a baseball player, that was the career I was going to pursue,” said Hosmer, who previously has put together fund-raisers for Greater Kansas City Firefighters Local 42 Community Assistance. “I grew up in a firehouse.”

Hosmer vividly remembers the “nerve-wracking” anxiety associated with hearing the bell ring in the station when he was on the phone with his dad, who worked 48-hour shifts.

From the time the run would start, the family always was emotionally on pause waiting for the phone call to say he was back and OK.

“I was fortunate to never have a phone call from the fire department saying something crazy happened,” Hosmer said. “So I can only imagine what the families are all going through.”

Along with Hosmer and Yost, left fielder Alex Gordon, reserve catcher Drew Butera, pitcher Jeremy Guthrie and third basemen Mike Moustakas on Tuesday wore hats and/or T-shirts the Royals received to honor the firemen who died: Larry J. Leggio, 43, a 17-year veteran with the Kansas City Fire Department, and John V. Mesh, 39, a 13-year department veteran.

The Royals today are expected to receive more T-shirts, as well as specially designed, Royals-themed KCFD caps they’ll wear for batting practice at Game 5 — at which a moment of silence also will be observed.

This is all personal, too, in another way: Because of how players have come to feel about this city.

“Kansas City, this is a big family. It’s not just baseball. It’s a big family. We’re all in this together,” said Moustakas, who in the past has alternately expressed that he would have served in the military or been a firefighter had baseball not worked out. “And when you lose friends and family like that, it just hits home and makes you realize what’s important.”

There are many reasons to treasure these Royals, including their inspiring resilience.

But there is something truly precious, too, about the everyman in them in an era when athletes are increasingly more insulated from reality.

That manifested itself in an entirely different way last postseason, their first since 1985.

The unbridled spirit of their breakthrough was encapsulated in Hosmer via Twitter inviting fans to meet up with players at McFadden’s in the Power & Light District.

Then he plunked down a credit card for the $17,000 bar tab that teammates later helped him pay.

The synergistic bond they feel with fans and a community that watched many of them through their growing pains in the big leagues “is really something I’ve never experienced before, being from a big city like Miami,” Hosmer said.

Now, these players share a city’s sorrow, too, and try to offer what tokens of consolation they can.

“For something like this to happen when the whole city is already united behind one of our sports teams, as they have been really all summer, it’s very fitting,” Kansas City assistant fire chief Jeff Grote told The Star’s Tod Palmer. “Not to sound too cheesy, but it’s very Royal. …

“We really appreciate it. It’s very emotional.”

Nothing can make this “go away or make this disappear,” added Hosmer, “but as a team, as a city, we’re all going to unite and try and get through these times with each other. …

“We’re all in it together.”

So tonight the Royals will do everything they can to win a baseball game and move on to the ALCS.

If they do, it will be another captivating chapter in the revival of a franchise, a tale full of inspiration in its own relative right.

But it still would only be a terrific sports story, they know, and not one to be confused with what makes real heroes.

“We’re not heroes,” Moustakas said. “Heroes are the guys who put their lives on the line: the military; the firefighters; the police, people who go out there every day to protect our freedom and to try to save lives without thought of losing theirs.

“Those are the real heroes, those are the people that I look up to and that a lot of people in this clubhouse look up to.”

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Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian