Much as he’s tried to fend off thinking about this day, Mike Moustakas will absorb and feel every sensation on Sunday.
Because perhaps for the last time he will do what he has done his entire adult life: put on a uniform of the Kansas City Royals organization.
Before he struggles within to remove it this time, you can expect that uniform to be dirty, perhaps from a slide or a sprawling stop at third base or, you know, tumbling into a dugout suite for a foul ball.
Before we’re all left to wonder what the future holds with free agency looming for Moustakas and three other foundational teammates, maybe he’ll hit another home run and add to his Royals single-season franchise record, and set loose the “Mooooose” calls yet again.
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Before all the uncertainty begins, you’ll be reminded of all the other reasons he’s still the All-American guy next door that you can relate to — like using his bat to scrawl his mother’s initials, CM, into the batter’s box, as he has since her death in 2015.
Also poignant for Moustakas will be the mundane things that are part of an unimaginable joy he’s known here.
Those are the fundamental elements of the relationships he’s formed since becoming Dayton Moore’s first true draft pick as general manager in 2007 … and thus the first building block of what would become back-to-back World Series teams and 2015 champions.
With free agency ahead for Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar, Moustakas will think about whether Sunday is the last time he’ll take a throw from Sal Perez after a strikeout or fire across the diamond to Hosmer.
For that matter, there’s this:
Since the first day Moustakas and Hosmer were teammates in Class A Wilmington in 2009, they’ve spent most of the last eight years in the ritual of playing catch in front of the dugout just before games.
They’ve thrown the ball to each other, then, a virtual infinite number of times, a fine testimony to a friendship that began almost instantly when Hosmer signed with the Royals in 2008.
Since then, they’ve shared so much, from becoming spring training roommates to Hosmer being a groomsman in Moustakas’ wedding, to making a beeline towards each other after winning the World Series.
“Everybody in this clubhouse is brothers,” Moustakas said last year. “But to have what me and Hos had … to be able to share that with a guy you’re always with and always associated with, is an unbelievable feeling that you really can’t describe.”
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And now, Moustakas said, “who knows what could happen? It’s crazy to think about that.”
So as Moustakas and his wife, Stephanie, pack up the house they are renting from teammate Alex Gordon, he says he doesn’t even know where this process all starts after Sunday.
He’s spoken some with general manager Dayton Moore and soon will talk with agent Scott Boras and more with Stephanie and his father, Mike.
“There are a lot of different pieces when it comes down to making a decision after Sunday,” Moustakas said.
He didn’t specify any particular sites that he’d expect to be in the bidding, or that he may prefer, such as the widely speculated notion that he’d like to end up in Southern California near family.
But while it shouldn’t be assumed he won’t be a Royal, it’s understood that the Royals won’t be able to sign all of their free agents, a group that also includes Jason Vargas.
It’s also believed that Hosmer is their top priority, which, if successfully done, likely would preclude signing anyone else to a premium package.
Whatever is to come, then, Moustakas found himself reflective and grateful as he considered this crossroads.
He thought about the night he was drafted, sitting in his Northridge, Calif., home surrounded by family and friends and his future wife.
After David Price was selected No. 1 overall in the 2007 Major League Baseball draft and the Royals were up, Moustakas tapped a buddy on the shoulder and joked, “I might get picked right here.”
Then … he actually was. So while everybody was jumping up and down, he sat there “in shock,” and soaked in for a second that he was the overall No. 2 pick in the draft and marveled, “This really just happened.”
He thought about being introduced in Kansas City after signing for $4 million, forever remembering the feeling of standing in a luxury box with his family as cameras pointed to him and he waved to fans.
The moment was the beginning of what would become mutual love between him and a city of just the right size and spirit for followers of its teams to feel particularly connected to them.
“They knew us; they got to see us when we were 18 years old,” he said, later adding, “All of the people here have watched all of us grow up for the last 10, 11 years. You might not have seen us for four years in the minor leagues, but you hear about it, you know who’s on the rise and who’s coming up.
“And then you get here and for five years, six years, you get to see me and (numerous teammates). We grew up together, we kind of grew up in this city. So we had that bond and that chemistry long before the World Series happened.”
As it does for everyone, it all started in the minor leagues for Moustakas, who treasures those days and even the upheaval of his first few years in the bigs.
When he arrived in Idaho Falls for rookie league just days after signing his contract, he remembers with a smile, he had little money because his bonus hadn’t arrived yet.
“My mom (Connie) had given me some money to get through it, and, like the third day I had to pay clubhouse dues — and that was half of what my mom had given me,” said Moustakas, noting that his roommate, Wilson Tucker, paid for all his meals as teammates chipped in for his other needs.
Brian Rupp was his manager in Idaho Falls … and in Wilmington … and in Burlington, and Moustakas remembers Rupp fondly for a number of things — including helping teach a secret to navigating long bus rides.
“You’ve got guys … on sleeping bags underneath (the seats) or sleeping across the aisle, and you just learn to walk over everybody and try not to bother anybody … (by) walking back and forth on the arm rests,” Moustakas said.
Moustakas so loved those days that he’ll even tell you now that “as weird as this might sound” one of the most fun and best things that ever happened to him was getting sent down to Class AAA Omaha in 2014.
“It made me realize how much fun baseball was (again),” he said. “I put so much pressure on myself to succeed … instead of just going out there and having fun and playing the game.”
Back to basics cured a lot for Moustakas, who was happy to be on a bus that was shaking left and right and playing cards with the boys on a little cooler.
“I needed to go,” he said. “I didn’t want to. Nobody wants to get sent down. But I needed a break. I needed a restart and to take a deep breath and kind of relax.”
By that season’s end, Moustakas would set a franchise record with five postseason home runs, and a year later he’d be an All-Star for a World Series champion.
Then he’d lose most of last season to injury after his collision with Gordon but return to All-Star form this season and break Steve Balboni’s 32-year-old single-season club home-run record of 36 — the best part of which may have been the hugs he got in the dugout from Hosmer and Perez.
Those friendships are the mortar of what makes it all worthwhile, the stuff that makes it so he pretty much wouldn’t change anything about the journey with his teammates except for the death of Yordano Ventura on Jan. 22 in a car accident in the Dominican Republic.
Just the other day, Moustakas was watching Ventura jump around in a World Series video and started tearing up.
“It’s just still hard to believe that he’s not here with us,” said Moustakas, who was among several players to attend Ventura’s funeral. “I just wanted to be around him and to be around his family and show them how much he meant to us.”
The shattering loss was another part of the collective experience shared by Royals teammates and fans, and Moustakas is acutely conscious of that bond as he ponders the unknowns ahead.
“Most of my best memories are in Kansas City,” he said, noting the title, the friends and the birth last year of daughter Mila, “a Midwest girl. I got my dog (Gus) in Kansas City — that’s my boy. …
“Growing up in this organization, being a part of this family and being a part of this franchise is definitely something I hold near and dear to my heart, especially being a part of this city.”
Whatever happens now, he’ll always be the first person Moore chose — and will be the first person to vouch for Moore, for whom he says he’d do “just about anything” and suggests everyone else who’s ever been in the clubhouse would, too.
When it comes to this contract, one of the reasons Moustakas can feel that way is that Moore won’t play on that sort of sentiment.
Moore long ago established that he would never try to take advantage of relationships that way — for a so-called hometown discount — and wants the best for each of his players, even if that means they aren’t here.
So Moustakas doesn’t know what to think about after Sunday.
And he’s unsure how he’ll cope with the day itself.
“I don’t know how I’m going to handle it,” he said. “What I know is, I’m going to … play baseball that day and be excited to go out there and wear a Royals jersey once again.”
He had so many great times in this uniform, he adds, and felt so privileged to wear it.
And through all the growing pains and thrills, he has honored the uniform so much — whether he ever wears it again or not.
Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar are all free agents this winter, after helping push the KC Royals from the bottom of baseball to the top. Here are some of the moments that made them the core of the 2015 World Series championship team.Chris Ochsner and John Sleezer The Kansas City Star