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Of course he knows the Question is coming.
He's just 22, but he's not blind: Like everyone else, he sees the silly money being thrown around in baseball, he sees the economics of the game being turned upside down and inside out. He sees the game's megastars signing historic contracts. But he also sees young players signing unprecedented long-term deals—including many of his teammates, players who rose through the minors with him, getting four- and five-year contracts even as they're still learning to hit a major league breaking ball.
It's a Thursday afternoon in Anaheim, and here is Eric Hosmer, the best young first baseman in the game, The Great Hope of Kansas City, a home-run-belting phenom with a slipshod chinstrap beard and faux-hawk, a baseball badass who also happens to be an all-around good guy. "If I had a daughter," says Mr. Royal, George Brett, "he's the guy I'd want her to marry—and trust me, that's saying a lot for a ballplayer."
Hosmer has yet to play a full season; he has yet to appear in an All-Star Game; his name is not Bryce Harper or Stephen Strasburg—but he's a phenom that players all over the majors are gushing over. "I was on the golf course with Joe Nathan, Michael Young and Ian Kinsler," says Royals rightfielder Jeff Francoeur. "We're on the 1st hole, and they're asking me all these questions about Hos. All they want to know about is Hos. They're like, The pitches he takes, the way he carries himself, that swing—the kid is a stud!"
Before a game last September, as Hosmer was finishing his smashing debut tour through the American League (after his May 6, 2011, call-up he hit .293 with 19 homers in 128 games), a bat from 41-year-old slugger Jim Thome, then with the Indians, arrived in the Royals' clubhouse. Word had gotten out that Thome was a player Hosmer admired, and Thome returned the compliment with the inscription on the bat: "Eric—Pumped to watch you play from my couch for the next 15 years when I'm retired."
Hosmer is one of the game's most talented young stars, and he plays in a baseball-crazed, Royal-blue-bleeding city that is scarred after watching two decades' worth of baseball heroes leave for brighter lights and bigger dollars. That's why the Question looms everywhere he goes—it's in the air here in the visitors' clubhouse at Angel Stadium, where he is sitting at his locker, dripping after an afternoon workout. He talks about how he trained with his new pal Alex Rodriguez at the Yankees star's Miami mansion over the off-season. ("It's ridiculous how seriously he takes the small things like hitting off a tee," Hosmer says.) He talks about the Royals' chances this season. And he talks about the momentum gathering in Kansas City: Yes, the team got off to a disappointing 13--20 start this season, but the front office has locked up several young, homegrown players to long-term contracts—positioning the franchise to be a contender for years to come. Or so it's hoped. "It definitely excites you—seems like it was just yesterday that I was sitting with these guys in the minor league locker rooms," Hosmer says.
Then he pauses. Because he knows that somehow every conversation always leads back to his own lack of a long-term contract, he has an answer for a question that hasn't even been asked. "As for me, I don't want to think too far ahead," he says. "I want to live now, in the moment, take it day by day and do whatever I can to help this team win right now."
The Eric Hosmer story is a story about a baseball phenom, a son of a firefighter and a nurse from South Florida who learned his golden swing by taking hacks at the $189 Tony Gwynn--endorsed Solohitter in his backyard, with his older brother, Mikey Jr., every day until the sun went down. It's the story of a phenom who hit his way to a $6 million signing bonus (the largest in Royals history at the time) after being drafted in 2008, then hit his way through the minors and arrived in the Show at age 21. "He came right in here and took the third spot in the lineup without blinking," says Francoeur. "The last time a kid did that? It might be Chipper Jones in Atlanta."
But the Eric Hosmer story is also a story about the new economics of baseball: the silly money being thrown around, the monster cable-TV deals that are changing the game's landscape, the sudden explosion of long-term contracts, maybe even the end of free agency as we know it. It all circles back to Hosmer, the Royals and their future together. It may seem premature to speculate about a 22-year-old who isn't eligible to become a free agent until after the 2017 season. But now more then ever, young players everywhere are choosing between signing lucrative long-term deals that lock them up through their arbitration-eligible years and might delay their free agency or betting on themselves to land an even bigger payday by getting to the open market as soon as possible.
For Hosmer, the Question loomed from the moment he arrived in the majors, an event that sold nearly 10,000 walk-up tickets at Kauffman Stadium. Hosmer's agent, Scott Boras, was already posturing for the 2017 Eric Hosmer Free-Agent Sweepstakes. "As [Mark] Teixeira had his own market and [Prince] Fielder had his own market, Hosmer will have his own," Boras told a reporter. "And something tells me it's going to be a rather eventful one."