KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Almost 25 years ago now, Art Stewart sat behind home plate with a stopwatch in his hand and disbelief on his tongue. He wasn't going to say a damn thing. He didn't want to embarrass himself.
This was, after all, Stewart's proudest night. Bo Jackson was in a Kansas City Royals uniform for the first time, and Stewart, the team's scouting director, was the one who insisted upon drafting him. Everyone figured Bo, the Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, was playing football. Only Kenny Gonzalez, a Royals scout, had spent years staying at the Holiday Inn in Alabama where Jackson's mother worked, and they developed a trusting relationship, and she swore he wanted to play baseball. And he did.
Those who watched Bo Jackson play as a rookie in 1986 sometimes didn't believe what they had seen.
"It's Bo's first game," Stewart says. "First at-bat. Steve Carlton was pitching for the White Sox. Hank Bauer, famous old outfielder, was scouting. The legendary Howie Haak, one of the great scouts from Pittsburgh. Bo comes up the first time up. Hits a routine boom-boom-boom. Guy makes a play, and Bo's across the bag.
"We're all looking at our timers. We're ashamed to show it. I said to myself, 'Geez, 3.6. That's wrong.' Finally Hugh Alexander, great scout with the Phillies who had lost his hand, says, 'For Chrissakes, I got 3.6. What do you guys got?' Everybody had 3.6 to 3.7. From the right side. Never forget it. We were dumbfounded."
Understand: Right-handed hitters do not run from home plate to first base in 3.6 seconds. If not humanly impossible, it strains credulity. The fastest of the fast barely crack four seconds. And yet Stewart swears that the first play of Bo Jackson's career he did something superhuman, and he remembers the date (Sept. 2, 1986) and the second baseman who fielded the ball (Tim Hulett) and the day and team and pitcher off whom Bo later hit his first home run (Sunday, Seattle, Mike Moore, and, by the way, it's still the longest ever at Kauffman Stadium at 475 feet), and even though he is 84 years old now, starting his 59th season in professional baseball, his memory remains so sharp and his conviction so steadfast that the gaggle of 3.6s can't be wrong.
Nor the reaction it caused among the scouts that day. Every so often a player comes along with a train of hoopla that the scouts, the ultimate skeptics, can derail with one report. Rarer is the one whose reports match his hype. Bo Jackson, with one 90-foot sprint, exceeded his and left Stewart beaming.
So when he showed up at Kauffman Stadium on Friday with a glint in his eye and even more pep in his voice than usual, Art Stewart tried not to hyperbolize too much. It's just that he felt something different all around the city and at the ballpark. The kind that's been missing for 25 years.
He was 9 months old when Bo ran up and down the outfield wall at Baltimore's Memorial Stadium.
He was 2 years old when Tecmo Super Bowl came out.
He knows Bo only from YouTube clips and TV highlights and stories. And he has heard stories. The Kansas City Royals, one of baseball's most moribund franchises over the last quarter-century, spent so many years doing things wrong that it takes a while to catch up. And now that they've got baseball's best farm system and a future without 100-loss seasons, they're making sure to educate the future Royals on the ones of the past.
So beyond George Brett and Frank White and Dan Quisenberry and the rest of the 1985 World Series champions, the kids learn about Bo and gawk. Even to a generation that didn't see him, Bo's legacy lasts through his ability. And for Eric Hosmer – the 6-foot-4, 230-pound, sweet-stroking, smooth-fielding first baseman and standard bearer as the first of the Royals' prospects to ascend to the major leagues – to hear Stewart use his name alongside Bo's hammers home what this means to a city he knew nothing about when the Royals drafted him third overall in 2008.
"Coming from a guy like Art, a legend in this game really, to hear that is very humbling," Hosmer says. "I'm just thankful I got to open up at home and see what it was in front of the fans in Kansas City.
"It's great to be part of this Royal family."
Scouts practically knighted Hosmer during spring training, and from there started the countdown. Conventional wisdom had the Royals waiting until early June to summon Hosmer, left-handed starters Mike Montgomery(notes) and Danny Duffy, and perhaps third baseman Mike Moustakas(notes), so as to avoid giving them an extra year of salary arbitration.
The Royals, with their major league-low payroll, ignored financial considerations and brought up Hosmer from Triple-A Omaha, where he was hitting .439 and proving himself at 21 plenty ready for the major leagues. General manager Dayton Moore believes they can compete in an up-for-grabs American League Central division. On Friday, fans bought nearly 10,000 tickets to see his debut, and the crowd at Kauffman Stadium cracked 30,000 for the third time this year. Kansas City wants to love the Royals like it loved Bo, and the outpouring proved it a place yearning for the embrace of a winner.
"Everybody in the minor leagues and here has that goal: to get this city back," Hosmer says, "and get them in the playoffs and keep winning ballgames."
Get this city back. Those words will resonate here. Beyond a few flashes – Zack Greinke's(notes) brilliance in 2009, the surprise contention in 2003, the outfield of Johnny Damon(notes), Carlos Beltran(notes) and Jermaine Dye(notes) – the Royals have lost their base. The disillusionment and frustration of playing in a small market with an owner unwilling to stretch revenues grated on fans enough that when Moore vowed to build from within, his "process" met widespread derision. Just another guy with another plan. See enough years with Ken Harvey and Mark Redman as your All-Star representatives and everything tastes like snake oil.
Eric Hosmer is part of a Kansas City system loaded with high end talent in the minor leagues.
This feels different. Perhaps it's just life these days, where youth portends greatness and promise guarantees excellence and the area between superstar and bust gets evermore thin. Sometimes you need hope.
Which is why Royals outfielder Jarrod Dyson(notes), Hosmer's transportation to the ballpark, made sure to take special care of the goods riding shotgun: "I wanted to get the guy here safe and sound." Hosmer represents what Kansas City can be, what it aches to be.
And why Hosmer received the loudest cheers of the night during introductions, following the nifty 3-6-3 double play he started in the first inning, before and after the two at-bats in which he walked, even when he struck out looking on a borderline 3-2 pitch in the ninth inning. The Royals lost to Oakland 3-2, and Hosmer went 0-for-2 with two strikeouts and two walks. The thunderbolts off his bat would have to wait a day.
"There's no doubt in my mind he's going to be a special-type player," Royals manager Ned Yost says, and he's going to be saying that a lot this summer, when Montgomery and Duffy and Moustakas join Billy Butler(notes) and Alex Gordon(notes) and Joakim Soria(notes) and Aaron Crow(notes) and Tim Collins(notes) and Jeremy Jeffress(notes) and Alcides Escobar(notes), and everything begins to blossom into what's become so foreign to the Royals.
Bo Jackson signed with the Royals on June 21, 1986, and after the press conference they needed to hold in a banquet room because so many people came to see it, Art Stewart asked Bo what he wanted to do.
"Hit," Bo said.
They walked toward the field. Bo hadn't picked up a bat in three months. Avron Fogelman, one of the Royals' owners along with Ewing Kauffman, joined them. George Toma, the legendary groundskeeper, came over. So did Buck O'Neil. Bo bunted the first two pitches from John Wathan.
"And this is the honest-to-god truth," Stewart says. "You see the crown out there?"
He points to the center-field scoreboard more than 500 feet away.
"First pitch, hit the crown," Stewart says. "It's a true story. Fogelman is a collector. He says, 'George, get me that ball.' He's no longer got that out of his mouth and Bo hits one even higher off the damn thing. And he says, 'Get that one for Mr. Kauffman.'
"That's when Buck says to me, 'Art, I've heard this noise off the bat only three times. Babe Ruth. Josh Gibson. Bo Jackson.' "
Art Stewart smiles. He could tell stories about Bo all day. But he's got to go. It's almost time for the first pitch, and a seat behind home plate awaits him. Eric Hosmer is batting sixth, and for all the great players who have come through here in the last 25 years, none has represented what Hosmer does: not just the potential superstardom but the beginning of something new, the process finally come to fruition.
"I have a feeling," Stewart says, "I'm going to remember this night for a long time."