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Hosmer back at home to represent USA

South Miami native raised by longtime firefighter, Cuban immigrant
MLB.com @jonmorosi

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Mike Hosmer was a Miami firefighter for 30 years, based at Station 9 in Liberty City. He still remembers the rankings published in a long-ago issue of Firehouse magazine, confirming what those persistent, perilous midnight calls had proven empirically: He worked at one of the 10 busiest fire stations in the United States.

That firehouse is about 5 miles north of Marlins Park.

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Mike Hosmer was a Miami firefighter for 30 years, based at Station 9 in Liberty City. He still remembers the rankings published in a long-ago issue of Firehouse magazine, confirming what those persistent, perilous midnight calls had proven empirically: He worked at one of the 10 busiest fire stations in the United States.

That firehouse is about 5 miles north of Marlins Park.

Ileana Hosmer was born in Havana, Cuba. At age 7, she reported to José Martí International Airport with her parents and three younger siblings. After being denied exit visas twice by the Cuban government, now, at last, they were going to America. But soldiers at the frantic checkpoints petrified Ileana. She felt nauseated. She vomited. Cuban guards told her parents that, unless Ileana settled down, she wouldn't be allowed on the plane. Eventually, her mother soothed her. A short while later, the family landed at Miami International Airport.

:: 2017 World Baseball Classic ::

That airport is about 5 miles west of Marlins Park.

So when the youngest son of Mike and Ileana Hosmer stands at home plate during Pool C of the World Baseball Classic, he will do so at the geographic center of his family's story in this country.

"It's really special," Eric Hosmer said Tuesday, after the first workout of his second Classic with Team USA. "Just to know everything [my mom] went through to come over here, to have a life of her own, to give me life. ... I always want my parents with me, when I get to experience moments like this.

"My mom went through a lot of adversity as a child, coming here. And the work ethic my dad showed as a firefighter, having 72-hour shifts sometimes -- he'd get home, and it was right to family time. I learned a lot about how to deal with adversity. ... Anytime you think you're tired, think back to those 72-hour shifts, with his life on the line. This is just playing a game, something we dream about doing. It puts things in perspective for me."

Mike and Ileana took time to reflect on Tuesday, too, sitting together midway up the grandstand at JetBlue Park as Team USA went through batting practice. When Eric, 27, stepped into the cage, Ileana pulled out her smartphone to capture the moment, repeating a ritual she'd perfected while her boys grew up on ballfields in and around Cooper City.

Mike spent years coaching youth baseball teams for sons Mike and Eric, often on little or no sleep after long nights at the firehouse. Ileana, trained as a nurse, made it affordable for the boys to attend the private American Heritage School by earning tuition credit through an assistant science teaching position there.

For their sacrifices, the Hosmers have had many days to cherish: Eric won a World Series with the Royals in 2015. He earned All-Star Game MVP honors last year. And now he's at the pinnacle of international baseball, representing the country his mother's family endured so many hardships to reach.

"It's incredible," Ileana said. "It's overwhelming, as far as pride. It's beyond being able to explain it. I just said that to him when I saw him: 'Look at you in your uniform!'"

Wearing a Team USA hat of his own, Mike added with a smile: "Her side of the family still says this is where his baseball prowess came from -- the Cuban side."

The argument has historical merit: Ileana's father, Henry, played baseball with Cookie Rojas when they were kids in Havana. Henry reconnected with Cookie in the U.S., after Ileana's family settled in Beaver Falls, Pa., and the two would get together when Rojas' Phillies visited Pittsburgh. It was through Rojas that Henry befriended Matty Alou, thus connecting Hosmer's lineage to another great Latin American baseball family.

Eric learned some Spanish in childhood, and Ileana thinks he might speak it better now, thanks to all the years he's spent in the Royals' bilingual clubhouse. Hosmer frequently speaks Spanish to Venezuelan catcher Salvador Perez, who responds in English, as the friends help one another with their second languages.

In fact, Hosmer's Cuban heritage helped him bond with Latin American teammates after the Royals selected him No. 3 overall in the 2008 Draft.

"Once the Latin players found out my wife spoke Spanish and she was Cuban, she was like their second mother," Mike recalled. "Salvador, [Kelvin] Herrera -- they would just flock to her. I'm talking about [Class A ball in] Burlington, Iowa. They didn't have family visiting.

"Herrera told my wife the story: 'Eric was the bonus baby. He bought all the meat and the rice and the beans -- and the video games. And then we'd do all the cooking on my hot plate at the apartment.'"

Hosmer, who debuted with the Royals in 2011, has been a central figure in one of the Majors' tightest-knit clubhouses. Most often, Hosmer sets the tone with his easygoing confidence. But he's needed the support of teammates, too, most notably during a trying 2012 season in which he struggled to a .663 OPS.

"You hurt for your sons when they hurt, and you could see it on his face," Mike said. "I remember this, to this day: We were in New York, coming back to the hotel at 12:30 or so, and we saw Jarrod Dyson in the lobby.

"I said, 'How's he doing?' And Jarrod said, 'He's fine. He's strong in the mind.' That said it all. He's real tight with Dys. That told me everything, that he's going to be OK."

And he was. Hosmer won the first of three consecutive Gold Glove Awards the next year. In 2015, he drove in three late runs to help the Royals avoid elimination in Game 4 of the American League Division Series at Houston, then supplied a walk-off sacrifice fly in Game 1 of the World Series.

But on Tuesday, Mike recalled a different memory from that postseason: After two Kansas City firefighters died battling a blaze during the Division Series, Eric took on the role of a public spokesman for the Royals. He offered condolences at a news conference, sharing childhood memories of waiting up with his brother, late into the night, when they knew Mike was out on a job.

Eric expressed the team's admiration for first responders and worked with teammate Mike Moustakas to make sure Royals players wore KCFD T-shirts during batting practice on the day after the tragedy.

"That was tough," Mike said. "I was really proud of him."

And so when Mike and Ileana see their son standing along the third-base line during "The Star-Spangled Banner" on Friday (6 p.m. ET, live on MLB.TV and MLB Network), they probably won't give much thought to the pitching matchup, or even how much playing time their son will receive on an American baseball roster for the ages.

For two parents, this is less a baseball tournament than it is a celebration -- of an older generation's courage, of their own commitments realized, of the admirable man they raised.

"The sacrifice my parents made to bring us here is where it all started," Ileana said. "Having migrated here, to have a son represent the United States of America ... it's quite a story."

Jon Paul Morosi is a reporter for MLB.com and MLB Network.

United States, Eric Hosmer