KANSAS CITY, Mo. (TNS) — Sal Perez never saw a ballgame he didn't want to play, a camera he didn't like or a joke he didn't want to make. This is his role. This is his way, sincerely, and without supernatural flexibility and a right arm blessed by the baseball gods and superior hand-eye coordination, you can imagine him being the most enthusiastic schoolteacher in the district.
But he was made to play baseball. Made to lift spirits and swing hard, not always in that order, and if you're around the Royals catcher, you get the sense he knows his role exceptionally well. Knows when to amplify the Salvy-ness, when a goofy dad joke might have the biggest audience and, of course, when the cameras are on.
He protects this image fiercely. It's part of him. He smiles through most things, and nearly all baseball things, but this Royals season — sometimes it breaks him.
"Of course it's harder," he said. "Every time we lose, it's hard, like, '(Expletive), we don't like that.' "
This is the worst season of Perez's life. He will tell you that. How could it not be? This was always going to be a tough year. So many of his friends are gone, the ones he popped champagne with.
But he thought the world had this team all wrong. They were different, lesser in some ways, but in spring training he was sure they could play .500 and maybe even a little better. With the right breaks, that can mean a playoff race. He thought he'd catch 140 games, DH some of the others and help lead the Royals toward their next window.
Instead, disaster. He missed the first 20 games with an injury suffered while carrying luggage the day before Opening Day. The pitchers he works with currently rank last in ERA, home runs and strikeouts. More than halfway through the season, the Royals are on pace to lose 114 games — only one team in the last half-century has been that bad — and Perez's production is his worst since his first professional season in 2007.
"It's weighing on him probably more than anybody," Royals manager Ned Yost said. "I know him inside and out. I can tell by his demeanor, by his actions, by his facial features. It's weighing on him."
There is no easy way out. No honest way to tell yourself this doesn't stink. You can remind yourself that you're in the big leagues, the best baseball in the world. You can play mind tricks, convince yourself that every day is a new opportunity unencumbered by yesterday's failures or stresses.
Perez has done this and more. A few times, it's worked. Other times, it's drowned by the sad reality of being the face of perhaps baseball's worst team.
"Some days it just happens," he said. "Maybe yesterday, maybe today, maybe tomorrow. You never know, but some days you feel like that."
This is all of particular consequence for this team. More than ever before, Perez is this team's voice, its heart, its energy. He came up with a group of friends, and together with Eric Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain and Jarrod Dyson and many others, they shared the burden and pulled each other along.
Perez is not alone from the championship core. Danny Duffy is still here, though his numbers aren't any better than Perez's. Alex Gordon is still here, his offensive production mediocre but his defense still elite. Mike Moustakas is still here, but for how much longer?
This is Perez's team, then, and that means his ability — or inability — to smile through the pain takes on greater importance.
"If people see Salvy down, then they really think, 'Boy, we're really struggling here,' " Yost said. "Because they know Salvy. They know he lights up a room when he walks in with a smile. Everybody knows him and his energy."
Perez still talks to those old friends. Every day, actually, or at least close. Hosmer, Cain and Dyson are the most frequent. Usually it's text, sometimes videos, but never FaceTime because, in Perez's words, "I don't need to see their faces."
There it is. A joke. A smile. You see this often, maybe not as often as three years ago, but it's there. Many of the reliable quips. If Brad Keller is doing an interview after another strong outing, Perez will walk by and half-yell, "Salvy called a good game!"
The other day, there was joy. Perez and Alcides Escobar watched England and Colombia in the World Cup. The ending was bonkers, right through the Brits winning on penalty kicks.
For a while, Perez screamed and celebrated and exaggerated disappointment at Colombia's loss. It was fun.
That night, the Royals lost again, their fourth in a row. The next night, another loss, a series sweep and just four wins in more than a month. The smiles are fleeting. The disappointment constant. This is everyone's challenge, none more than Perez's.