Smack dab in the middle of a sports epoch in which NFL football is king and Major League Baseball is trying to dust off the tarnish of “The Steroid Era” and departures of stars from David Ortiz to A-Rod, Francisco Lindor is a ray of light.
The second-year slugger for the Cleveland Indians might also be just what baseball needs: a new patron saint of passion. A guy who goes out there with a will to win, but looks like he’s having a blast doing it. That’s what baseball is supposed to be about, right?
Lindor’s quickness, versatility and playmaking abilities has helped the Indians close out 2016 in style while setting the American League’s infield on fire. But the Tribe’s young shortstop doesn’t get that ever-present spring in his step, his propensity for stealing bases, or his unique child-like enthusiasm simply from recent successes. It’s always been there, and Lindor has been living it long, long before the Indians bagged the AL Central title this September.
“Baseball was always like my little escape room from all the other things that were going on in life,” says the 22-year old star over the phone, just a few days before his team starts a playoff run that Clevelanders hope will end another long title drought that’s lasted since 1948. “The field was a place where I always got to play hard and enjoy myself. I always made sure to embrace my smile and go out there and have fun.”
So far he’s been pivotal to his club, helping the Indians claim key wins throughout the summer. Then came last weekend.
In a three-game season finale versus last year’s champs, the Kansas City Royals, Lindor was the lynchpin in the Indians’ last gasp surge to pole position.
In the series opener, Lindor overcame a streak that saw him go 0-for-29 at the plate, getting on base three times, with an initial double in the third inning followed by a three-run homer that led to a 7-2 win. The next day Lindor capped an eighth inning rally with a clutch double and two runs, helping the Indians to take Saturday’s 6-3, before a crucial sacrifice fly and RBI Sunday that sent Cleveland to a 3-2 win to capture of an imminent playoff home field advantage.
More proof that he knows when to get hot at just the right time.
Lindor’s Major League debut mid-season last year, a month before the 2015 All-Star Game, on June 14, made him a fan favorite off the bat. By fall, he notched runner-up in voting for the 2015 AL Rookie of the Year Award.
“Coming in then (mid-season) I don’t want to say it was difficult because I knew the guys,” he says. With a friendly ease he describes Cleveland Indians spring training as hard work but one that comes built-in with a spike of heavy optimism and warm camaraderie. He felt comfortable and at-home, he says, stating that “the coaches and team were great,” while making sure personally to put his head down and work. For many young players, Lindor hints, coming onto the roster mid-season is a trial by fire, requiring new players to be coachable.
“It’s all about winning,” he adds, “And of course I had to gain their respect. Here, you play the game the right way, and help them win.”
Help them win he did. Though Cleveland missed the postseason last year despite an over-.500 season in 2015, his hits and growing role within the roster helped set the season for a return to October baseball. Lindor also experienced a cherished moment when he was selected for as spot on the American League’s 2016 All-Star Game roster.
“That was a dream come true. Such an honor to be voted in by the fans,” Lindor says. “And to get to play with guys like (Yankee’s outfielder Carlos) Beltran, (O’s catcher Matt) Wieters and (Jose) Altuve,” the Astros’ four-time All-Star second baseman, was also a thrill.
“Frankie”, as those in the Indians clubhouse call him, was selected by Cleveland first-round in 2011 amateur draft and signed August of that year, quickly becoming one of the most anticipated prospects in baseball. Prior to his time in the minors, Lindor played baseball throughout middle school and high school in Florida, after moving with his family from Puerto Rico, where the game first became part of his life.
“My dad coached my brothers and cousins, so I always got to hang out and watch the older guys play”, he recalls. “Dad loved baseball. It was – like me – his favorite sport.”
Perhaps wanting to emulate his older brother and cousin, Lindor says, he was eager to improve his baseball form. So at age 6 or 7, Lindor remembers, one-on-one time with dad was more than a simple catch with the ball, more like a quick and dirty daily bootcamp, one that started with the future major leaguers fielding ground balls his father would hit down a hill.
“At the end our the street, it was bushes, it was tall grass, and cows,” he recalls. “I’d do anything to get in front of the ball and keep from me climbing in the bushes.” he says, recalling the humor of his those childhood ventures. “I missed the ball sometimes, and I lost a few.”
Each year the young Lindor would see his father take difficulty level of the drills up a few levels. He called hit-arounds with dad both challenging and “fair,” but also pointing out that chasing the ball and getting to see it hit from different angles helped him develop his strengths on every play.
Lindor’s work ethic is obvious on-field. He’s also cultivated an vigorous fervor and positive energy for “all of the little parts of the game” he says, one that seems to be infectious within the Cleveland Indians clubhouse.
“I’m not out there running around telling everyone to smile, like ‘hey guy, enjoy the game’ but when you go out there, play hard, respecting the game and have fun doing it, I think guys feed off that,” Lindor adds. “There’s not a better way to play.”
Lindor’s on-field contributions this year have added to the excitement of a talented team that won the 2016 American League Central Division title with a week to go in the season. His quickness and and ball-handling agility as an infielder is electric. He also says his time with his father, and the competitive nature between his brothers and cousins in baseball forced him to get more comfortable with the ball, to “learn tricks” on how to move his feet and position his body better, scoop it up a little tighter, get the ball to his first baseman a little faster. And yet Lindor’s hitting – which he indicates was never his forte as a young player – includes 77 RBIs so far in 2016, not to mention a healthy .300-plus bating average and 15 home runs.
“Hitting I was never the strongest. But when I started switch hitting, I found I could do different things, challenging myself from both side of the bat.” Along with Carlos Santana and Jose Ramirez, Lindor is one of five regular switch-hitters in the Indians progressively exciting lineup.
Francisco Lindor doesn’t take anything for granted, and he never has. He insists that he got where he is today not because of some divine ability or pure talent, but because he had support and assistance along the way.
“When I was growing up, I had a lot of people who helped me,” he recalls. “Simple help like someone taking me from my house to the field, helping me get cleats, or buying me a uniform, or even just teaching me the game of baseball.” It’s one of the reasons he enjoys spending so much his free time coaching kids as a part of Major League Baseball’s Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program.
“The only way, and the best way for me to to give back for the help I received was my time. Not with material things, but talking with the kids, showing them the game, and telling them it’s possible,” he says for kids to live their dream to play baseball.
According to MLB, RBI is designed to provide coaching and games in baseball and softball for children ages 5-12 and teens 13-18. Despite the great fun of coaching baseball’s future stars, he says that there is definitely no shortage of ambition among the kids pitching and swinging bats today.
“Sometimes you get a kid who is a pitcher and he’ll come up to me and say, ‘Hey I bet you I can strike you out’, and I say I bet you can! And good luck.” Lindor says. “Or another kid who says ‘I want to see if I can hit the ball farther than you’, and I tell them, OK, let’s try.”
“I remember growing up, thinking those things, and thinking that I could hit the ball farther,” Lindor remembers, of being a kid looking up to big league players in the 1990s.
“I tell the kids that I might not have the same background as them,” he says. “I grew up in a family that didn’t have a lot of money. But my parents worked hard to try to get everything we needed, and let me work hard on playing the game.”
Lindor adds that with the help of his close-knit community, both in Puerto Rico and later in Florida, that childhood and adolescence became a time and even prepare for a bigger game day.
“Sometimes God will test you, but he does it just to prepare you for the next thing, and what’s ahead.”
What’s ahead for Lindor and the Cleveland Indians is an American League Division Series, starting this Thursday. It is a matchup with the Boston Red Sox, the very franchise that Cleveland’s current manager Terry Francona coached out of the October wilderness toward their first World Series win in 86 years. After that first 2004 championship and another one with the Red Sox in 2007, Francona came to Cleveland and has been a source for inspiration for the team and Lindor ever since.
Lindor thinks that a lot of the cool comfort level and success that the team is now seeing comes from a positive environment set forth by Cleveland’s accomplished and revered manager.
“Tito always lets us be ourselves,” Lindor says of Francona, who took the helm in 2012. “He says ‘give me a reason so I can brag about you guys, but don’t back down from any challenges.’ And that’s what every member this team has been doing.”
Lindor plans, as he always has to “embrace his smile” into the postseason. He also hopes to give Francona much to brag about, and his teammates hopefully much to celebrate, aiming for the chance to match LeBron James’ Cavaliers and bring perhaps another championship home to Cleveland this year.