This story is also posted in Spanish. Read it here.
FRANCISCO LINDOR REVEALED his stylish and hip side during the 2016 MLB postseason, when he entered the Progressive Field media room wearing a black fedora and two beaded necklaces while carrying a white leather backpack. The Cleveland Indians shortstop looked every bit the young star on a mission to put some flair back in the game.
A different side of Lindor — the wise-beyond-his-years version — made a surprise appearance a few days later.
Asked to recall his favorite player when he was growing up in Puerto Rico, Lindor leaned forward and rattled off the names of five middle infielders and explained precisely why they were so influential in shaping his approach. The shout-out was remarkably thoughtful given that Lindor was still a month shy of his 23rd birthday, and it helped round out the portrait of a player who brings a rare blend of old-school values and new-age sensibilities to the park each day.
“I liked Robbie Alomar because he seemed like he was going to impact the game in different ways,” Lindor told reporters before Game 2 of the World Series. “Omar Vizquel. Derek Jeter. Jimmy Rollins. Barry Larkin. My dad and my cousin and brother always told me try to get something from everyone. Don’t get stuck in one player. Just learn something from everyone.”
Lindor’s diverse taste in role models has given his game a well-roundedness that wowed a national audience in October, when Cleveland eliminated Boston and Toronto before pushing the Chicago Cubs to the limit in the World Series. He played a sterling defensive shortstop and hit .310 in 15 postseason games to propel the Indians to within a victory of their first title since 1948.
Six months later, Lindor will try to use that October exposure as a springboard to a more prominent place in the game, where the biggest names dwell.
AS A BUDDING ambassador for baseball, Lindor is on speed dial when MLB needs a player to speak to kids as part of its RBI youth initiative. He will be featured prominently in MLB’s 2017 “This Season on Baseball” marketing campaign, and the national merchandise sales reflect his growing popularity. Lindor’s jersey is the 15th-biggest seller in the game, and it might not be long until he ascends to Kris Bryant-Mike Trout-Clayton Kershaw territory.
“He’s got a lot of positive energy about him,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said in October. “I love the way he interacts. It’s good for the game. It’s good for him. It’s good for Cleveland. That’s the kind of guy you need to attract young baseball fans. Not necessarily players, but fans. I think he’s wonderful.”
“He’s a boss on both sides of the ball. He is the perfect example of what you want a shortstop to be.”
Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin on Francisco Lindor
Plenty of shortstops can field or hit, but very few can handle the burden of playing lockdown defense while batting third in the order for a contender at age 22. At the recent World Baseball Classic, Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez made a statement when he shifted Houston Astros shortstop Carlos Correa, another superstar in the making, to third base to make room for Lindor.
One of Lindor’s boyhood role models is on board for the long haul. Larkin, a 12-time All-Star with Cincinnati and one of 24 shortstops in the Hall of Fame, envisions Lindor as a lock to hit 20 homers and steal 20 bases every year, and a good bet to hit 30 bombs as he gains experience and strength.
“He’s a boss on both sides of the ball,” Larkin says. “He is the perfect example of what you want a shortstop to be.”
IF ANYONE IS qualified to serve as an authority on the topic of Lindor and his future, it’s Larkin.
For the past three offseasons, Lindor has laid the foundation for improvement under Larkin’s tutelage. Five days a week, from late December until mid-February, Lindor reports for duty with Carlos Gonzalez, Dee and Nick Gordon, and several other players at the Atlanta Braves’ spring complex in Orlando, Florida, where Larkin organizes offseason workouts. Dee Gordon took enough pride in the group’s shared sense of purpose to have T-shirts made with the inscription “B-Lark SS University” on the front.
During the offseason baseball seminar, weightlifting and swings in the cage are only part of the curriculum. As the players begin stretching for the day ahead, Larkin gathers them in the dugout and talks about the mental side of the game. The goal is to prepare them for the inevitable lulls in the season when talent alone won’t suffice.
“There are days when you aren’t feeling good hittingwise,” Larkin says, “so what mental adjustments do you make to try to get yourself through the day? When you hit five balls on the button and you don’t have anything to show for it, do you change? What do you do? How do you combat that and prepare yourself?
“I’ll say, ‘Hey Dee, what happens if you feel like crap or you’re fumbling the ball?’ Or, ‘Frankie, what do you do when you don’t have confidence and first base feels like it’s a mile away? How do you get through it?’ We’ll talk about those intangible things that make a difference in a player’s approach.”
The regimen builds on the fundamental skills Lindor developed as a boy in Puerto Rico before he turned 12 and moved to Florida with his family. Lindor learned the virtues of anticipation when he stood halfway down a hill and fielded grounders from his father, Miguel. Missing a ball meant a long run to the bottom of the hill to retrieve it from the bushes.
After starring at Montverde Academy — a private college preparatory school with a high-powered athletic program — Lindor signed with Cleveland for a $2.9 million bonus as the eighth pick in the 2011 draft. He needed a mere 1,004 minor league at-bats to graduate to the majors. Cleveland’s veterans could have chafed over all the hype he received as a rookie, but they gave him a long leash because he was so diligent and committed. It sent a signal to manager Terry Francona and the coaching staff when they learned he was on a back field doing lunges and jumps with the team’s strength and conditioning coach at 7:30 a.m.
“He has a boisterous personality, but he handled it the right way when he was first called up,” Francona says. “The veteran guys bought into him, or you can’t really act like that. They knew he cared about winning, so he was able to be himself more quickly, and it helped him. He didn’t rub anybody the wrong way.”
With his luminous smile, precociousness and hypercompetitive approach, Lindor has a similar knack for charming the dean of B-Lark University each January. Every Friday, when the players break into teams for a simulated game, Larkin assumes the role of arbiter and determines which balls are hits or outs. Invariably, Larkin’s judgment calls lead to good-natured complaints about nepotism on behalf of his two favorites, Lindor and Dee Gordon.
“For some reason, since I’m the veteran, I’m on one side, and Lindor and Dee play against me all the time,” Gonzalez says. “I’ll say to Barry, ‘Of course I’m never going to win. I’m playing against your children.”’
AT AGE 22, Lindor scored 99 runs, made the All-Star team, finished ninth in American League Most Valuable Player voting and ranked eighth in the majors with a 6.3 FanGraphs WAR before putting up big numbers amid excruciating pressure in October.
Gonzalez, Lindor’s fellow winter camper, turned a 2009 playoff breakthrough into a top-three MVP finish the next season. He thinks Lindor can follow the same path.
“He can do that easy,” Gonzalez says. “What really impresses me is the way he thinks and approaches the game. He’s so mature. He’s what, 23 years old? And he plays the game like he’s Carlos Beltran — a 39-year-old guy with a lot of experience.
“He’s had the blessing of playing important games in his career — in the World Series and the finals of the World Baseball Classic — and these games are only going to make him better. It’s scary the things he can do in this game. If he stays on this path, he’s a potential Hall of Famer.”
As Lindor’s national profile ascends, he’s developing an ardent following in his backyard. While LeBron James is the undisputed king of Cleveland sports, Lindor is arguably in a race with Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving for No. 2 in the hierarchy.
“What really impresses me is the way he thinks and approaches the game. He’s so mature. He’s what, 23 years old? And he plays the game like he’s Carlos Beltran — a 39-year-old guy with a lot of experience.”
Colorado Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez on Francisco Lindor
His apparel is a hot commodity in the city. Last year he accounted for 30 percent of all player-related merchandise sales at Progressive Field and the Indians’ team shop, with more than 1,500 jersey sales.
So far this year, Lindor continues to lead the way at a whopping 42 percent. That’s no small feat given Cleveland’s roster includes franchise favorites Corey Kluber, Jason Kipnis and Michael Brantley, 2016 postseason sensation Andrew Miller and the new big dog on the block, Edwin Encarnacion.
Cleveland general manager Mike Chernoff’s 6-year-old son, Brody, recently made waves during a radio interview when he blurted out (inaccurately, it appears) that the Indians are trying to sign Lindor to a seven-year contract extension. In hindsight, the biggest shocker might have come when little Brody singled out outfielder Tyler Naquin — and not Lindor — as his favorite Indians player.
Francona cites the most elementary reason of all in explaining Lindor’s fan appeal.
“He just has fun playing baseball,” Francona says. “I tell people, ‘If I had his talent, I’d have fun too.”’
THE RELATIONSHIPS FORGED in Orlando each winter don’t fade away in February. During the regular season, Papa Larkin sends out group text messages to Lindor, CarGo, the Gordon brothers, Darnell Sweeney, Jesse Winker and other camp attendees saying, “All right, boys. It’s time to check in and let me know how it’s going.”
Each time Lindor reads one of those texts, he reflects on how fortunate he is to have a mentor like Larkin, who made it to Cooperstown with 86 percent of the vote in 2012.
“He’s there every day with us, helping us,” Lindor says. “It’s just the mindset he gives us. There are no excuses. If you want to be a player like Larkin, you have to come out with the same attitude every day and not back down from any challenges. He’s awesome. I’m going to be with him every offseason.”
As Larkin awaits the results from Cleveland, his mind occasionally wanders back to a moment during the offseason when he was the beneficiary of Lindor’s thoughtfulness.
While the other B-Lark University attendees went their separate ways after a five-hour workout, Lindor beckoned Larkin to follow him to the parking lot at the Braves’ Disney World complex. He opened the trunk of his car and tore off a plastic wrapper to reveal something shiny inside.
In addition to winning a Gold Glove in 2016, Lindor received a Platinum Glove as the league’s top fielder overall. Shortly after the announcement, he asked a representative from Rawlings if the company could make a replica with the words “Thank You Lark” engraved on the thumb side. Above the index and middle fingers, Lindor’s signature and the words “You took my game to a different level” were inscribed in his handwriting.
“He’s a friend, and he’s a brother,” Lindor says. “He’s done so much for me, and I’m a guy who doesn’t forget.”
As Larkin looked on, astonished, his mind flashed back to a family interaction. A couple of years ago, he came home to find his beloved fishing boat missing. His wife, Lisa, told him it was in the shop for repairs. A few hours later his son, Shane (a former NBA guard who is now playing basketball in Spain), was standing outside next to a new Bass Ranger that he had just purchased.
Many of the same emotions that Larkin felt in response to Shane’s gesture welled up anew when Lindor handed him that glove.
“You talk about a kid who’s appreciative,” Larkin says. “You talk about a kid who thinks, who shows respect. That’s who he is. He’s a beautiful person. I love him as if he were my own son.”
It’s a bit premature to anoint Lindor as Cooperstown-worthy, but Larkin sees the requisite elements in place. When a player is a boss on both sides of the ball, why think small?
“He plays with a joy that says, ‘I’m not concerned with failing. I just want to put it all out on the field,”’ Larkin says. “He’s special. Hopefully in 10 years they’ll be talking about him and say, ‘Damn, he’s still special. How about the numbers he’s been able to amass over these 10 years, and he’s stayed at shortstop, and he’s still a good guy and still smiling.’ God willing, that’s what I expect to still be talking about.”