"INTERNATIONAL MAN OF HISTORY"
At 10 years, Xander Bogaerts reflects on his Aruban baseball lineage, his Derek Jeter fandom, moving on from Boston, and his novel place in home run trivia
By Jerry Crasnick
Upon arrival in the big leagues with the Boston Red Sox in 2013, Xander Bogaerts was too immersed in making All-Star teams, winning Silver Slugger Awards and having his finger sized for championship rings (he collected two in his first six seasons) to give much thought to longevity. He was too busy contending with grounders in the hole and fastballs on the black to monitor his career arc.
“You don’t have time early in your career to think about it,’’ he said. “The only thing you think about is trying to stay in the big leagues -- trying to create a routine and create good habits. I guess along the way, four or five years in, you start hearing guys talking about how 10 years is a big thing. We had a lot of guys in Boston who played 10 years or even more.’’
During his formative years in Aruba, Bogaerts didn’t even consider himself the best ballplayer in his own family. He deferred to his twin brother, Jair, as the better player of the two. But he signed with Boston out of a tryout camp at age 16 and went on to an extended run as a lineup fixture and fan favorite with the Red Sox before agreeing to an 11-year deal as a free agent with San Diego in December.
In August, Bogaerts joined the 6-7% of players to amass 10 years of major league service time. He sat down with the MLBPA and reflected on some of his favorite memories and biggest challenges along the way. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You were the fifth player from Aruba to reach the majors. Do you know the previous four?
Sidney Ponson, Calvin Maduro, Eugene Kingsale and Radhames Dykhoff.
They all played for the Baltimore Orioles.
We had a scout, Chu Halabi, who was the main guy from the Orioles back then, so a lot of guys from Aruba and Curacao would go with the Orioles.
When you saw those guys make it, did it awaken you to the possibility that, ‘I can make it, too?’ Did you follow their careers?
I followed them, but they played when I was really young. Sidney, Calvin and Radhames were all pitchers, and Eugene Kingsale was an outfielder. I was a shortstop. Growing up, the Yankees and Boston were the big-name teams, and Derek Jeter was my guy. I’m not gonna deny it. You would see ESPN Baseball on Sunday night, and it was the Yankees-Red Sox every time and Derek Jeter hitting first. He won all those World Series, and I played the position that he played. And Andruw Jones. He’s from Curacao. They call it our brother island. He was obviously the biggest name that came out of those islands, for sure.
What drew you to Jeter beyond the fact that he played for the Yankees and you saw him all the time?
Every time you needed something done, or you needed a big hit, or needed to start a rally, Jeter was the guy. If it was the ninth inning of a tie game, or you were down by one run with a runner on second, you wanted Jeter up there. You knew he was going to come through a ridiculous amount of times. He was special in that aspect.
So what was it like to actually meet him?
I didn't get to talk to him a lot, because 2014 was his last year. The last game was at Fenway and that was his retirement day. We gave him the No. 2 from the wall. They asked me if I wanted to be part of it, and I said sure. The Red Sox knew he was a guy I liked when I was growing up. That was really nice for me.
You were 20 years old when the Red Sox called you up for your debut in San Francisco. What stands out from that day?
I was probably the youngest guy on the team at that point. I remember flying out to San Francisco that day and coming into the clubhouse early in the morning and seeing all those faces. Andrew Miller was one of the first faces I saw, then all the other guys started coming in. I was very nervous. I wasn't playing well in Triple A, so I didn’t even understand why they were calling me up. I didn't think I was going to be able to help, but things worked out great. I ended up being on a team that won the World Series that year.
Your first hit was a single off Dodgers reliever Brandon League five days later.
We were at Dodger Stadium and it was packed. It was right after the big trade when Adrian Gonzalez went to the Dodgers. Early in the game, I was battling. At one point in that at-bat, I looked out and saw so many people and I was like, ‘Why am I even battling? I’m just going to strike out and walk back to the dugout.’ I was so nervous. Then he left the ball out and I hit it the other way for a base hit and I was so relieved. Dodger Stadium was so big for me compared to the other ballparks where I had played. Those seats go back and it looks packed. Now it’s cool to see. But in my debut, I was shivering.
You hit your first home run off Yankees reliever Jim Miller in the Bronx. What do you recall about that moment?
It was on September 7 -- my mom’s birthday. The ball cleared the bullpen and landed in the first or second row. It was a good swing. I remember getting a cramp in my calf rounding the bases and I grimaced a little bit. You can see it on the video.
That 2013 Boston team was loaded with veteran “gamer’’ types. Mike Napoli. Dustin Pedroia. David Ortiz. Jonny Gomes. John Lackey. Jon Lester. Jake Peavy. David Ross. How did they treat you as a young player?
They were good with me, but sometimes they would do things to make you think, ‘Damn, I am a rookie.’ One game I wasn’t playing, and Jonny Gomes and David Ross were sitting right next to each other, and one of them sent me inside to get a dip. So I come back with the dip, and the other one says, ‘Hey, go back and get this for me in my locker now.’ I'm like, ‘You guys couldn’t tell me at the same time?’ It was little things like that. But I was cool. I just shut up and did it. If you react bad, they’re going to be hard on you. I came back with the stuff, they both laughed, and I knew they were just messing with me.
You played in a World Series at age 20 and won a ring. Did you think it was going to be easy?
I did -- and then the next year we finished in last place. I just remember the last out of the World Series, the amount of relief that I felt, because I was a rookie and I had to play third base. I was playing out of position and I didn’t want to be the one to mess it up. You just try and enjoy it and soak in the moment. But the amount of relief I felt off my shoulders was ridiculous.
Boston has a reputation as a challenging place to play. What was it like for you, as a 20-year-old kid from Aruba?
It can be tough, because they want you to do good. Expectations are always high, and they want you to produce and they want you to win. That first year, when I got called up and played third base, maybe that helped a little bit, because I had to pass through so much. I had never played third base my whole life, and it was hard. Maybe overcoming that was helpful for me. The fans there, man, they let you have it when you’re not doing the way you should or the way they want you to play. But I thought that was kind of fun.
How did you like living in Boston?
I just didn’t like the cold. I grew used to it, though. Games in April and rainy days. Those are the worst, man -- when it’s rainy and cold and it’s black out there. It would be 5 o’clock and it was already dark. You’re like, ‘Man, this is tough.’
Like so many Aruba natives, you speak four languages -- English, French, Spanish and Papiamento. Do you ever think about how special that skill is? And did it help you along the way?
People say, ‘You have to be really smart to be able to do that.’ But we don’t see it like that back home. It’s just normal. I learned all of them when I was small -- except maybe Spanish. I had it in school, but I dropped it. I was like, ‘I don’t need Spanish in my life.’ Two years later, I signed and the Red Sox sent me to the Dominican Republic. So I learned Spanish afterwards. I was like, ‘I should have taken it in school.’
You spent nine full seasons in Boston before signing with San Diego as a free agent. What did you learn about the business of the game? Did you think you might spend your entire career in one place?
That comes with being in the league for 10 years. You see so much different stuff, so nothing catches you off guard. I’ve literally seen everything. I saw one of the best players in the game get traded -- Mookie Betts. I was like, ‘Listen, bro, if he can get traded, anything can happen.’ He’s a generational talent. But after that, you’ve got to move on. We had to play without him. You’ve got to continue. Life goes on and you have to move on. You learn that quick (in this game).
One final thing: Are you aware that you’re the answer to a trivia question, as the only player in MLB history to homer in the U.S., Canada, Mexico and England? (After Bogaerts went deep in Mexico City in April, a Youtube clip referred to him as the “International Man of History.”)
Right after I hit that one in Mexico, lot of people started sending me stuff. I was like, ‘Wow, this is this is pretty neat.’
Now the game is being played everywhere (in the world), so other guys might do it in the coming years. But we play our opening series next year in Korea (against the Dodgers). If I hit one in Korea, it’s going to be hard to reach me.