Lindor Grows Into An Impressive Leader

Almost a year after the most pressure-packed plate appearance of his life, Francisco Lindor remembers every detail.

“I went to a 3-2 count, and they threw me a pitch outside,” Lindor said, torquing his body and showing where the pitch was in relation to him with his right hand.

Growing up, Lindor played a “3-2 game” during which his father, Miguel, pitched to him while both pretended the count was full. Whatever you do, Francisco was told, don’t strike out. Strike outs meant running sprints.

So with the 16U National Team trailing Cuba by one in the top of the 9th at the World Youth Championship in Taiwan, Lindor wasn’t about to take a third strike, even if the ball looked outside.

Lindor reached out and yanked the pitch foul. Cuban reliever Rogelio Armenteros followed with another pitch away, but this time Lindor squared the ball up and hit it back up the middle for a single.

The hit moved Austin Cousino, Team USA’s tying run, to third, and Cousino later scored on a sacrifice fly. Lindor advanced to third on that same fly ball. And When a teammate doubled to left, Lindor ran home screaming, leaping and punching the air as the U.S. took a 7-6 lead it wouldn’t surrender.

Lindor admitted he had been nervous before that final inning. Cuba seized a 5-1 lead in the third, and Lindor thought his team couldn’t come back. But he told himself the game hadn’t changed.

This was still baseball. The game his father, brother and cousin played. The game he learned while still learning to walk. The game that motivated him to move to the United States as a 12-year-old who couldn’t speak English. 

The game that one day, Lindor tells himself, he will use to pay for the family’s medical bills as Miguel endures complications from post-traumatic stress disorder and Francisco’s 13-year-old sister Jezabel suffers from multiple sclerosis, a disease that has left her hooked to tubes, unable to walk or talk. 

So, in Taiwan, Lindor made sure his teammates were poised for a comeback. He told players that if they did their jobs the U.S. would capture its fourth-straight 16U gold medal. Rallying the team was his responsibility. He was his country’s captain.

“He is one of the most passionate kids I have ever coached,” said Eric Kibler, then the U.S. infield coach. “He is one of the most hard-working kids I’ve ever coached. And I’ve been working in this game for more than 30 years. He just loves this game so much and you can tell as soon as you watch him.”

When Francisco was 3 years old, he tagged along with his father while he coached his older brother’s 15-year-olds team in Caguas, Puerto Rico. Francisco was the team’s bat boy and spent his afternoons retrieving balls while waiting for his turn to take batting practice.

At home, the two would go out in the street and Miguel would hit his son grounders and teach him to catch by tossing a ball against his chest.

“He loved to practice all the time,” said Miguel, a former semi-pro player in Puerto Rico. “He was very mature for his young age because he knew how to approach the game. He enjoyed it and respected it and showed dedication.”

When Francisco turned 4, Miguel registered him for a 6-year-olds league. Playing shortstop, Francisco was scared of the ball and spent his first few games crying in the infield. But then, just like he would do 12 years later in Taiwan, Lindor relaxed and pretended he was playing with his dad.

“Ever since then I’ve loved the game and now I can’t quit playing,” he said.

Lindor joined local all-star teams that won the 8- and 9-year-old Puerto Rican Championships, and he became somewhat of a local legend, being honored as his town’s Player of the Year by the mayor of Caguas. But Francisco and Miguel had bigger goals.

The two dreamed Francisco would reach the major leagues, and to do that they both felt he needed to leave Puerto Rico.

“He was growing and I thought we didn’t have enough competition or challenges for him,” Miguel said in an e-mail.

Miguel and his second wife, Mri Rivera, started to research schools in the U.S. known for developing baseball players. One of Francisco’s coaches in Puerto Rico told the couple about Montverde Academy, an international boarding school in central Florida hosting students from 42 different countries.

But the family was unable to pay the school’s tuition, so Francisco started at Montverde as a day student. Miguel, who used to work as a publicist at the San Juan Mayoral Office, was forced into retirement when Francisco was a baby after a panic attack caused by stress from his first wife and the death of his mother.

So Miguel stayed home with Jezabel and the couple’s other daughter, Angela, while Rivera got a job as a supervisor for two of Disney’s Vacation Clubs, often working 14 hours a day.

Roberto Rodriguez, then Montverde’s junior varsity coach, learned about the family’s situation and helped Lindor apply for financial aid, which allowed him to live at the school for free.

Several Montverde students speak Spanish, easing Lindor’s transition to the U.S. But he was still living in an unfamiliar environment and he was unable to have a conversation in English until after a year of ESL classes.

“When I came here, people would talk to me and I would look at them like, ‘I don’t understand you. I’m sorry,'” he remembers, laughing.

Playing weekends for the Nationals, his first travel team, Lindor met his coach’s instructions with a blank stare. So before his second game, his coach learned Spanish terms for words like “swing away” and “hit and run.”

With time, Lindor became a walking Spanish-to-English baseball glossary as he studied the terms his coaches used on the diamond. But while the words took a while to learn, his speed and sure-handed defense instantly translated and Lindor shined on the Montverde junior varsity team as an eighth grader.

“He was just so talented,” Rodriguez said. “He had ‘MLB’ stamped on his forehead. I told him that all the time. I said, ‘You have the ability to do some big things in this game.'”

And from the first days he met Lindor, Rodriguez said it seemed like all the kid wanted to talk about was his future in the pros. If Lindor stayed out of trouble, Rodriguez promised he would one day be an all-American.

When Miguel and Rivera went to their new apartment, Rodriguez helped move what little they had in a U-Haul and then donated an old washer and dryer to the family. They received further help from a local church, which helped the family find furniture.

With Miguel’s permission, Rodriguez mentored Francisco and put him on his travel team, the Apopka Black Sox. On weekends, Francisco frequently slept at Rodriguez’s house and spent his Saturdays hitting in the backyard batting cage and practicing agility drills with Rodriguez’s son, Roberto Clemente.

One weekend, Lindor told Rodriguez he wanted to become a switch-hitter. Three months after Rodriguez began teaching him to bat lefty, Lindor tried hitting from both sides for the first time at a tournament in Leesburg, Fla. He sailed five home runs over the 300-foot fence that weekend—three from the right side and two from the left.

And Lindor was still just 13.

“For me, that was just the icing on the cake telling me how talented he really was,” Rodriguez said. “My son had been learning to hit lefty since he started playing, and he had never hit one out. And Francisco hit a home run from both sides in his first game trying it.”

In a game dominated by travel teams with sponsorships and cross-country road trips, the Black Sox kept things simple. Players on the team only got two T-shirts and a hat, and Rodriguez rarely brought them to tournaments out of the state.

But there was plenty of competition in Florida, and Lindor had no trouble getting exposure. In the summer of 2007, just two weeks after he officially became a switch-hitter, Lindor established himself as the top shortstop in central Florida, Rodriguez said.

Playing in an invitation-only tournament at Rollins College with the eight best local 14U teams, Lindor became a vacuum in the infield as the Black Sox finished second. A year later, Rodriguez said Lindor put on a show as the Black Sox won 22 straight games en route to a state championship, a USSSA 15U World Series title and, two weeks later, a 16U World Championship.

And Lindor was still just 14.

Rodriguez consistently asked Miguel to come to Black Sox games, but Miguel rarely gets to see Francisco play because he has to stay home and take care of his daughters. Instead, Rodriguez gives him frequent updates and Francisco calls after every game.

“We talk after every day and I can tell him what he did or did not do right on every single play,” Miguel, a former pitcher, shortstop and outfielder, said. “When I have the opportunity to see him it is the best experience ever.”

A year after winning the world series’ with the Black Sox, Lindor earned an invite to the USA Baseball 16U National Team trials.  after another good showing at the East Championships in Jupiter.  And at the USA Trials, Lindor did more than prove himself. The team’s Coaches noticed Lindor outworking everyone, running as hard as he could during practices and leading the group with his glove.

Like he does after every game away from home, Francisco called Miguel and Rodriguez., the man he calls his second father, when he made the team.

“He was crying because he was so happy,” Rodriguez said. “I told him, ‘Francisco, this is what we’ve worked for. This is what you deserve.'”

Kibler, the team’s infield coach, knew Lindor would be its leader. He taught Lindor to keep the other infielders focused during games and pull players aside if they weren’t doing their jobs..

“It’s one of the greatest honors I’ve ever had,” Lindor said of being named captain. “Before we went out to Taiwan, the coach went up to me and he said, ‘You’re going to be my captain. You’ve got to help the team the whole time, keep your teammates up the whole time.’ And I did my job. Whatever he asked me to, I did it.”

Since winning the world championship, Lindor has become one of the hottest commodities in high school baseball. He is verbally committed to play at Florida State, but a pro contract will likely be in play next summer as well.

Miguel suffered a heart attack last year, leaving him unable to go to the park with his son. Francisco misses playing with his first coach, who hit him ground balls his whole life, be it on the street or in the infield.

As a kid in Puerto Rico, Lindor remembers being sheltered. Before Christmas every year, he made a list of gifts he wanted—gloves, balls, bats—and his parents managed to get it for him. But the one holiday request he remembers most distinctly was the one thing he didn’t get: a motorized scooter.

Fearing an accident, Miguel instead bought Francisco a gold necklace with a picture of a baseball player in a batting stance. Francisco wore it during every game, kissing the player for good luck.

Even after the necklace broke, Lindor put it in his wallet and still kisses it before every game to remember his family, who he is now ready to support.

And Lindor is still just 16.

“I’ve seen the sacrifices that my stepmother and father have made for me and my brothers and sisters,” he said. “I want to make them proud. I want them to say, ‘All the sacrifices we made for Francisco and our other children was worth it.'”