Francisco Lindor Is Trying to Save Baseball from Itself

The new face of MLB isn’t Mike Trout or Kris Bryant. It's Cleveland’s fun and flashy shortstop.
photo of Joon LeeJoon LeeStaff WriterMarch 28, 2017

"¡VAMOS!"

The crowd in Section 18 of Estadio de Charros begins to roar. A Puerto Rico fan has challenged the gorilla mascot to a wrestling match in the middle of the aisle. This is Guadalajara, Mexico, the home of mariachi music and Pool D of the 2017 World Baseball Classic. The section has been adopted for the week by Puerto Rico fans, one of whom dukes it out with the gorilla. One armbar later, the gorilla is pinned to the ground. Another fan runs in to referee.

"¡UNO! ¡DOS! ¡TRES!"

The gorilla walks away in defeat, but the mood doesn't last long. Throughout the game, he salsa dances with another Puerto Rico fan as "Despacito" by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee takes over the sound system. He gives a woman a lap dance before walking through the stands and finishing abandoned beers.

Some people focus on the mascot, but the pulse of the game emanates from the crowd. A group of nearly 100 Puerto Rico supporters gathers in the concourses before games, singing, dancing and banging hand-held drums autographed by members of the national team. The music, known as plena, became popular in Puerto Rico in the 1900s as a periodico cantado, or a sung newspaper, before evolving into a tradition at sporting events.

The spirited environment is much like the one Cleveland Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor grew up in. Baseball in Puerto Rico is "fun, electric and stylish," Lindor tells B/R Mag. It's no coincidence this description reflects Lindor's game on the field too.

"In Puerto Rico, baseball is played in a happy way, with music. I remember playing as a boy, here and there, with music, with our mothers singing and fighting with the umpire," Lindor told ESPN in October. "It's a different thing, and playing in Puerto Rico taught me to play with passion, with flavor, to be proud of my team ... and to play hard."

Many Puerto Rico fans say baseball is like a religion for them, a religion that elicits song and joy.

That joy translates to the field. Lindor looks loose and excited during batting practice before Puerto Rico's first game of the WBC against Venezuela. He plays catch with Javier Baez, his childhood friend, before joining the first batting practice group of Carlos Beltran, Yadier Molina and Carlos Correa.

Lindor turns his hat backward when he steps in the cage, marking an outlier on the field, and begins spraying pitches across the stadium. He doesn't hit for as much power as the others, but he's not trying to be anything he's not.

Francisco Lindor of Cleveland looks on during batting practice on October 28, 2016.
Francisco Lindor of Cleveland looks on during batting practice on October 28, 2016.(Getty Images)

There's a certain swagger in the way Lindor plays that makes him a magnetic force in a game hellbent on rigid traditions of years gone by. He pairs quick hands, reminiscent of those of Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar, for whom Lindor dons the No. 12, with endless range. He loves chatting with his opponents, showering his teammates with gum, flashing his pearly whites and walking up to the plate to Space Jam music.

He's young, flashy and fun—everything baseball isn't right now.

"The thing with a guy like Lindor is you just get it when you see him," says Jordan Shusterman, half of Cespedes Family BBQ, a popular baseball Twitter account run by Shusterman and Jake Mintz, both college seniors who've written for MLB.com. "[Mike] Trout is amazing and the best player, but even if you see him go 4-for-5, it's not that exciting. You want everyone to play like Lindor."


The first thing you notice when meeting Lindor is his ever-present blinding white smile. The smile that served as an introduction to Lindor for many baseball fans during Cleveland's playoff run last year, when Lindor hit a two-run homer to break a scoreless tie in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series. A smile that would stand out even on an Oscars red carpet replete with excessively bleached teeth.

"Million-dollar smile, man," says Tim Layden, Lindor's high school coach at Montverde Academy in Florida. "That's what we'd always tell him: ‘In case baseball doesn't work out, that smile will get you somewhere.'"

Lindor before Game 3 of the Championship Round of the 2017 World Baseball Classic against Team USA on March 22, 2017, in Los Angeles.
Lindor before Game 3 of the Championship Round of the 2017 World Baseball Classic against Team USA on March 22, 2017, in Los Angeles.(Getty Images)

One of Lindor's first major purchases after he signed a pro contract was braces, which he wore for 11 months.

"I was smiling with messed-up teeth, but it was different once they were fixed," Lindor says. "I didn't stop smiling."

Lindor says he'd be a dentist if baseball didn't work out. It'd be a fitting backup occupation for a man who likes to help others look their best, as he does on the field for Cleveland and for baseball.

The combination of Lindor's wide smile and enthralling playing style earned him the national spotlight. He doesn't shy away from attention, regularly wearing neon-yellow hoodies and acid-washed ripped jeans while rocking a partially blond Odell Beckham Jr. hairstyle. He maintains a lively presence on Instagram, too, where he posts plenty of funny photos. That he speaks both English and Spanish only helps enlarge his fanbase.

In a sport considered America's national pastime, Lindor's identifiable, relatable personality somehow makes him an anomaly. It also makes him an appealing star to brands—including New Balance, which lured Lindor from Under Armour with a multiyear endorsement in February. New Balance is trying to promote a fresh young backward hat-wearing star in Lindor, something Major League Baseball hasn't had since the Ken Griffey Jr. era, when Nike created the Swingman brand for The Kid and released several popular lifestyle sneakers. It's something Nike's been unable to replicate with a guy like Trout, who exceeds Griffey's talent.

"Nobody brags about wearing Trouts like they would wearing Griffeys, which are still cool," Mintz says. "You feel like you would wear a Trout to dinner with your grandpa. It's really unfortunate the most dynamic and exciting player since Barry Lamar Bonds has the personality of a desk chair."

Lindor celebrates after Game 1 of the Championship Round of the 2017 World Baseball Classic against Team Netherlands on March 20, 2017.
Lindor celebrates after Game 1 of the Championship Round of the 2017 World Baseball Classic against Team Netherlands on March 20, 2017.(Getty Images)

The effort to make Lindor a star beyond the baseball bubble has already started. New Balance digital brand marketing director Pat Cassidy says Lindor will play a role in the company's lifestyle and apparel lines, with the potential for a signature off-the-field sneaker that the infielder could help design.

"His inherent sense of style and personality goes a long way," Cassidy says. "There's the old adage in basketball that big men don't sell sneakers, and there's a reason for that. It's hard to relate to Shaq and Tim Duncan. Francisco is a relatable guy and looks good not only with the on-field product but in all of the lifestyle stuff as well. He's got good taste."

But for all the charm he brings—which makes him a perfect ambassador for the sport—that's exactly what he had to tone down when he turned pro. Lindor learned flamboyance is often punished with a pitch between the shoulder blades.

"In Puerto Rico, we talk a little bit more to the other team, not disrespecting them, but challenging them. [In the United States], the game is not played that way," Lindor says. "I love the way the game is played here. I have no problem with it, but I also don't like getting hit [by pitches]."

The unwritten rules of the sport dictate retaliation be accepted when a player feels someone has stepped out of line. It's a commandment within the culture that discourages individuality.

"It does not exist in Latin American baseball, for certain," longtime baseball reporter Ken Rosenthal says. "[In] Korean baseball, it seems like there's individuality with the bat flips. It's American baseball, and if you want to say it's white baseball, you could probably go as far as to say that."

Lindor and Team Puerto Rico celebrate on March 17, 2017.
Lindor and Team Puerto Rico celebrate on March 17, 2017.(Getty Images)

These unwritten rules largely, but not exclusively, stem from those who grew up playing the game in America, and they are imposed on players from other countries.

"I hope kids watching the WBC can watch the way we play the game and appreciate the way we play the game as opposed to the way Puerto Rico plays or the Dominican plays," Ian Kinsler of the Detroit Tigers told Billy Witz of the New York Times ahead of the United States' 8-0 win over Puerto Rico in the WBC final Wednesday. "That's not taking anything away from them. That just wasn't the way we were raised. They were raised differently and to show emotion and passion when you play. We do show emotion; we do show passion. But we just do it in a different way."

The discouragement of player over team isn't inherently bad or wrong, but it has surely played a role in baseball's difficulty grabbing younger fans.

"Consumers are used to having a one-on-one relationship, and they're going to have relationships with unique individuals," says Allen Adamson, a longtime brand executive. "By forcing conformity, it often leads to boredom."

Lindor may be a marketer's dream, but MLB's institutional culture could prevent him from becoming one of the faces of the sport. Poet Walt Whitman once wrote baseball is connected to America's national character of physical stoicism. While this quiet reservation is clearly reflected in "white baseball" culture, Puerto Rico believes in a completely different denomination of baseball, one in which no person could conceive of a sanctuary-like atmosphere at a game. Some noisemakers, drums and singing never hurt anyone.


Miguel Lindor drove worried. Halfway through an hour ride from a hotel to Montverde Academy, Miguel wanted to make sure his 12-year-old son, Francisco, could navigate his way through his first day of school in the United States despite not knowing any English.

World Team coach Steve Buechele talks with Lindor before the 2012 SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game on July 8, 2012.
World Team coach Steve Buechele talks with Lindor before the 2012 SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game on July 8, 2012.(Getty Images)

The family had moved to Florida hoping to experience a new culture and receive better medical care for Francisco's then-nine-year-old stepsister, who has cerebral palsy. The family stayed at a hotel that cost $100 a week while Mari, Francisco's stepmother, worked as a front desk clerk at a Disney hotel. Miguel stayed at home to care for the kids.

Miguel knew his son wouldn't understand his teachers, so he told him to repeat the words "I don't understand" whenever he struggled to communicate with his English-speaking instructors. But Francisco couldn't memorize what his father was saying.

"I don't understand," Miguel repeated, hoping it would stick. It didn't.

Stretched to his last resort, Miguel grabbed a pen and Francisco's hand.

"I DON'T UNDERSTAND," Miguel wrote on his son's palm.

Miguel told Francisco to open his hand and show people the words whenever they said something to him.

"It's crazy how naive I was," Francisco says. "I couldn't even say 'I don't understand.'"

This period in his life forced Lindor to grow up quickly. He had left behind his mother and two older siblings in Puerto Rico. As a self-proclaimed mama's boy, the move was tough. Montverde Academy was "in the middle of nowhere," and Francisco only knew two people in the entire school, so to get by, he began living by a simple phrase.

"Be confident," he told himself.

It's his life's mantra now, and the phrase's initials are sewn onto his gloves and integrated into his social media handles, @Lindor12BC.

The confidence adds a flashiness to Lindor's game that dates back to his teenage years.

Lindor looks on prior to Game 7 of the 2016 World Series on November 2, 2016.
Lindor looks on prior to Game 7 of the 2016 World Series on November 2, 2016.(Getty Images)

"His final year of high school is when I took over the program, and to be honest, he was the reason why," Layden says. "You came down and watched him play, watched practice, and even at that time, at 17 years old, he had superstar written all over him."

When Indians scout Mike Soper spotted Lindor at an Orlando tournament during the shortstop's sophomore year, it was immediately clear Lindor was special.

"He had all of the action, the instincts, the presence that you're looking for at such a young age," Soper says. "He just stood out."

Soper introduced himself to Lindor two years later.

"He just oozed this love of the game," Soper says.

Despite Cleveland's loss to the Chicago Cubs in last year's World Series, Lindor was still smiling at the impact he made during his second MLB season. He finished the postseason hitting .310/.355/.466 with two homers, three doubles and six RBI on top of his 15 homers, 30 doubles, 78 RBI and 19 steals in the regular season.

The combination of offensive prowess and an adroit ability to field shortstop cemented Lindor's place as a bona fide stud on the diamond. He also snagged the Platinum Glove, awarded to the best fielder in each league, which only further secured that status.

And he's having fun doing it all. You'll see it when Lindor mimes diving for a ball stuck in a Tropicana Field catwalk after initially covering his head in "fear." It comes out when he warms up in a personalized Tune Squad jersey. It also shows when he celebrates winning free Taco Bell for America and when he jokes around with Baez at second base during the World Series.

Lindor jokes with the Chicago Cubs' Javier Baez during Game 6 of the 2016 World Series on November 1, 2016.
Lindor jokes with the Chicago Cubs' Javier Baez during Game 6 of the 2016 World Series on November 1, 2016.(Getty Images)

The on-field performance and charismatic demeanor give Lindor everything he needs to become a crossover star, something Indians manager Terry Francona noticed instantly. Francona, who's managed the likes of Michael Jordan and David Ortiz, knows a transcendent athlete when he sees one.

"His personality won over his teammates right away. What you see is what he is," Francona says. "He's enthusiastic, he's smart and he's a good kid. It wouldn't surprise me if he became one of the faces of baseball because he's young, like all of the things we talk about. I think baseball will be well-served for that."


"¡YO SOY BORICUA, PA'QUE TU LO SEPAS! YO SOY BORICUA, PA'QUE TU LO SEPAS!"

Puerto Rico fans shout this, during and after games, in times of strength and weakness. The phrase stems from a 1995 Taino song of the same name, and means "I am Puerto Rican, so that you know!"

The chant fills the stadium, despite the Puerto Rico fans accounting for only about one-fourth of the mostly sold-out crowd at the WBC.

"They motivate you to keep going hard," Baez says. "When I was young, listening to this music and the types of things we do over there, it made us have a lot of fun, and that's what we're doing now."

Joe Gonzalez, the editor of Latin baseball website AlBat.com, calls the WBC the most important sporting event of the year on the island.

"All of this noise is only a quarter of what it's like during the Caribbean Series," Gonzalez says. "It gets way crazier—and drunker—than this."

Fans jump on top of the dugout when Puerto Rico scores and wave the country's flag as if worshipping a higher power. Security doesn't intervene. No need to police jubilation.

Fans are seen cheering during Game 4 of the 2017 World Baseball Classic on March 11, 2017, in Jalisco, Mexico.
Fans are seen cheering during Game 4 of the 2017 World Baseball Classic on March 11, 2017, in Jalisco, Mexico.(Getty Images)

In America, baseball is more rooted in tradition than any other sport. The records, the legends of yesteryear loom over every season. The culture within the sport is a relic from a time when attention spans lasted longer, when fans didn't have the alternative to flip through an Instagram or Twitter feed or watch any show they wanted on Netflix. It's a culture that dampens anything that shifts the focus onto one player over their team.

"Look at Bryce Harper. He's frowned upon because he does things that are not typical," Rosenthal says. "I don't think he does anything wrong, but when he opens his mouth, it's like, ‘Shut up. Shut up' from what I call the baseball establishment, for a lack of a better term."

Oakland Athletics reliever Sean Doolittle has been outspoken on Twitter about the need for baseball to market the individual personalities of its young, exciting stars in order to help grow the game. The difference between celebration and showing a player up can often be a fine line, but MLB needs to emphasize these unique personalities to pass the game along to the next generation.

Lindor signs autographs on March 18, 2017.
Lindor signs autographs on March 18, 2017.(Getty Images)

"If you truly can't be yourself on the field and you have to suppress your energy so you don't rub someone the wrong way, it's unfortunate," Doolittle says. "Sometimes people misinterpret the rules or try to impose them when they are not required. I would like to see more personality in the game on both sides and not have people offended by it."

The retirement of Ortiz marked the beginning of a transition period for MLB. Ortiz represented the past generation's last star who engaged with mainstream pop culture, a group that included players like Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, among others. With a gap in mainstream star power, baseball stands in position to pivot. Now more so than ever, players like Lindor, Correa, Harper and Mookie Betts, supremely talented young stars with engaging personalities, can leave a mark on the game's culture for the next generation.

"I don't see how the guys younger than Lindor won't eventually be looking up to him," Shusterman says. "Of course you want everyone to play like Lindor, and you want those guys to stand out. But most importantly, you don't want those guys stifled [by the unwritten rules]. I'm not asking everyone to play like Lindor, but I want the 10 percent that are like him to be able to play like him. That's why I'm hoping this generation of young players becomes that way and eventually promotes it within their own clubhouses."


"PUERTO RICO! AHÍ! PUERTO RICO! AHÍ!"

The Puerto Rico section of the crowd is already rowdy when Lindor steps to the plate in the first inning against Team Mexico on March 11. The count goes to 1-2 versus Mexico starter Miguel Gonzalez as Angel Pagan stands on first. Lindor settles into the batter's box, awaiting the next pitch. It's an 85 mph splitter that doesn't split, and Lindor turns on it. He knows it's gone as soon as he finishes his follow-through.

Lindor still grapples with trying to balance his flair and respect for the culture of baseball in America. He has no desire to disrespect American baseball culture or show up an opponent.

"The game isn't going to stop because of me, and the game isn't going to change because of me," Lindor says before the start of the tournament. "That's what you dream of growing up: celebrating. I still smile. I don't pimp home runs, though. I don't know when they go."

Lindor rounds the bases after hitting a home run against Team Mexico on March 11, 2017, in Jalisco, Mexico.
Lindor rounds the bases after hitting a home run against Team Mexico on March 11, 2017, in Jalisco, Mexico.(Getty Images)

The crowd freezes as the ball soars over the stands, over the billboards, over everything in right field and lands way outside the stadium. Lindor takes two steps, pimping the moonshot. He turns back to the dugout, and with a smirk on his face, he flips his bat, twirling it into the ground like a corkscrew.

It's his first bat flip since he got called up to the majors, but around the people of Puerto Rico, connecting again with his baseball roots, Lindor didn't feel the need to hold back.

Joon Lee is a staff writer for Bleacher Report and B/R Mag.

Click here to get B/R Mag on the go in the B/R app for more sports storytelling worth your time, wherever you are.