BOSTON -- A few hours before last Sunday's game in Minnesota, Xander Bogaerts grabbed a soccer ball, pulled on his customized FC Barcelona jersey -- with Lionel Messi's No. 10 and 'X. BOGAERTS' printed on the back -- and ran to the outfield. He kicked the ball in the direction of a few boys who were on the field getting autographs, got it back and booted it onto a patch of grass over the center-field fence, raising his arms triumphantly and then leaping in an attempt to scale the wall.
At that moment, Bogaerts was a kid again, just as Mike Lord remembers him.
Tall and skinny, impossibly tan and with shaggy blonde hair, Lord looked more like a California beach bum than a Boston Red Sox scout when he showed up in Aruba in 2009. But there he was, trolling for baseball talent on a 20-mile long island in the Caribbean when he got his first glimpse of Bogaerts. The talent, the ease with which the 16-year-old shortstop moved around the field was eye-opening -- "You had to double-check yourself," Lord said -- but there was something else, something intangible that separated him from his peers.
"I think the X-factor on him -- no pun intended -- was his makeup," Lord recalled by phone. "You saw him smile, laugh, just the enjoyment he got from playing the game. They call Aruba 'one happy island.' You could see how happy he was. I hope he never loses it."
There's not much chance of that, and it isn't just because Bogaerts leads the American League in hitting (.359 entering the week) or has more hits (290) than any player in the majors since the beginning of last season. In his third full big-league season, the Red Sox's 23-year-old shortstop is still very much a kid at heart.
It's refreshing, really. In a sport where players are trained not to show emotion, Bogaerts' passion spills from every pore. It's evident in the way he talks about the game, regardless of whether he has just become the first Red Sox player with back-to-back four-hit/one-homer performances last Friday night and Saturday in victories over the Minnesota Twins, or commits a pair of costly errors in a tough loss last Sunday.
Consider Bogaerts' nightly commentary during his recent 26-game hitting streak, second-longest in the majors this season after teammate Jackie Bradley Jr.'s 29-gamer. While Bradley insisted he thought about his run only when asked by reporters, Bogaerts made no bones about how much the streak was weighing on his mind after blooping a single to shallow center field in his fourth at-bat May 31 in Baltimore to narrowly keep it alive.
"Are you kidding?" he said. "I know each day that I got it. I wake up, I know that I have it. I come to the field, I know I have it. The first couple of at-bats, you're not really putting pressure on yourself but as the game goes on, you know your time is running out so you try to focus a little bit more and put up a good at-bat and see what happens. It's a good pressure. You have a lot of people pulling for you, wanting you to get that hit."
Bogaerts demonstrated similar candor in 2014 when he expressed his profound disappointment over being moved from shortstop to third base, a shift that invariably contributed to an offensive decline that made him one of the league's worst hitters for a long stretch of the season. And whenever it is suggested that he will eventually hit for more power, he insists he's perfectly happy with any hit, regardless of whether it goes over the fence.
"I don't think of home runs in my at-bats," said Bogaerts, who entered the week with eight homers, one more than he had all of last season. "Any time I think of a home run I get an out, so why waste an at-bat like that? I like hits. I just enjoy getting hits."
At a time when baseball is stacked with talented young shortstops in Houston (Carlos Correa), Cleveland (Francisco Lindor), Los Angeles (Corey Seager), Colorado (Trevor Story), Chicago (Addison Russell) and Baltimore (Manny Machado, a shortstop who moved to third base and went back to short this season after J.J. Hardy was injured), Bogaerts is having arguably the best season of anyone in the bunch.
"He's the best shortstop in the game -- by far," admittedly biased Red Sox slugger David Ortiz said. "I throw him on top of anybody in the game. He's in the top tier best players in the game right now. No question. You tell me two players better than him in the game right now, more complete than him. I don't think there's that many."
Looking back, Lord knew Bogaerts would be good. This good? The science of projecting 16-year-olds in the big leagues is too inexact for that.
By now, the story of how Lord found the next great Red Sox shortstop as a "pimple-faced kid" is well-documented. After holding a tryout for several young players -- including Bogaerts' brother, Jair -- Lord asked if there was anyone else on the island that he needed to see. That was when Jair mentioned his twin, who was at home with the chicken pox and begging their mother to let him play.
Once his mother, Sandra Brown, finally relented, Xander showed Lord why he couldn't go home until he saw the best player in Aruba, swatting home runs over the fence and making spectacular plays on a dimly lit, rocky infield. Lord could barely wait to send the video back to his boss Craig Shipley, then the Red Sox's head of international scouting.
"Well, you saw all this athleticism," said Lord, who coaches high school baseball in Florida. "I can take it back and the bells were just ringing like crazy when I saw him. You hadn't seen anything like that in a long time, so you're like, 'All right, re-calibrate. I'm down in Aruba. There's only a few [scouts] here. Is this guy really this good?' So, you had to take another look, and you're like, 'Dang it!' You look at him and you say, 'This guy could be really good.' But you're talking about a 16-year-old kid. For us, it was like, he's got a chance. In our wildest dreams, I think I told Ship, 'This guy might hit 30 home runs one day,' and he's like, 'Dude, he might play in an All-Star Game.' And here it is. Crazy."
Expectations for Bogaerts have been crazy since the Red Sox signed him for $410,000 (they signed Jair, a catcher, for $180,000) only two weeks after they worked out for Lord. A top prospect from his first day in the Red Sox's farm system, he got called up in the middle of the 2013 season and has been an everyday player since taking over for third baseman Will Middlebrooks in Game 5 of the AL Championship Series.
But for as much as Lord has thrilled in Bogaerts' success, he has but one wish for him.
"I just want him to stay a kid as long as he can as far as his enjoyment of the game goes," Lord said. "I hope the wonder stays there and he goes out, looks out in the crowd and is like, 'Wow, I used to take ground balls on a rocky field in Aruba. This is amazing.' I hope he really enjoys it."