Xander Bogaerts is ready to be a leader in the age of COVID-19

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Under normal circumstances, Xander Bogaerts would begin his daily routine by strolling into the Boston Red Sox clubhouse with a wide grin, greeting everyone -- from teammates to coaches to clubhouse assistants to reporters -- with a fist bump, a hug or a friendly tap on the back.

But these are far from typical times. Locker rooms have been relocated to Fenway Park's luxury suites, two players per suite. Gyms now run along the right-field concourse, where fans will no longer be able to roam. And the social distancing required for Major League Baseball to safely return during the coronavirus pandemic means the many greetings Bogaerts might dole out as the latest unofficial leader of his clubhouse are verboten.

"[I] like to hug and be kind to people," Bogaerts said. "So it's gonna be tough."

Still, with all of the unusual external and internal circumstances of this season, the Red Sox will need Bogaerts' kindness and his ubiquitous smile -- even if it's frequently hidden behind a face mask.

Since the payroll-slashing trade of Mookie Betts and David Price to the Los Angeles Dodgers earlier this year, Bogaerts' teammates have increasingly turned to the 27-year-old shortstop -- who signed a six-year, $120 million extension last year -- to fill the leadership gap.

When asked by ESPN in February about his emerging role, Bogaerts deflected. But now, during a pandemic where communication between teammates will likely prove more important than ever -- evolving from simply playing well together to potentially preventing a clubhouse outbreak -- Bogaerts said he believes he's ready to take on the mantle from Betts and Price.

"I think so," Bogaerts said. "Obviously those were two guys that are still missed. Guys that were well-loved by our teammates and obviously the city."

Not that it took Betts and Price leaving to make Bogaerts a leader. After so many tough losses in 2019, Bogaerts was most often the highest-profile player still standing in front of his locker, fielding questions about why the defending World Series champions were falling short of expectations. He won't have to take the same posture now, as Zoom calls replace the clubhouse media scrums, but how he treats his teammates will continue to define him.

During this pandemic, players will need to ratchet up their discipline, on and off the field, in order to keep their families and teammates healthy. Bogaerts said he's ready to amplify his voice to help that happen.

"Out of everyone, he's probably the best person I've ever met in my life, so the fact that he's always so happy and the fact that he does speak different languages helps bring everyone together."
Rafael Devers on Xander Bogaerts

It's a positive voice -- one he credits to his upbringing on "a little island called Aruba" and his mother, Sandra Brown, a social worker -- but it's also a resonant one. As someone who grew up speaking four languages fluently -- English, Spanish, Dutch and Papiamento -- Bogaerts has the unique ability to speak with most everyone on the Red Sox roster in their native tongue. While calling a baseball team a cultural melting pot is often idealistic, as many players stick with others from similar backgrounds or position groups, Bogaerts helps bridge many of the gaps between teammates. That will be especially vital in 2020.

"He's boys with all the pitchers, he's boys with all of the position players, he's boys with the Latin guys, [Taiwanese infielder Tzu-Wei] Lin, all the American guys," said infielder Michael Chavis, who adopted Bogaerts as a mentor during his rookie season last year. "Glue is a good comparison for it, just because he is that. He brings everyone together."

Already, Bogaerts has played a critical role in easing the cultural transition into the major leagues for teammates such as third baseman Rafael Devers, who was born in the Dominican Republic and made his MLB debut in 2017 as a 20-year-old. Devers credits Bogaerts for helping him break out as a full-fledged star in 2019.

"Out of everyone, he's probably the best person I've ever met in my life," Devers said, "so the fact that he's always so happy and the fact that he does speak different languages helps bring everyone together."

To other young players, including 23-year-old Venezuelan reliever Darwinzon Hernandez, Bogaerts is a support system.

"He gives you that confidence," Hernandez said through a translator. "You know that you're going to do a good job because he's so positive thinking as well. So it's never like, "I can't do this." No. Like, "You can do this, this is how you can do it." He has no special preference at all. He's like that not just with the position guys, but he's also with the pitchers."

Red Sox manager Ron Roenicke has no doubt in Bogaerts' ability to step up as a leader this season.

"I think this guy played like a leader the first year I was here," said Roenicke, who first served as former manager Alex Cora's bench coach in 2018. "But I know he became more vocal last year, especially with the Latin players. I'd say he's more vocal with everyone now."

Part of being a leader, in any era, is helping to pass on the torch. Bogaerts recalls all of the help he received from veterans such as David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, David Ross and Mike Napoli in adjusting to the league after he first got the call to the majors in 2013.

"I remember I was scared. I was a little nervous, actually not a little nervous," Bogaerts said. "I was really nervous because I don't really want to mess up with all these big boys, and I wasn't used to a situation like that, but it all worked out great, man. It all worked out great. I learned a lot from them."

Bogaerts won a World Series ring in 2013 as a rookie, and he earned another in 2018. Last year, he became the first Red Sox shortstop since Nomar Garciaparra (1998) to post 30 homers and 100 RBIs, when he notched his second All-Star selection, third Silver Slugger award and finished fifth in American League MVP balloting after hitting .309/.384/.555 with 33 homers, 117 RBIs and 52 doubles.

He also made his teammates better.

When Chavis needed help adjusting to playing first and second base after coming up through the minors playing third, Bogaerts made sure he learned the nuances of playing the right side of the infield.

"It'd be so easy for him just to be, 'He doesn't know how to play second base,'" Chavis said. "'I'm just going to figure my s--- out and my stuff out, and he can just figure his out.' But instead he was, 'No, I'm going to make sure that he has everything he needs to help the team. And I'm going to make sure he's in a better position to help the team.' And that's what he did every single day for me."

Particularly during a season in which so much is precarious -- whether it's the status of the next game or the health and safety of the team -- every single day matters. Bogaerts has shown he has what it takes to lead.

"[He] makes you feel as though you can always get things done," Hernandez said. "You feel like you can win a hundred World Series because you have a guy like him."