Xander Bogaerts: Boston's future, Aruba's everything (Part 2)

Xander Bogaerts: Boston's future, Aruba's everything (Part 2)
May 6, 2014, 1:00 pm
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In Part 1 of this story, I told you about Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts’ path from Aruba to the major leagues, and how his success in Boston is impacting life back home on the island.
 
I told you about the party (and massive celebrity) that ensued last fall when Bogaerts became the first Aruban player to win a World Series. I explained the significance (World Series or not) of him being only the fifth player in Aruba’s history to even make it to the majors, and how he was the first to do so in more than 15 years.
 
I left you hanging with a question: What made Bogaerts so different?
 
Why, after 15 years of failed prospects and wasted potential, was he the one who made it?
 
For the record, I asked this question more than a few times during my three days on the island. And you’re about to understand why, whenever I did, the answer was always the same.
 
***
 
Monday, April 14 — 10:30 am: You know, one of my favorite things about traveling is the opportunity to expand my horizons and immerse myself in a different culture. That often means taking chances, and certainly trying new things.
 
For instance, down the street from my hotel, there’s a coffee shop called “Dunkin Donuts.” I’m there now, and highly recommend it if you’re ever on the island.
 
From my seat outside Dunkins’ (that’s what they call it), I can see a Holiday Inn, and while that’s not typically noteworthy, this is an exception. That’s because this particular Holiday Inn is solely responsible for leading me to Sandra Brown, aka Xander Bogaerts’ mom.
 
Or as Mike Lord came to call her, “The Queen Bee.”
 
The very short version of the story begins in February 1985. I was five years old, and staying at this Holiday Inn with my parents. One night, they hired a babysitter through the hotel — a young Aruban girl named Brenda. She was cool. My parents loved her. She became a family friend. Although until recently, it had been more than 20 years since we’d been in touch.
 
But she’s the only Aruban I’ve ever known, so when I thought of this story, I thought of Brenda. Through some Googling, I learned that she was still at the Holiday Inn (these days, as the hotel’s Activity Manager). So, I called the front desk, got Brenda on the phone . . .
 
And she had absolutely no idea who I was.
 
Not the slightest clue.
 
After a few minutes of awkward conversation, there was a break through. I told her about the story. I asked if she knew anyone in Xander’s family. And guess what? She’s good friends with Sandra Brown. So, she called Sandra on my behalf, called me back with instructions on how to reach her and that brought me here —
 
Downtown Oranjestad.
 
Aruba’s capital city.
 
This is where Sandra works, about a block from Main Street, inside a beautiful two-story gated-building that looks right out of a Spanish soap opera. She’s the government-appointed director of an organization called CEDEHM, which stands for “Centro di Desaroyo di Hende Muher” and translates to “Center for the Development of Women.”
 
After a day of hearing so many people speak so magically about Bogaerts and all he’d done for the island, I only imagined what his mother would say. I know what my mother would say. And I walked into Sandra’s office under that assumption.
 
Basically, that her son’s rise to fame had left her feeling like the star in some crazy fairy tale.
 
She cut me down fast.
 
For instance, remember that story I told at the beginning of all this about those two little boys creeping out by Sandra’s house, standing in awe of Xander Bogaerts’ mere existence? She told it to me first, and she doesn’t get it.
 
I mean, she gets why these kids look up to Xander.
 
“Aruba won one now,” she says. “Usually it was one from the US or from Curacao or somewhere, but now they have their own local little hero.”
 
She just doesn’t get ALL the fuss. She doesn’t understand why every one is so blown away by what her son has accomplished. Or why people like me keep tracking her down to write stories about the great Xander Bogaerts.
 
“Sometimes I’m just like ‘Please stop’,” she says with a smile. “They come from all over, from ESPN, from the Boston Globe. I’m like, ‘Aren’t you guys tired of writing? What more is there to write?’”
 
We’re sitting across from each other inside Sandra’s corner office on the first floor of the CEDEHM building. It’s a real stereotypical set-up. I could very well be in the office of Michael Scott, except that instead of Dundies on the wall, there are pictures of Xander Bogaerts.
 
Sandra is wearing a flowery black dress. She speaks in a deep Caribbean accent. And after a few minutes of listening to her downplay all the buzz surrounding her son, I just come out and ask:
 
“So is this really just not a big deal to you?”
 
She shakes her head.
 
“Listen,” she says, “I tell people, when you set goals in life, a goal is just another goal. It’s another goal!”
 
She’s literally laughing now. As if it’s really all that easy.
 
“Just look at this department! We have a conference every year in March, a women’s conference that hosts between 500-800 women and every year it’s crazy. But we do it. We have our goal, and when we reach it, it’s like ‘Wow. Yes. OK . . . Next!’”
 
This is how Sandra Brown approaches life.
 
Never be satisfied with what you’ve done. Always stay focused on what you want to do next. And once you’ve set your sights on doing something, just do it.
 
That’s humility. That’s work ethic. That’s determination.
 
“You just need to love what you do,” she says. “And Xander loves baseball. So he just gets up every morning and does it. We’ve been on this track with him for so long.”
 
Sandra knew very early that Xander had the talent to make it on the major league level. Her older brother, George Brown, was once a dominant pitcher on the island (before deciding to pursue education over baseball), and in Xander, the family saw George’s mirror image.
 
Other people saw other things.
 
“Growing up, Xander had this trainer named Gibbs,” Sandra says. “And he would always tell me, ‘This is going to be the next Derek Jeter.’”
 
There’s a hint of nostalgia in her voice, so I press her on it. After all, there are probably a lot of parents out there who like to believe that they’re raising the next Derek Jeter, but not many get the opportunity to one day watch that kid start opposite Jeter at Yankee Stadium.
 
There has to be something surreal about that, right?
 
Wrong.
 
 “I don’t know,” she says. “You know . . . I don’t know . . . it’s just . . . it’s just who we are. You know, it’s sounds strange. And it sounds like you’re not all — I don’t know. Xander just has a different make-up. Xander is a fighter. He doesn’t give up. He just pursues it and pursues it. And that’s all it takes!”
 
Despite the distance between them, Sandra is still a very big part of Xander’s life. The two are in contact (usually via text) pretty constantly. They still pray together before every game. Truthfully, Sandra is very uneasy about her 21-year-old son being off on his own, 2,000 miles away from home.
 
“Last night, I wasn’t able to sleep until four o’clock, once the plane landed in Chicago,” she says. “When he texts me that they landed, that’s when my break is on. That’s when I’m off duty. Then I can relax. Otherwise, I don’t know, he’s out. He’s flying. He’s not home. He’s not in his bed.”
 
That’s support.
 
Last December, the Bogaerts family created the Xander Bogaerts Dare to Dream Foundation, a non-profit that focuses on young Aruban athletes, and aims to give them the support to become professional baseball players. They buy gloves and spikes and other kinds of equipment for kids on the island who can’t afford it, and encourage them to pursue baseball as a path to a better life.
 
They also plan to provide seminars for parents, because as Sandra says, “it’s not all about giving, but also teaching responsibility.” A sign that, deep down, she knows that while a lot of parents would like to believe that they’re raising the next Xander Bogaerts, it’s really not that easy.
 
As for the present-day Xander, Sandra is obviously already looking forward with another goal in mind.
 
“I think a movie deal would be nice,” she says. “Yeah, I think that’s where we going next.”
 
And with that, I’m leaving Sandra Brown’s office.
 
But before I do, I’ve got two predictions:
 
Prediction 1: At some point in the future, The Xander Bogaerts Story will be turned into a major motion picture.
 
Prediction 2: The actress who plays Sandra Brown will win an Oscar.
 
***
 
Monday, April 14 — 1:00 pm: After meeting with Sandra, I wanted to run full steam through her office wall and conquer all of life’s problems at once.
 
But first, I wanted lunch.
 
From Oranjestad, I drove over to Charlie’s Bar (in San Nicolas), which is about the closest thing Aruba has to an institution. It’s been in the same spot since first opening in 1941.
 
Along the way, I passed the Balashi Brewery — a massive factory where they make “Aruba’s Beer.” On the roof, there’s a billboard featuring their newest pitchman, Xander Bogaerts, in a blue Balashi uniform, wearing a blue Balashi helmet and connecting, mid-swing, with a can of sweet Balashi Malta.
 
I also called Edson Kelly, the Royals scout who worked with Bogaerts on the island during the offseason, and learned something interesting —
 
It wasn’t just Xander and Kelly working together over the winter, but an entire team of young Aruban players working with an entire team of instructors.
 
Kelly says that the idea was born back in November, with the intention of building a program similar to what they have in Curacao. Was it a coincidence that it started only weeks after Bogaerts won the World Series? He’s not sure, but says that Gene Kingsale is the man to talk to. (Turns out that Kingsale’s job title with the government is “Technical Baseball Coordinator” and Kelly passes along his number.)
 
In all, there were about 15 prospects (including Bogaerts) at the daily offseason sessions. Most of the kids have already signed major league contracts and are currently in the early stages of the farm system, while few others are young Arubans playing college baseball in the states.
 
“It was something surreal to have Xander there,” Kelly says. “We had people, tourists, coming by the field every day, just to look and take pictures of him. The young guys saw that, and got a taste of what it’s like. They also got to see the way Xander goes about his business.
 
“You know, he got a chance to win a World Series last year, and everyone here lived through that. The kids are all looking up to him now.”
 
***
 
Beyond the parades, the parties, the endorsements and the racks on racks of jerseys on display across the island, Xander Bogaerts greatest impact will be on the next generation of athletes in Aruba.
 
That’s what he and Sandra are trying to do with his Dare to Dream Foundation, but more than just the foundation, Bogaerts mere presence inspires a dare to dream mentality.
 
For younger players, the road to the majors isn’t as treacherous after watching one of their own reach the finish line. There’s also more motivation to fight through the bad times now that they’ve had a close look at all the good times (and dollar signs) that await on the other side. Not to mention, it’s a little easier to get noticed now that scouts can’t afford to ignore Aruba’s talent pool.
 
In this sense, as opposed to the next Derek Jeter, Bogaerts has the potential to be the second coming of a different Yankee. Although this guy is best remembered as a Brave.
 
In 1996, Andruw Jones wasn’t the first player from Curacao to make the big leagues (he was the third), but (like Bogaerts) he was the first to explode onto the scene. He was the first star. His success was a driving force for an entire generation of young players on the island, and a major reason why Curacao sent 10 players to the majors during the 15 years (1998-2013) that Aruba sent none.
 
***
 
Monday, April 14 — 7:45 pm: I’m driving down a poorly lit road on the south side, about a quarter mile from the coast. The speedometer reads in kilometers and I haven’t figured out the conversion yet, but it feels like I’m driving fast; probably a little hyped from the Spanish version of Mmm Bop that’s blasting through the Chevy Spark’s speakers.
 
I’m on my way to Buster’s, a sports bar tucked inside the casino behind the Tropicana Aruba Resort. That’s where I’m supposed to meet Gene Kingsale.
 
Earlier in the day, after leaving San Nicolas, I made a quick stop in Lagos Heights (about two minutes outside of the city) to find the field that had been dedicated in Bogaerts honor last December.
 
Once you’re in Lagos Heights, it’s easy to find the ballpark. You only need to look up, where the stadium lights stand out high above the rows and rows of tiny houses like four NBA centers at the casting call for a remake of Willow.
 
As I pulled up to the field, I first noticed a large banner hanging on one of the fences in front.
 
Scrolling left to right, there’s large action shot of Bogaerts making a play in the field. Next to that, there are three lines of text that read:
 
Aruba’s very own
Xander Bogaerts
Our pride and joy
 
Next to that, a Red Sox logo with “World Series Champions” written underneath,
 
As with most fields in Aruba, this one is all sand: infield, outfield, everything. A green wall, about six feet high, circles the outfield, and atop the wall in straight away center, there’s a large, rectangular sign with a head shot of Bogaerts (wearing a Red Sox hat) on the left, and the words “Welcome to Xander Bogaerts CBLH Field” next to it.
 
I stood out at the foot of the wall, staring back at home plate. It was windy, and eerily quiet. The only noise was a dog barking in the distance and then a man, from about the same distance, yelling at his dog to stop barking. On the other side of the wall, a middle-age woman fed grain to her chickens, and watched me out of the corner of her eye.
 
On the drive out of Lagos Heights, I passed a house with four young boys playing baseball on a sandy front lawn. It was two-on-two, with a hat standing in for home plate, a big tree for first base, a cement wall on the edge of the property for second and a telephone pole on the sidewalk for third.
 
I walked over and the pitcher was wearing a Yankees hat. “Hey!” I said, pointing to my hat, “No Bogaerts?” He laughed and shook his head, as the kid at the plate yelled out, “I’m Bogaerts!”
 
I stood there for about five minutes, before one of them smoked a ground ball in my direction. I gracefully and effortlessly bent down to grab it, missed by a good 18 inches and then crawled back to the car in shame.
 
***
 
Before last year, Aruba not only suffered from the lack of an “Andruw Jones” but also the absence of Jesus Halabi.
 
Halabi was the Orioles scout who discovered and groomed that initial crop of Aruban major leaguers. But shortly after, he moved back to his native Curacao and successfully implemented the same program over there.
 
His departure played a major role in the fragmentation of prospects in Aruba. At some point, the island realized that they needed to find a way to bring everyone back together. So, they turned to a guy who knows a thing or two about Halabi’s secrets to success.
 
***
 
Monday, April 14 — 8:00 pm: I’m inside the Tropicana, and after about 10 minutes, Kingsale walks in. He’s about 6-3, and although he’s probably a little more than the 190 pounds he was in his playing days, the 37-year-old still looks like he can play.
 
Kingsale’s major league career lasted from 1996-2003, and included stints in Baltimore, Seattle, San Diego and Detroit. After that, he went on to star professionally in the Netherlands, before landing back in Aruba.
 
From there he landed next to me at this bar in the Tropicana, which is no longer serving food. So we leave, and (me in my Chevrolet Spark, him in his brother’s minivan taxi) caravan through the back roads of Aruba and eventually find a second place — which is also not serving food.
 
Finally, we head back to Touchdown Sports Bar.
 
When the government approached Kingsale about the job as Technical Baseball Coordinator, saying ‘yes’ was an easy decision.
 
“The main thing is just giving back,” he says.
 
As much as anyone, Kingsale understands the work that goes into making it on the major league level. So with this new job, his goal is to basically push and recreate the same organized, team dynamic that helped him and his friends defy the odds, but had been lost in the years since.
 
He talks to young players and tries to motivate them with his own story and the opportunities that baseball can present in life. Once a player shows particular promise, or signs a contract or just starts getting noticed by the scouts, the focus becomes training and mental preparation. Kingsale had the group out there every day during the offseason, for what he calls Spring Training before Spring Training.
 
The program is something that had been discussed for some time on the island, but it’s not a coincidence that the government gave the green light so shortly after the 2013 World Series. Kingsale sees Bogaerts as a driving force in the organization and future of Aruba baseball, and still marvels at how the shortstop managed to emerge from its formerly ugly state. (As if he was like young Bane escaping from Hell on Earth prison.)
 
“Xander is one of a kind,” Kingsale says. “Most of that ability comes from home. His mom. She’s unbelievable. She was tough on her kids. She did it basically on her own.
 
“You know, it was just a matter of time before we had someone with that talent and that drive and that focus to make it big. He’s truly a role model.”
 
Kingsale loves talking about baseball, and has great memories from every level on his path to the majors. He was in the line-up for the end of Cal Ripken’s streak and Eddie Murray’s 500th homer. He cherishes time he spent playing and learning alongside guys like Ichiro and Roberto Alomar. He only hit three career home runs, but one of them came off Roger Clemens.
 
At one point, we’re talking about his time in Triple A, coming up against some of the best prospects in the Red Sox system. He remembers Michael Coleman. He remembers Wilton Veras. He remembers “Louuuuuuuuu!” Merloni.
 
“Man,” Kingsale says, “they loved him in Pawtucket.”
 
He says that a few players will be working out tomorrow morning at the baseball stadium in Santa Cruz. It’s one of the last sessions before they break for the season. I ask if I can stop by on my way to the airport. He says yes.
 
I pay the check, and head to bed.
 
***
 
So, one of Aruba’s four former major leaguers is now the head of the island’s baseball program. Where are the others?
 
As I said, Ponson lives in Ft. Lauderdale, but keeps a yacht on the island and comes back every other month or so to fish and occasionally piss everyone off.
 
Calvin Maduro lives in Baltimore, where he works as a scout for the Orioles.
 
As for Radhames Dykhoff —
 
He lives in Aruba, where he works as Kingsale’s left-handed right hand man.
 
***
 
Tuesday, April 15 — 8:30 am: I wake up, pack up, check out of the hotel and head over to Nadi Croes/Crismo Angela Ballpark — a converted soccer field that now stands as Aruba’s premiere baseball facility.
 
When I get there, I notice that the outfield grass is perfect; all green, without a dry patch in sight. There’s also not a single rock to be seen in the smooth infield dirt. Not to mention—oops, no wait. It’s all turf. Everything but the pitcher’s mound is turf, and painted to look like a green outfield and a pristine infield. And you know what? It works.
 
(From behind home plate, 360 feet out to left field, there’s a white house with a hole in the front door — courtesy of a Bogaerts blast.)
 
Kingsale and Dykhoff, the island’s pitching coordinator, are at the field with three prospects. All three are pitchers, and they’re currently stretching. While this goes on, the two coaches and I start talking, but I pretty much just listen.
 
Dykhoff was the last of the original four to make the big leagues, throwing an inning of interleague relief against the Braves at Camden Yards. And for all his hard work and sacrifice, well, that was it. He never pitched in the majors again. One inning. That was a career. But Dykhoff has no regrets.
 
“The difference between making it and not making it can make a difference in your life,” he says. “Reaching the top level. Putting former major leaguer before your name. It’s something that not everybody is going to reach.”
 
Kingsale and Dykhoff were actually playing together in Double A when the lefty got the call.
 
“One day I got to the field and couldn’t find him, so I asked ‘Where’s Raddy?’,” Kingsale says. “When they told me he got called up I was just like ‘Ooooh!’ I was so happy. What a feeling. Sometimes I still get goose bumps, because I know how hard he worked. We made it 1-2-3, and he was the last one. And the whole time he was just working, working, working.”
 
“I can rest in peace knowing we all made it,” Dykhoff says. “It was fun. We had good experiences. And you know what? Maybe it was the best time of our lives. We had our youth. From 20 to 30s. We had our time in the USA. Playing professional baseball. It’s the best thing ever. We traveled. We saw things. And we did it in a good way. So for now we can pass that to the younger generation, and have them do better than we did. For our island. And ourselves.”
 
This is how Kingsale and Dykhoff talk with each other, and this is how they talk with the young players on the island. There’s urgency to everything they’re trying to do.
 
“We can’t wait 15 more years for someone to reach,” Dykhoff says. “We have to do something about it. And the development of this practice may be a reason we make it back in a shorter period of time.”
 
“Curaco has almost 10 big leaguers active,” Kingsale adds. “And these guys have been doing these organized workouts for the 15 years we lost. They’ve been doing it. So the product shows you that it works. So we have to keep going. We can’t look behind. We have to look forward and do it the right way.”
 
Bogaerts plays a big role in that. Not only giving the island immediate hope for the future, but also in making sure they don’t forget the past.
 
“There were times (in the offseason),” Kingsale says, “when Xander was working out with a group on the field, and if he saw us there he’d get everyone’s attention and tell them: ‘These guys opened the door for us!’”
 
Dykhoff adds: “Xander’s impact is something I’ve never seen in my life. Even if it’s just one guy, it makes the other guys hungry to get there. For the guys in the USA, and the guys coming up, he’s the idol right now. And the respect from him to us and from us to him is big. I admire him because he did something truly unbelievable.”
 
One of the prospects working out at the stadium is Vijandrick Jacobs, a left-handed pitcher in the Tigers’ system. After today’s session he’ll head to the Dominican Summer League for what he hopes is only six or seven starts, before making his way to America.
 
“Seeing Xander do this just gives you more courage to push and reach,” he says. “To just believe in yourself and never give up on your goals. If a guy from our small island can get there, it’s an open passage for everyone else.”
 
***
 
Tuesday, April 15 — 1:00 pm: I said goodbye to Kingsale and Dykhoff with only a little time to kill before my flight home. So I drove towards the airport, in search of somewhere to sit and relax, maybe have a drink and reflect on the trip, before dealing with customs and the rest of that horrible experience.
 
About two miles past Queen Beatrix, I pull into little roadside “takeaway” which is the equivalent of a newsstand but for alcohol. It’s like a kiosk with a bar and snacks — a place Arubans just go to relax and hang out.
 
I don’t get within 10 steps of this particular takeaway before someone yells:
 
“Hey! Xander! How you doing?”
 
It’s Mariano the cab driver.
 
And honestly, I’m a little freaked out. Even as I walk in and we start talking, I’m not sure he’s real. It feels like a set-up, or a hallucination. But I finally make peace with it as just a ridiculous coincidence.
 
Mariano starts buying beers and aggressively offering up his bag of original-flavored pork skins. They look kind of like Funyuns. Expect they’re pork skins. And I eat a few until he looks satisfied. I then tell him about everything I saw and learned since arriving on Sunday — but he’s mostly just excited that I visited that field in Lagos Heights.
 
“I told you about that, right?” he asks.
 
“Yes you did. Thanks, Mariano.”
 
“Yeah, I told you about that.”
 
After a few beers, it’s time to go. But not before Mariano gives me his number and tells me to give him a call whenever I need a ride on the island. He even invites me to go camping with his family.
 
“You just let me know,” he says. “You’re one of us now.”
 
***
 
Tuesday, April 15 — 5:00 pm: I’m back on the plane, en route to Boston from Queen Beatrix, and looking down on Aruba as it slowly disappears from sight.
 
I think about the story I came down to tell, about a small island with a big crush on a hometown hero.
 
And then the story I found, about a small island with a big crush — and a revamped outlook for the future.
 
It might not be fair to pin all that on Xander Bogaerts. Not fair to him, or to all the people working so hard back home while he’s off making moves in Boston. But either way, his success is at the center of it all.
 
Without it, Sandra Brown wouldn’t have the same platform to spread her message and empower not only women, but also young athletes (and their parents) across the island.
 
Without it, those young athletes would continue to dream without ever truly knowing if that dream is attainable.
 
Without it, the government may have never made that final push to hire Gene Kingsale and save a desperate baseball program.
 
Without it, Kingsale and Radhames Dykhoff would be two older guys preaching about “how things used to be”, as opposed to having the luxury to point directly at Fenway Park and say, “This is how things are now. THIS is what you can do.”
 
I think about the best way to wrap it all up, to put everything in perspective and bring this story to an end.
 
Even though the truth is that this story is just beginning.
 
Follow me on Twitter: @rich_levine