In October of last year, the Red Sox won the World Series for the third time in 10 seasons, and when they did, there was a big party in Boston.
It started on Wednesday night, with Game 6 against the Cardinals, and lasted until Sunday morning, as the last stragglers (and Mike Napoli) walked home after the championship parade.
It was a lot of fun, but you already know that. You were probably there. Or saw it on TV. Or read about it online. But you might not know that when the party stopped in Boston, another one started almost immediately in Aruba.
That party was for Xander Bogaerts.
Even before the World Series, Bogaerts was considered a hometown hero. On August 20, the 20-year-old had become only the fifth player in Aruba’s history to make it to the major leagues. As well as the first one to do it in more than 15 years.
But on November 3, when he returned home as Aruba’s first ever World Series champion, something changed. It all clicked. The hometown hero was now the island’s biggest celebrity, and in the six months since, Xander Bogaerts has impacted Aruba in a way that few on the island have ever seen.
That’s what this story is about.
It’s also about baseball. It’s about family and friends. Fame and responsibility. Defying the odds. Most of all, it’s a story about three days on the island of Aruba, following the trail left by Xander Bogaerts’ success.
Sunday, April 13 — 1:00 pm: I’d like to say “Welcome to Aruba” but I’m not there yet. I’m en route, on a direct flight from Logan to Queen Beatrix International Airport.
Where exactly? I don’t know. But the pilot just checked in with an update on the seat belts and said that he’ll have us on the ground in about an hour.
We’re approaching Aruba from the north, but the city of San Nicolas is located on the southeast end of the island. Geographically speaking, San Nicolas is to Aruba what Alabama, Mississippi and the Florida panhandle are to the United States. If you’re talking population, San Nicolas is the island’s second largest city, with some 18,000 residents.
One of those residents is Sandra Brown, and right about now, she’s sitting at the kitchen table inside the four-bedroom house where she’s lived for most of her adult life. The same house where, not so long ago, she raised three children — a daughter and twin sons — as a single mother and full-time social worker.
Sandra’s still very close with her kids, but these days, they’re spread out across the world. Her daughter, Chandra, lives and works in Hong Kong. One of her sons, Jair, still lives part-time on the island, but travels often for his job with a Beverly Hills-based sports agent. Her other son, Xander, lives in Boston, where he works for the local baseball team.
More on him in a second, but first, back to mom.
She’s still sitting in the kitchen, but now she’s overcome with an uneasy feeling that she’s not alone. There’s someone else at the house. In this case, out by the back door, which she left open earlier that day. She can’t really explain it, but you know the feeling. It’s eerie. She just knows that someone’s out there.
So, she walks over and peaks outside . . .
And sees two young boys from the neighborhood, maybe nine or 10 years old, sitting on their bikes and just staring at the house. They see her, too. And at this point, one of them hops off his bike and shuffles up to the door.
“Maam,” he says, “Is Xander Bogaerts reeeeally in the major leagues?”
Over the past year, moments like this (although not always as cute) have become pretty common for Sandra Brown. It barely fazes her anymore.
That’s just life on the island when you’re the mother of Aruba’s most famous son.
Sunday, April 13 — 2:30 pm: Landed. And now I’m in a cab, heading towards my hotel, with a driver named Mariano at the helm.
Mariano looks to be in his late-50s, with brown hair and a graying mustache. And while neither of us knows it yet, we’re destined to become great friends. Two days from now, we’ll spend my final hours on the island drinking beers and sharing a bag of pork skins at a random roadside bar.
But for now, it’s only small talk. I just told him that I’m here to write a story about Xander Bogaerts and Mariano’s pretty happy about that. He immediately tells me how proud Aruba is of Xander. He mentions Sandra Brown and the incredible job she did raising her kids. He also lets me know about a baseball field in Lagos Heights that was recently dedicated in Bogaerts’ honor.
I didn’t know about this field before making the trip, but the news doesn’t surprise me. That’s why I’m here. This kind of thing has been going on all year.
For instance, there was the party that started literally the second Bogaerts arrived home after Boston’s championship parade. As he left the airport, confetti shot into the sky, and he was led down a red carpet, with screaming fans lined up on either side. The path led into a stretch hummer limo, which ushered him around the island, where he greeted more fans, signed autographs and posed for photos.
He even kissed a baby.
A week later, Bogaerts was back on the red carpet, this time as the inaugural inductee into Aruba’s “Walk of Stars”, which is basically their version of the Hollywood Walk of Fame. During the event, Aruba’s prime minister declared Xander “a hero, and exemplary role model for island youth.”
Nearly six months later, Bogaerts’ star still sits alone on the Walk of Stars.
Which is to say, they created the whole thing just for him.
Stories like this peaked my interest. I wanted to learn more about the ways this 21-year-old kid, the presumed future of Boston baseball, was re-shaping life in the present back home. So, I came down to the island, hoping to talk to some people —
People like Mariano. Who’s now on a rant about Sidney Ponson, the most recent Aruban to play in the majors:
“He had a chance to play for the Yankees!” he screams, with fire coming out of his mustache. “But he was too busy waterskiing!”
I don’t know what this means, but I know I like Mariano.
We pull up to the hotel, and say goodbye. I figured for the last time.
According to the most recent census, Aruba is home to only 102,384 people. That would rank the island 277th on the list of most populated US cities — right between Pompano Beach, FL and Broken Arrow, OK.
Xander Bogaerts might not technically live here at the moment, but Aruba will always be his home. After all, he was born in Aruba. Save for a short stint in neighboring Bonaire, he grew up in Aruba. He discovered baseball in Aruba. And in May of 2009, baseball returned the favor.
The story of that discovery has already become legend around the island. It’s a story that’s also been relayed a few times in the states. So, maybe you’re familiar. Either way, a story like this never gets old.
Here it is again, or for the first time, in abbreviated form:
Prologue: A Red Sox scout named Mike Lord arrives in Aruba, on the hunt for new talent, but with minimal expectations that he’ll find any. After all, it had been 11 years since the island produced a major leaguer. Looking for a superstar in Aruba was like looking for a four-leaf clover in a sand dune.
Act 1: On a Sunday afternoon, Lord sets up an open tryout and his suspicions are confirmed. He sees a lot of players, and zero that excite him. Well, except for a young catcher named Jair Bogaerts, who doesn’t blow Lord away but impresses with his bat strength.
Act 2: Lord inquires about Bogaerts, and the most common response is: “If you like him, you should see his brother.”
The only problem is that Jair’s brother was at home — bedridden with a fever and the chicken pox.
Lord gets word of his interest to Xander, who then begs his aunt* for permission to leave the house and tryout.
Finally and somewhat reluctantly, she gives the go ahead.
(*Sandra Brown was away, working on location in neighboring Bonaire.)
Act 3: The next morning, a sickly and disheveled Xander meets Lord at the field. First, he takes batting practice, and launches two rockets over the left field fence. Next, he plays in a scrimmage, and dazzles with his effortless grace and athleticism in the field. Before long, one thing becomes very clear to Mike Lord —
He found the four-leaf clover.
Act 4: He immediately e-mails a video of Bogaerts to Craig Shipley, the Sox vice president of international scouting, who immediately boards a plane to Aruba. A few days later, Lord and Shipley attend one of Bogaert’s games and fall even more deeply in love with his talent.
Act 5: By the end of the week, the Red Sox sign the young shortstop for $410,000.
As part of the deal, they also sign Jair for $180,000.
Epilogue: Sandra won’t let Xander even think about professional baseball until he finishes high school. Which he does, and then embarks on a meteoric rise through the Red Sox farm system. From the Dominican Summer League to Greenville, South Carolina to Salem, Virginia to Portland, Maine to Pawtucket, Rhode Island.
On August 19, 2013, he’s called up to the majors.
The following night in San Francisco, four years and three months after his bout with the chicken pox, Xander Bogaerts makes his MLB debut.
Sunday, April 13 — 5:00 pm: After I left Mariano, it took three tries to rent a car. The first place was closed. The second place was sold out. All the third place had left was one tiny Chevrolet Spark. (I’ve always dreamed of driving a car named after a WNBA mascot.)
I’m staying in Palm Beach, on the southwest coast of the island. Let’s call it the New Mexico to San Nicolas’ Alabama. And once I get settled, the plan is to drive.
Take a quick lap around the island (it’s only five miles long and 19 miles wide), get feel for everything around me and maybe strike up a few conversations along the way.
I head east along the coast towards San Nicolas, and realize that there’s not much going on. It’s Sunday evening, and most of the businesses are already closed. Before long, I pass a tiny hut with a sign that’s advertising beer and ribs. A lone employee sits behind the bar, staring down at his phone. It looks like he could use some company.
So, I park across the street and walk over, but he doesn’t see me coming. He’s still staring at his phone. Now I’m just about over his shoulder, and he still hasn’t flinched. I soon realize that this is because he’s looking at porn. He’s in a trance. Just swiping away at picture after picture of big, naked butts. Finally, he sees me, and nearly passes out in shock. Next, I learn that he doesn’t speak English, and since I don’t speak Papiamento, this makes conversation impossible. But I feel bad, so I order beer and drink it silence as he stands in the opposite corner, back to staring at his phone, with a creepy smile that leaves me fearing for the safety of the island’s children.
Sunday, April 13 — 8:00 pm: It’s Sunday night, but not just any Sunday night. Not in Aruba, at least. That’s because the Red Sox and Yankees are playing on Sunday Night Baseball, and that means the island’s two favorite players — Xander Bogaerts and Derek Jeter — are going head-to-head on the game’s biggest regular season stage.
For what it’s worth, Aruba loves Jeter. They love his rings. They love his even temperament. They just love the way he plays the game. Before Bogaerts, Jeter was the player that every kid on the island idolized. That’s why Bogaerts himself wears No. 2.
I’m watching the game at the Touchdown Sports Bar & Grille, on a second floor patio in Palm Beach, across from an imposing line-up of high rise hotels. The bartender’s name is Dave, but he prefers to go by D.O.C., aka the Don of Cocktails.
Doc’s in his late-30s and grew up in Aruba as a diehard Yankees fan. So much so that his lifelong dream was to one day move to the Bronx and live in the shadow of Yankee Stadium. He eventually fulfilled that dream, but it wasn’t all he hoped it would be. After a few more stops, he made his way back home.
“He’s our hero now,” Doc tells me, as Bogaerts steps to the plate in the top of the first. “Even if you talk to a Yankee fan like me, I have no problem saying it. We’re proud of him.”
There’s another bartender named Ray, who grew up with Bogaerts. They played baseball together as kids. Ray quit at a young age, and is now training to become an MMA fighter, but when he talks about those early years on the diamond, he shakes his head in amazement and can barely keep from laughing.
“Man, Xander just always had it,” he says. “From the time we were young, there was no question that he would make it.”
I already told you that Bogaerts is the fifth player from Aruba to make it the majors, but for future reference, here are four things that you should know about the four guys who came before him:
1. They all made their debuts over a 22-month period between September 3, 1996 and June 7, 1998. The first was a 20-year-old outfielder named Gene Kingsale. The last was a 23-year-old lefty named Radhames Dykhoff. In between, a pair of right-handed pitchers, Calvin Maduro and Ponson, joined the party.
2. Three of the four broke in with the Orioles. The fourth (Maduro) did so with Philadelphia, but only after being traded there by the Orioles. This wasn’t a coincidence, as all four had been discovered by Jesus Halabi, an Orioles scout who lived on the island at the time.
3. The boys, all within two years in age, came from four different parts of Aruba, but Halabi noticed one similar characteristic: Major League potential. So, he brought them together. He explained what he believed to be possible, if they were willing to commit themselves to the dream. And they were. And they did. Not only as individuals, but as a group. Over the years, they trained together. They hung out together. They became friends. They leaned on each other throughout the emotional roller coaster that accompanies any long-distance path to the big leagues.
4. After the dream became a reality for all four, Aruba rejoiced. It felt like the start of something special for an island that had always loved baseball, but never had anything to show for it at the game’s highest level.
Sunday, April 13 — 11:30 pm: The Sox lost 3-2. Bogaerts went 1-4. Jeter didn’t even play. That was too bad, but what can you do? Joe Girardi wasn’t hired to keep Aruba happy.
I’m still inside the bar, and I’m talking to the Huberts, aka Hubert and Hubert, aka Hubert Solagnier Sr. and Hubert Solagnier Jr. — the father/son team that owns and operates Touchdown.
Hubert Jr. spent four years living in the Boston area while earning a Sports and Fitness degree at Salem State.
“His attitude was just unbelievable,” he says about Bogaerts. “He was so humble. He had such a work ethic. Before him, we had Sidney Ponson in the major leagues, and he was the opposite. He had talent, but . . .”
Hubert Sr. jumps in: “If we throw a party here, he’s not going to be invited.”
He’s joking, but not really.
“There’s a lot of talent on the island,” Hubert Jr. tells me. “And there always has been. But it had been such a long time since someone made it.”
“What was the problem?” I ask.
“Life is too easy here,” he says. “Younger players never want to work. But Xander was always different.”
Hubert Jr. also gives me the phone number of a man named Edson Kelly, an international scout in the Royals organization, who worked with Bogaerts while the shortstop was home in the offseason.
I thank him, and say goodnight.
Aruba’s 15-year major league drought didn’t sit well on the island. Not after the success of the late-90s. And certainly not while neighboring Curacao — only 70 miles to Aruba’s east — slowly transformed into a mini-baseball factory.
(In ’98, Aruba and Curacao were even, each having sent four players to the major leagues. During Aruba’s black out, Curacao developed another 10.)
Before long, the drought became a source of great disappointment and frustration. Year after year, Aruba watched young prospects come up through the ranks. Some had just as much promise as Bogaerts would later show. Many signed professional contracts. But ultimately, they either never made it out of the developmental leagues in Venezuela and Santa Domingo, or flamed out in Single A.
So, what went wrong?
First of all, there’s something to the theory about life being too easy on the island.
There’s a reason that 1.5 million people vacation in Aruba every year. It’s literally paradise. And not just for tourists. Even if you live and work on the island, it doesn’t take much to have a very peaceful, stress-free and sun-soaked life.
On the other hand, making the majors is incredibly hard. The road can get treacherous no matter where you’re from. And for many young Aruban players, when the going got tough, the lure of life in paradise got the best of them.
Of course, Kingsale, Maduro, Ponson and Dykhoff had all grown up there, too. But those four had something that this next generation of Aruban prospects didn’t.
They had each other. If one of them quit, he wouldn’t just be quitting on himself, he’d be quitting on his friends. And in the years after those four made it, that sense of unity ceased to exist on the island.
Whether it was a matter of ego, or just the cutthroat nature of competition, these new prospects didn’t really get along. For the most part, they trained alone; working against each other instead of taking on the fight together.
So, in the end, I guess the question of what went wrong for 15 years in Aruba is most simply answered like this:
The players didn’t have the right work ethic and they didn’t have enough support.
Which leads to another question:
What made Xander Bogaerts so different?
And that’s the end of Part 1.
Click here for Part 2.
Follow me on Twitter at @rich_levine