Francisco Lindor was ready; he was sure of it.
A first-round bonus baby, he’d excelled at every minor league stop, from the Lake Country Captains to the Columbus Clippers, and he’d done it as the youngest everyday player at nearly every level. As a 20-year-old, in the late summer of 2014—just three years after leaving Montverde (Fla.) Academy—he was putting the finishing touches on a season in which he had made the Futures Game, honed his defense at shortstop and improved both his mechanics and approach at the plate (batting .276 for the year). He had done everything the Indians’ organization had asked, and he eagerly awaited the payoff: a September call-up to the big leagues.
It didn’t happen on the first day of the month, when rosters officially expand. It didn’t happen six days later, after Lindor’s Clippers were eliminated from the International League playoffs. That’s when vice president of player development Ross Atkins pulled his phenom aside to explain there would be no call-up.
“We have a shortstop,” he told Lindor. Jose Ramirez—Lindor’s former keystone combo partner at three levels of the farm system—had joined Cleveland earlier that year, been switched to shortstop and hit passably (.262) while displaying an above-average glove. “He has played better than you have, and it wouldn’t be fair to him to take him out,” Atkins said. “He’s helping the team win.”
Lindor was taken aback. Everywhere he had gone, there had been no question where he would slot in—between second base and third—no matter who was there before him. “In Low A, I was going to start,” he says. “In High A, I was going to start. In Double A, I was going to start. In Triple A—but then I didn’t get called up [to the majors] because it was his job.”
Lindor looked at Atkins and paused. “Thank you,” he said.
Today Lindor and Ramirez share the infield again—Lindor at short, Ramirez at third. They share a lot, in fact. Both grew up on Caribbean islands and found themselves in Cleveland full-time in their early 20s. They enjoyed simultaneous national coming-out parties this postseason as they have combined for 30 hits and nine RBIs. But if their origins and destinations seem similar, their journeys bear little resemblance to one another.
Lindor grew up in Gurabo, Puerto Rico, about 20 miles southeast of San Juan. His parents divorced when he was young, and though his father, Miguel, worked in the mayor’s office in San Juan, the family was never well off. Young Francisco would at times use a crumpled piece of paper as a ball and a broomstick as a bat. School uniform shirts cost $50 each, so he made do with two and washed them often. When Francisco was 12, he enrolled at Montverde, a boarding school outside Orlando, with a good baseball program. He spoke no English, but he thrived on the diamond. The Indians selected him eighth in the 2011 draft—one pick after countryman Javier Baez, the Cubs' second baseman who attended Arlington Country Day, a rival Florida high school—and gave him a $2.9 million signing bonus. When 17-year-old Lindor reported to the Low A Mahoning Valley Scrappers that August, everyone knew he was Cleveland’s shortstop of the future.
Ramirez, meanwhile, had arrived two months earlier—with somewhat less fanfare.
“Jose was not close to being a top prospect,” John Mirabelli, the Indians’ scouting director, said in The Plain Dealer in August. Ramirez was born in Bani, on the southern coast of the Dominican Republic, and although he quit school at 14 to focus on baseball, no one else seemed to share his confidence in his athletic prowess. Local buscons—the word translates as “searchers” but more accurately means agents, who identify players as young as eight and advise them for a sizable cut of their signing bonuses in return—ignored Jose. He cut an unimpressive figure, short and stocky and a little awkward-looking, and he only cracked the lineup in “prospect league” games, in which players show off for scouts, when a bona fide prospect couldn’t make it. But when he did get the chance to play, he hit. Today he says he was able to stay cool in the 2016 postseason because, as a teenager, the stakes were higher than the Commissioner’s Trophy.
“I played in an informal league in the Dominican where people were betting on the games, so it put a lot of pressure on you,” Ramirez says in Spanish. “There were times when they’d say something like, ‘We’ll give you 2,000 pesos [about $45] if you get a hit.’ You’re coming from somewhere where it’s not easy to get 2,000 pesos, so knowing if you get a hit you can earn that money—that’s big. Sometimes if you didn’t get a hit, they would get upset to the point of fighting.... That’s where I learned if you’re more relaxed, things are going to be better.”
Ramirez was 17 when the Indians signed him in 2009 for a bonus of $50,000, a quarter of the average amount Dominican players received at the time, and sent him to their academy in Guerra. Two years later, he was promoted to their rookie league team in Arizona.
For the next three years, Lindor and Ramirez overlapped in the minors, with Lindor always at shortstop and Ramirez bouncing around the diamond. That is, until Jason Kipnis went on the DL on May 2, 2014, and Ramirez was called up. After being passed over, Lindor spent the winter and spring focusing on playing in the moment rather than getting ahead of himself. Coaches and the front office were interested to see how Lindor, a player who had never struggled at any level, would respond to a little adversity, to see if he could tap into what they saw was his limitless potential. Lindor’s offensive numbers had always been good and he had always made the spectacular plays in the field, but he would occasionally make a careless baserunning decision or get lazy on a routine ground ball. The word “complacent” had been tossed around. The disappointment of his abbreviated 2014 season changed everything.
“Early in his career he wasn’t as bought in to what he had to do to get there,” says Chris Tremie, his Clippers manager. “He was more about making great plays in the field and getting his hits, but coming into spring training [after the conversation with Atkins], he started to focus on little things to contribute to wins. He wasn’t always trying to make the miraculous double play, but making the play you need to get an out.”
By early 2015, Lindor had supplanted Ramirez at short. Ramirez faltered at the plate that season, batting .180, and was briefly demoted to Columbus, before returning to the Indians for good on Aug. 3 and seeing time at second and third and in leftfield.
“Both of them would probably have gotten to where they’re at right now, helping the major league club,” says Tremie, who also coached Ramirez after the infielder was sent down. “But [the competition] sure sped it up.”
At 5'11" and a muscular 190 pounds, graceful and constantly beaming, Lindor is the face of the franchise and the anchor of the infield. Ramirez, a heavyset 5'9", 180, with his odd arm-pumping gait and workmanlike, quiet demeanor, could be a clubhouse guy.
Lindor, 22, has become the stud everyone expected him to be, pairing the diving backhanded stops and bullet throws to first with the ability to line lasers to all fields from either side of the plate. He was rewarded this season with his first All-Star appearance. He has flourished in the postseason, batting .370 with five RBIs.
And Ramirez has become the player no one—except maybe Ramirez himself—saw coming. His 46 doubles ranked second in the league in 2016, and he was the fifth-hardest man to strike out in baseball among players who played a full season. Less flashy than Lindor, he was nearly as effective and more versatile. The 24-year-old hit in every spot in the order and manned second, short and left capably this season, but by August he settled in at third after the Indians cut aging veteran Juan Uribe. Still, Ramirez’s ability to play any position and bat in any spot allowed manager Terry Francona to keep other players in their comfort zones.
“I use Jose as an example for the guys,” says David Wallace, who managed Lindor and Ramirez at Class A Lake Country in Eastlake, Ohio, and now heads up the Double A Akron Rubberducks. “If you’re a shortstop in our organization, you see who’s at shortstop in Cleveland and say, ‘Where am I going to go?’ So we talk about versatility.”
Their five-year competition is over. For the foreseeable future, Lindor seems locked in at short and Ramirez at third, a welcome development for Tribe fans. “I’m happy for him,” Lindor says. “I’m happy for myself. I’m happy for the organization.”