This story appears in the Aug. 7 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe to the magazine click here.
In his rare moments of repose, in between frightfully hurtling his 215-pound body against outfield walls and turf in pursuit of airborne baseballs, completing more dust-raising dashes around the bases than anybody in the American League and slugging like almost no leadoff hitter who ever lived, Astros outfielder George Springer will look high and low into the stands between pitches for the reason he plays baseball with such high-wattage ebullience.
There it is. Way up there. It may be in the third deck, a height at which no foul ball could possibly reach. There is a boy or girl with a baseball glove on, pounding a fist into the pocket, ready to make a play. Mom or Dad is there, too, and parent and child are sharing in the language of baseball.
“This is a game where the best part is looking in the stands and watching kids with their moms and dads,” Springer says. “You see them asking questions, smiling, having fun. This game is hard, but that’s humbling to see. I believe it’s my job to try to make as many people’s days as positive as I can.
“I’m having the best time of my life, not only to have a chance to play and live out my dream, but to see kids enjoying the game.”
The Astros are, as regular seasons go, a megateam on a historic scale. They steamrollered through their first 100 games with 67 wins and outscored opponents by 183 runs. Only two teams since World War II destroyed the opposition through 100 games like that: the 1998 Yankees and the 1969 Orioles.
The Astros are loaded with star power. Second baseman José Altuve leads the league in hits for the fourth straight year, shortstop Carlos Correa was halfway to 40 homers before tearing a thumb ligament on July 17 (he’s expected back in September), pitchers Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers are a combined 16–3, and veteran additions Carlos Beltrán, Brian McCann and Josh Reddick have provided perfect ballast for a young team filled with players who never have won a playoff series.
The Astros truly begin, however, with their leadoff hitter. Springer, 27, is the carbonation in their champagne, the vitamin D in their sunshine and the up-tempo beat in their song. “George’s energy, personality and enthusiasm set the tone for this team,” says manager A.J. Hinch. “He’s so important for this team because he is so likable and relatable. He connects with everyone, whether they are Latin American, pitchers, coaches, front office. . . . Everyone has a comfort level with George. They take their cue from George. Ask Altuve.”
“One hundred percent,” says Houston’s second baseman. “George is the heart and soul because of who he is on and off the field. We feed off his personality and his energy.”
How George Chelston Springer III came to be the leading man on the best team in the league is seemingly borrowed from young adult fiction, considering that he was ostracized as a child because of a stutter, experienced a game of catch at eight years old that “changed my life” and was so small when he began playing high school baseball that he weighed less than half of what he does today.
This is a baseball love story. The story begins with the first George Chelston Springer, who so loved baseball that one day in 1950, at the age of 17, he left his home in Panama alone and boarded a boat to America to pursue his dream of becoming a professional ballplayer. George pitched for four years at what was then Teachers College of Connecticut, but an arm injury ended his dream. He began teaching and coaching, and passed his love of the game to his son, George Jr., who played in the 1976 Little League World Series and became a walk-on football player at the University of Connecticut, where he met his wife, Laura, a gymnast from Puerto Rico. George Jr. then became a lawyer. He and Laura raised three children—George III and daughters Nicole and Lena—in New Britain, Conn., a blue-collar town where, as George Jr. says, “you could hear 22 different languages spoken.”
“I was exposed to what I thought was the definition of the world,” says George III. “It’s so diverse, but we’re all the same, hardworking people trying to make a living. You could hear Spanish and English in the Springer household, sometimes at the same time. When asked how he identified himself on forms that asked for ethnicity, he laughed and replied, “Man, I can check off a lot of boxes. I have a diverse background, but I put Hispanic. I guess I’m Latin American—I don’t really know what other word for it.”
When George was in third grade, his father noticed that his son’s stutter was becoming more pronounced. The family hired a speech therapist to help with coping mechanisms, but reaction from his peers caused George to withdraw in social settings. When the kids would visit a fast-food restaurant, Nicole would order for her brother. “It can be painful,” his father says, “when people view you as less intelligent and make you the subject of ridicule. He experienced his share of bullying. I don’t say teasing because that connotes something benign. It was something he was dealing with every day. In the back of a classroom he would be afraid to answer. You’re talking about a kid who abounds with enthusiasm.”
Says George, “It was a very isolating feeling. It makes you go into a shell and avoid being in public places and avoid speaking in public. It was tough.”
On a baseball field, however, George found such joy and comfort that his stutter would become less pronounced. His father built him a backyard batting cage. On windy days George Jr. would grab a tennis racket and tennis balls and take his son to the park to shag pop flies. The wind would hone his ball-tracking skills, and the light, bouncy tennis balls would soften his hands. The boy often hung out at games of the New Britain Rock Cats, the Double A affiliate of the Twins. George and his buddies would scavenge for batting practice home run balls. One day in 1998, George, then eight years old, was pounding one of those balls in his glove in the stands when one of the Rock Cats asked if he wanted to play catch. It was future big leaguer Torii Hunter.
“He changed my life,” Springer says. “I got a chance to play catch at the time with what I thought was a big leaguer. I didn’t know any better. He’s playing on a big diamond in a stadium with lights and a big scoreboard. It made me want to play baseball even more.
“There was something about the way he played, the style of his game, that I became interested in. He was always having fun, climbing a wall if he had to, sliding into home plate headfirst. I gravitated toward that stuff. He became my idol that day.”
As a freshman at New Britain High, Springer was “five-two, 100 pounds, soaking wet,” says Ken Kezer, the varsity baseball coach, who that year began his 41st and final season coaching. Kezer’s assistant coach on his first team, in 1967, was George’s grandfather, who died in 2006. “He was a great athlete,” Kezer says of George III. “He’d play JV in the afternoon and at night he’d play varsity, coming into the game in the fifth or sixth inning. He was the fastest kid on the team. He just knew how to go after a ball. And I just love how humble he is with everybody.
“He was a special type of kid with a lot of determination. But did I ever think he would be this big? Not in a million years. I only wish to God his grandpa could see him now.”
The next year George transferred to Avon Old Farms School, an all-boys boarding school near Hartford. Both father and son welcomed the school’s smaller class sizes and increased adult interaction. “It was extremely challenging the first few years,” Springer says, “because I couldn’t hide. I was forced to participate.”
One day another Avon student approached him. “Hey, I noticed that you have a stutter,” the boy said. “I have one too.”
Says George, “I was like, ‘Dude, sick! There’s somebody else.’ I had never met anyone who had one until I met this guy. I didn’t think anything of it at the time. He’s my friend. He has one. I have one. Who cares? And now, in hindsight, getting a chance to meet him and become friends slowly helped me, and I didn’t even know it.”
Over his junior and senior years Springer grew 12 inches and added nearly 100 pounds. By the time he enrolled at UConn, Springer could throw 95 mph from the outfield, run a 6.6 60 and mash home runs to all fields. The Astros took him with the 11th pick of the 2011 draft after his junior year.
Two years later, before a spring training game against Detroit, Astros manager Bo Porter told Springer, “Come with me. There’s somebody I want you to meet.” It was Hunter, then playing for the Tigers. Springer had told Porter about their game of catch 15 years earlier. Hunter and Springer became friends, with Hunter still proving to be an inspiration. “It’s a crazy number to have in my phone!” Springer says. “It’s special to get a text from him or give him a call.”
Springer reached the big leagues the next season, in 2014, and asked to wear number 4 to honor his parents and two sisters. He struck out more often (every 2.59 at bats) than any previous first-year player with 300 plate appearances. Three-quarters of the way through the season, he spoke with Hunter.
“I’m struggling,” Springer said.
“No you’re not,” Hunter replied.
“Are you kidding? Look at the scoreboard.”
“Man, how else are you going to get better if you don’t fail? At the end of the year you’re going to think you failed, but in reality you succeeded. And when you have some success, you’ll understand how hard this game is to play.”
Says Springer, “That was a big piece of advice.”
Every year since his rookie season Springer has reduced his K rate and improved his contact rate. In May of last year Hinch moved him from second in the lineup to leadoff, in part because the quality of his at bats had improved so much but also because Hinch could see how players feed off his energy. Late last year, however, Hinch had to call out Springer in a team meeting for not hustling—he was clocked at six seconds to first base running out a groundball. The next day Springer told Hinch, “I’ve never been called out before. I needed that.”
“I did it because how you play is so important,” Hinch replied, “because guys here follow you.”
The maturation of Springer needed another turning point. On May 25 this year, Springer went hitless in four at bats against Detroit, extending a slump to two hits in 25 at bats. He was frustrated because he was hitting the ball hard with little to show for it. That night, upon returning home, his fiancée, Charlise Castro, greeted him with a friendly, “How are you?”
Springer was in no mood for niceties: “Of everything you could say to me, that’s what you have to say to me?”
Springer heard the anger in his voice and it stopped him. Wow, he thought, I’m letting a game affect me and who I am.
Castro told him to sit down. She put on The Cosby Show. They laughed. He made a decision. The next day he sought out Beltrán, whose worry-free approach Springer admires.
“From this day forward,” he told the veteran, “if you see me get down on myself, I want you to punch me in the back of the head.”
Says Springer, “I had to go back to having fun. I wasn’t having fun because I wasn’t quote-unquote having success. I said, ‘I’m just going to have fun from here on out,’ and it’s made the difference for me.”
That night he went 2 for 4, starting a .389 tear over his next 40 games that carried him through his first All-Star Game. It was at that game in Miami that Fox asked Springer, the stutterer who once hid in the back of the classroom, to become the first player to do a live interview while miked up on the field during a game. Springer jumped at the chance. “If you’re speaking about something that makes you comfortable, you’ll speak a lot more free. My college coach told me that my freshman year, that I don’t stutter when I’m talking about something I like talking about. I’m like, ‘I still don’t participate in class, I don’t want to talk about school,’ and I was like, ‘He’s right. I might as well be the same guy out there that I am on the field.’ And that’s when it all started to change for me.”
Springer hosted his third annual bowling event in Houston in June to benefit a camp run by the Stuttering Association for the Young. Springer is the spokesman for Camp SAY, a two-week gathering for young people who stutter and their family and friends. The camp aims to address the kind of isolation Springer experienced. “My message,” he says, “is you can’t let anything you can’t control stop you from being who you want to be. Being part of that organization has helped me more than it’s helped a lot of people because it’s forced me to come out of my shell even more.”
It’s been a breakout year in many ways. Springer, who is expected to return soon from a left-quad injury, has 27 homers, putting him within range of the record of 39 homers by a leadoff hitter, set by Alfonso Soriano in 2006. He is slugging .593, within range of the leadoff record of .596 by Hanley Ramirez in 2007. This month, with more than $400,000 awarded to families in need, he will send more children with a stutter to summer camp. And he is making plans for a wedding, having proposed to Charlise before this season. They’ve already talked about a George Chelston Springer IV. “That’s the plan,” he says, “unless we have all girls!”
He laughs, and his eyes grow big, the way they do when he is diving in the outfield, sliding into bases and loving the responsibility of leading the way for the best team in the history of a franchise that has never won the World Series. “What I love most,” he says, “is getting the chance to go be a kid and be accepted. I can go out and dance around or kick grass or sit here and joke around with my teammates. This game allows me to be who I am and let a lot of people see it.”
There were many days back in New Britain when George Jr. would throw batting practice to George III, and Laura, Nicole and Lena would be in the outfield shagging baseballs. “One more bucket,” the boy would always say. Today George and Laura’s son is a major league star, and they see the same joy. A generational baseball love story continues.
“I look out there now,” Laura says, “and see him in that number 4, and knowing why he wears it makes a mother so proud. And what I see is that same 12-year-old boy, just having fun. He’s the same George. Always will be.”