Turn on a game featuring last year’s American League champion, the Cleveland Indians, though, and there you’ll see someone who explodes the either/ors. Francisco Lindor, a 23-year-old Puerto Rican shortstop with a permanent smile and hands as quick as a camera-flash, is an excellent player by any measure, and prodigious considering his age. He bats second and shepherds the infield; he plucks grounders and laces doubles from both sides of the plate. He is cool and clutch, and given the option to start a team with any player, general managers might select only two or three ahead of him. To the greater institution of baseball, though, Lindor is something even more than a nascent superstar. He is a possible blueprint for an inclusive future, one that satisfies the classicists and kids alike.
“When you’re thinking about players that can be marketed to both sell the game and grow the game, Fransisco Lindor’s got to be on the short list,” Dan Shulman, ESPN’s lead baseball play-by-play announcer, said during the Indians’ season opener against the Texas Rangers last week. “Absolutely,” the analyst Jessica Mendoza agreed. “The smile, the energy he brings along with the talent? That, to me, is what makes him so dynamic.”
Lindor was only doing what every ballplayer does four or five times a night, stepping into the batter’s box and going through his routine of helmet-nudges and cleat-digs before raising his bat to his shoulder. But he was shot through with a palpable magnetism, of the same sort that draws eyes to the NBA’s Stephen Curry or the NFL’s Aaron Rodgers. The smile was just part of it. Wiry and wide-eyed, glancing around, Lindor projects not dominance but a blend of curiosity and eagerness. The game remains a challenge for him, the viewer senses, albeit a very fun one.
Cleveland won that night, with Lindor going hitless but playing his usual expert defense. Two evenings later, though, would come his first heroic turn of the year. With the Indians trailing the Rangers by two runs in the sixth inning—a rare Lindor error had contributed to the deficit—he hit a right-handed home run to pull them within one. In the ninth, behind by the same margin but with the bases loaded, Lindor homered again, left-handed this time, moving his bat in a perfect arc and buzzing the pitch over the rightfield wall. Rounding the bases, Lindor pumped his fists, shouted, and nearly made off with the hands of the first- and third-base coaches as he shook them. The Indians’ broadcast booth went ecstatic: “His first career grand slam, and what a time to hit it!”
A sense of timing permeates Lindor’s young career. He is not the best player in baseball, yet, but he is the one most obviously touched by fortune. Mike Trout, a bulky and bullet-fast hitting machine, remains the game’s consensus finest, but he is stuck in Anaheim, playing for a team that has reached the postseason only once during his time in the Majors. Bryce Harper, who at 16 had a Sports Illustrated cover to his credit and at 23 added an MVP award, seems alternately energized and burdened by his celebrity. Lindor’s trajectory, by comparison, has been a steady rise. He placed second in Rookie of the Year voting in his first season, played for a World Series runner-up in his second, and now, in his third, enjoys the comfort of experience with none of the anxiety of too-soon fame. He helps an excellent team instead of carrying a middling one. He would likely not trade his lot for that of any of his peers.