FORT MYERS, Fla. — It was an unfamiliar sound, especially for a 15-year-old.
You had to be there to know how loud it was. As though glass were breaking on the baseball field. Maybe it was some big leaguer taking batting practice, thought Goose Gregson, the Red Sox’ longtime pitching adviser. Gregson was on one of his trips as the team’s Latin American pitching coordinator, assisting players in the Dominican Republic summer league.
Gregson acknowledges that he knows little about hitting. He cut his teeth in the minors for seven seasons back in the 1970s, yet his 52 years of baseball count for something more than just pitching. He has read plenty of hitters’ swings.
“I didn’t know how to get hitters out, that’s why I’m now a coach,” he says.
He also has heard enough balls being hit right on the barrel of the bat to know how to separate a special hitter from the impostors.
The imposing sound grew as Gregson walked across the field on his way out to the bullpen. “CRACK! CRACK!”
Then Gregson saw Rafael Devers.
“Here’s this dumpy 15-year-old kid and I’m watching him hit balls out of left field, right field, and center field,” said Gregson, who added that it did not require a trained professional to see Devers’s big-league potential.
Now he’s 26, and Devers is a big leaguer and then some. He’s a two-time All-Star, a World Series champion, and he owns a Silver Slugger award. He holds the team record for homers by a third baseman.
He’s also the ray of hope for the Red Sox, the franchise player the team has hitched its wagon to for the foreseeable future, the one sure thing it has.
Since 2019, Devers leads Major League Baseball in hits, extra-base hits, doubles, and total bases. That earned him a 10-year, $313.5 million contract extension this offseason, a dream come true to those involved in his development, from Manny Nanita, the scout who discovered Devers, to executive vice president and assistant general manager Eddie Romero, who signed Devers.
“You hope to one day find a player that becomes a cornerstone franchise player and a perennial All-Star and somebody that you could build around,” Romero said.
At the foundation of Devers’s success is a competitive fervor that can sometimes be overlooked because of his bright smile and jovial energy. He has a merciless personality that can be swept underneath one’s cleats because his nickname is “Carita” — Spanish for “baby face.”
For much of the spring, Devers has been defined by the absences around him. The departure of stars such as Xander Bogaerts, one of Devers’s closest friends, still lingers. He has been questioned about his contract, and whether it means he should now step into a leadership role. His smile often defines him, too.
But just how competitive is he?
“Ha!” Devers exclaimed while seated in the home dugout at JetBlue Park recently, as if he were shocked someone would ask him such a thing.
“I’m very competitive,” Devers said through team interpreter Carlos Villoria Benitez. “That’s what motivates me to go out there every day. I don’t like to lose. I hate losing, and that’s one of the things that drives me every day. I love to be out there because you compete every day. You compete against yourself and against everybody.”
Devers has a no-frills type of personality. Even though he’s $300 million richer, he still comes to the ballpark in simple attire: jeans, T-shirt, and shoes. Similar to former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson approaching the ring in just his trunks and shoes. No robe. He was already ready to fight.
“Competitiveness is one of the traits that we see when we’re looking for our sixth tool in addition to the historical traits,” Romero said. “He’s just competitive. That’s his nature.”
Devers is the star power for this Red Sox team, though he doesn’t quite see it that way.
“Right now I just feel comfortable with my teammates,” Devers said. “It was an adjustment but not as big as everybody will imagine.”
After being called up in 2017, Devers lived in the shadows despite his play.
But the competitiveness in him doesn’t allow him to wallow in the dirt around home plate or third base. Despite the low expectations for his team from the outside world, Devers is stubborn enough, competitive enough, to believe his play can be a catalyst toward his team’s overall success.
‘I don’t like to lose. I hate losing, and that’s one of the things that drives me every day. I love to be out there because you compete every day. You compete against yourself and against everybody.’
He has never questioned his ability to impact winning. He has never questioned himself. Even after a breakout 2019 season in which Devers made his initial imprint as a young star, he didn’t really view it as an affirmation of his talent. He always knew that version of himself existed.
“Since I got signed, I have always had very good years,” Devers said.
What led to that signing was first Nanita, and ultimately Romero. During the summer of 2012, while Devers was still an amateur, Romero remembered seeing the chunky 15-year-old wrap a homer around the left-field foul pole off a lefty.
“What 15-year-old can do that?” Romero asked himself.
Devers was born with the hitter’s gene. But that hitter’s gene wouldn’t have found its mark in Boston if it weren’t for his competitiveness.
You have to be tough and strong-willed to navigate the minors as a player coming from Latin America. There’s so much unknown. So much newness. So much is at stake for many young Latin players carrying the dreams and hopes of a family. They are kids, after all.
“A lot of our young kids come over and they’re a little intimidated,” Gregson said. “Clearly so, they’re coming into a world they’ve never been in before. Devers was never shy. He believed in himself. He knew what he was capable of doing and he stood out.”
He stands out even more now. The baby face, the talent, the sound off his bat, and the smile.
But just make sure competitiveness is somewhere in there, too.
Read more from our Red Sox season preview
- ‘This group knows what we can do but the world doesn’t:’ Whether it’s confidence or cockiness, Red Sox manager Alex Cora has it
- Dueling columns | Alex Speier: Why projection systems don’t like the 2023 Red Sox
- Dueling columns | Peter Abraham: For an unpredictable Red Sox team, let’s call it 86 wins and in contention for a playoff spot
- MLB season predictions: Will the Red Sox make the playoffs? Our staff doesn’t think so.
Julian McWilliams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @byJulianMack.