SAN DIEGO — The best shortstop in the American League keeps a large container of animal crackers in his locker along with a bright orange soccer ball he enjoys kicking around the field before games.
So this will not be a story about how 23-year-old Xander Bogaerts is mature beyond his years.
He really likes his animal crackers.
“Honestly? I’m either playing baseball or I’m on my PlayStation,” Bogaerts said. “I’m still young. This is all new to me.”
When Bogaerts takes the field on Tuesday night for what will likely be the first of many All-Star Games, it will not be with any sense of entitlement or arrogance. In many ways, he is the same 16-year-old kid former Red Sox scout Mike Lord first saw play in Aruba in 2009.
It wasn’t until Lord returned with a contract that Bogaerts thought playing in the majors was even possible.
In countries such as the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, baseball represents a path to a better life and the competition to catch the eyes of a scout is fierce. It wasn’t that way in Aruba. For Bogaerts, baseball was fun the same way soccer and softball were.
“Xander has not changed, not a bit. He’s just taller,” said Texas Rangers infielder Jurickson Profar, a longtime friend from Curacao and former rival in schoolboy tournaments in the Caribbean. “He has never acted like he was good.
“I’d see him play and tell him. ‘You’re going to the majors.’ He would always shake his head. But that is what makes him good. He plays without pressure.”
That is reflected in his statistics. Bogaerts is hitting .329 this year, sixth in the majors, with an .863 OPS. Through 85 games he has 32 extra-base hits and 56 RBIs. With runners in scoring position, his batting average pops up to .351, the best on the team.
Bogaerts also has been the team’s everyday shortstop for two years now, ending a revolving door of starters that spun wildly for 10 years after the trade of Nomar Garciaparra in 2004.
Before Bogaerts, there was Orlando Cabrera, Edgar Renteria, Alex Gonzalez, Julio Lugo, Marco Scutaro, Mike Aviles, and assorted others. Now there could be one shortstop for 10 years.
“He’s taken the position and run with it,” manager John Farrell said. “To see what he’s done since making his debut, it’s so impressive.”
That run wasn’t a straight line. Because Bogaerts contributed to a World Series championship as a 20-year-old in 2013, it’s easy to forget the hurdles put in his way a year later.
Bogaerts was installed as the starting shortstop in 2014 and hit .289 with an .816 OPS through the first two months of the season. But with the Red Sox struggling, former general manager Ben Cherington decided to sign free agent Stephen Drew and move Bogaerts to third base.
Drew had performed well for the Sox at shortstop in 2013 but was unwanted as a free agent because he was attached to draft-pick compensation
But Drew represented the past and Bogaerts the future, and the move only dropped the Sox deeper into last place.
Drew hit .176 and rarely contributed. Worse, Bogaerts hit .182 as a third baseman and played poorly in the field. At the time, he said he understood the situation. But those were words he did not believe.
“That was the hardest part of my life, when they moved me there. I lost all my confidence,” Bogaerts said. “They were telling me I couldn’t play shortstop and now I was showing I couldn’t play third base.”
Bogaerts did not feel established enough to complain to Farrell or Cherington. Beyond that, what could he say? His agent, Scott Boras, also represented Drew.
“I never said anything but I was pretty upset,” he said. “I don’t know how that all went down. Maybe I don’t want to know. I’m in a better place now.”
Drew was traded on July 31 and Bogaerts returned to shortstop. He has not played anywhere else since.
Those memories still drive him. Last Wednesday, after going hitless the night before, Bogaerts was on the field at 2:15 p.m. working with assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez hitting balls off a tee to level his swing.
He also asks incessant questions of David Ortiz about how to improve his approach at the plate.
“He gets two hits every day and the next day he wants to know something else,” Ortiz said. “It’s great when that happens. He’s hungry.”
But success brings fame and that takes some getting used to.
Bogaerts now sees his image on a billboard that rises above the wall in center field at Fenway Park. In the five-minute walk from his apartment in the Back Bay to the park, fans frequently stop and ask for photos or an autograph.
“The kids see me first and tell the parents,” he said. “Always the kids. I don’t really like the attention but I realize that is part of it.”
Bogaerts has not courted endorsements. There are no social media interactions, either. In an age where many athletes court attention online, Bogaerts has steadfastly avoided it since a 2014 incident when he accidentally posted a photo of a half-clad woman to Twitter.
Bogaerts ducks into the movies when he’s tired of video games. There are some friends in Boston, but his inner circle is still made up mostly of family members.
“I’m boring,” Bogaerts said. “I might go to Europe in the offseason to see some soccer games. Nobody will know me there.”
Hanley Ramirez understands what Bogaerts is going through. He made his first All-Star team at the age of 24 when he was a shortstop with the Florida Marlins. The tug of celebrity sometimes pulled him in the wrong direction.
“Bogey has no idea how good he can be; he really doesn’t,” Ramirez said. “David and I talk to him all the time and he listens, but he doesn’t know how good he is. What he’s doing, the way he hits, that’s not something many players can do. He’s special.”
Bogaerts dropped his head and smiled when Ramirez’s words were relayed to him.
“I appreciate that,” he said. “But I have my goals. I look up to [Detroit Tigers star] Miguel Cabrera as somebody I want to be like. He’s obviously way up there. I feel like I should aim high, you know? If I get halfway there, that would still be pretty good. I’ll work at getting there.”
The Red Sox went into the All-Star break only two games out of first place. For now, the focus will be solely on getting the team back in the postseason.
But come the winter, Bogaerts would be willing to discuss a long-term contract if president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski is, too.
“I love the city. I love the people here and I love the coaching staff,” he said. “This is the only thing I know. We have a good core of young guys. I hope we stay together because we can do some special things.
“We’ll see what happens and where life takes me. If you put up good numbers and play the game the right way, good things will happen.”