It was only a few months after he signed with the Red Sox in 2013 that Rafael Devers found himself watching Game 1 of the World Series on television at the team’s academy in the Dominican Republic.
So many of the teenage players crowded into the recreation room that the only seats available were on the floor.
It was the day before he turned 17 and Devers was at the start of a great adventure, having left his parents, siblings, and a comfortable home behind to pursue a career in baseball.
Devers cheered loudest for David Ortiz, his favorite player for as long as he could remember. But it was Xander Bogaerts, then a 20-year-old third baseman, who allowed him to dream.
“If Xander could get there so fast, why couldn’t I?” Devers said. “It was great seeing somebody so young in that game.”
Now Devers has a locker only a few feet away from Bogaerts at Fenway Park and he is the starting third baseman for a team that could return to the Series for the first time since 2013.
In only 18 games for the Sox, Devers has six home runs and 13 RBIs, helping push what had been a slumping team back into first place.
The Red Sox traded many of their top prospects over the last two years. Devers offers proof that they kept the best one.
“He jumped right in and changed this team,” manager John Farrell said.
In a conversation aided by team translator Daveson Perez, Devers showed confidence but no arrogance. As was the case with Bogaerts in ’13, Devers knows he belongs.
Others were awed by the long home run he hit off a 103-mile-per-hour fastball thrown by Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman on Sunday, but Devers saw it as a product of hard work.
“I’m here for a reason,” he said. “I’ve never been afraid on the baseball field. I want the chance to show what I can do.”
Trusting his skills
For some Dominican major leaguers, baseball was their way out of poverty. They played with cracked bats and scuffed balls in the streets, hoping a scout would notice.
That was not the life Devers was born into.
His father, also named Rafael, worked at a hotel and owned a clothing shop. There were nine children in his extended middle-class family, but a college education was always an option.
Baseball was the passion he chose. Devers considers himself a self-taught player, having watched his father play in local men’s leagues while growing up.
“From there, I just started to play every day. I always had a good swing,” Devers said. “My father signed me up to play every year and when I needed a glove or a bat, he got it for me.”
His father was a catcher. But that was never part of Rafael’s plan.
“Oh, no. Third base,” he said in English, smiling.
By the time Devers was 14, Red Sox scout Manny Nanita had filed a report on him. Eddie Romero, then the team’s director of international scouting, followed up and was impressed.
“He stood out. What we do is very difficult, trying to project players at such a young age. But we really believed in him and his desire,” said Romero, now an assistant general manager. “We built a relationship with him and his family.”
By the time he was 16, Devers was considered the top lefthanded hitter among international free agents. The Sox signed him for $1.5 million.
“There were other teams and a lot of choices,” Devers said. “But I had a feeling I would sign with the Red Sox. They had been in contact with me since I was 14. They got my attention and I knew their history.”
Devers played his first season of minor league ball in 2014 and earned a promotion to the Gulf Coast League, a rare opportunity for a 17-year-old out of the academy.
“I always said he was shy until he got in the batter’s box,” Romero said. “He was fearless. It didn’t matter if he was facing 22-year-olds at that age. I’ve never seen him intimidated.”
Devers moved quickly through the minors, overcoming a protracted slump with Single A Salem last season. He hit .233 with little power in the first half, then .326 with 37 extra-base hits in the second half.
“You tell the players to trust the process and trust their skills. But until they experience struggling, they don’t know,” said Nelson Paulino, Salem’s hitting coach and a Devers confidant.
“That was the best thing for him, that first half. Now you see the player he is.”
‘A beautiful experience’
Devers was with Double A Portland for the first half of this season before playing nine games with Triple A Pawtucket. Then the Red Sox, at the time desperate for offense, rushed him to the majors.
It felt forced, but it has so far worked.
Devers looks much younger than 20 but is walking around with 234 pounds, his arms packed with muscle. It’s not possible, but the balls he gets in the air seem to pick up speed.
“He has the hands and the power,” assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez said. “He has hit some balls to right field in batting practice to places I only saw [Ortiz] reach.
“He hits the ball the other way because he’s not afraid to let the ball get deep and trust his hands. That mind is virgin and that’s a beautiful thing. He has no bad habits.”
Devers has improved his footwork at third base and is making more accurate throws. Arm strength isn’t a question, but his mechanics were.
“He has good feet and good body control for a big player,” infield coach Brian Butterfield said. “We want him to stay at third base and I think he can.”
The ability to handle everything being thrown at him is there, too.
“That’s probably the main factor in the development staff saying, ‘You know what, we wouldn’t have hesitation to bring this guy to the big leagues,’ ” Farrell said.
“It’s more on how they anticipate he’d react to adversity or challenging times. Would he handle it mentally and stay strong, or crumble? If they did not have that feel or that stamp or approval, we might not see him here.”
Devers stayed in a hotel when he was first called up but has since found an apartment walking distance from Fenway Park. His father has been staying with him this week.
“It has been a beautiful experience,” Devers said. “You walk out on the streets and people want pictures with you or your autograph. It has been cool.”
Before he goes to the park, Devers takes time to video chat with his 2-year-old daughter, Rachell. She lives in the Dominican with her mother.
“She motivates me a lot,” said Devers, who has a tattoo of his daughter on his left arm. “I want to do the best I can for her. She’s my reason for being in the world.”
Devers turns 21 on Oct. 24. Game 1 of the World Series will be that night. He hopes the prospects at the academy are watching him this time.
“That’s the goal, to win a championship,” Devers said. “Why not? Anything can happen in sports.”