BRADENTON, Fla. — Sitting in the dugout at the IMG Academy, Rafael Devers seems to be perpetually smiling, save for the moment he is asked if the Red Sox cheated to win the 2018 World Series.
“No, no, I don’t think so,” he says emphatically through an interpreter. “We didn’t cheat. We have a lot of talent. We don’t need to cheat, and we became champs without cheating.”
Major League Baseball is still investigating allegations of electronic sign stealing by the Red Sox in 2018, but Devers isn’t worried.
“They can continue investigating, but that’s why they haven’t found anything, because we didn’t cheat,” he says.
Devers says it was difficult to visit with former manager Alex Cora after Cora parted ways with the Red Sox on Jan. 14. Cora was implicated in an MLB report on the Astros’ sign stealing when he served as the team’s bench coach in 2017.
“I felt very sad when I saw him,” says Devers. “He’s like my father. He taught me a lot in the two years that he was there. He let me play the game the way I want to play. He likes to have fun, so he would say, ‘Go, play your ball.’ ”
Devers, accompanied by his actual father for a three-day workout with Rep 1 athletes, is asked if he would like Sox bench coach Ron Roenicke to become interim manager, and for Cora to return after serving what is expected to be a harsh suspension.
“I would be very happy with that,” he says, flashing the broad grin again. “I hope it happens.”
He’s also happy that the team re-signed first baseman Mitch Moreland, one of his closest mentors. But the smile quickly fades again when he talks about the rampant Mookie Betts trade rumors.
“I don’t know,” he says. “We don’t have the same agent and I don’t talk to him that much, but I hope he stays. I’ve always said he’s the best player in the league.’’
Devers has been working out in earnest at the Yo Murphy Performance Compound in Tampa since November. He’s all business during weight and performance training.
Devers looks spry taking ground balls and working on his range, but he swears (in English) when he occasionally boots a grounder.
Last year, he led major league third basemen in errors with 22, but he also improved greatly as the year progressed. He says getting angry at himself helps him get better.
He could always hit, but last season he became a budding superstar. Devers, 23, hit .311, led the league in doubles with 54, smashed 32 homers, and had 115 RBIs. But he’s not resting on his laurels.
“I’m working on everything,’’ he says, adding that 40 home runs is a goal for this season. “I’m someone who likes to learn a lot. So I work on my batting and everything else.”
In 2017, Devers became the youngest Red Sox player (at 20 years, 275 days) to hit a home run since Tony Conigliaro in 1965, and then, against the Astros in the Division Series, the youngest Red Sox player to homer in the postseason.
“I don’t even remember those home runs,” he says. “I just play my game every day. I don’t really think about what happened in the past. I just try to have fun every day.”
Devers, who is arbitration-eligible after the 2020 season, isn’t worried about a contract extension, either.
“I don’t think about any of that stuff,’’ he says. “I just want to finish the season healthy.”
Despite all the uncertainty with the Red Sox as spring training approaches, he believes the team can contend.
“I think we can have a great season,’’ he insists. “We have one of the best teams right now, and we can play ball the way we’ve always played it, you know, have fun and whatever happens, happens.”
He believes that he and shortstop Xander Bogaerts, who also had a career year in 2019, can continue to improve.
“Let’s hope so,’’ he says. “We have to find a way to keep on getting better.”
He’s also more relaxed with fans, too. At the recent Red Sox Winter Weekend, he even took the microphone and sang a lullaby in Spanish after infielder Michael Chavis disclosed that he had the best singing voice on the team.
But don’t look for a Devers CD any time soon. This is a guy who is most comfortable in the batter’s box. Behind the smile is a young man comfortable in his own skin.
He says the tough Boston media have been fair to him.
“They know I don’t like to talk to them a lot,” he says. “They don’t pressure me when I don’t play well. That’s why I like them.”
And despite his childlike joy, he likes his space.
“I’m someone that likes to be alone, you know, unless it’s with my family,” he says. “I’m a bit of a loner sometimes.”
But the smile is genuine. Devers says he’s been smiling since birth.
“Oooh, always,” he says. “You can ask my dad. I do it because I like it.”
He grabs his brown maple bat and heads for the batting cage. The high-voltage smile is back, and his father, a former catcher, is watching proudly from the dugout. Devers looks up, smiles, and winks.
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at email@example.com.