By Matt Crossman
LAKELAND, Fla. -- The sun climbs in the mid-morning, mid-February sky, a few days before the Tigers' first official workout. Shortstop Jose Iglesias takes grounders, and he looks like he's playing H-O-R-S-E against himself. As the ball skips toward him, he spreads his arms wide like wings. His gloved left hand and his bare right hand and the ball all arrive at the same place at the same time -- SMACK -- like they were preordained to converge there.
Next he holds his orange glove low to the ground, waiting for the ball to get there. When it arrives, he never actually catches it. Instead, he uses his glove to pop the ball up. It floats to a few feet up and lingers there. He stands slightly crouched, slightly bent over as the ball peaks at ear-height. Using his right hand, Iglesias snatches and throws it in one motion, without drawing his arm back. The ball whistles across the diamond to first. Later, Iglesias catches and tosses a ball to second so quickly it looks more like a deflection than a catch and toss. You half expect the next one to explode into confetti or to turn into an unending handkerchief.
For 20 minutes this goes on, a virtuoso display of hand-eye coordination coupled with creativity, and the most remarkable thing about the whole display is that it's not remarkable at all. He does it daily. No-look throws, behind the back flips, waiting until the last second to stick his glove out to catch popups, using his glove like a lacrosse stick to whip the ball across the field, Iglesias is likely to unleash all manner of feats. No less an authority than Omar Vizquel, an all-time great defensive shortstop and new Tigers infielders coach, proclaims Iglesias' infield practice "a pleasure" to watch.
Judging by the smile on Iglesias' face, the way he bounds about on the balls of his feet, the way he blurts, "bueno" after plays by his teammates, it's a pleasure to execute, too. And there's more behind that joy than just the thrill from a magic morning of digging grounders out of the dirt.
After five years of baseball fits and starts, Iglesias entered Tigers' spring training guaranteed of a starting spot in the majors for the first time, a luxury he never had before he was traded from Boston to Detroit last summer. At 24, Iglesias is fulfilling the dream that drove him to leave everyone he knew and loved behind in Cuba: He begins the 2014 season eager to prove himself as baseball's next great shortstop.
Though he has played just 144 games in the big leagues (103 at short), Iglesias has already drawn comparisons to all-time greats, including Hall of Famer Luis Aparicio and Vizquel. "You grade guys on a 2 to 8 chart. His hands and feet are probably a 10," says Arnie Beyeler, Iglesias' manager throughout his time in the minors in the Red Sox organization. "Miguel Cabrera at the plate -- that's how good this guy is on the field."
Questions about his offense remain, but the Tigers are committed to Iglesias, giving him stability he never had in Boston, where he always had somebody in front of him (Stephen Drew) or behind him (Xander Bogaerts). "He's our future," says Al Kaline, the Tigers Hall of Famer.
That's high praise, in and of itself. It takes on added meaning considering the path Iglesias took to get here. From his defection in 2008 until now, he has waited, sometimes impatiently, to arrive at this moment.
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Iglesias' hands are so fast, and his range so vast, that when second baseman Ian Kinsler was traded to the Tigers in the offseason, Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia sent Kinsler a warning via text: "Hey, man, you're going to love Iggy. But keep your glove up. You'll get hit right in the teeth, look like a hockey player."
Iglesias' defensive reputation has preceded him since he learned to field grounders hit by his dad on a diamond near their house in Cuba. The better Iglesias got at catching them, the more he scooted in, and the harder his dad hit them.
As Iglesias grew up, his skill became obvious. He played in Cuba's professional league at 16, but he wanted more. He wanted to play with the best players in the world. At 18, he told his dad he was going to defect, and a month later, with his dad's blessing, he did. While a member of a traveling Cuban team, he walked away from a team hotel during a tournament in Edmonton, found a police officer and asked for asylum.
He became a free agent and signed with the Red Sox, and after he had climbed so quickly to the top league in Cuba, he thought he'd do the same thing here. He was wrong. He had much to do, from improving on offense to learning how to communicate.
When Iglesias defected in 2008, he spoke "zero" English. But he knew learning the language was important, so when the Red Sox assigned him to the minors, he asked for an American roommate who could teach him. He was paired with Nate Spears, a fellow infielder, and the two hit it off immediately, the kid from Cuba and the kid from Port Charlotte, Fla.
Spears' lessons started with baseball terms and moved on from there. Iglesias learned English the way he learned to play defense - "repetition, repetition, repetition." He and Spears watched movies together, rewinding scenes over and over again to help Iglesias understand. They watched Just Go With It, an Adam Sandler movie, so many times -- Spears guesses 75 -- that each could quote virtually the whole thing.
In the meantime, Spears wanted to learn Spanish, so they alternated days, Spanish one day and English the next. Within three or four months, Iglesias could hold a conversation in English. (And Spears in Spanish. "He can habla a little bit," Iglesias says.) Red Sox officials viewed Iglesias' quick progression as a sign of intelligence and commitment.
That's what he intended, and he takes a wider view than that, too. He knew then and knows now that it was good for him even if he never plays another inning because it's good for anybody to learn to speak another language, whatever the reason. Now that he's fluent in English, he wants to learn Mandarin next.
He encourages other young Spanish-speaking players to follow his lead. "In the minor leagues, I know you want to be with your friends, I know you want to be with the Latin guys to make everything easier. But I recommend to these guys, do like I did, jump in with the white boy in the room," he says. "The first couple months, you're going to have a hard time. But later on, you're going to say, 'I'm glad I did this.'"
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Iglesias' glove was big-league ready when the Red Sox signed him in 2009. His bat was not. Joe Kehoskie, a baseball consultant, was an agent who represented Cuban players at the time of Iglesias' defection. He watched Iglesias, then 18, play in Cuba on TV. "He had the body of maybe a 14-year-old boy," Kehoskie says. "He was known as a slick fielder in Cuba. But you could knock the bat right out of his hands."
Craig Shipley, now an assistant to general manager Kevin Towers with the Diamondbacks, was Boston's director of international scouting when the team signed Iglesias. He says if it had been his decision, Iglesias would have started lower in the minors so he could develop his offensive game. As it was, Iglesias went to Double-A in 2010 and Triple-A after that and was often overmatched.
The combination of elite defensive skill and Iglesias' $6 million signing bonus appears to have created unrealistic expectations. "This kid is (still only) 23 years old. If he'd have been coming out of college, he would've gotten to the major leagues a year and a half after getting drafted," Shipley says. "The developmental curve is not going to be a straight line. There's going to be lots of ups and downs."
Iglesias sees blessings in those ups and downs now, from learning to speak English with Spears to developing a tight bond with Pedroia, who became the most important person in his development in the United States, both as a baseball player and as a man. When Pedroia's name comes up, Iglesias' body language softens, and his face glows like he just made another preposterous play on defense. "The only word I can say is, I love him," he says.
They are two classic archetypes, Pedroia the scrappy veteran and Iglesias the eager youngster. Iglesias attended his first Red Sox spring training in 2010, and Pedroia liked him instantly. Pedroia often invited Iglesias over for dinner, and Iglesias devoured the wisdom that Pedroia served. Pedroia taught him the subtleties of the game and tried to get him to stop showing off in practice so much.
"He'd say, 'Hey, you either do this right, or I'll send you back to Cuba on the banana boat,'" Iglesias says, laughing. "Just screaming every day, because I catch it with one hand, flip it with my glove. And now I understand why he say that, because it's true."
Iglesias spent the offseason between the 2012 and 2013 seasons working out with Pedroia at his home in Arizona, and class was in session virtually every day. Iglesias changed his stance, got stronger and had the best offensive season of his American baseball career. "I'm just blessed to get those advice early on," Iglesias says. "It's still my time to learn from my teammates, but it's my time to help young people as well, like my age, who hasn't had a chance to be right next to Pedroia, for me to be that Pedroia for them."
All of that explains why it was a sad day for Iglesias when he was traded from Boston to Detroit last summer. "He texted me," Pedroia says. "You could tell he was upset. But he said, 'Now we've got the two best hitters on the planet on one team, with me and Cabrera.'"
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One morning this spring, Kaline approached Iglesias during batting practice as Iglesias waited his turn. Kaline draped his right arm around Iglesias' shoulder, and the two talked like that, on the third base side of the cage, for several minutes, as if they'd been friends for years. Kaline likes Iglesias' energy and enthusiasm, likes the fact he's one of the few players who ever approached him and said, if you see me doing anything wrong, please tell me.
In Detroit's preseason caravan, he was heavily featured, as the Tigers think they have found a future fan favorite. After just a few days of watching him practice, new Tigers manager Brad Ausmus gushed about Iglesias: "He's like a 12-year-old kid."
Iglesias, who has missed some practice this week with shin splints, is extremely well liked in both the Boston and Detroit clubhouses. Spears and Beyeler separately said they missed him without being asked. Shipley said to tell him hello. Boston slugger David Ortiz likes him so much that when Iglesias got traded, he sent messages to three friends in Detroit -- Torii Hunter, Prince Fielder and Cabrera: "Take care of Iglesias. He's my boy."
Ortiz, who had had never done anything like that before, likes Iglesias because he carries himself with confidence, respect and curiosity. Those traits give Iglesias a personality as full of pizzazz and panache as his performance on the field. "He asked me questions sometimes that I was like, 'Dude, seriously?' But that's a good thing. He wants to know," Ortiz says.
Iglesias' teammates love to razz him, and they love to have him around because they don't know what he might say or do or ask about next. "Are we there yet? Are we there yet?" Hunter says. "He's that guy."
One day last year, Tigers center fielder Austin Jackson walked through the clubhouse to the team's bat room. As he approached, he saw Iglesias sitting in there.
Iglesias didn't know he was being watched as he played with the cap from a bottle of water. He put it between his thumb and finger and snapped it. It flew a few feet, smacked into the door and bounced back to him. He caught it. He did it again. Caught it again. And again. "I'm like, 'How are you good at that? Who's good at that?'" Jackson says.
Later in the season, Jackson and Iglesias rode together on a golf cart through a tunnel under the stadium on the way to the team bus in Chicago. "He goes 'A.J., watch this.' We're driving the cart. He picks a spot, flicks (a cap) off the wall -- we're driving -- and he catches it," Jackson says. "I'm like, 'Get me off the cart. Get me off the cart.' It was moving and everything. I was like, 'I don't even care anymore. I've seen enough of your weird talent.'"
Jackson smiled as he said this because he knows: He'll be seeing Iglesias' talent, weird and wonderful, for years to come.
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