Steep hill key to Lindor's ascent to stardom

March 2nd, 2016

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Each time one of the yellow rubber balls came skipping down the hill, Francisco Lindor knew what was at stake. If he missed, the ball would keep on skipping through the grass and dirt and into the bushes that were a long jog behind him.

Lindor's father, Miguel, would position himself halfway up the hill that ran alongside their home in Gurabo, Puerto Rico, just east of Caguas. Lindor would be at the bottom. One by one, the rubber balls would shoot off Miguel's bat and a young Lindor had to do whatever he could to stop them from making the 200-yard journey to the thicket.

"They'd skip pretty fast," Lindor said with a smile. "I just had to attack the ball and get that good hop. Once it went up, I'd charge the ball and try to get it before it bounces."

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These days, the flat, pristine infields around the Major Leagues seem easy.

Lindor is not that 6-year-old kid at the bottom of the hill anymore. He is one of baseball's most promising young talents and all of Cleveland is hoping he can help lead the Indians back to the postseason. The shortstop turned in one of the most memorable rookie seasons in the franchise's history last year, and his training for his sophomore campaign is in full swing in Arizona.

During a recent morning workout on Field 1 at the Indians' spring complex, Lindor scooped up a sharply hit ground ball at shortstop, and then used his glove to flip it between his legs to second baseman Jason Kipnis. On another chopper up the middle, Lindor snared the baseball with his bare hand while running and spiked it into the dirt, and into the hands of his doubleplay partner.

While Miguel Lindor helped hone his son's first step and fundamentals, he also encouraged him to try trick plays during their ground-ball sessions. It helped to have his older brother, Miguel, and cousin, Christian, taking grounders with him when he was young. The elder Lindor would throw some verbal jabs their way, convincing them to show off a little more.

Francisco Lindor did what he could to not only keep up, but to one-up.

"I was always taught that making plays was pretty cool," Lindor said. "[My dad] would make me catch a lot of ground balls, and he always made it fun. It was never right at me. It was to the side. He let me have fun with it. He'd let me do tricks. He'd hit me a ground ball and he'd be like, 'All right, try to do something nice.'"

Lindor -- coming off a runner-up finish to Houston's Carlos Correa, another young shortstop from Puerto Rico, for the 2015 American League Rookie of the Year Award -- felt the same kind of competitive camaraderie this past offseason. He worked out with Dee and Nick Gordon, Rickie and Jemile Weeks and Darnell Sweeney, and they would push each other during drills like Lindor's brother and cousin did so many years ago.

While they worked this past winter, Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin was there to help instruct them, too.

"It's unreal. It's unreal watching him helping us," Lindor said of working with Larkin. "He's such a nice guy. It's a blessing to have him."

Lindor said he remembers watching Larkin when he was growing up. His favorite player was Roberto Alomar, who wore No. 12 just as Lindor does now with the Tribe. Lindor said he also studied how former Indians Gold Glover Omar Vizquel played the position. The young shortstop also cited Jose Reyes, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez as players he followed closely.

"I've tried to take something from every one of them," Lindor said. "My dad always told me, 'Grab something from everybody and make it your own.'"

During his standout rookie showing last summer, Lindor certainly showed flashes of greatness.

In the batter's box, Lindor surprised people with his power, belting 12 home runs with 22 doubles and four triples in his 99 games. The switch-hitter turned in a .313 average to go along with an .835 OPS, scoring 50 runs, knocking in 51 and stealing 12 bases along the way. In the field, he led AL shortstops with 10 Defensive Runs Saved and led all shortstops (min. 800 innings) with an 18.9 UZR/150.

Needless to say, the expectations for Lindor this year are sky high.

"I don't think you proclaim somebody, after three months in the big leagues, a Hall of Famer," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "But, I don't want to talk him down. We love him. I mean, shoot, the kid's really good. If you're watching the game, you see it. There's nothing he can't do."

Lindor has come a long way from that hill in Gurabo.