Being away from the field for the start of this season got me thinking a lot about who I am, and where I’ve been, and what I truly love.
For me, it all comes back to God, family and baseball.
And for some reason the more I thought about my journey, the more my mind kept returning to this one particular dream I always used to have when I was a teenager.
I’m wearing my uniform, and I’m in this huge stadium. I’m heading down a long hallway on the ground level. There’s no locker rooms or clubhouse in the dream, it’s just a big hallway with these two gigantic doors at the end.
So I walk slowly down the hallway, and then I finally get to the doors.
I push them open, and I see….
It’s so beautiful. Beyond beautiful, really.
And it’s just like the ones I’d see when I used to play PlayStation 2 after school. With the bright lights way up high. And the stands with separate levels. And the perfect green grass.
Every time I’d get to that point in the dream I’d be so happy. Like just totally overjoyed.
Then, things kind of shift in my dream, and I’m out at short playing defense — diving headfirst to make a great stop, or snagging a line drive out of the air. But the weird thing about it is that while I’m out there on the field, I am completely alone.
There is no one else in the stadium — no fans or coaches, and no teammates. I’m all by myself.
Someone had to be hitting the ball my way in order for me to make the plays I was seeing myself make. And someone had to be over at first to catch my throws. But in those dreams, there was no one but me.
It was just me and a baseball, you know what I mean?
That’s all there was.
Taylor Baucom/The Players' Tribune
When I was younger, I didn’t think too much about that dream, but lately it has been popping into my head at random times. I remember it in vivid detail, but until recently, when it came into my head, I would find myself wondering what it meant. I didn’t really understand the dream.
It didn’t make sense to me, because when I was young there were always lots of people playing baseball with me. I was never alone. I was always on teams with tons of other kids. And my dad, my older brother, Miguel, and my cousin Christian were always taking me to the neighborhood field. When I wasn’t doing something with a team, the four of us would practice together constantly. Miguel and Christian were several years older than me, and I wanted to be just like them when I grew up. Seeing all the things they could do on the field made me want to improve every single day. And my dad just kind of took it from there. He loves the game of baseball and passed his passion down to me starting when I was very young. Everything was always about fundamentals with him. Not just how to catch and throw and hit, but how to analyze the game and anticipate things before they happen.
My dad taught me my swing, and had me switch-hitting pretty much as soon as I started walking and running around. Back then I’d always want to hit lefty, and he’d do this thing where … he’d basically trick me into taking more swings from the right side, just so I’d get better at it. I remember it to this day.
“Francisco, here’s what I’ll do,” he’d say. “If you hit this bucket of balls from the right side, then I will let you bat from the left.”
So I’d do it.
But what he wouldn’t tell me was that if I missed one ball from the big bucket — even just one ball out of all of them — I would have to do the whole bucket again hitting righty.
So he’d basically have me batting from the right side the entire time. And I guess if you do that long enough, you almost can’t help but become a switch-hitter. But to this day, the swing I have now is the exact same swing he taught me back then. It comes from him, from what he taught me all the way back when I was little.
In addition to having no one on the field with me in that dream, the other thing about it that seemed odd was the empty stands — the fact that no one was watching me, and that I was playing the game in complete silence.
If you know anything about baseball in my home country of Puerto Rico, you know that we aren’t really known for silence when it comes to sports.
In Puerto Rico, baseball games are played to the sounds of drums, and whistles, and rhythm and singing and dancing and … planeras! People go nuts with the planeras when something good happens for their team. They bang on those three hand drums with so much spirit and energy.
Baseball, to me, has always been all about joy.
When I was 12 my dad came up with the idea of bringing me with him to Florida to live. He felt like it would benefit me to learn a new language and culture, and that it would allow me to play against different players than I faced in Puerto Rico.
My dad had already moved to Florida a little while before that, but my mom was going to stay back in Puerto Rico.
It was an intimidating moment, being in a completely different place without anything familiar. And when my dad took me to the boarding school I would be attending, I learned that I would have to stay in the dorms there. So even though my dad was in the States with me, we were still apart from one another.
Then there was the fact that I was completely unable to communicate with anyone there. That would be bad enough on its own for the average person. But for me? I’m someone who loves to talk. I’ve always been that way. So going from constantly talking back home, to not being able to understand anyone, was a huge shock to my system.
On the field, I was used to playing in Puerto Rico with kids who were 11 and 12, and being able to hold my own pretty easily. But then I get to the United States and I’m playing on the varsity team at 13, with kids who are 17 and 18 years old. They hit harder, they could throw farther and run faster, and they were much stronger than I was. I remember during my first games there I had to grab the shortest bat on the rack … and I still needed to choke up on it a little to be able to swing it.
Looking back at that time in my life now, I’m pretty sure that’s where my dreams about being alone on the field came from.
That period was by far the most challenging of my life — living at Montverde Academy where no one knew me and I couldn’t talk to anyone, playing baseball with guys who were much older than I was and not fitting in. It all just added up. You know what I mean?
Eventually, though, there were a few things that helped me get beyond that period. The first one was learning English.
I did it little by little, and it took some time, but it was such a huge thing for me. I took summer classes after my first year at Montverde Academy and started using Google to look up things on my own. The faculty and staff really took the time in helping me make progress. I also just really began paying attention to everything around me, and asking questions and doing all I could to learn. Then, in a year and a half … I knew English.
It changed everything for me.
All of a sudden I had my swag back. I could read signs, understand exams, have fun watching movies, and … I could talk to people!
I can’t tell you how nice it was to be able to talk to people again. It was a gift. It really was.
And then I was basically able to start being myself again on the field.
I went back to being that little kid on the dirt fields in Caguas. The boy who loved nothing more than to be taking grounders with his father or practicing opposite-field hitting with his big brother. Everything I did on the baseball diamond became about joy again.
And once that happened, it all came together for me.
Before I knew it there were tournament MVPs, and All-America honors, and scouts everywhere, and then the MLB draft … and the Indians, and All-Star Games, and Silver Slugger awards, and the World Series, designing signature cleats and shoes with New Balance, and just everything I could’ve ever imagined as a kid and more.
But it all just really goes back to something as simple as me playing the game with passion and love and joy.
So now, here I am.
Back. Ready to roll. Ready to help this team win it all.
And after having missed this game so much for the past several weeks, and spending some time thinking about the ups and downs I’ve experienced to get here, I am going to cherish every single second I am able to play this game.
I will not take anything for granted — not any pitch, ground ball, hit … nothing.
I’m someone who loves to have fun on the field — to laugh and smile and shout and give high fives and allow my emotions to come through. That’s who I am. It’s where I’m from. And I am proud of that.
You will never have to worry about me playing hard or giving everything I have. That’s all part of my makeup. I wouldn’t know how to play any other way. But at the same time, I’m also going to be laughing out there, and responding to fans in the seats when something funny happens, and talking to whoever reaches second base.
I’m never going to show anyone up. And I will always show the utmost respect for the game, and for those who have paved the way for me. I am going to be grateful and humble and appreciative.
But I am also going to have fun out there.
Jason Miller/Getty Images
I can’t stop being me because someone doesn’t like that I smile a lot, or that I clap my hands and yell, “Come on! Let’s go!” to my teammates.
I just can’t do that. It’s not me, you know what I mean?
So I’m going to have a good time playing this game. And I can tell you for certain: When I’m doing that, and playing with that joy, you’re seeing the version of me from the streets of Caguas that gives the Indians the best shot to win a World Series. That’s me at my very best. That’s me giving everything I have to my team.
I want to do everything I can to maximize whatever talent I bring to this game. I want it to be so that when it comes time for me to stop playing, I can truly say that I started out with a towel full of water … and over the course of my career, I wrung it, and wrung it, and wrung it, and then I wrung it again, and then flipped it over and wrung it some more, and just kept wringing it until the very last drop of water came out of the towel and whatever was once there is now completely gone.
And when you watch me, I promise that you will be able to see the joy on my face.
Because, for me, every single day I get a chance to play this game is like a dream come true.