Long before Francisco Lindor became “Mr. Smile,” the Major League Baseball star with colorful hair and undeniable swag, people in his hometown of Caguas, Puerto Rico, knew him as a talented, but shy young player called “Paquito.”
Lindor is now 27 and has a 10-year, $341 million deal with the New York Mets, the richest contract ever for a shortstop. But he proudly remembers his modest upbringing in Caguas. He grew up playing baseball at Villa Blanca field, a short drive from a local retailer named Al’s Sports Shop. Lindor would go there often with his parents to shop for gear that he and his older brother needed to learn the game.
“When we first walked in, to the right, there was all the gloves, the bats, the batting gloves,” Lindor recalled. “And then, if you go to the next aisle, there’s all the shoes. … It was cool going to that store. But most of the time, we had to wait till the next paycheck. It wasn’t like you could get it right there.”
Lindor’s mother and father, Maria and Miguel, purchased their sons’ baseball apparel in bimonthly payments using the store’s layaway system. To this day, the four-time All-Star cherishes that feeling when he finally got to lace up a new pair of cleats from Al’s.
“We’d go every 15 days and put down $10 or $20, and eventually in three months, I’d get it,” Lindor said. “That’s how my parents got most of my stuff. And I’m very proud of that. That’s part of my roots. That’s part of me.”
Al’s is still open in Caguas. Only now, kids are bringing their parents to the store to buy Lindor’s own line of footwear and merchandise. In March, New Balance released the Puerto Rican star’s signature shoe, dubbed the Lindor 1, in both a cleated model and lifestyle version for off the field. Lindor is currently the only Latino MLB player with a signature shoe.
“It means a lot to have my own shoe,” Lindor said in an interview with The Undefeated and ESPN Deportes for Hispanic Heritage Month. “It’s got a special place in my heart. I know my whole entire family is proud. Obviously, the cleat is for Puerto Rico.”
The shoe incorporates two lockdown straps: one for midfoot stability and another for ankle support, added after Lindor sustained a sprain during the design process. The ankle strap is removable to promote wearability for all positions on the field. And the shoe is adorned with graphics of the Puerto Rican hibiscus, so Lindor always pays homage to home on his feet.
“I’m truly proud of being Puerto Rican and I wanted to send a little message to all the kids out there, that if I did it — and I come from not a lot — it is possible,” he said.
The new shoe arrives four years after Lindor signed with New Balance to lead the brand’s expansion in baseball. He is one of just three Latino players in MLB history to receive his own shoe and the first in two decades. In 1999, a season after being named National League MVP, seven-time MLB All-Star Sammy Sosa, a native of the Dominican Republic, laced up his debut signature cleat and turf shoe, the Fila Sosa. In 2001, the Italian brand delivered a training model, the Sosa Strength.
Roberto Clemente, the former Pittsburgh Pirates right fielder and Hall of Famer, was the first Latino player in MLB history to receive a shoe bearing his name. Clemente’s lifestyle sneaker, made by a company called Super Pro, was released exclusively in his native Puerto Rico in 1972. Production of the shoe was halted following his death at 38 in a plane crash that year on New Year’s Eve while delivering aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.
Coincidentally, Al’s Sports Shop opened in December 1972, the same month the island’s biggest baseball legend died. Edgardo Colón, the current manager at Al’s, began working at the store in 2003. He still remembers frequent visits from the kid they called Paquito.
“I would see him come into the store looking for gloves and cleats,” Colón recalled. “He’d come in like a kid in a toy store, his eyes wide open.”
Back then, Lindor would sometimes visit the store with his childhood friend and teammate Miguel Colón. “This was Disney for us,” said Miguel Colón, who started working as a sales associate at Al’s a few months after the release of the New Balance Lindor 1.
“We grew up together and never could think about this,” he said. Miguel Colón played with Lindor from the time they were ages 4 to 11. “We never talked about him getting his line from New Balance … getting his contract. I know people play for money, but he loves the game. That’s why he’s smiling all the time.”
The Lindor family moved to Florida when Lindor was 12. He attended Montverde Academy near Orlando (the high school’s baseball facility is now named after him) and played his way onto USA Today’s All-USA high school team. Lindor was committed to play at Florida State University until the Cleveland Indians selected the 17-year-old with the eighth overall pick in the 2011 MLB First-Year Player draft. He decided to forgo his full scholarship at FSU to sign a $2.9 million contract with the Indians. A few months later, the Indios de Mayagüez club in Puerto Rico selected Lindor in the second round of the Liga de Béisbol Profesional Roberto Clemente draft. But Lindor stayed on the mainland to work toward his dream of a career in the big leagues.
“He was a diamond that needed to be molded,” Colón said. “In the States, he had the tools to do it.”
He made his MLB debut for the Indians in June 2015. Over the next 16 months, he made his first career All-Star appearance, won a Gold Glove Award and started at shortstop in the World Series. New Balance had been paying attention since his days as a prep star.
“Francisco was always on our radar,” said Neil Brooks, the company’s head of baseball sports marketing. “His draft year, we were just beginning to develop our plan on building a younger roster. Having watched him in high school events, he always played with energy and a love for the game. You could tell he had a different vibe than some of the other high school players at that time. Off the field, we knew he was a very respectful and generous person. But, more than that, he had swag that we knew we wanted.”
But, at first, New Balance didn’t have enough swag for Lindor. He acknowledges he originally didn’t have much interest in joining the brand.
“During the World Series in 2016, a couple New Balance reps walked up to me and said, ‘Hey, we’ll be talking to you this offseason.’ Quite frankly, I was like, ‘I don’t know,’ ” recalled Lindor.
“New Balance, back then, it wasn’t fashionable,” said Lindor, who’s developed a reputation as one of the most stylish players in MLB. He dyes his hair every color fathomable and rocks iced-out chains. “I always saw New Balance as the brand that my dad and my grandparents wore, you know?”
Lindor spent his first five years in MLB wearing Under Armour cleats. But his deal with that brand expired at the start of the 2016 offseason after Cleveland lost to the Chicago Cubs in the World Series. Then a free agent in footwear, Lindor received a shipment from New Balance, and his perception of the brand changed immediately. He particularly liked the soles, which are made from composite plastic, instead of traditional metal spikes.
“I put them on and remember texting my agent, saying, ‘Bro … this is completely different from what I’ve been wearing. … We definitely gotta have this conversation.’ ”
Brooks, who’s based in Florida, drove to the shortstop’s offseason home in 2016 and delivered an official pitch. In February 2017, Lindor officially joined New Balance on a multiyear endorsement deal that made the 23-year-old the face of the brand’s top-selling cleat division.
Surprisingly, a signature New Balance shoe wasn’t always the plan for Lindor — at least in his mind.
“In a meeting, right before or right after we signed him, I remember him saying he didn’t want to do a signature shoe,” said Matt Nuzzo, a baseball product manager for New Balance. “His agent was like, ‘Wait, wait, wait … what’d you say?’ Francisco felt he needed to earn that right. That, to me, was like, ‘This guy is different.’ ”
Lindor responded to his own challenge with an impressive 2017 MLB season. He hit .273 with 33 home runs, 44 doubles and 89 RBIs. He won the first Silver Slugger Award of his career while finishing fifth in American League MVP voting.
“It was clear we came to a point that we were going to do a signature shoe,” said Dan Webb, New Balance’s lead baseball designer, who crafted the Lindor 1. “We had a meeting and he sort of laid out all the stuff he was looking for. I was listening and taking notes, then I went and did some sketching on ideas.” After just a few hours, Webb reconnected with Lindor, who was still in the building at New Balance’s Boston headquarters.
“Francisco’s input was right there from the beginning. It was great to be able to work with him so closely to get the North Star set,” Webb said.
As New Balance embarked upon the design process of the Lindor 1, the brand’s design and product teams found inspiration in Lindor’s performance during an April 2018 series between the Indians and Minnesota Twins. The two teams played in San Juan, Puerto Rico, seven months after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island. The trip marked Lindor’s first time playing back home as a big leaguer. And in the top of the fifth inning of the first game, he blasted a two-run homer to right field. The crowd at Hiram Bithorn Stadium repeatedly chanted “LIN-DOR!” in celebration before he left the dugout to greet them.
“I get goose bumps every time I watch the video of him playing in Puerto Rico,” Nuzzo said. “Francisco speaks very openly about how much Puerto Rico means to him. So for us to be able to add details of his heritage into our work is an honor.”
In 2019, Nuzzo visited Lindor in Arizona. Once he arrived, Lindor showed Nuzzo the hibiscus he planted outside the house he had rented for spring training.
“It was hilarious to me when he then pulled up his arm sleeve and showed a giant flower he had tattooed,” Nuzzo recalled. “I was like, ‘Damn, you’re not lying. … The flower is important to you. We’ll put it on your shoe.’ ”
It’s worth noting that nearly every element of the New Balance 1, from the removable ankle strap to logo design on midfoot and the flower detailing, came at the direction of Lindor.
“It’s not something we dreamed up and threw his name on it,” Webb said. “It’s obvious that it’s his shoe.”
Lindor still remembers the moment a few years ago when he found out he’d be receiving a signature. He shared the news with his parents, who once did the best they could to make sure he had new cleats as a kid.
“I said, ‘Mom, we did it. Dad, we did it. I got …,’ ” Lindor recalled, correcting himself, “ ‘we have our own shoe. It’s special to have a Lindor shoe.’ ”