GOODYEAR, Arizona (AP) — As fans lining the chain-linked fence next to Cleveland’s main practice field jockeyed for better position to snatch an autograph or selfie with the team’s newest star, Edwin Encarnacion showed no emotion.
With his glove balanced on his head, Encarnacion signed baseballs, bats, cards and whatever else was thrust in front of him. He didn’t seem to be enjoying himself and appeared disinterested, distant.
That’s when one fan pleaded for a little more.
“Hey,” he told Encarnacion. “You know you can smile. You’re with Cleveland now.”
On cue, Encarnacion beamed a smile that brightened an otherwise gray day in the desert.
There’s a lot of toothy grins on display these days with the Indians, whose signing of Encarnacion to a three-year, $60 million contract — the richest in team history — as a free agent this winter gives the AL champions a middle-of-the-order slugger unlike any they’ve had since Albert Belle, Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez anchored some of those potent Cleveland teams in the 1990s.
After eight seasons in Toronto, Encarnacion has a new home — and an unexpected one.
When free agency opened, the small-market Indians were perceived as the longest of longshots to sign Encarnacion, who hit 42 homers and led the league with 127 RBIs in 2016. There were as many as four other teams better financially positioned to sign the 34-year-old, who seemed destined to resume his career in Boston or Texas or anywhere but Cleveland.
But he chose the Indians because of their potential to be playing again deep into October.
“I made the decision to come here, because here I have the opportunity to win the World Series,” said Encarnacion, whose 193 homers over the past five seasons are the second most in the majors. “This team, they look great and I think they have great, young talented players here. We have a lot of opportunity to be in the World Series again and win it.”
Encarnacion’s arrival cements the Indians as the team to beat.
He fits perfectly into a stacked lineup that will include young stars Francisco Lindor and Jason Kipnis and could have back Michael Brantley after the former All-Star outfielder played in just 11 games last season.
One thing is certain: manager Terry Francona knows who will be batting cleanup.
“You put a bat in the middle that you’re not penciling in, you’re putting it in ink,” Francona said.
But while the three-time All-Star has established himself as one of baseball’s most feared hitters, Encarnacion doesn’t flaunt his status or celebrity. He’s happy being one of the guys.
Before signing him, the Indians wanted to assure they were bringing in a player who would enhance their culture — not threaten it. It’s early, but Encarnacion has shown none of the trappings of stardom. He goes about his business quietly, and whether he’s lifting weights or watching video to break down his swing, there’s a sense of purpose to everything he does.
“I’m not sure shy is the right word,” general manager Mike Chernoff said in describing Encarnacion. “I think reserved. He definitely has a presence. That has been clear since the minute he got here. But I think he’s much more of a quiet, lead-by-example type of guy. We did a lot of work on him in the offseason with our scouts and reaching out to contacts. And everybody said on all fronts that he is a leader, but he doesn’t do it in that kind of loud, vocal way.”