Willy Adames: All-Star Special

Willy Adames is easy to spot. On the field, he can frequently be seen making a diving stop or ranging deep in the hole at short, before lining an off-balance throw to first to nail a runner. At the plate the patient batter loves to work the count, drive the ball in the gaps to showcase his speed on the bases, and occasionally send the ball over the wall. Adames even has a bit of flair away from the park, where his fashion sense is easy to spot.

Adames looks like a kid having the time of his life, and that’s exactly what he is. The 21-year-old phenom is taking the International League by storm this season, ranking as one of the circuit’s best players as an All-Star shortstop while also playing with an exuberance and energy of an adolescent living out his dream.

“I’m just trying to be happy,” said Adames. “This is my dream, and I’m just trying to enjoy every day out there. I’m just trying to play and smile. When I smile, I play good. When I’m not smiling it’s because I’m not playing good. I just try to have that smile on my face, and that helps me.”

That bright, cheek-stretching smile has become a trademark of the Tampa Bay Rays’ number one prospect, and an infectious one at that. Whether it’s out in the field or standing at the plate Adames and the Bulls have been playing inspired baseball so far this season, resulting in plenty of smiles throughout the clubhouse.

“I’ve been feeling pretty good lately,” said Adames. “I’m just trying to have fun every time. The team is winning a lot of games and that’s fun. It’s always fun when you’re winning […] the whole group just has a connection and everybody just brings positive vibes and positive energy. We just all go out there and try to play hard and have fun. It’s just a game.”

That natural charisma and showmanship is even evident off the field for Adames, who isn’t shy about making sure his personal appearance is up to par with his on-field game.

“When you look good you play good,” said Adames. “That’s what they say, right? So I just try to look good. That says a lot about you when you always look good. If you look bad people are going to say, ‘Oh, he doesn’t take care of himself.’ So I just try to look good.”

Adames’ fun-loving demeanor has always been a part of his personality. Growing up in the small town of Jánico in the Dominican Republic, Adames was constantly out and about on childhood adventures.

“When you’re a kid, especially in the Dominican, you just go out there and enjoy life,” said Adames. “You go to the river, you go to the field, you go to the basketball court. You do everything in the Dominican. But my father was pretty strict. He didn’t let me do a lot of things.”

Adames’ father might have kept a close eye on his oldest child, but one thing he did let Willy do was follow him to the baseball fields as a toddler. It didn’t take long for the younger Adames to become hooked on the sport.

“Since I was five I loved the game,” said Adames. “[…] My father always brought me to the field. I was always with him when he was playing softball or baseball. He always brought me with him.”

Adames’ natural athleticism and energy helped him stand out as a player to watch in his baseball-crazed homeland, and it wasn’t long before the young teenager knew that’s what he wanted to do with his life.

“When I was like 14 or 13, I was thinking that I just wanted to be a professional baseball player,” said Adames. “I was watching a lot of MLB games, so I was watching my favorite guy Derek Jeter. I just wanted to be like him. I wanted to be a big leaguer.”

Adames got the opportunity to realize that dream shortly after when, at the age of 16, he was signed to a professional contract by the Detroit Tigers. Two years later, he was shipped to Tampa Bay as a centerpiece of the David Price trade.

“I was surprised (I was traded),” said Adames. “I wasn’t expecting that, especially because that was my first year here in the states. I think it was a big thing for me because everybody (in baseball) got to know me. When you get traded for a guy like David Price […] I think that was kind of a motivator for me because (the Rays) expect a lot from me.”

Still just 18 years old, Adames could have withered under the increased scrutiny and expectations that came with the trade. Instead the burgeoning big league prospect soared, becoming a Mid-Season All-Star with High-A Charlotte his first full year with the Rays in 2015. 2016 then took things to all new heights, as Adames was named a Southern League All-Star, a Baseball America Double-A All-Star, and an MiLB.com Organization All-Star, while also appearing in the Futures Game.

That success vaulted Adames to the Ray’s top minor league affiliate in Durham, placing one of the game’s top prospects within a phone call of the major leagues. After a slow start to the season where Adames admits, “I just thought I wanted to go to the big leagues, but I wasn’t doing my job here,” the middle infielder has quickly adjusted to the minor league’s top level.

Still two months shy of his 22nd birthday, Adames now leads a young Bulls squad with their eyes set on bringing Durham a fifth Governors’ Cup.

“Everybody says that I’m young, but I feel good here,” said Adames. “Especially because we have (Jake) Bauers, and (Kean) Wong who are young too, so it makes me feel pretty good because we’ve been playing together for like three years. At every level that we’ve played we’ve been the youngest player every year.”

With his on-field play outpacing many of his seniors in the game, it could be easy to forget Adames’ age and misconstrue his natural charm for cockiness or arrogance. At the end of the day however, he really is still a kid. A kid playing a kid’s game and loving every minute of it.

“I’m just a kid that enjoys playing baseball,” said Adames. “I’m always trying to help my boys, my teammates. I’m just a humble kid. That’s me.”

Just a kid, a very talented kid, who’s not afraid to show how happy he is to be playing baseball.