All-Star outfielder's work ethic instilled early by his role models
By Richard Justice
To really understand what drives Astros outfielder George Springer -- his energy, baseball intellect and burning desire to be great -- let's start at the beginning.
First, though, let's consider a quote from his manager that offers a hint at why the 28-year-old Springer is so important to the American League West champions.
"His teammates revere him, and I think that's the biggest compliment you can get -- when your teammates care as much as they do about him," A.J. Hinch said.
That's not just baseball praise, either, although baseball is where it starts. Springer's presence at the top of the lineup and his dynamic play in the outfield have set a tone for a team that leads the Majors in runs and has had the AL West virtually locked up by the All-Star break.
But it goes deeper than that. Springer is that guy who never seems to have a bad day. He leads the Astros' postgame celebrations and keeps the dugout loose, mostly in English, occasionally in Spanish.
"Great athlete, great hitter with a lot of pop," new teammate Justin Verlander said. "I think you lose a bit of an appreciation for how good of an outfielder he is."
When Springer was injured two years ago, Hinch asked him to stay close to the team because his voice and his sense of humor were that important to the overall fabric of the team.
"You have a little bit better day when your path crosses with him," Hinch said. "There's an everyday component of George that when you're around him, you're a little bit happier, a little bit brighter.
"He's always happy. He's always upbeat. He's talkative. He's always pretty engaging. He's always playing music. He's emotional, and he cares -- a lot."
He's also a key cog in one of baseball's best offenses, who showed it again on Wednesday when he crushed the fourth grand slam of his career. Hinch moved Springer into the leadoff spot in the 46th game of the 2016 season and has kept him there ever since. His 34 home runs from the top spot this season are the most by an American League hitter since Ian Kinsler had 32 in 2011 and helped get him voted the AL's starting left fielder in the All-Star Game.
Now to some of the background. Baseball is part of who Springer is. Actually, every sport.
"It didn't matter," he said. "I liked to play everything I could play. I was always playing some form of a sport outside. It was big amongst the kids in our town that certain days were set for certain sports. Saturday was pickup football. Friday was pickup basketball. That was all the time."
And not just him. His sisters, Nicole and Lena, played Division I softball at Central Connecticut and Ohio State, respectively.
George's father played in the Little League World Series in 1976, and his mother, Laura, teaches gymnastics and coaches field hockey and softball near the family home in New Britain, Conn.
"It's just who we are as a family," George said. "We enjoy every game. We enjoy competing."
George and George and George
Here's a story from his dad, George Springer Jr.
(To clear up any confusion about the names, the Astros' outfielder is George Springer III. His dad is George Springer Jr. His grandfather, George Springer Sr., is also an important part of this story, and we'll get to him in a moment.)
"I go up to see my son one night as he's about to go to bed," said George Jr., a partner at Rogin Nassau, a law firm in Hartford. "He has a game the next morning, and he's already got his uniform on. He's tossing a baseball up in the air, and I can see the wheels are spinning."
What's going on, George?
"Dad, I'm thinking about the game," George III said. "I'm thinking about this pitcher and what my approach is going to be."
He'd faced that pitcher before and remembered how he'd pitched him.
"Here's the thing," George Jr. said. "He's 7 years old at the time. Seven years old. I'm thinking, 'What?'"
And that thought of George III sitting there in his uniform at 7 years old and thinking about the next day's game and what approach he'd take at the plate gets George Jr. to thinking about his dad.
George Springer Sr. immigrated to New Britain from Panama at 17 years old. He did it for the same opportunity immigrants have come to this country for 250 years.
"He taught me about the game, the history," George Jr. said of his dad. "He played cricket, soccer and baseball growing up. He saw Negro League players as they came through Panama during the winter.
"Before he passed away in 2006, he spent a lot of time around my kids. We'd sit there and watch baseball, and he's asking things like, 'How do you pitch this hitter? What are you going to do to be successful? Look at how he's dropping his hands. Look at where he's positioned. He's pulling off the pitch.'
"These conversations occurred routinely in my living room, and my son is picking all of this up. When I think about that background, it doesn't surprise me to hear him say he's thinking about his approach. That baseball IQ goes with his desire."
George Springer Sr. built quite a life for himself in the United States, becoming a high school graphics and African-American history teacher and the local head of the American Federation of Teachers. He also served for 18 months as a temporary administrator of the Washington Teachers' Union after it was rocked by an embezzlement scandal.
"He'd fly to D.C. on Monday morning and back home Friday night," George Jr. said. "He'd show up at our house at 8 a.m. Saturday and say, 'Where are the games?' He didn't care what part of the state, he was going to go and support the kids. He was having lunch with [former Massachusetts Senator] Ted Kennedy one time, and in the midst of the conversation, called to say, 'I'll be at the games tomorrow morning.'
"He was the most incredible, smartest, most decent person I've ever known. He was a magnanimous man and brilliant and down to earth with solid values. I see a lot of him in George."
Those traits were echoed by George Sr.'s colleagues.
"He was a man of quiet strength," AFT Chief of Staff Ron Krouse said in The Washington Post obituary for George Sr. "He wasn't one who shouted or was flamboyant. He went about his work in a yeoman's manner. He was a very conciliatory figure."
George III remembers spending hours in the playground of an elementary school near his home. His father would take a garbage can filled with tennis balls and spend hours hitting them to the kids.
"George loved defensive drills," George Jr. said. "He loved to run. He loved to track down balls. On windy days in particular, I'd hit them at various heights, over his head, everything. His combination of energy and drive and the ability to take angles and to anticipate was extraordinary."
When George Jr. threw George III batting practice, the approach was the same.
"I'm not grooving balls to him," George Jr. said. "We're talking about dropping his hands on an inside pitch, on how to go after a low-and-away pitch. I didn't have much of a curveball, but I had one heckuva slider. He's still a kid, 7 or 8 years old, and he loved it."
One other thing George Jr. and his family did: Make trips to Fenway Park. George III remembers them fondly.
"We'd go sit in the bleachers, my dad, my uncle, my grandparents," he said. "I remember going up there two or three times a week sometimes."
His favorite players were the stars of that era: Mo Vaughn, Nomar Garciaparra, Jason Varitek and others. Around that time, a kid named David Ortiz had just arrived.
George Jr. remembers when a group of Cape Cod League players, including his son, who was then at the University of Connecticut, were invited to a scouting workout at Fenway Park. To see his son on the field at the little ballpark, well, he remembers it as if it was yesterday.
"When I saw him hit a couple of balls over the Monster, it doesn't get any better than that," said George Jr., who got his B.A. and law degree from UConn.
And then last year, George III finally played a Major League game at Fenway Park. In two previous years, he'd been injured when the Astros played at Fenway Park.
"I cried," George Jr. said. "I'll be honest with you. And then to watch him homer one game and hit a grand slam the next, those are things you don't forget."
For George III, it was a different experience. "I think it meant a lot more to our family than it did to me at the time," he said. "I had to go out and compete against those guys. To get a chance to play in any Major League stadium is still surreal to me. But the history behind Fenway Park and that organization. I understand what it is as a player, and I've watched hundreds of games there as a kid. It's cool."
Now, in a scheduling twist, the Springer family could see a lot of George III at Fenway Park in the next couple of weeks. The Astros will finish the regular season there this weekend and could also open the American League Division Series by Doosan against the Red Sox.
Model teammate and role model
George III's prominence has given him a platform to help young people with speech impediments. He has dealt with a stutter -- barely noticeable now -- for a lot of his life. He hosts an offseason charity event to raise awareness of the issue and to send children to Camp SAY, where the focus is on speech therapy, creative expression and confidence.
"My first year here, I kind of figured out that if I could hopefully help anybody I was going to do that," he said. "I've been through -- I still go through -- what these kids go through every day. It makes it easier to go out and help. I've experienced it. I wanted to help."
At Springer's charity bowling event last winter, one mother told him, "You have changed stuttering forever for all these kids."
In what became a meaningful gesture to many, Springer wore a microphone and did a national television interview during this season's All-Star Game in Miami.
It was another moment to remember for George Jr. and Laura Springer, for Nicole and Lena, and the Astros being back in the playoffs will be another one.
"I have two screens at work -- my work screen and the Astros," George Jr. said. "The Astros are on in every room in our home. I still get a thrill watching him run out of the dugout. Sometimes, it's overwhelming. It's not just that he's a Major League player, but that's really neat. He's doing something he loves to do. He's just so happy. That singular passion is something he has always had. It's not just the physical part. It's the mental aspect as well.
"Once after he had a nice game at UConn, he was quoted in a story about the game, and all he would talk about is how so-and-so pitched well and so-and-so had played a great game. He would not make it about him. He still has trouble doing that. When I hear that, I'm like, 'You know what? He gets it.' This is who we are as a family. This is what we've tried to instill.
"What's important is to take your own development and use it for something bigger, in this case, the team. Very seldom do we accomplish things by ourselves. As a dad, if something happened to me tomorrow, I would know the world is a better place because he's here, and I helped to do that."
Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.