By HAL McCOY
CINCINNATI — One of the best shows in baseball is one fans never see and it is enacted daily by Cincinnati Reds shortstop Jose Iglesias.
Before the gates open at Great American Ball Park, while the Reds are taking batting practice, Iglesias puts on a baseball version of the Harlem Globetrotters.
He does everything with a baseball but make it sing La Bamba and he could do that if you tell him what key you want it in.
His hands are quicker than a magician’s and his reflexes are faster than a Navy Seal. He practices taking ground balls and removing the baseball from glove to throwing hand so quick one needs a high-speed camera to capture it.
“All part of my preparation for games,” he said. “I do it every day. Always have. It is my routine and it is fun. It is a rhythm that gets me ready for the game.”
It is not a rubber band stretch to say that Iglesias is as good, if not better, defensively than legendary Reds shortstops Davey Concepcion and Barry Larkin.
What he does defensively is dazzling and he is so good that he is almost taken for granted that he’ll make the most difficult play seem routine.
It is difficult to believe that the Detroit Tigers released him after last season. They didn’t say good-bye, didn’t tell him why, just let him go by not tendering him a contract.
“They were facing a rebuild (in Detroit), I guess, I don’t know, it is really out of my control,” he said. “We didn’t talk much and I was not really surprised.”
A rebuild? The Tigers couldn’t use a 28-year-old shortstop with a stardust glove in a rebuild? The Tigers’ loss was Cincinnati’s gain. The Reds snapped him up, signing him to a minor-league contract with an invitation to major league camp in spring training.
And it was quickly obvious he was the shortstop and he hasn’t disappointed. In addition to his defense, Iglesias is hitting .285. What is even better is that when a hit is needed, when runners are waiting to be driven home, Iglesias is in the Top Five in the National League with a .377 average with runners in scoring position.
“I love those situations, but I don’t change anything,” he said. “I stay with my approach and that’s what pays off. I don’t try to be a hero, don’t try to hit a three-run homer. Just take a single. One pitch at a time, one swing at a time, one run at a time. I’ve been able to slow thing down. Just battle every pitch. It’s a grind.”
Iglesias is a free agent after the season and with what other teams have seen, flashing leather and dependable bat, his services should be highly sought.
Are the Reds interested? They aren’t saying. But Iglesias is saying.
“I love this group, really love this group,” he said. “They welcome me like home. I get along with every single person and I love the challenge in our division. I love to compete. And I think this team is close to competing every day and I love being a part of it.”
When Iglesias said the team makes him feel like home, his home was La Habana, Cuba. He was playing for Industriales, the Cuban National Team in Canada in July of 2008 when he and a teammate bolted the team and defected. “I escaped from the Cuban National team, a long story, and came to the States and I’m now a naturalized citizen.”
He signed with the Boston Red Sox in 2009, was traded to the Tigers in 2013 and is now deeply entrenched in the Reds lineup.
Manager David Bell never thought he would be writing the name ‘Iglesias’ on his lineup card nearly every day. Roughly translated, Iglesias in English means church and Bell certainly worships this ‘church.’
Asked if he could put into words was Iglesias means to his team, Bell smiled and said, “I can try. I don’t think there are stats or words to really fully paint the picture of what he has done.
“He is a guy who makes everybody around him better,” said Bell. “That’s what I can’t put a number on — the amount of plays he has made to shut down the opposing team’s opportunities that has helped our pitchers.
“I don’t know to quantify him, but my eyes have told me that he is a big part of our team this year, no question. . .offensively and defensively. I had heard of his reputation, but I didn’t anticipate him being anywhere near as good as he is.”