Just two months removed from being a teenager, Xander Bogaerts speaks with fondness about growing up in Aruba, almost as if his childhood ended days ago.
It's easy to see why. Born and raised in San Nicolaas, Bogaerts has spent most of his life a literal stone's throw from the beach on a Caribbean island where the temperature hovers in the low- to mid-80s year-round.
In many ways, the Red Sox's top prospect had the best of everything growing up.
Twelve miles southeast of Oranjestad, the nation's capital and largest city, San Nicolaas is convenient but just far enough away from the major tourist spots to be a quiet community.
You could make the case that San Nicolaas -- with a population of around 22,000 -- has California's sandy beaches and Florida's climate but no traffic.
"It's very nice, quiet," Bogaerts said. "Oranjestad is the main part of Aruba -- the parties, the shops and all the nice stuff is on that side. But I live in a quiet place near the beach. It's not that big. It's on the opposite side from the town where everything is, opposite where all the tourists are."
Bogaerts played several sports growing up, including soccer, basketball and volleyball.
"I was an active kid, I liked to move around," he said. "I was never a lazy kid. I liked playing all of the other sports as a hobby, but I was good at baseball. Baseball was the real deal."
Bogaerts was introduced to the sport when he was 4 or 5 years old, playing catch with his twin brother, Jair, and his uncle, Glenroy, a local baseball coach, in the backyard of his grandmother's house.
"Before any teams or anything, it was my uncle who played with me and Jair from a young age," he recalled. "I remember learning the basics of baseball and learning how to play the game. [Glenroy] wasn't a professional coach or anything, but he taught us a lot about playing the game the right way.
"I just fell in love with the game with my twin brother. As we got older, we started participating in away tournaments -- Puerto Rico, Panama, Dominica, Curacao. But the most important thing in my family was going to school and getting an education. I had to stay in school before I signed. It was a big priority and I had to try to balance both of them."
The 20-year-old can't help but think back to those days when he's back in San Nicolaas in the offseason. His mother, Sandra Brown, still lives in the four-bedroom home in which Bogaerts grew up.
Bogaerts did well in school, especially math, and as his baseball skills developed, he started to help the other players. He played on dirt fields between the ages of 9-12 and helped lead his team to several Latin American tournaments, where it competed for a spot in the Little League World Series. In 2010, Aruba won the Senior League World Series in Bangor, Maine, the first such honor for the island nation.
"When you became champions of Aruba, you go off to play in the Latin American tournament. The winner from that goes to Williamsport to represent the Latin American teams," Bogaerts explained. "Growing up, I went to most of the Latin American tournaments and the Pan-American tournaments.
"It was nice. You met a lot of good players from other countries. I played against [Jurickson] Profar from Curacao and a few guys that have signed in professional ball."
Scouts began tracking Xander and Jair when they were around 15, no one more than the Red Sox's Mike Lord, an Aruba-based international cross-checker. But Xander almost missed his big chance to leave a lasting impression when the Red Sox held tryouts not far from his home.
"I remember, when the Red Sox came here for their tryout, I was at home with the chicken pox," he said. "I was in my bed at home and my brother called me and told me to come. I didn't think I would be able to go out, but I called my mom and asked her if I was allowed to and she eventually said I could.
"There were other teams, but the Red Sox were pursuing me aggressively. They were the most interested ones. They liked me and my brother and then they came back in two weeks and we got the deal done."
The twins signed with the Red Sox on Aug. 29, 2009. Xander, an infielder, got a $410,000 bonus, while Jair, a stocky catcher, received around $180,000. For Xander, the opportunity to play in the same organization with his brother made the decision a no-brainer.
"I wanted to play baseball and be a Major League player one day, but I liked school and I thought about becoming a teacher or being involved in sports," said Xander, who delayed his professional debut until he graduated from high school. "But baseball for me was always the first option."
Bogaerts debuted in the Dominican Summer League on June 6, 2010 and made his first start at shortstop two days later. Before the end of the month, he and Jair were sharing the same clubhouse.
For Bogaerts, who speaks English, Spanish, Dutch and Papiamento -- an Aruban Creole language -- the transition appeared almost effortless. The hardest part was leaving home.
"It was difficult because I'd always been there with my mom and my brother, but I always wanted to play baseball," he said. "It took some time to get used to.
"[People back home] think that when you sign with a team, you go straight to the Major Leagues, they don't know the process. You have to explain the process of the Minor Leagues, starting at the lower levels and making your way up. Everyone thinks it's direct to the Major Leagues, it's crazy. When I signed, I didn't even know what levels there were in the organization."
That first taste of pro ball agreed with Xander, who hit a team-high .314 with three homers, seven doubles and five triples in 63 games. He also led the squad with 42 RBIs, scored 39 runs and was named the Red Sox's Latin Program Player of the Year.
While Jair hit .170 in 46 games and repeated the DSL in 2011, Xander's star was on the rise. He moved up to Class A Greenville in June 2011 and, even though he appeared in only 72 games, finished third on the club with 16 homers. Bogaert led all full-time players with a .509 slugging percentage and tied for fourth with 45 RBIs.
"Greenville was another world," he said. "The quality level of baseball in Aruba isn't even close to baseball in America. Greenville was a nice town. It's really nice and the field was extremely nice. But I'm a guy that likes to stay home and not be on the road that much. I don't really go out that much, I like staying home and cleaning the house and working out."
MiLB.com named him an Organization All-Star following the season and Bogaerts' entered 2012 as the No. 3 prospect in the system behind Will Middlebrooks and Bryce Brentz.
The Red Sox bumped Bogaerts up to Class A Advanced Salem, where he did not disappoint. He batted .302 with 15 homers and 64 RBIs in 104 games and was named a Carolina League midseason All-Star.
Bogaerts played for the World team at the All-Star Futures Game in Kansas City, then earned a promotion to Double-A Portland in early August. In 23 Eastern League games, he collected five homers and 17 RBIs, giving him career highs of 20 homers and 81 RBIs. He recorded a .307/.373/.523 line across two levels and was named Topps' Carolina League Player of the Year.
"It went even better than I expected," Bogaerts said. "I didn't expect to hit that many home runs. But I worked hard in the offseason and during the season, and I like to play the game."
For Bogaerts, reaching the Majors would help realize a lifelong goal.
"It's something that I won't be able to believe until I'm in the batter's box getting my first at-bat," he said. "It will be something unbelievable because I've played my whole career ... trying to become one of those Major League players. You have idols like Derek Jeter and Hanley [Ramirez] and those guys, you want to be one of them. It will be crazy when I have an opportunity to join them."
When it comes to Aruban Major Leaguers, the list is a pretty short one.
Outfielder Gene Kingsale became the first player from the island to appear in a big league game when he debuted for the Orioles on Sept. 3, 1996. He ended up batting .251 over a seven-year career that included stints with the Mariners, Padres and Tigers.
Five days after Kingsale made his debut, the Orioles gave fellow Aruban Calvin Maduro his first start. And in 1998, Sidney Ponson became the third and most famous player from Aruba when he pitched for Baltimore.
Ponson compiled a 91-113 record over a 12-year career with the Giants, Cardinals, Yankees, Twins, Royals and Rangers.
Bogaerts is hoping to become the fourth player on the list, although he said he's too young and inexperienced to consider himself a baseball ambassador.
"I'm quiet, humble, just the same as I was back home. I don't want to change anything," he said. "I try to help people in Aruba approach the game the right way. I will always be humble and be myself. I can't be too high on myself just because I got signed.
"That's what they teach you at home growing up, the type of family I was in. I just want to stick with it. I wouldn't go up to a person and just tell them I'm a professional baseball player and that I signed with the Boston Red Sox. ... I guess if people know me, they know me. If not, hopefully they will hear about me some day."