Baseball, family go hand in hand for Abreu
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- There's a worn-out black batting tee and an old bucket of practice baseballs in the last batting cage that's produced a soundtrack in the past three weeks at White Sox camp, and the instruments are at work again.
Jose Abreu's feet are square and his head is held high. His swing is smooth, and he drives the teed-up ball toward the netting on the right side of the cage.
The next two balls are pulled like imaginary gappers to left-center. Most of the next 15 balls are smashed up the middle. The noises echo throughout the complex.
It's 1:45 p.m. on a Friday afternoon at Camelback Ranch, almost two hours after the day's workout has ended, and the only sounds at the facility are coming from souped-up trucks, sports cars pulling out of the players' parking lot and those poor balls being crushed by Abreu's bat.
The 6-foot-3, 255-pound Cuban slugger starts his workday every morning at 7 a.m. in the batting cage, and he ends it there six or seven hours later when one of his coaches relays some version of "that's enough for today." Back in Cuba, the 27-year-old hit hundreds of balls each day, because the field was his sanctuary, a refuge where no one, not even Fidel Castro or his oppressive government, could touch him. Now, Abreu hits in solitude for hours with the hope that his hard work will bring him closer to his new White Sox family, the city of Chicago and, one day, with loved ones he left back on the island.
"Happy? I don't know if I'm happy right now, but I'm content with where I am," Abreu said in Spanish. "I'll be happy when my family gets to the United States, when my son gets here, and we are all together. I'm definitely not satisfied just being here. I know this is the next chapter for all of us, and I'm going to keep working hard to make it a good one."
As with many Cuban players in the big leagues, the details of Abreu's escape from his island remain mostly unknown and mysterious. He and his wife, Yusmary, are believed to have left Cuba in the middle of the night sometime last summer and made their way to Haiti to begin Abreu's process of becoming eligible to sign with a Major League club. Abreu was courted by several teams, but he eventually signed a six-year, $68 million deal with the White Sox in October. He is expected to be the successor to Paul Konerko at first base.
"For me, I had just one thought: I wanted to provide my mom, sister, my kid, my dad with things I couldn't provide them in Cuba," said Abreu, who is from Cienfuegos. "Especially, I thank mom for my life, so now it's the time for me to work for her. So I keep on working every day, and I don't get tired of it. Working every day, every hour, every minute is the best way for me to have God provide me with the things I can hope for and I deserve."
It was Abreu's mother, Daisy Correa Diaz, who encouraged him to leave Cuba. She even helped pick his jersey No. 79. It was his experience playing for Cuba in the World Baseball Classic and the success of Cuban players like Orlando Hernandez, Jose Contreras, Yasiel Puig, Aroldis Chapman and countless other stars from the island that convinced Abreu that he could do it, too.
"My dad gets jealous sometimes, because I don't talk a lot about him in interviews. But the mother is the most important thing," he said. "Thank God, my dad also dedicates himself a lot to me, and he talks to me every day, asks me how I'm doing in my training. He gets jealous, but as we say in Cuba, 'There is only one mother, anybody can be your dad.' I know that isn't exactly my case, but I know I give her that preference."
The truth is, there wasn't much left for the slugger to accomplish in Cuba. An international star, Abreu hit .453 with 33 homers and 93 RBIs in 66 games during a historic 2010-11 season in Cuba, after which he was named the Cuban League's Most Valuable Player. He also posted a .360 average with three homers and nine RBIs in six games for Cuba in last year's World Baseball Classic. Abreu also flirted with a Triple Crown a few times.
"Those experiences have helped me out a lot so I can be here," he said. "I've had a lot of people next to me helping me out and teaching me things so I can get a better idea of how Major League Baseball is like."
Some scouts wonder how Abreu will handle big league pitching or if he is nimble enough to move around defensively at first base. What kind of baserunner will he be? The slugger isn't worried.
"Having a positive mentality, swing the ball at the right places and, God willing, if it leaves the yard or not, it's up to him," Abreu said. "What you can do is having a clear mind-set and just work."
Known as "Pito" in Cuba, Abreu's new White Sox teammates quickly embraced him, nicknaming him "Yogi" and "Oso," the Spanish word for bear because of his size and strength. He has a special bond with Alexei Ramirez, Dayan Viciedo, Adrian Nieto, who are also from Cuba, along with other Latinos on the team. But Abreu is also making an effort to reach out to his non-Spanish-speaking teammates. He said he works as hard at studying English as he does in the batting cage, but for now, he'll continue to use White Sox hitting instructor Lino Diaz as his translator.
"He's been everything we have hoped for and more," White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said. "A large part of the appeal to us for signing Jose was his professionalism and how serious he was about his craft. Whether he is in the cage or in pre-workouts or on the field, he has a purpose, and you can tell this is a guy who takes what he does very seriously and wants to maximize his talent."
Abreu said he lives a quiet life off the field. He lives near the White Sox complex and rarely leaves the premises. Abreu hasn't made a big purchase like a fancy car or a new home since signing his contract, and he said he hasn't given it much thought.
"I'm a family-oriented person," Abreu said. "I like to be at home and have my time for my music, to watch news, read the Bible. I read the Bible every day, thank God. And when it comes to baseball, it's the same routine: baseball, baseball and more baseball."
Baseball is Abreu's passion. His family is his life. He hopes all of the hard work -- the hours spent in the batting cage before his teammates arrive at the complex and after they have pulled out of the parking lot -- will pay off. You can argue it already has. Abreu is financially set for life, and his family could join him in the United States sometime soon.
"The biggest home run I've ever hit is still in Cuba. That's my son Dariel Eduardo," Abreu said. "A part of my family is still there, but thank God, my mom, dad, my sister and my brother-in-law are at a safe place. I don't want to disclose it due to their security. But I hope to have them soon near me, and we can do an interview together."
Until then, it's time to work.