Close-knit Cuban prospects work to acclimate
Soler, others learning English while working way to Major Leagues
PITTSBURGH -- Four of the Cubs' Minor League teams begin their season on Thursday, and for many of the prospects, they are scrambling to find housing, shipping their cars from Arizona to their respective cities and getting settled. Cuban outfielder Yasiel Balaguert is hoping to have an easier time asking for a bar of soap.
Balaguert, 21, was assigned to Class A Kane County. Last year at short-season Boise, he stayed with a host family, an older couple, who provided him with his own room. The couple didn't speak Spanish. Balaguert is learning English through the Cubs' program, which provides 25 hours of lessons during the season.
"It was a little difficult," Balaguert said, "but you learn how to get the message across."
Balaguert and Cuban players Jorge Soler, Rubi Silva and Frank Del Valle sat down last week with MLB.com at the Cubs' new Spring Training complex in Mesa, Ariz., to talk about the transition from Cuba to the U.S. Rey Fuentes, the team's coordinator of cultural programs, was moderator and interpreter. The four players -- plus Cuban pitchers Armando Rivero, Geraldo Concepcion and Yoanner Negrin -- take another step toward the big leagues this week.
The Cubs' Cuban players are a close-knit group. They share an unspoken bond; all have taken risks to pursue their dreams of playing in the U.S. Major Leagues.
"My dad says it's a tough subject, what they went through," said Cubs Minor League outfielder Albert Almora, whose father left Cuba and went to Spain for several years before settling in Florida. "They had to leave family behind."
Almora won't ask the other Cuban players how they got to the U.S.
"It's private," Almora said. "I respect that."
When the Reds' Aroldis Chapman was struck in the face by a line drive March 19 in Spring Training, the impact was felt not just by other pitchers, but by other Cuban players. The four Cubs visited Chapman in the hospital in Arizona.
"We're friends," Balaguert said, "but [we went] also because he's Cuban."
Chapman and the Dodgers' Yasiel Puig are already in the big leagues. Balaguert, Soler, Silva and Del Valle are eager to join them.
"It's good motivation, because that's where I know I can be, that's where I know I will be if I continue the work," Soler said.
And Chapman and Puig have offered the Cubs' young Cubans advice.
"They tell us to make sure we do the right things, make the right choices, do what you're supposed to do, trust the process," Balaguert said.
Balaguert, Soler, Silva and Del Valle unanimously agreed that baseball is easy compared to learning English. The language classes are provided at all levels except Triple-A.
"The English classes help," Soler said, "but being on the field with the American players and in the locker room and hearing them talk helps more."
The four began playing baseball when they were 7 or 8. There is no Little League in Cuba, but there are organized baseball youth leagues, beginning at age 5. In the Dominican Republic, kids would create gloves from milk cartons and use stones for balls because equipment wasn't available.
"In Cuba, it's different than in the Dominican," Silva said.
Each Cuban kid may not have his own glove, but the players were able to share them. When teams changed sides, the defensive unit would drop their gloves in the field, and the next shortstop or outfielder would pick them up. Kids played baseball everywhere -- on the street, at recess -- and all day, every day. The gloves may have been old, the balls may have been scuffed, but it was baseball.
The four Cubs prospects are from different areas of Havana, or La Habana. Del Valle and Silva played together when they represented Cuba on national teams. Silva, 24, is the most advanced in the Cubs' system. An outfielder, he batted .284 with 15 home runs and 52 RBIs last season for Double-A Tennessee, and he ranked second in the Southern League with 226 total bases and third with a .483 slugging percentage. Silva was included on the Cubs' roster for the final exhibition games at Chase Field against the Diamondbacks.
Silva's life changed last summer when he became a father; his son is now 9 months old. Del Valle has two boys, ages 3 1/2 and 1 1/2.
Soler, 22, played for the Cuban national team in the 2010 World Junior Baseball Championship, and defected in 2011. He has the largest contract of the four, signing a nine-year, $30 million deal with the Cubs in June 2012. Soler and Balaguert are close. For this get together, Soler brought a picture of one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, joking that Balaguert looks like one of the half-shell heroes.
It's much easier for the four in the offseason. They live in the Miami area, and they socialize and practice together. Spanish is predominant there, so they have no trouble finding food or getting around. They've finally figured out airports, which can be a challenge for anyone.
"Somehow, we communicate," Soler said.
They couldn't watch Major League games on television in Cuba. There is no ESPN or even ESPN Deportes. They had three television stations -- channels 3, 9 and 12 -- to chose from. How did they know about the Major Leagues? They would see news clips -- all four remembered Sammy Sosa's and Mark McGwire's home run exploits in 1998 -- or watch video of players on telecasts of the Cuban teams.
"It was almost impossible to watch [the U.S. Major Leaguers]," Soler said.
Questions about why they came to the U.S. and how they left Cuba were not discussed. They still have family there. They can call whenever they want, and do so often. Some have family who have joined them in the U.S. Soler, for example, lives with his father in Miami.
Would they ever return to Cuba? All quickly said "yes."
"Don't get me wrong -- I don't want to stay there," Balaguert added.
For now, they are preparing for another season in the Minor Leagues, another phase of their development, another lesson. They have learned the importance of being able to communicate in English.
"Sometimes things get lost in translation, even when they are translated," Soler said. "You might not get the full message or the correct message."
Soler, 22, is one of the so-called "core four" of top Cubs prospects with Almora, Javier Baez and Kris Bryant. The Cuban outfielder will open the season with Tennessee after batting .281 at Class A Daytona last season. He was limited to 55 games because of a leg injury. Soler took part in the Cubs' rookie development camp in January in Chicago, and he began Spring Training in the big league camp for the second straight year. He was approached by English-speaking media this spring, and needed a translator each time.
"It's difficult to do interviews in Spanish, not just English," Soler said.
It was clear Soler was more comfortable speaking in Spanish. Most reporters took basic foreign language classes in high school. When will Soler be able to answer questions in English?
"I don't know," Soler said softly in English.
"Soon," Del Valle said.