Long days part of Nieto's journey to big leagues
Cuban catcher determined to put forth effort and take advantage of opportunity
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Making the jump from the Carolina League to the White Sox Opening Day roster stands as quite a daunting challenge for Adrian Nieto.
Add into the mix that Nieto has to make this climb as a catcher, where he's not only responsible for himself but also the pitching staff, and it becomes a bit more difficult.
Finalize the journey with Nieto's status as a Rule 5 Draft selection, meaning he would have to be offered back to the Nationals if he doesn't stay on the 25-man roster all season, and it's clear this will not be an easy first big league camp for the 24-year-old switch-hitter.
Difficult doesn't mean impossible. Not for a player who, as a result of his own actions, had baseball taken away from him for 50 games at the start of the 2011 season after testing positive for the anabolic steroid Oxandrolone and performance-enhancing Metabolite.
Not for a young man who left Cuba at 4 1/2 years of age with his parents and 18 other people in the middle of the night on a 20-foot wooden boat in search of the American dream. That journey was about survival, but certainly on a far different level than trying to become the most qualified catcher to break camp on March 28.
"We were worried about dying," Nieto told MLB.com of his family's departure from Cuba during a rare down moment in his first week of camp. "I didn't know how to swim. My mom didn't know at all. It was just a journey that you hope for the best and just go out there and you hit land somewhere that's not Cuba. It's a risk definitely, but it was worth it."
Nieto recounted how his family left Cuba around midnight and was out on the water for 13 hours, guided north only by a compass that they didn't know was right or wrong. They were rescued by the Coast Guard and taken to Guantanamo Bay, where they remained for six months and six days before coming to the United States.
His father, Adrian, presently works for American Heritage High School, and his mom, Teresa, previously worked there. They reside in Hialeah, Fla., but much of their current focus centers on Camelback Ranch and their son.
"They are very proud, and I just want to continue to make them proud," Nieto said. "That's one of the reasons if I don't work hard enough, I feel like I'm cheating them. Everything they did for me to be in this position. It's why you rarely see me at my locker.
"This is a great opportunity here. I can play baseball and do whatever I want. Back home, I wouldn't be able to do whatever I wanted. It's a blessing. This country has given me more than I ever thought would give me."
A typical Spring Training day for Nieto begins around 6:45 or 7 a.m., when he arrives at Camelback Ranch to work out. He has breakfast and then either goes for catchers' early work or takes extra hitting. On Wednesday, Nieto caught his first live bullpen session with the rotation's top starters in Chris Sale and Jose Quintana.
That full day's activity was completed by an extra 30 minutes of hitting in the cages.
"If you are not doing something, you are not getting better," said a smiling Nieto. "You don't get better at the house."
"I see a kid who really loves to play the game," said White Sox bench coach Mark Parent. "He does look young and sort of inexperienced compared to guys I'm used to seeing. The tools are there and it's a viable thing for the future, then we got to give them a good look."
As a result of this bullpen session, Parent, a former catcher, advised Nieto that he was setting up a little early and that opposing players could tip it. Nieto also talked with Sale about what he wanted with certain pitch selections, which is all part of the learning process.
"I'm here for them. And it's my No. 1 job, taking care of those guys," Nieto said. "If they want me to catch with both knees on the ground, I'll do it. Whatever they want. I'm here to learn them as quick as possible."
"He was very easy to talk to and work with," Sale said. "He wanted to kind of know, 'Hey, two-seamer arm side, you are coming in, you are going to run it in there?' I like how he sets up. He gives a low target. He does all the things you want a catcher to do, especially when you are unfamiliar. He's doing all the right things."
Over 110 games played for Class A Advanced Potomac in the Nationals system during the 2013 season, Nieto hit .285 with 11 homers and 53 RBIs. He "has a little sting in his bat," according to Parent, but that's just one of the intangibles that could help Nieto make such a significant jump.
It's the ultimate offshoot of a re-commitment Nieto claims began in 2011, following the suspension.
"I'll tell everybody that was a wakeup call for me. It really was," Nieto said. "It made me grow up, look myself in the mirror and really check myself and see if this is what I really wanted to do.
"Coming up through the Minors for the first three years, I took this for granted, thinking this can never be taken away. It can be in the snap of a finger. It was a mistake. I learned from it and moved on.
"Now I've got to tell myself I belong and go out and play the game and let things take care of themselves," Nieto said. "It's a tough jump, but it's still baseball."