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Abreu joins rich history of Cuban ballplayers in Chicago

Legendary Minoso, current White Sox play role in first baseman's decision to sign @philgrogers

CHICAGO -- When Jose Abreu steps into the batter's box at U.S. Cellular Field on Opening Day, he'll be following in the footsteps of the legendary Minnie Minoso, among others.

Minoso hit a home run off the Yankees' Vic Raschi in his first at-bat for the White Sox on May 1, 1951 -- sweet music to the ears of manager Paul Richards, who had pushed the Sox to trade for him. Minoso, a Cuban who had played in the Negro Leagues, was breaking baseball's color barrier in Chicago almost four years after Jackie Robinson integrated the Major Leagues.

Minoso would spend 10 seasons with the White Sox, not including the encores he took in 1976 and '80 to become a four-decade player. Minoso remains one of chairman Jerry Reinsdorf's favorites and is a regular around the ballpark. He represents the team at functions, attends games and often stops by to grab a bite to eat in the team cafeteria during the winter.

Reinsdorf has said that Minoso "radiates happiness,'' which is why Reinsdorf was left heartbroken when the Veterans Committee declined to vote Minoso into the Hall of Fame two years ago. The 87-year-old Minoso has said he feels "a lot of love, a lot of respect'' when he's around the team. It doesn't feel like it has been 62 years since he arrived.

One of the things that has kept Minoso feeling young is the chance to watch other ballplayers from Cuba. He beamed when the White Sox won the World Series in 2005 with Cubans Jose Contreras and Orlando Hernandez as leaders of the pitching staff. He welcomed shortstop Alexei Ramirez in '08 and outfielder Dayan Viciedo in '10, and was front and center at U.S. Cellular Field on Oct. 29, when the team announced its six-year, $68-million deal with Abreu, who put up record-setting numbers in Cuba's Serie Nacional from 2010-13.

Playing for Cienfuegos, the team he debuted with as a 16-year-old, Abreu batted a combined .392 with a home run every 9.3 at-bats during those seasons. His numbers dwarf those put up in Cuba by Yoenis Cespedes, Kendrys Morales and Yasiel Puig.

No one knows whether Abreu's domination of Cuban pitching will carry over to the Major Leagues. There are scouts who doubt his mechanics, approach and athleticism. But one advantage Abreu should have is his comfort level, assuming the White Sox don't trade Ramirez or Viciedo.

Puig, Cespedes and Morales were the lone Cubans on the rosters of the 2013 Dodgers, '12 Athletics and '06 Angels when they began their respective careers, not that they were thrown into the deep waters immediately. The A's assigned Minor League coach Ariel Prieto, a Cuban defector, to serve as a personal assistant to Cespedes, as the Reds did with Tony Fossas after signing Aroldis Chapman before the '10 season.

There will be no need to search for a translator or companions for Abreu when he reports to Arizona. He's establishing his permanent residence in Miami, near Ramirez, and figures to shadow his fellow Cubans when Spring Training begins.

That's how Viciedo was with Ramirez, and how Ramirez was with Contreras. This chain of Cuban countrymen stretches back to 2005, when then-general manager Ken Williams signed Hernandez late in his career to serve as a fifth starter and mentor for Contreras, who lasted only parts of two big league seasons with the Yankees after they won a bidding war with the Red Sox to sign him to a four-year, $32-million contract in '03.

Contreras had expected to learn from Hernandez in New York, but the Yankees traded El Duque to Montreal just before Contreras' first spring at the Tampa complex. Hernandez re-signed with the Yankees for the 2004 season, but spent the first half of it recovering from shoulder surgery. He joined the Yankees that July, but Contreras was dealt to the White Sox for Esteban Loaiza only three weeks later.

Contreras was caught off-guard and said later he was "devastated,'' because he had been sure El Duque could help him. He was right about that, as he proved by going 28-16 with the White Sox in 2005 and '06 after Williams signed Hernandez to give them a second chance together.

In the spring of 2005, I talked with Hernandez and Contreras about the impact that Cubans Luis Tiant, Camilo Pascual, Hernandez and his half-brother, Livan, had on powerful teams. There had not been a staff with two Cubans on it at the same time since the Washington Senators of the late 1950s, who had Pascual and Pedro Ramos, and I asked the White Sox duo what it would mean to have two Cubans working together.

Hernandez smiled broadly, but would make no bold predictions. "That's going to be for the end of the year,'' he said. "If we do what we can, you probably won't have to ask the question, because you will see what it means. It will be a big year for both of us and for the team. We will enjoy each other and help the team win.''

They did their part. I'll never forget them pouring champagne on Reinsdorf and others at Minute Maid Park in Houston, where they wrapped up a World Series sweep of the Astros with Contreras as the No. 1 starter after he rolled through the second half of the regular season with an 11-2 record. They had smoked cigars together on the classic porch of the Vinoy Park Hotel in St. Petersburg, Fla., earlier in the season, looking like baseball royalty.

When it counted the most, they were the real deal. Contreras worked 32 innings in his four starts during the White Sox's 11-1 romp through the Red Sox, Angels and Astros. Hernandez might have gotten the most dramatic outs of the postseason, escaping a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the seventh at Fenway Park in the American League Division Series clincher.

That's the legacy that Abreu inherits.

While the White Sox $68-million offer was probably the biggest Abreu received, he said it helped his decision-making that the Sox used Ramirez and Viciedo to recruit him. He was thrilled when Minoso came out to meet him on the day that he signed.

He said Minoso was among the players he had learned about while growing up.

"There wasn't one player who inspired me,'' Abreu said. "I looked up to all the Cuban players, going back to Mr. Minoso. It's been an inspiration to see what all the Cuban players have done here.''

With Paul Konerko facing free agency and possible retirement, and the White Sox coming off a 99-loss season in which they finished last in the AL in runs and tied for 13th in home runs, general manager Rick Hahn prioritized signing Abreu in mid-August, when word spread that he had defected.

Hahn let Abreu know he was interested, but did not have to tell him about the White Sox situation. The history spoke for itself.

"I know there were other teams interested,'' Abreu said. "[But] the support from players -- Cuban players, Alexei, Dayan -- added [to my interest]. Once the decision came down -- where's it going to be? -- it was the White Sox. It was pretty simple for me to say it was the White Sox because of the support here.''

Minoso's smile on the day of the signing spoke loudly. The next chapter in the history of Cuban players in Chicago is about to be written, and the White Sox will be happy if it is worthy of ones written by men like Minoso, Contreras and Hernandez.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for

Chicago White Sox, Jose Abreu