Why the richest Cuban defector ever still longs for home

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports

GLENDALE, Ariz. – Every day, Jose Abreu talks with Daysi Correa. She is why he's here. When he was thinking of defecting from Cuba – of leaving behind the only place he'd ever known, the only people who mattered to him, for the glory and riches of Major League Baseball – his mother offered her blessing. Go, she said. Chase your dream.

"It's not my dream," Abreu says today. "It's my family's."

He's sitting in front of his locker inside the Chicago White Sox's opulent facility at Camelback Ranch with coach and translator Lino Diaz, still, in some ways, mystified that he's here. Life in Cuba does that to ballplayers. Dreams exist like Snapchat photos. And dreamers? They're naïve or silly or disrespectful. They're the sort of people who end up in jail for trying to leave or end up in miserable situations after they do.

Confronting the treacherous waters between Cuba and the United States, risking the sort of kidnapping ordeal Leonys Martin allegedly endured, Abreu never let hope die, and here he is: 6-foot-3, 255 pounds, a monolith of a man whose powerful right-handed stroke invited a six-year, $68 million contract from the White Sox, the biggest ever for a Cuban player. On the heels of Yoenis Cespedes' success and Yasiel Puig's transcendent rookie season, Abreu came at the perfect time to seize upon the many millions even the most fantastical dreamer couldn't dream.

The defection, he says, "went smooth. Nothing compared to what others went through. I feel very, very lucky." The two-day showcase that all 30 teams flew to the Dominican Republic to witness, he says, "are memorable moments I'll never forget." And landing with the White Sox, a team with perhaps the richest history in baseball of welcoming Cuban players, "I have to thank God for that."

There is a sense of humility in the 26-year-old Abreu that his teammates appreciate. Veteran Adam Dunn will use a translator to look up Spanish curse words, test them out on Abreu and relish at the chuckles. A friend from Cuba now living in the United States has helped acclimate Abreu and his wife, Yusmary, a doctor who defected with him, to the culture here, to the idea that freedom isn't some wayward privilege for a select few.

In Abreu's fall workout for teams in the Dominican Republic, the White Sox gleaned that he might be more grounded than other players who have defected and whose adjustment period to major league life took longer than most. It was little things. How long he stretched. How he moved with a purpose. How he was willing to showcase his weaknesses – Abreu took ground balls at third base, just in case a team wanted to see him there, and asked for inside pitches during batting practice because they were a perceived flaw – to show the fullest, most honest portrait of his game.

These are little things, yes, things that, in truth, matter not in a see-ball, hit-ball game that judges based on production and little else. And yet Abreu understood that baseball, right or not, values professionalism, and he wanted to come off as the most professional sort of player.

By the end of the showcase, the White Sox were sold. Executive vice president Kenny Williams, the White Sox's former general manager who joined Chicago official Marco Paddy at the workout, later said he wanted to give Abreu a standing ovation. Between that and the normal due diligence – the sort that's difficult to do on a Cuban player but was a focal point for the White Sox – they pegged him the heir to Paul Konerko.

"You don't want to get too worked up, because it wasn't even a game," White Sox general manager Rick Hahn says. "It's a workout. We've all seen plenty of guys who are impressive in a workout and it doesn't translate into the game. I wouldn't call it a confirmation-bias situation. But there still was enough there to reinforce what we had seen on video, in international competitions."

What they saw was power. Massive, 500-foot home run power. And not just power but a short, level swing that can spray the ball to all fields. Abreu's first home run this spring went to right field, and it may have retired the man who offered it up – Brad Penny hurt his left hand punching an unidentified object afterward and was released by Kansas City the next day.

Cautious optimism about Abreu pervades the White Sox's camp. He's their everyday first baseman and likely their No. 4 or 5 hitter and part of a roster overhaul by Hahn that drew raves throughout the industry. Considering Chicago's de-escalating salary commitments going forward, $68 million for a player who hasn't taken a meaningful swing in the United States represented a risk well worth taking.

"It's where the market is," Hahn says. "And if he is, in fact, the player that our scouts and others feel he's capable of being, the $68 million for six in retrospect will look like a bargain."

For Abreu, it's $68 million more than he had in Cuba, where baseball players earn working wages. It served as motivation, of course, the sort of treasure that seems inconceivable. Just as important were the words from Daysi. Before Abreu defected, he told her to pick his jersey number. She chose 79, a number believed to have been worn just twice before in major league history. Every time Abreu looks at his jersey, he says, "She's always near me."

Abreu hopes she'll join him soon, along with his father, Jose Oriol Abreu, and his brother. They left Cuba, too, and he says "they're safe," though that's all he'll offer on the subject.

Which is plenty. He's here, having beaten the system back home. Turns out he wasn't naïve or silly. He just respected himself more than totalitarianism.

"I feel very brave," Abreu says. "Not only myself but my family. My family that left with me at the time was brave to do it, as well as all the other people who have come to this country. To leave your home, go to a new place, is not easy."

Not easy. Just right. Like a dream that turned out to be very, very real.

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