Abreu makes smooth transition from Cuba to majors
CHICAGO (AP) — The first two happened in a single game in Colorado. There was a fly ball that barely cleared the wall, and then a screaming drive to right-center.
Jose Abreu quickly hit two more home runs against Cleveland. He beat Tampa Bay with a game-ending grand slam, an absolute laser for his second shot of the game.
Some 6,000 feet of homers in just six weeks, another successful mile in a well-traveled bridge from Abreu’s native Cuba to the Chicago White Sox. The big first baseman is punishing major league pitching while making a difficult transition to the United States look almost routine.
“I come from a place where there is very good baseball, but there’s nowhere you can compare that baseball to this one,” Abreu said through a translator. “This is the best baseball in the world. But the only way to achieve this, to come here and be successful, is to be disciplined, to have a lot of discipline, that’s the way you improve.”
Abreu looks right at home.
The 6-foot-3, 255-pound slugger connected in Oakland on Wednesday to become the fourth player in major league history to hit 15 homers in his first 42 games, joining Wally Berger, Kevin Maas and Wally Joyner. He is batting .271 with 41 RBIs heading into a weekend series at Houston.
Abreu, who defected in 2012 and finalized a $68 million, six-year deal with the White Sox in October, is among the major league leaders in several offensive categories. Playing at hitter-friendly U.S. Cellular Field, he is a legitimate threat to become baseball’s first rookie home run king since Mark McGwire for the Athletics in 1987.
“It’s just his strength, his power,” White Sox second baseman Gordon Beckham said. “I mean he’s just strong. You can do what he does with how strong he is, because he doesn’t do a lot with his swing, his body to get ready to hit. He just drops the head of the bat on it and it’s gone.”
All that power has captured the attention of baseball fans across the country, but it is Abreu’s appreciative attitude that has quickly endeared him to his teammates. No small feat considering Abreu’s arrival pushed franchise icon Paul Konerko into a reserve role.
“He’s such a good team person and you like to see stuff like this happen to people like him,” manager Robin Ventura said.
Abreu is the latest in a new wave of Cuban stars finding success all over baseball, and part of a long history of successful Cuban players in Chicago.
Sluggers Yoenis Cespedes of Oakland and Yasiel Puig of the Dodgers are two of the majors’ most dangerous bats. Cincinnati left-hander Aroldis Chapman has blossomed into an All-Star closer. Miami right-hander Jose Fernandez was the NL Rookie of the Year last season.
There were a record 19 Cuban players on opening-day rosters and inactive lists this year.
“I think clubs are learning more and more how to do it,” Reds general manager Walt Jocketty said.
Cuban players often travel a dangerous road to the majors. According to court documents in a federal lawsuit in Miami, smugglers who helped Puig leave his country on a speedboat have made death threats against him and against a boxer who says he defected with Puig.
When they make it to the U.S., they face what can be an isolating transition to a completely different culture and the rigors of the majors. One of the biggest challenges is the language barrier, but they also have to work through changes brought on by a level of wealth and fame far beyond what they could have experienced in their home country.
Major league teams are more careful than ever these days about creating a positive atmosphere for the Cuban players, making sure there is a translator in the clubhouse and help nearby when it comes to challenges on and off the field.
The 27-year-old Abreu has three Cuban teammates; shortstop Alexei Ramirez, outfielder Dayan Viciedo and catcher Adrian Nieto. Lino Diaz, the manager of cultural development for the White Sox, also is around if Abreu needs any assistance.
The White Sox have had 18 Cuban-born players in franchise history, tied with the Los Angeles Angels for fourth among all major league franchises, according to STATS. Minnie Minoso, regarded as baseball’s first black Latino star, played 12 of his 17 seasons in Chicago and remains a team ambassador. Orlando Hernandez helped the White Sox win their last World Series title in 2005.
Abreu’s fast start is drawing interest back home.
The slugger is followed as closely as possible in a country where, despite the appearance of recorded major league games on state TV starting in March 2013, games featuring Cuban defectors are still not shown.
Cubans with access to the Internet and bootleg versions track his career and often discuss it at the “hot corner,” a spot in Havana’s Parque Central where baseball fans gather to discuss international and Cuban players.
“Abreu is a powerful hitter, he was really good here, but personally I think that with his major league results he’s really exceeded expectations,” said Jose Estrada, 55. “All over Cuba we’re following him much more than before because he’s Cuban and he represents Cuba in the country with the best baseball in the world, the major leagues, and he’s showing everyone the level of Cuban baseball.”
That level looks better than ever right now.
AP Sports Writer Antonio Gonzalez in Oakland, California, Associated Press writer Anne-Marie Garcia in Havana, Cuba, and Associated Press freelancer Mark Schmetzer in Cincinnati contributed to this report.
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap