A year after leaving Cuba, White Sox’s Abreu making smooth transition

By Colleen Kane

Chicago Tribune

One of Jose Abreu’s biggest “wow” moments in Chicago arrived less than a month into his big league career when the White Sox rookie stepped to the plate with the bases loaded in the ninth inning against the Rays and hit a walk-off grand slam.

The feat was impressive, though maybe not all that surprising to his agent/assistant, Julio Estrada, and Abreu’s fiancee, Yusmary Hernandez, who said “everyone” knew how good he could be from the time he was a teenager.

A different action instead stuck out to them. Abreu, caught up in the moment as teammates waited at the plate to pile on him, threw his helmet into the air in celebration.

“That was the most emotional they’ve seen him,” a Sox interpreter translated from the pair’s conversation. “Ever. He never had done that.”

On most days, Hernandez and Estrada are struck by Abreu’s even-keeled nature, even as the achievements and recognition proliferate during his first season. In many ways that’s what they believe has helped the first baseman make the transition from Cuban standout to burgeoning major league star over the course of just one year.

“He has his moments, the fruits of his job, and he enjoys any accolades, but he’s just so calm, it’s like it didn’t happen,” Hernandez said.

“He looks older in his mind than what he is, a 27-year-old person. He has been responsible ever since I’ve known him.”

One year ago, Abreu and Hernandez left Cuba to pursue a dream Abreu said he didn’t even know was possible as a child growing up in what he said was a “comfortable” household with his father Jose Oriol Abreu, who worked in construction, and his mother, Daysi Correa, a stay-at-home mom.

He didn’t have much exposure to MLB when he was young and didn’t know if he could play at that level until he participated in the World Baseball Classic in Japan. When he saw his success in the tournament, he gave his mother the choice about whether he should begin the “difficult process” to depart Cuba. Abreu and Hernandez, who met when he played baseball with a cousin of hers, left behind family and a potential medical career for Hernandez.

Correa said through Estrada by phone that Abreu’s father was certain his son’s Cuban baseball statistics would translate to the major leagues, and so they made the decision to try for a “better future” for the whole family.

“It was a tough decision, but we trusted in his baseball ability to pull the family forward,” Correa said. “It’s that family union that always has had him focused on what he wants to accomplish.”

Asked what he misses about Cuba, Abreu was succinct.

“Everything,” he said through a team interpreter. “Like I always say, it’s like being born again. You live 25 years in Cuba, and you have to come in and adapt to a totally different set of rules, setting and environment. But I’ve been lucky to have the people around me that I’ve had to help me out.”

Among the most difficult parts of being in the United States is being away from his 3-year-old son, Dariel, who remains in Cuba with his mother.

Abreu said he hopes to bring Dariel to the United States when he gets documentation in order, but until then he takes comfort in knowing what he’s doing for him now.

“It’s very difficult, there’s no doubt about it,” Abreu said. “But thank God I’ve been able to provide him what I wasn’t able to provide him when I was in Cuba, financially and all of that stuff.”

Less than three months after he left home, Abreu had a $68 million contract with the Sox.

One more likely to save his money than make extravagant purchases, Estrada said, Abreu has bought his first car, a family home for his parents in Florida and a car for his mother. He told his parents, who are in Florida after leaving Cuba, that it is his turn to take care of them.

“Believe me, I still don’t even believe that’s happening,” Abreu said of the money.

Sox catcher Adrian Nieto, who left Cuba with his family as a child, said he and other Sox players try to coax him through the biggest changes - encouraging the once-reluctant Abreu to try new foods on team flights and assuring him that making language mistakes can be the best way to learn.

“I told everybody from the beginning that he would be all right making the transition,” Nieto said. “He’s a smart guy, he’s level-headed and he has the right people around him to help him out.”

The language is one of the toughest parts, Abreu and Hernandez agree.

While Hernandez pores over books and her iPad to learn, Abreu brings home phrases from teammates and tries them out on Hernandez or her mother on the phone.

His latest phrase: “Take it easy, man.”

As for becoming a star dealing with fan recognition and media attention in the U.S., Abreu takes it in stride, saying it’s not all that different than it was for him in Cuba.

He thus far has shown himself to be a public relations success for the Sox, politely allowing hundreds of interviews as his recognition grows. He already has had his own T-shirt day at U.S. Cellular Field, and as part of Sox charities week, Abreu participated Aug. 2 in a Special Olympics baseball clinic, a cause he holds close after befriending a 13-year-old disabled Cuban boy named Peter, whom he said he considers family and still talks to a couple of times a month.

“To me that’s a very important and special thing in my life, to be able to share with those guys,” Abreu said. “It always touches my heart, and that is one of the things that is very special to me, it’s part of me.”

Estrada saw him struggle just once with the new attention - when the question arose about whether Abreu was going to participate in the home run derby in July during All-Star Game festivities. Abreu didn’t care to participate for fear it might mess up his swing, but he was unsure if that was the right decision.

“All the questions were related to it, and he understood it was the journalists’ job, but the amount of questioning got him confused,” Estrada said. “ ‘Am I doing right by not doing it?’ ”

The baseball part of the transition hasn’t been easy, Abreu said, even if he makes it look like it. He has inserted his name into the conversation for not only American League rookie of the year but also most valuable player.

Abreu doesn’t underestimate how much work it will take to maintain that production.

“In Cuba we work hard as well, but here the professionalism, the work you do easily is much more,” Abreu said. “It’s understandably so because we have longer seasons, and it is the best baseball in the world.”