Charting the White Sox first baseman's journey to the Major Leagues
By Billy Russo
Special to MLB.com |
CHICAGO -- On the morning of Oct. 29, 2013, Jose Abreu arrived at U.S. Cellular Field for the first time. As he put on his new No. 79 uniform for the news conference introducing him as the newest member of the Chicago White Sox, Abreu experienced a host of feelings. High on that list was the burden of the immense expectations placed upon him as a result of his lucrative new six-year contract and the recent separation from his family in Cuba. It was a whirlwind of change for the powerful first baseman. In less than six months, he signed the deal with the Sox after leaving his native land behind along with his 3-year-old son, Dariel Eduardo, his parents and sister in the hope of pursuing his dream of playing in the Major Leagues.
With all the emotion part and parcel of his journey, it shouldn't have been a surprise, then, that Abreu broke into tears as he stepped on the field and saw his name flashing on the ballpark video board. It dawned on him in a flash: "Now I have the opportunity to realize my dream and provide a better future for my family."
Despite the obstacles confronting him, Abreu relied on what had got him this far in the first place: a belief in himself, hard work and deep faith. The strategy worked. He had an historic season, making the American League All-Star team and winning the AL Rookie of the Year Award in a landslide, among many other accolades.
The numbers? They were extraordinary. Abreu ended the season with a .317 batting average, 35 doubles, 36 homers (a record for a White Sox rookie) and 107 RBIs, and he led the league with a slugging percentage of .581. He became the first player in the Major Leagues to finish his first season in the top five of the Triple Crown categories and the fourth to achieve 30 or more doubles, 30 or more home runs and 100 or more RBI. He also added rookie records in his first month with 10 homers and 31 RBIs.
"When I look back at what was accomplished last year, I feel a great sense of relief and satisfaction," said Abreu through an interpreter. "It wasn't as easy as the numbers might indicate, this is a very tough sport. One that requires a lot of discipline, dedication and consistency. That is not easy because there are many other factors outside of the game that affect us."
Those factors were very real. It wasn't easy for Abreu to confront a new language, culture and lifestyle and rely only on his fiancé, who was in the same situation. Furthermore, it's not hyperbole to say that it is overwhelming for young athletes to leave Cuba and come to the United States, a country that offers many liberties, but also has its own set of challenges. Add to that the different language and lack of familiarity with both the people and the surroundings.
"The first few days here were extremely tough. Sometimes I would cry at home because everything was so difficult. But my family and God helped me to keep moving forward," said Abreu. "During the time I was on the diamond, baseball became my escape.
"The times when I was up to bat or out in the field, I only thought about baseball -- the only thing I really knew and can do here."
One of the first things the slugger learned when he arrived in the United States was to drive.
"That was really fun," Abreu revealed. "At first I was nervous, but then I became used to it. I learned how to drive, not just because I wanted to, but also to be prepared when my family gets here."
As baseball became Abreu's refuge, he dedicated most of his day to the sport. During Spring Training, he developed a rigorous routine and was generally the first player to get to the ballpark and the last to leave team practice. That work ethic continued throughout the year.
From the moment Abreu made his first official appearance in the regular season, he proved he belonged. All that's needed is to look at his start on Opening Day at U.S. Cellular Field against the Minnesota Twins.
"That was a very special day, because that's truly when my dream became a reality," Abreu confided. "More importantly, I feel that was the moment when I showed myself that I was made to play professional baseball and was ready to play at this level."
In that first game, Abreu went 2-for-4, delivering a double and an RBI. He continued his assault on the league's pitching as he began the season with the best start for any rookie in the organization's history. After that first game and before meeting with the media, Abreu started a routine that continued during the season: he would call his mother, Daisy, and share the details of the game with her.
"That is something I did after every game, because she is my No. 1 fan, the person who understands everything I do, the good and the bad," Abreu explained. "That is why I called her every day."
Abreu's offensive stats kept climbing with each passing game, earning the attention from his peers, the media and fans through baseball. He was humbled by it all. In the first month of 2014, Abreu was honored as the AL Player of the Month and the AL Rookie of the Month. He dedicated those awards to his mother.
At the same time as Abreu was drawing attention to his astonishing performance, he was continuing to adapt to his new life in a new country, even without his family with him.
"As the season progressed, I started feeling better," Abreu said. "I was more comfortable with the culture and customs here, although there was still a language barrier. But I knew more people, got to know my teammates and little by little I was becoming more accustomed to it all, even though there was still an emptiness because my family wasn't with me."
That void wouldn't last much longer. Abreu was finally reunited with his mother and father on May 31 as they arrived in the United States.
"I think that was the best moment of all. I felt a huge sense of relief because I finally had them with me. It's very tough to be away from your parents without being able to see them, without their care and without knowing when you'll see them again. That's why I was so happy when we were reunited. Now I just hope that I can soon be with my son. He's the only thing that's missing," he said.
Part of Abreu's celebration upon his parents' arrival was getting back into the action after an injury kept him out of the lineup during that time. In his first start after rehab, he hit a home run against left-hander Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers -- who last year won both the National League MVP Award and the NL Cy Young Award -- and was arguably the best pitcher in the Majors.
Following Abreu's face-off against Kershaw, he had a successful July when he won the AL Rookie of the Month Award and the AL Player of the Month Award again, becoming the first player in the history of the Major Leagues to win these distinctions multiple times. He dedicated these awards to his father.
With every hit, every home run, the idea of winning the AL Rookie of the Year Award at the end of the season began to fill Abreu's head. As the season was coming to a close, he had to talk about the issue with the media.
"Of course I thought about it every time I won something," Abreu said. "It was in my head, but I couldn't allow myself to think about it until the season ended. I didn't want to lose my focus, which is to help the team win -- that's most important to me. This is a team sport, and in order to win, we have to do it as a team."
Abreu was able to close the season with the consistency he strived for. In the end, he ultimately emerged as the league's top rookie and dedicated this award to his son.
"That's how it needed to be," Abreu said. "I had to dedicate it to him, because my son is one of the most important things in my life, and that award was the biggest accomplishment that happened to me last season."
What Abreu achieved during his initial season is only a glimpse of his talent. He trusts that with the experience he gained in his first year, and having adapted more to the culture in this country, he will do more to help the White Sox win.
"That is my goal. To have a good year, stay healthy and win. With God's help, I hope that's what will happen," said Abreu, a man who now smiles every time he sets foot on the playing field wearing the Chicago White Sox uniform.
Billy Russo is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.