Abreu: A special moment in Cuba

White Sox slugger hopeful of better relationship between countries

Abreu: A special moment in Cuba

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The contest between the Cuban National Team and the Tampa Bay Rays, being televised live from Cuba, played in the White Sox clubhouse a little more than one hour before Tuesday's Cactus League game at Camelback Ranch.

Jose Abreu stood a few feet from the television, speaking to a group of reporters about the historic day, all the while acknowledging the surreal nature of the moment.

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"I am in shock right now," said Abreu through interpreter and White Sox Spanish language broadcaster Billy Russo. "If you slap my face, I can't believe it.

"That's something great. We never thought that this could happen so soon. Yes, it's very special."

Abreu spoke recently to MLB.com of his hopes that this game would contribute to ongoing diplomatic change. The White Sox first baseman played for Cuba in the 2013 World Baseball Classic and then defected in August of that year, eventually landing with the White Sox on a six-year, $68 million franchise-record deal.

A Major League Baseball goodwill trip to Cuba in December allowed Abreu to return to his home country and see his son, Dariel, for the first time since he left. It's his sort of treacherous journey and tough decision to leave his family that President Barack Obama mentioned specifically Monday night during an interview with ABC News.

"I saw a story on SportsCenter about Abreu of the White Sox. So I paid special note to that," said President Obama, when asked about changing the rules for Cuban players to play in the United States without denouncing their Cuban citizenship. "Here's a guy of immense talent who hasn't seen his son for several years because he felt the only way he could play in the big leagues and help his family was to be separated from his toddler.

"That can't be the kind of policies we want to promote. My hope is this just becomes one more part of the stitching back together of the United States and Cuba."

President Obama also spoke of baseball being one of those things that "binds these two countries together." When Abreu was told of the President's specific mention, he smiled and acknowledged that he couldn't describe the emotion or the honor.

"I'm very blessed for that and all that has happened to me," Abreu said. "This is a huge step for us, for people in Cuba, and I want to thank again President Obama for all of his kindness. He's an outstanding man."

When the Orioles last played in Cuba in 1999, Abreu remembers his dad buying a black and white television to watch the game because they didn't have the money to attend. Now, he can watch fellow Cuban Dayron Varona play for the Rays in his homeland and dream some day of the same opportunity to return.

"I have to thank Cuba because I lived there for 26 years," Abreu said. "But I also have to thank the U.S. because they are giving me the opportunity to live a better life."

Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Merk's Works, follow him on Twitter @scottmerkin, on Facebook and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.