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Escobar out to improve on and off field

Escobar out to improve on and off field

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Yunel Escobar has three goals for the 2010 season: He wants to reach the playoffs for the first time in his three-year career, steal somewhere between 20-25 bases and be able to execute an interview in English without an interpreter by midseason.

That first goal is at the forefront for the Braves' shortstop, and the second one -- considering projected leadoff man Nate McLouth's struggles last season -- could go a long way in helping that become a reality.

But perhaps it's that third goal that would be most crucial for the long haul of his career.

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On-field success has not been a problem for Escobar thus far. In fact, many would argue that he was the Braves' best player last season, and many would say he's one of the most underrated shortstops in baseball.

But despite solid defense, a .299 batting average, 14 homers and 76 RBIs, very few would call the 2009 season an abject success for the 27-year-old Cuba native.

While in the midst of another highly productive year in '09, Escobar was benched by his manager for disciplinary reasons and deemed abrasively brash by opponents -- all while continuing a tense relationship with the Atlanta media.

A lot of that, Escobar believes, had to do with a language and culture barrier between him and the media.

"Us Latin players are a bit aggressive, and sometimes that gives off a bad impression," Escobar said in Spanish on Friday. "We play a brash game, an aggressive game, and that's what I've been demonstrating here.

"People have misinterpreted those mannerisms. But honestly, I'm not a bad kid, and I don't disrespect anybody. I respect the game."

Escobar wants to be liked.

While speaking about his desire to finally learn English this year, he added that he's always wanted to be a public person -- one who can not just communicate with an English-speaking media, but also get to a point where he can appear in English commercials that can maybe help him gain endorsements and more face time.

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Since arriving in the Majors in 2007, though, that exposure hasn't really been there. In order to try to bridge the gap, Escobar said he's been doing his best to watch as much English TV as possible and has been constantly listening to CDs that teach him the language.

"I feel like every time I hear [the CDs], I learn a lot more," Escobar said.

He's hoping that just like batting practice and infield work, listening to those CDs and watching those shows can lead to a more successful 2010 in ways stats can't measure.

"This is the year I'm trying to focus on [learning English], because I've already been here three years since 2007, and a lot of people have wanted to talk to me, but I couldn't talk," Escobar said. "I'm getting tired of that. I have to express myself to people because a lot of people want to get to know me, but they can't because of the language.

"Things happened last year where there were just misinterpretations that brought me problems I've never really had before."

Escobar has never lacked confidence. Quite the contrary, in fact.

He's been known for perceived arrogant mannerisms on the field and has carried a me-against-the-world mentality since defecting to the United States on a crowded fishing boat from Havana, Cuba, in 2004. Last year, he was removed from a game on June 14 because of a lack of focus. Then, on June 25, he took exception to a charged error by gesturing toward the press box and pouting in his next at-bat, opening himself up to even more public ridicule.

With some speculating the Braves had grown tired of Escobar, his name was prominent in the rumor mill. He battled a hip injury some referred to as "mysterious." And one night, a Rockies player wondered if he had missed the time when Escobar put up a 30-homer, 100-RBI season, alluding to what some believe is Escobar's undeserved sense of entitlement.

"People would perceive it as being flashy, but he's always said, 'That's just me," said Braves bench coach Chino Cadahia, who's been Escobar's interpreter since he made it to the big leagues.

"It's just a lot of people don't understand his whole story. But I'm not defending him to some of the things he's done, because they've been wrong, and I've told him they've been wrong. But at the same time, if they understood where he came from, how he was able to get out [of Cuba] and the stuff he had to do to do this, sometimes you understand a little better some of his actions."

Some of Escobar's character traits, however, are part of what make him a great player.

"The best athletes in the world always have that fire," said Martin Prado, Escobar's double-play partner and one of his closest friends. "He just has a different way of seeing things."

That's fine. But for Escobar, it's about knowing when and where, and not going over the line.

"He has to be himself most of the time," Cadahia said. "But being himself, he has to be able to control being himself, also. We definitely want him to be Yunel Escobar. But he can be Yunel Escobar and not show anybody up."

Escobar has batted .301 with a .375 on-base percentage throughout his career, but he's never stolen more than five bases in a season, so the 20 mark would take a vast improvement in that department.

In '09, his .373 batting average with runners in scoring position ranked third in the Major Leagues.

"Esco is a strong kid," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "I've always said he could hit 20 [homers], and he will. But he's a kid that has such a great opposite-field stroke that you don't want to mess with it much, either."

In his final 75 games of the '09 season, Escobar committed just two errors.

"Escobar, to me, is a Gold Glove winner at short," Cox added. "He's as good as it gets."

Now it's time for the rest of the world to hear more about that, and a lot of it will depend on Escobar's continued comfort with life in the U.S.

He said that's already taken a big step forward.

"Every year that passes, I feel more like this is my home, and I gain a little bit more confidence," Escobar said. "Since I got here in 2007, I've felt a bit out of place. I didn't know how they were going to treat me, because it was the first time I was in a big league clubhouse.

"But now, I feel like every time I open the doors to the clubhouse, I'm home."

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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