Abreu adjusts to life in States while training in Miami
Cuban first baseman welcomes challenge of Major Leagues after signing with Chicago
CHICAGO -- The moment at U.S. Cellular Field, just days before Halloween this past October, will forever be etched in Jose Abreu's memory, much like his first day at Spring Training, his first Major League hit and his first homer, all of which are still to come.
Abreu was introduced at a news conference in the Conference and Learning Center after signing a six-year, $68 million deal with the White Sox. For general manager Rick Hahn, the 6-foot-3, 255-pound right-handed hitter stood at the center of this team's reshaping movement: a young, athletic player who could contribute significantly in 2014, but figures to only get better with time.
For the 26-year-old Cuban, the excitement also brought pressure upon his broad shoulders at about the moment he put on jersey No. 79. But in a recent phone conversation with MLB.com, with the translation assistance of White Sox director of public relations Lou Hernandez, Abreu explained the moment he first donned that uniform was the opening of an eagerly anticipated challenge, not any sort of burden.
"I can't tell you how emotional I still am about the decision, the day I was introduced," Abreu said. "Everything I've done from that day is to live up to my own expectations and help the organization. My No. 1 goal is to be in peak condition and to stay healthy for the organization and to help this team win."
Abreu has spent the past two months adjusting to the United States while stridently preparing in Miami for his first big league season in Chicago. His Monday-through-Friday schedule begins around 9 a.m. ET, when he hits in the batting cage for one hour.
Strength training and conditioning work follows for three hours, and Abreu completes the day with another hour of hitting. There's so much time spent training and hitting at Florida International University, that it basically has become Abreu's existence.
Along the way, he's been able to connect with teammates Dayan Viciedo and Alexei Ramirez, and discuss the move from Cuba to the United States. Abreu learned a little bit about Christmas, taking in the customs, lights and legend of Santa Claus, which he didn't see in Cuba. And while he prefers to spend free time at home with people he knows, Abreu has found a favorite dish in Florida's fresh fish during nights out.
This life change for Abreu will become even more pronounced once he arrives at Camelback Ranch on Feb. 20. It's not so much about the contract, but more about the on-field and off-the-field differences between baseball in Cuba and in the United States.
Both Yoenis Cespedes and Henry Urrutia know about this particular adjustment period, with Cespedes joining Oakland from Cuba under a four-year, $36 million deal that brought the same sort of fanfare as Abreu's Chicago arrival.
"In regards to his life in the Major Leagues, it will all be new to him. It's so different from the life he had in Cuba, but he'll get used to it quickly," Cespedes said via email, with the assistance of a translator. "He's a great baseball player, but the pitching in the Major Leagues is very different than the pitching in our country. He'll have to make many adjustments, but I know because of the type of ballplayer that he is, that he will be able to do so."
"There are a lot of adjustments I've had to make, but there are many more I'll have to make in order to have the years in the big leagues that I aspire to have," added Urrutia, Baltimore's rookie outfielder, also through email. "The biggest adjustment isn't technical but mental. The idea that this game is completely different in so many ways and to realize it is much harder and it just isn't the same. ... I have to work hard and focus on all the adjustments to be able to adapt to 'this baseball.'"
Over his nine seasons playing for Cienfuegos in Serie Nacional, which is Cuba's highest league, Abreu never played more than 94 games. That total will easily be surpassed in 2014, barring injury.
His Cuban statistics could be classified as video-game spectacular during many of those campaigns, with a .453 average, 33 homers, 93 RBIs, a .587 on-base percentage and a .986 slugging percentage during a Most Valuable Player effort in 2011. Nobody expects Abreu to immediately produce those astonishing numbers, just as nobody on the team is oblivious to the development curve he will deal with in a new environment.
Paul Konerko, the definition of a pro's pro and one of the top hitters in franchise history, provides insulation at first base and designated hitter for Abreu, along with a personal learning and teaching tool in his 16th and final season on the South Side. Abreu termed playing with Konerko "as a blessing" and planned "to listen and observe and learn from him as much as I can."
Konerko wasn't first-hand familiar with Abreu's work at the time of his official return, but observed that the sheer number of teams who pursued Abreu couldn't all be wrong in what they saw. Nothing concrete is known about Abreu the Major Leaguer aside from the fact that he has been depicted as more of a complete hitter than one possessing just "light tower" power.
After living out his dream at the end of October, Abreu has done a thorough job of preparing for what will soon become baseball reality in the United States.
"It's not something I'm worried about. That is why I'm working so hard to prepare. I look forward to the challenge," Abreu said. "It's emotional to know that folks are excited to see me play. But everything is going to have its moment."
"Mine and [Abreu's] contracts are very different, but it's all about not putting too much pressure on ourselves," Urrutia wrote. "Even though this is the best baseball in the world, the only thing we can do is tell ourselves it's the same baseball that we've played in Cuba, and the same way we did it in Cuba, we can do it here."