Mind at Ease, Jose Abreu Continues to Rise

SAN FRANCISCO -- Now that his parents are safely in the United States, Cuban defector Jose Abreu -- already a frontrunner for the AL Rookie of the Year Award -- has become even more productive at the plate.

SAN FRANCISCO -- Up until now, Jose Abreu’s parents have not seen him play a single inning for the Chicago White Sox in person. They’ve watched on television from their new Florida home he bought for them, but the only time they’ve seen him swing a bat – in person – since he defected in August of 2013, exactly a year ago – was during the 2014 All-Star Game.

“They have seen me on TV, but they haven’t seen me playing with the White Sox uniform, live,” Abreu said on his recent stop in San Francisco for a quick, two-game set against the Giants. “But, they will be. After the 14th, they will be coming to Chicago, so they’ll see me and watch me play, live.”

Having Daysi Correa – his mother – and Jose Oriol Abreu – his father – finally in the United States has done wonders for Abreu, the current MLB home run leader and, barring four horsemen riding through the US Cellular Field stands, the odds-on favorite to win the American League Rookie of the Year Award.

Ever since his parents’ first stop in Chicago upon immigrating to the United States from their native Cuba – to finally see their baby boy for the first time in nearly a year – Abreu has improved on what was already a remarkable season.

Abreu says that his parents have been in the United States now for about two months, and – wouldn’t you know it? – Abreu’s average has jumped from .260 at the start of June to an even .300 through Wednesday.

“I don’t think that […] we haven’t noticed it. He’s been the same guy, the whole time,” said White Sox manager Robin Ventura about some potential relief Abreu may have felt with his folks securely out of harm’s way. “That part, he might have that inside, but he’s been the same guy all year, as far as how he’s dealing with us and teammates and his work. Nothing’s changed.”

Abreu still, though, just as he did when his parents were still trying to make their way to the United States, calls his mother every day, and she does most of the talking. His dad just lets her be the spokesperson.

“My dad, I don’t speak every day, but my mom tells me everything,” Abeu smiles.

Abreu has, however, made one change -- his bat. He switched to Adam Dunn’s model (the same length and weight as his own, just a different model) roughly two months ago.

But, the biggest differences have been in Abreu’s hands and eyes. He’s improved his batting average on fastballs inside – one of his perceived weaknesses all the way back to his two-day workout in front of Major League scouts in the Dominican Republic during the first week of October, 2013 – and has been better with breaking balls down and is swinging less at pitches out of the zone away. Could part of that be the fact that his parents are now set up in a home he purchased for them, rather than just a change in lumber?

“Yes, absolutely,” Abreu says. “I think it’s important for anybody who plays baseball to have that kind of support. That allows you to concentrate on the game, and concentrate on what you’re doing a lot better.”

And, boy, did he. Abreu hit safely in all but one game in July, and all but three games in June, hitting 16 home runs over that two-month span.

His average has stayed up since the month turned to August, but his home runs are down – he hasn’t hit one out of the yard since July 29 at Detroit.

“To be honest with you, that’s normal,” says Abreu. “That happens. It happened in Cuba, a lot. It disappeared at times. I can hit a lot of home runs, but there are times where you go cold. Those are the ups and downs of baseball, but I know they will be back. Whenever they come in, they’ll come in. I’m not really looking for them. I’m just trying to do whatever to help the team, any way I can.”

He’s come a long way from coming home from the World Baseball Classic in 2013, and telling his mother that he found another way, a way better than making working wages as a ballplayer in Cuba.

Until the WBC, Abreu didn’t know that there was another level of baseball like the one he saw. He never dreamed of playing in the Major Leagues, but when he told his parents about his experience, they dreamed for him – a dream of a better life.

“I’m just very thankful that it’s happened this way,” says Abreu. “It’s obviously a dream come true, but it’s not over yet. I’ve still got to continue to work and finish up strong.”

And that’s the thing about Abreu – he hates days off. He loves to work. Part of that comes from his father, who works in construction, but a large part of that is just Abreu’s personality.

“I’m used to playing every day, when I was in Cuba, and that’s probably where it comes from. We work hard. We work hard to try and be the best, and that means you’ve got to go at it every day. That’s probably where it comes from. I’d rather be out in the field. I’d rather be out playing than anything else.”

In May, when he and the White Sox came to Oakland, Abreu fought hard to stay in the lineup, even though for most of the morning, he had his ankle up and iced. He played all nine innings at first base and hit a three-run homer off of Luke Gregerson -- and the top of the left field foul pole -- in the top of the eighth that gave Chicago the lead.

“No, no, no, no. [If] we’ve got one off day, and that’s enough,” Abreu says. “I want to play. If they put us on, then we’re playing.”

During that trip to Oakland, Abreu got a chance to catch up with fellow Cuban defector Yoenis Céspedes, and the two compared notes, with Céspedes having made a decidedly successful transition from Cuba to the Major Leagues, winning – at that point – one Home Run Derby title and well on his way to a first career All-Star nod.

“I had a chance to talk to him, and that was a great experience,” says Abreu. “He was telling me a lot about the process that he went through, and I told him about what I’m going through. I think it was great. He actually came up to the outside of our clubhouse. I just thank God that I had a chance to talk to him. It was a good interaction.”

The interaction went so well, that Abreu and one of his two Cuban teammates -- Alexei Ramirez -- made a point of staying to watch Céspedes take home his second Home Run Derby crown in Minneapolis last month, even making his family and his fiancé wait at a restaurant so he could be there to support his fellow expatriate.

Ramirez and a third White Sox Cuban native -- Dayan Viciedo – have helped Abreu ease his transition from Cuba to the Major Leagues.

“Absolutely. There’s no doubt about it,” Abreu says. “They have made it easier, and I am very thankful to them, and not only them, but the rest of the Latin players here, and also the American players who have helped me. Everyone has put a little bit into it.”

That transition has been easier than most, including the Los Angeles DodgersYasiel Puig and Céspedes.

Céspedes’s family was stranded on a tiny Carribean island, 600 miles southeast of Florida, with no water, as they tried to join Yoenis in the United States, saved only by the serendipity of a passing yacht.

Abreu still is loathe to talk about the exact circumstances of his escape from Cuba, but says that it was nothing like that of Céspedes, who separated from that group and made it to America sooner, by way of a 23-hour boat ride, but who’s defection also meant interrogations of his relatives, who were jailed for three days.

“I don’t really compare our stories. They’re all different,” says Abreu. “He’s got his own story, and he’s down near the end of it, and I have my own and I have to start building on to it. I don’t really like to compare his story and my story. We’re all there, trying to do our jobs. That’s about it.”

It’s been a long, trying year for Abreu since defecting, but that hard-hat work ethic and understated humility have served him well. Though the White Sox aren’t in the race for the AL Central, Abreu hasn’t – and won’t – let his foot off the gas, even though this is the time of year most call the Dog Days of the season. It can’t be any more difficult than leaving your parents, fiancé (Yusmary Hernandez , who has subsequently made the move, as well) and son – three-year old Dariel -- to take a chance in another country, and, truthfully, another world.

“I don’t really know what people talk about or anything like that, but I can tell you that, for me, this is not the most difficult part of it,” says Abreu. “It’s actually the part where you have to put in a little more work, because you’re getting tired, but, to be honest, it’s not the most difficult part n my mind. I just have to continue to work, because right now, I’m not really very happy with the results, obviously, lately, but I know they will change. There is no doubt about that. It’s just a matter of continuing to work, and it’ll be back. I know.”

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