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Who is Jose Abreu?

After defecting from Cuba, the Sox slugger had one of the best rookie seasons ever. Yet his story has remained largely a mystery. Until now.

By Michael E. Miller

Jose Abreu
Photo: Jeff Sciortino

Who Is Jose Abreu?

After defecting from Cuba, the Sox slugger had one of the best rookie seasons ever. Yet his story has remained largely a mystery. Until now.

They left in the middle of the night, entrusting their fate to a tiny boat, its two motors, and the ink-black sea. For 12 hours, they pressed on. Through darkness, then dawn, then scorching daylight. Through 15-foot waves. And through the paths of trawlers and other ships that could cut their own 20-foot vessel in two.

Six of them huddled close atop a roiling ocean under an angry sky. But it was the hulking man in the middle who held them all together. Jose Abreu led his family—his fiancée, Yusmary; his parents; his sister and her husband—in prayers as the boat bucked and kicked beneath them. “It was dangerous,” he says. “The waves were high, but the Lord was at our side. God gave us the chance to reach our destination.”

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It was the most important night of Abreu’s life, but one he has never talked about publicly before. That journey in August 2013 took him from his native Cuba to Haiti and, ultimately, to Chicago and big-league baseball. After signing with the White Sox, Abreu took the majors by storm in 2014, slamming 36 home runs, hitting .317, and posting a major-league-leading .581 slugging percentage—one of the best inaugural seasons ever. He was the runaway winner of the American League Rookie of the Year Award and a contender for Most Valuable Player. Even the men who bought the defecting player’s services for a team-record $68 million were surprised. “We thought he’d do well,” says White Sox executive vice president Kenny Williams. “But I’d be lying to you if I said I thought he’d end up having the year he had.”

Nonetheless, Abreu and his backstory remain largely a mystery to even the most devout Sox fans. The language barrier is one reason: His English is limited to a few greetings and some phrases he’s picked up from the National Geographic Channel. But it’s also a function of his personality. He is stoic on the field and silent off it. He’s fiercely protective of his and his family’s privacy, and his main pursuits away from baseball—reading the Bible and working out to Christian disco music—aren’t the kinds of things that are going to land him in the gossip pages.

This quiet intensity is the key to understanding the enigmatic 28-year-old. It’s his mindset as much his muscles—he is 6-foot-3, a solid 260 pounds—that has made him one of the league’s best hitters. And long before his rookie season, that mental fortitude was tested on the Atlantic Ocean the night he defected.

“Jose was scared for his life in that little boat,” says Sox backup catcher Adrian Nieto, a fellow Cuban immigrant and Abreu’s best buddy on the team. “Everybody was freaking out. At times, he was doubting himself. He had to pump himself up, saying, ‘Let’s go. You got to be the one to take charge here and be mentally strong to get everyone through this.’ He told me many times: ‘If it’s everybody’s life or mine, I’m going to make sure my parents and my sister live before I do.’ Which is crazy for someone to tell you, that they’d put someone else in front of themselves. But that’s how he is.”

 
Abreu on the Cuban national team in 2011
On the Cuban national team in 2011: He belted 33 homers in 67 games of league play one season. Photo: Koji Watanabe/Getty Images

The golf course at the Riviera Country Club in Coral Gables, Florida, is an endless carpet of emerald green. Middle-aged men in cardigans swing thousand-dollar drivers. Groundskeepers in white coats race around replacing divots. Miniature clock towers ensure no one misses a tee time. Jose Abreu sits at a table spread with fine silver in the club’s dining room and stares out huge hurricane windows at a world he never expected.

More than a year and a half after arriving in the United States, Abreu is still dumbstruck by scenes like this. Two decades ago, he was a scrawny kid whose family struggled to put food on the table. Just two years ago, he was riding a horse-drawn buggy to baseball games. “It’s very different here compared to how we lived in Cuba,” he says as golf carts whiz past the window. “Sometimes I wake up in the morning and think I’m still dreaming.”

It’s a Tuesday afternoon in late January, only a week before Abreu, who spends his off-season in suburban Miami, will report early to spring training in Arizona. Wearing jeans and a black Gucci polo shirt—collar required at the country club—he talks about what he’s been through to get to this point: his enduring poverty growing up, his harrowing middle-of-the-night escape from Cuba, the pain of leaving behind his only son. “Life throws difficult moments at you every day,” he says. “Thank God I’ve had people help me get through all the rough patches, as bad as they were.”

At first, Abreu appears nervous about being interviewed. But when it becomes clear that we will chat in Spanish, he sighs with relief and launches into his native language. Abreu’s agent, Barry Praver, who owns a membership at the Riviera, sits across the table. Normally, he controls the questions put to his client, but with a limited understanding of Spanish, he can only check his cell phone and sip his iced tea.

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With thick arms and a solid but unchiseled frame, Abreu could more easily pass for someone who works in construction, as his father did in Cuba, than for a star athlete. The only hint of ostentation is a black-and-gold watch on his left wrist. Pausing the conversation frequently to give thanks—to God, to his parents, even to his coaches back in Cuba—he is more polite than the dining room’s waiters.

“How can I explain it to you?” Abreu says, glancing at the 60-foot salad bar. “In Cuba, someone who is middle or lower class doesn’t have the luxuries they do here. You can’t eat something different every day. You eat whatever you have. If you have 10 days of eggs, you’re going to be eating eggs for 10 days. If you have plain rice for 10 days, you’re going to eat plain rice for 10 days. There is no menu. No variety. What you have is what you eat.”

He grew up in Cienfuegos, a picturesque city perched on a bay on Cuba’s southern coast. “La Perla del Sur,” he says with a hint of both pride and sadness. “That’s what they call it: the Pearl of the South.” Like so much on the island, however, the city’s beauty was blunted by hardship. Three generations of Abreus shared a small wooden house. His father, also named Jose, worked 12-hour days on construction sites, but his mother, Daysi, still struggled to scrape together enough for dinner each night.

There was joy, too. As a toddler, Abreu loved nothing more than to hear his uncle play the guitar. He would follow him around the house, demanding in pidgin Spanish that he ping la tala. Eventually, Abreu’s family abbreviated the boy’s phrase to pito, which also means “whistle” in Spanish. It stuck as a nickname for Abreu. “If you go to Cuba and mention Jose Dariel Abreu, nobody will know who you’re talking about,” he jokes.

Music may have been Abreu’s first love, but baseball was in his blood. His father had played semiprofessionally as a catcher, and Abreu absorbed the sport by attending games with him. Abreu’s own career began at the age of seven when he signed up for the youth team in Cienfuegos and began to progress through Cuba’s state-run regional baseball academies. He was tall for his age and skinny, with a big head and a goofy, gummy smile. Though shy off the field, he was cutthroat as soon as he crossed the chalk. By the time Abreu was in his early teens, it was evident to his coaches that he would play professionally. They had him in the gym, adding muscle to his lanky frame.

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He soon advanced to Cuba’s top tier of baseball, the Serie Nacional, where the play is notoriously uneven: World-class stars routinely line up alongside washed-up peloteros. It’s also an unreliable proving ground. Outside of the island, little is known about the players other than what can be deciphered from box scores, which American scouts are left to interpret like tea leaves, sifting through them for signs of those who could make the jump to the major leagues.

No one knew quite what to make of Abreu. He wasn’t an extraordinary all-around athlete like Yasiel Puig and Yoenis Cespedes, two Cubans who would defect shortly before him and also make an instant impact in the majors. Abreu’s bulk and limited defensive range initially restricted him to the designated hitter slot in the Serie Nacional. But damn, could he hit. He broke into the league in 2004, batting a respectable .271. By his third year, his average had climbed to .337—a figure that raised eyebrows across the Straits of Florida.

Abreu already had all the elements of a great hitter: a consistent swing, an ability to hit to the opposite field, patience in the batters’ box, and prodigious power that seemed to originate in his burly haunches. But it was his work ethic that edged his numbers up year after year. He developed a routine of hitting 150 balls off the tee every day before batting practice.

By the 2009–10 season, Abreu was flirting with .400. A year later, he shattered that threshold with a .453 average and, despite missing almost a third of the season, broke the league home run record. His numbers weren’t just great. They were godly. “He cranked 33 balls out of the park in 67 games. That’s a pace of 80 homers over a 162-game schedule,” marveled Jonah Keri of the ESPN website Grantland in a February 23, 2012, post aptly titled “The Best Hitter You’ve Never Heard Of.” “These are Baseball Stars numbers, a video game creation, with abilities cranked up to the max. There’s no way a professional baseball player could have done this. Except someone did.”

Abreu’s annihilation of the Serie Nacional cemented his spot on the country’s national team. That meant he would participate in tournaments abroad, which meant scouts outside of Cuba would get their first look at him. He did not disappoint. During the 2011 Baseball World Cup in Panama, he hit .475, with three home runs in 11 games. He played even better during the Pan American Games that same year in Mexico, averaging .524, with three home runs in just five games.

Though Abreu won’t get specific, he says that people began to approach him, enticing him to go AWOL. “You never know what their true motives are, whether they are good or bad,” Abreu says. “So I just tried to focus on what I was doing.”

Abreu wasn’t miserable in Cuba. He got married, had a son, and moved into a bigger house. Even after he and his first wife divorced, Abreu enjoyed being a single dad and a local celebrity. Like most people in Cuba, he didn’t own a car. But one of his friends had a horse and buggy, and he would take Abreu to games, clip-clopping through Cienfuegos. “I loved riding around the city that way,” Abreu says. “People would wave at me in the streets.”

He never seriously contemplated defecting until the 2013 World Baseball Classic. In front of American scouts—and an international TV audience—Abreu went nine for 25, with three home runs in six games in Japan. “With all the talent that was there, I realized that I could compete at that level,” he says. “I told my mom that I was interested in playing in the big leagues. And we all decided that was what we’d do.”

After 26 years living in Cuba, he made the decision to leave surprisingly quickly and easily. The journey off the island would be another matter.

 
Abreu at U.S. Cellular Field
Waiting on deck at U.S. Cellular Field last June: Moments later, he would slug a two-run homer. Photo: Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune

Beyond the pounding surf and urgent prayers, Abreu offers few details of his defection. He’s reluctant to reveal information about the smuggling networks that move scores of peloteros from Cuba every year. But his other reason for staying mum is personal. “It’s tough to talk about,” he says. “It’s a sad subject. I had to leave many of the people I love most.”

Those include his son, Dariel, who was only two. “At that time, it just wasn’t possible,” Abreu says, starting to choke up. He twirls his tuna salad and stares out at the golf course. Then he continues. “It’s dangerous to leave Cuba, and no parent wants to put their child in danger, so I decided to take the risk without him.”

Though Abreu won’t say, it’s likely he had professional help in finding his way to the United States. Bart Hernandez, Abreu’s other agent and a partner of Praver, was mentioned repeatedly in a 2012 lawsuit involving Texas Rangers outfielder Leonys Martin, who fled Cuba in 2010. Martin claimed in court documents that he was separated from his family and “held against his will” by smugglers in Mexico, even as he auditioned for American baseball scouts. According to those documents, the alleged smugglers demanded 30 percent of his first U.S. contract and told him that Hernandez would be his agent and get another 5 percent. Martin eventually signed a $15.5 million deal with the Rangers. In an affidavit filed in the case, Hernandez, himself a Cuban exile, responded that Martin had “interviewed” him before freely choosing him as an agent.

For defecting baseball players, passing through another country—often Mexico or Haiti—before entering the United States is a crucial step. According to Major League Baseball rules, players who establish residency in another country (other than Cuba) are essentially free agents. Instead of entering the draft, which would tie them to one team, they can hold showcase tryouts and negotiate with many ball clubs. The result is often a bidding war.

That’s exactly what happened with Abreu. After establishing residency in Haiti, he and his family were driven across the border to the Dominican Republic, where Abreu spent three months working out in front of U.S. scouts. At that time, the White Sox were coming off their worst season since 1970. Attendance had declined for each of the previous seven years. With first baseman Paul Konerko nearing the end of his career, the lineup needed an injection of youth and power. But questions remained about the impact Abreu could have on a major-league team.

The Sox’s Williams admits that he initially balked at Abreu’s opening price tag of $40 million. “To be honest, I was very lukewarm on the idea,” he says. “There was something that on film I didn’t particularly care for in his swing. I don’t want to get into particulars, but suffice it to say, I didn’t think it was going to translate in the fashion that it ultimately did.”

When Williams arrived in the Dominican Republic to watch Abreu work out, though, he was blown away. “He had made some modifications,” Williams says. “It was a shorter swing, more direct to the ball, and his hands and his adjustments were of major-league quality. [He had improved] to the point that when I was asked by our owner, Jerry Reinsdorf, ‘Give me a percentage of how sure you are of him playing in the major leagues this next year,’ I did something I don’t recall ever doing. I told him: ‘If he’s healthy, 100 percent.’ ”

Several other teams were smitten by Abreu’s swing as well, however, and the price for the slugger quickly rose. Four teams reportedly offered deals in the neighborhood of $60 million, but it was the White Sox who landed Abreu in October 2013 with a six-year, $68 million offer. It was the largest contract ever splashed on a foreign player with no big-league experience—and the most money ever doled out by the White Sox, period.

“We don’t take $68 million gambles,” Williams says. “There is always the variable of how a guy is going to react to newfound fame and fortune. Culturally, there are so many—so many—barriers to break through and things to get used to, so you don’t know how long that culturalization is going to take. But this young man had a look in his eye and a seriousness about him and a methodical way of going about his work. Even in his showcase workouts, he went about his business as though he were a 10-year major-league veteran.”

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Rather than come to Chicago that winter, Abreu and Yusmary, who had married, decided to establish their off-season base in Miami, buying a modest house in the suburbs for $445,000. “The climate here is a lot like Cuba,” Abreu explains. “It’s so cold in Chicago. I’ve never experienced such cold. I don’t mess around with the cold.” Being among so many Cubans in Miami also helped the couple feel more at home.

As the 2014 season approached, speculation swirled over whether Abreu was worth the money. Some scouts said that, at age 27, he had waited too long to leave Cuba. Others said that his bat speed was too slow for big-league pitching. Sportswriters predicted he would struggle to last a 162-game season.

Opening day at U.S. Cellular Field was windswept and chilly. Abreu, the first batter in the bottom of the second inning, was shivering but calm as he stepped to the plate. Ricky Nolasco, the Minnesota Twins pitcher he was facing, unleashed a fastball. Abreu hit the first pitch he saw in the big leagues for an opposite-field double. “It was a bullet to right field off a good pitcher in the freezing cold of Chicago,” says Todd Steverson, the White Sox hitting coach. “I said to myself, If he can do that, he’s going to have a good year.”

A week later, Abreu showed off his power by belting his first two home runs in back-to-back innings against the Colorado Rockies. (He also literally knocked the cover off a foul ball.) Two days after that, he repeated the two-homer feat at home against the Cleveland Indians. “Those home run barrages are just in him,” Steverson says. “He’s got pure right-handed power, which everybody is looking for in this game.”

The first month of the season, Abreu was a machine. He collected 10 home runs, 32 RBIs, and a Rookie of the Month Award, all while displaying barely a fist pump on the field. Though Yusmary joined him in Chicago for the season, his parents and sister had to follow the games on TV in the Dominican Republic. Abreu doesn’t say why they were stuck there, but likely the family members were still working on obtaining the paperwork necessary to enter the United States. On April 25, Abreu’s emotions over the painful separation erupted for the first time.

That night, he walked to the plate with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning. The White Sox trailed the Tampa Bay Rays, 6–5. The fans were on their feet, chanting, “Jo-o-o-se, Jo-o-o-se.” Abreu watched as relief pitcher Grant Balfour grooved a fastball for a strike. When Balfour tried the same thing on the next pitch, Abreu swung. U.S. Cellular Field exploded at the crack of his bat as the ball sailed over the right-center-field wall for a game-winning grand slam. After Abreu rounded third base, he grinned like a kid and tossed his helmet in the air, then leaped onto home plate, where he was mobbed by his teammates.

After the game, Adrian Nieto found Abreu sitting by himself. “He was crying in the dugout, saying, ‘I wish my parents were here to see this moment,’ ” Nieto recalls. “That was the only time I saw him down.”

Abreu’s game-winning grand slam, after which he sat in the dugout and wept. “I wish my parents were here to see this moment.”

By the All-Star break in mid-July, Abreu was well on his way to one of the greatest rookie seasons in major-league history. He was batting .292, with 73 RBIs and a league-leading 29 home runs. He was even playing well defensively, ranking near the top of the league for first basemen.

But he had already put in close to the equivalent of a full season in Cuba and still had half a major-league season to go. The fatigue began to show. His power waned after the All-Star Game, just as critics had predicted. He hit only seven more homers over the final 66 games. His demanding pregame hitting routine wasn’t helping matters, and the Sox persuaded him to dial back a bit. He also struggled with a niggling ankle injury.

Even as the home runs dried up, however, Abreu’s overall hitting improved. Over the rest of the season, he raised his average to .317—sixth best in the majors. Abreu was the unanimous choice for AL Rookie of the Year. Had the White Sox not finished 17 games out of first place, he might have given Mike Trout, whose Los Angeles Angels had the best record in baseball, a tighter race for MVP.

 
Abreu at a Special Olympics clinic
At a Special Olympics clinic in Chicago last August: He has shown a particular affinity for disabled kids. Photo: John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune

Abreu’s stellar season marks the third consecutive year that Cuban rookies have set major-league baseball on fire: It was Cespedes in 2012 and Puig in 2013. But both of Abreu’s predecessors make headlines as much for their behavior as for their baseball: Cespedes drives to games in a black Lamborghini he had modified to spit fire out the back; Puig earned a reputation for showing up late and yelling expletives at the media.

Abreu’s demeanor is much different. Teammates and Sox personnel say he can be goofy in the clubhouse but never abrasive. He reads the Bible every morning and every night. Last season, his favorite thing to do before games was to listen to Konerko play guitar in the clubhouse, just like he listened to his uncle as a child. “I’m a relaxed person,” he says. “I don’t like going out much. Instead of going to parties, I stay at home with my family. I drink some beers from time to time. But when I’m not supposed to drink, I don’t drink. My only other vice is my mother’s cooking. My mentality is very laid-back. Respectful. That comes from my parents, and every day I thank them for raising me that way.”

Williams calls him “a true professional.” Shortstop Alexei Ramirez sums him up in a single word: tranquilo. Another fitting adjective would be “committed.” Abreu often arrives at the stadium six or seven hours before games to work on his swing. “He’ll be in there at 12 or 12:30 in the batting cages by himself, just working constantly,” says Nieto. “He’s obviously blessed with a bunch of talent, but he works at his craft.”

That dedication reminds Nieto of another White Sox star: Minnie Minoso, the Cuban Comet, who died in early March at 90. The legendary outfielder (at 54, he was the third-oldest player to ever play in the majors) was still coming to games last season and visiting the dugout to bestow advice, particularly on his Cuban compatriots. He developed a friendship with Abreu, and the two joked in rapid-fire Spanish before games. “I feel like I’ve known him for 100 years,” Minoso said in an interview with Chicago just a month before his death. “He’s a gentleman and a baseball lover. He doesn’t act superior. Other guys make a lot of noise. He’s a regular guy who lets his bat do the talking.” He and Abreu mostly chatted about hitting, but also about each other’s families. “He misses his kid,” Minoso said.

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Last May, Abreu’s parents and sister were finally able to move to Miami. But Dariel, now four, remains in Cienfuegos. Abreu calls his son every day and sends as much money as is allowed. But visiting him is out of the question: Despite relaxed rules for travel between the United States and Cuba, the Castros do not easily forgive superstar defectors. Nieto, who roomed with Abreu on the road last season, says he often caught him just staring at photos of Dariel. “It’s been two years since I’ve seen him,” Abreu says. “It’s been very difficult. Unfortunately, right now he can’t be here with me, but hopefully one day he will.”

Scott Reifert, the Sox’s vice president of communications, first saw the slugger’s sensitive side while Abreu was mixing it up with fans at SoxFest in January 2014, before he had even played a game. “There was a guy in the audience with a son who was mentally challenged,” Reifert remembers. “Jose made a beeline for him. He took this kid’s hand and started stroking his arm in a way that I don’t know I would be comfortable doing around a special-needs kid like that.” Reifert later learned that Abreu had befriended a similarly disabled boy in Cienfuegos, bringing him into the clubhouse and to his home to play with Dariel. After that, Reifert got Abreu involved in Sox events for kids with disabilities.

 

In his quiet way, Abreu has emerged as the best hope for the future of the White Sox franchise. His explosive rookie year has put the team well ahead of where they thought they were in rebuilding. “When you get a force in the middle of your lineup such as him and some pretty special young pitchers, combined with young position players,” Williams says, it positions the team to make the playoffs for years to come. “Abreu was the anchor to all that.”

Abreu knows that repeating his rookie season will be difficult. Both Puig and Cespedes slipped some in their second year. And now that Konerko has retired, Abreu will be carrying more of the offensive burden. This time around, though, he’s more physically prepared to play 162 games, with a slightly leaner physique and a less strenuous pregame routine. Just as he did last season, Abreu reported to training camp in early February, three weeks before required. With a year under his belt, he believes he’ll also be more prepared mentally. “Every day in life gives you a chance for reflection,” he says. “If you focus and you learn, you’re always going to grab things and take control of them.”

He’s even taking control of his struggles to communicate. “He’s going to learn English because he’s determined and he wants to be a leader of the ball club,” Williams says. “He understands how important his role is. So that will come in time.”

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Abreu’s latest lesson came while watching an animal documentary on TV, his preferred method for picking up English because of the slow, clear narration. “In baseball, we players always get so angry when we go 0 for 4,” he says. “But the other day on one of those nature channels, I learned that when a lion is stalking a zebra, he fails four out of five times.

In other words, he fails four times before he succeeds!”

Abreu laughs. By now, the Riviera’s restaurant has cleared out. The golf course glows like a jewel in the afternoon light.

“You have to realize that nobody is perfect,” he says, flashing a smile. “So I ask myself, Why get mad at striking out? The lion doesn’t get mad. Tomorrow is another day.”

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