Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox has to pinch himself almost every day just to make sure he isn’t dreaming. Less than two years ago, his home was Cuba where life was much different. He rode to the games in a horse drawn buggy because even with his elevated status as a player for the national team, he couldn’t afford a car.
He grew up in a small wooden house — three generations of Abreus crowded together. There was never enough to eat. His father worked 12 hour days as a construction worker. But it was not a miserable existence, as young Jose thrived within the bosom of his family.
His love for baseball was matched only by his eye-popping talent. And by the time he reached adulthood, he was tearing up the Cuban professional league and performing wondrous feats in international competitions.
It was his belief that he could make it in the Major Leagues that eventually drove him to gather most of his family together and set off in a small boat for freedom.
He doesn’t talk about the journey much. But he opened up a little to Chicago Magazine in an excellent profile:
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.”
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.”
And what a year it was. He defied the expectations of critics, while endearing himself to White Sox fans. They said his bat was too slow, that he had a bad swing, that he wasn’t good enough to play in the field. His gaudy numbers proved them wrong.
But according to Adrian Nieto, Abreu’s closest friend and teammate, all of that was in doubt during the trip across the Atlantic to Haiti. There were several moments where Abreu feared for his life:
“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.”
Now that the rest of his family has joined him in America, Abreu is setting expectations for his on field performance even higher. But that’s what the great ones do. They expect a lot from themselves and demand it from others. Abreu is a winner, and the White Sox are hoping that attitude rubs off on the rest of the team.
He certainly proved himself in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean when the elements threatened tragedy. After that, hitting a curve ball must seem pretty easy.