DETROIT — The last three weeks have afforded Jose Abreu and his son lifelong memories, fulfilling moments for a proud father and a bonding experience the White Sox slugger had long wanted to provide.
For the first time since he left Cuba in 2013, Abreu and his family are hosting his son, 5-year-old Dariel, who recently received a five-year travel visa that will allow him to visit his famous father in the United States.
The goal of the month-long visit is simple: Abreu hopes to offer his son a glimpse into why he had to leave Cuba and also to connect with him despite the distance between them. He desires to teach him about life in a new and different culture. And when Dariel returns to Cuba in early September to begin school, Abreu wants his son to understand he had to leave the island nation in order to provide him with better opportunities. The experience has perhaps exceeded Abreu’s expectations and given him a much-needed boost late in the most difficult season of his professional career.
“First and foremost, I want to thank God for the opportunity to be a father,” Abreu said through interpreter Billy Russo. “It's something you can't describe with words. To have the opportunity to bring him in here is good. It's special. It's an opportunity to show him what I do, what is my workplace and how I interact with other people and how the other people try to take care of him, too, and me. That was special. Every single time I get to bring him here it's special because we feel that connection.”
The White Sox slugger wasted no time in sharing the major league experience with his only child, something he longed for after watching other players do the same.
He introduced Dariel to teammates in Miami earlier this month after the boy watched his father play in person for the first time on Aug. 12 at Marlins Park. The pair also has hung out with teammates in the clubhouse before and after certain games, which gave Dariel time to soak up the atmosphere. And of course there was the sacred rite of passage — the postgame trip to the gumball jar.
These experiences, which some teammates might take for granted and few could conceive of, have been sacred to Abreu.
“He has been dreaming of this for a long time,” manager Robin Ventura said. “You can just tell it has picked his spirits up as of late knowing this was going to happen. He’s happy. I can’t imagine (not seeing my kids) — what that is. He’s a great guy and I know he always wants to do the right thing, so this is pretty important to him.”
It’s pretty easy to spot a difference in Abreu since he learned his son had arrived in Miami on Aug. 7. Normally upbeat, Ventura said Abreu had a noticeable “bounce in his step” when he rejoined the team two days later in Kansas City — this even though he was exhausted from flying back and forth across the country to spend the team’s day off with his son in Miami.
Abreu originally left Cuba for the United States in August 2013 when Dariel, who turns 6 in September, was only 2. They were reunited last December when Abreu participated in a Major League Baseball goodwill tour to Cuba.
Ever since he returned from the tour, Abreu wanted to organize a visit to the United States as the first baseman — for now at least — is unable to return to Cuba. He worked with his agent, Diego Bentz, to arrange a visa.
In the meantime, Abreu missed his son.
Back in March, Abreu watched for several minutes as teammate Todd Frazier’s young son ran across the spring training clubhouse to hug his dad. Now that he’s had the same opportunity, Abreu has constantly had a smile on his face.
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Teammate Melky Cabrera said he’s not surprised to find the same Abreu only happier.
Time shared with family around the clubhouse is critical for players given how much time they’re apart from their young children, Cabrera said.
“It's always important to show them where you work, what is the atmosphere of your workplace,” Cabrera said. “But I also think it's important to spend every bit of time with them you can, especially with our schedule.
“It's so special. This is a blessing for him to have the ability to be reunited.
“He's been the same with us. The only difference I can say is he's happier.”
Well, it’s not the only difference — Abreu has hit a ton in the three weeks since he and Dariel were reunited. Entering Monday, Abreu was hitting .343/.397/.557 with four home runs and 13 RBIs in 78 plate appearances.
While he still posted a league-average performance, Abreu’s .770 OPS through Aug. 7 is more than 130 points lower than the .904 OPS he posted through his first two seasons.
Many have contended that this was merely the league adjusting to Abreu. Teams had figured out his approach, and he simply hadn’t figured out how to adjust back. But some of Abreu’s teammates think the uptick in performance is in large part because of his son.
Adam Eaton said the birth of his own son earlier this season has made it easier to go home after an 0-for-4 night because fatherhood has provided him with a different outlook on life.
Eaton doesn’t know for certain that Abreu’s struggles were in part tied to missing his child. But he imagines the situation would weigh on anyone and thinks Abreu has handled it “better than 95 percent of the guys in baseball could.”
“Family is everything to us,” Eaton said. “We put our hearts and souls and lives into this game, but kids and family, puts life in perspective.
“For him to have his kid around, he can play more free and easy, and he has a different pride about him when he's around. It's touched all of us.”
Abreu can’t help but smile when he talks about his son and the opportunity to bond.
Dariel is only now learning the rules of baseball. While he’s new to the game, Dariel knows what a home run is and constantly asks his dad to hit one for him.
Abreu doesn’t think his son wants to follow in his footsteps as a professional baseball player. Dariel’s first love is cars, and Abreu thinks his son wants to one day be an Uber driver.
Though he’d love for him to play baseball, Abreu doesn’t care what his son chooses.
He’s just happy to have this chance to play the role of a father for the first time since he left home.
“When I was in Cuba of course he was young,” Abreu said. “Since then I've been trying to show him what I do and what I do to provide him all the supplies, all the things for him to be good. And now that I have him here, it’s another level. He's learning from another culture, how things are here, how I'm trying to do good here to offer him the best that I can and why. I'm glad that he's here and can see me playing every night. I'm very happy and proud for him to ask me to hit homers.
“That's something that makes you feel proud and makes you feel like the biggest man in the world. You can't find a word to describe it.”