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.”
Joe Maddon has been trying to find a chance to give Kris Bryant a day off.
But how do you sit the hottest hitter on the planet?
Bryant just finished a torrid road trip in which he staked his claim to the National League MVP Award by hitting .417 with a 1.365 OPS, five homers, 11 RBIs and 11 runs in nine games.
That pushed his season line to .305/.398/.588 (.986 OPS) with a league-leading 35 homers and 107 runs plus 89 RBIs.
So is he the Most Valuable Player in just his second season in "The Show"?
"I don't want to get too wrapped up in individual awards," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. "He's an outstanding player having a great year. It's never too early.
"(Red Sox second baseman) Dustin Pedroia is another guy we drafted over a decade ago and he did the same thing — Rookie of the Year in the first year and then MVP the next year. It can be done.
"(Bryant is) helping us win in so many different ways. Obviously coming up big of late, which is great to see. He deserves all the accolades that are coming his way and that may eventually come his way.
"But I think he'd probably be the first one to tell you he wants the team awards; he wants the team recognition in the end. The only one that really counts is winning your last game and the parade. Everything else is nice to fill the trophy case, but that's what everyone here is all about."
Bryant will undoubtedly split some MVP votes with teammate Anthony Rizzo (.946 OPS, 25 home runs, 89 RBIs), but the Cubs third baseman/outfielder woke up Monday morning leading all of baseball in WAR on FanGraphs' page.
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Even the Cubs admit Bryant has progressed beyond their realistic expectations.
"I would never have held him to this standard," Epstein said. "I wouldn't say, 'This is his development path. He's gotta go be maybe the Most Valuable Player in the league in the second year.' But at the same time, it doesn't surprise me.
"He's always been outstanding at making adjustments. Very cerebral player. Makes great use of his down time, whether it's the winter where he can work on swing adjustments or even the time between at-bats or pitch-to-pitch. He's just really, really good at making adjustments and thinks about his own game at a really high level.
"He's such a good athlete, he's able to take it right out on the field."
Bryant has also surprised Epstein and the Cubs with how he's evolved as a player.
"In some ways, surprising," Epstein said. "I thought he would always hit five to 10 opposite field home runs a year at a minimum, and he hasn't this year — that was his first one of the year the other day at Dodger Stadium.
"But he's added the ability to turn on the inside pitch and hit it in the air and keep it fair, so he's hitting more home runs as a result. So I never saw that coming.
"It's interesting the way his swing and his game have evolved."
In discussing the difference between 2016 Bryant and the rookie model, Maddon pointed to a decrease in strikeouts (from 30.6 percent in 2015 to 22 percent) and a smoother product on defense.
"The biggest for me is consistently shorter swing. More contact," Maddon said. "He's had smaller windows of chasing pitches out of the strike zone compared to last year when he did it more often.
"But recently, he's been using the outfield gap, which is really impressive. So offensively, that's what I'm seeing. Defensively, better feet on the infield.
"You'd see a lot of the patting of the glove as the feet were moving. I see it on occasion now, but not to the extent I saw it last year. He's still a great baserunner.
"So primarily — shorter hack, greater contact, less chase, right central is coming back into play right now and better feet on defense. That's what I'm seeing."
Put it all together and you have an MVP frontrunner entering September.
What a difference a year makes.
Last season, the Cubs put the pedal to the metal in advance of a four-game series with the San Francisco Giants at Wrigley Field in August and never looked back until they ran into the brick wall that was the New York Mets in the NLCS.
This season, with another four-game set with the Giants at the "Friendly Confines" on tap this week, the Cubs are in a completely different position.
There is no need for Joe Maddon to step on the gas and floor it into the postseason.
The Cubs entered play Monday 14 games up in the NL Central and they've already started counting down their magic number before the calendar has even flipped to September.
This year, it's going to be about rest and keeping guys sharp and fresh entering October, which the Cubs learned is key after last season.
Right now, the Cubs don't need to lean on Jake Arrieta to come close to a complete game each time out or utilize relievers on three straight nights in tight ballgames.
"I think our guys understand where we're at and it's going to be important to get where we want to go to be at their best," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said Monday at Wrigley. "Last year's stretch and playoffs especially was instructive.
"I think we pushed guys hard during the year and it'd be nice for them to be at their absolute best during the most important time of year down the stretch and hopefully into October."
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The Cubs also have some reinforcements on the way with rosters expanding to 40 players Thursday.
Tommy La Stella continues to work out in the minor leagues and Epstein acknowledged Monday the left-handed role player could be back in Chicago as soon as this week.
"The guys coming up will get some playing time," Maddon said. "I've always talked about in a bad game or even in a really good game, to get guys off their feet, that's important.
"Whoever we're going to bring up right now, they're going to be pertinent people that are going to help us win also right now."
Hector Rondon (triceps) and Pedro Strop (knee) are progressing "really well," Maddon said, with Rondon nearing a return while Strop threw in Chicago during the Cubs' recent road trip and reported no issues.
"We're just trying to really play it smart, not push them to come back too quickly," Maddon said. "But they're both making great progress."
John Lackey (strained shoulder) is slated to throw a pair of bullpens this week and could return from the disabled list on the current homestand if all goes well.
When Lackey does come back, the Cubs could keep Mike Montgomery as a starter and go with a six-man rotation to keep everybody fresher down the stretch.
With all the rest in mind, Maddon isn't worried about his players getting rusty or losing their edge at all.
Maddon admitted he's never been in a position like this where the Cubs are close to locking up a playoff spot and still have a month to play. But he compared the idea of taking the foot off the gas to the same way teams handle pitchers at the end of spring training before the regular season starts.
"You're trying to conserve their moments for the most important time of the year," Maddon said. "Regardless of any kind of pushback you might get from the players themselves, I still think you can do it and control it and not worry about the rust component.
"I think by this time of year, rest in a more intelligent manner - limiting innings or number of pitches thrown - I don't think that's going to cause a negative downturn in their abilities by the end of September."
Of course, just because the Cubs are prioritizing rest doesn't mean they're going to take their foot off the gas completely.
Epstein, Lackey and Jon Lester saw firsthand how quickly a large lead can evaporate with the 2011 Boston Red Sox
"I think once you go through a year in which you have a double digit lead right before Labor Day and screw it up and don't even get into October, you don't take anything for granted," Epstein said. "I guess that's the only good thing to come out of September 2011 for me - I'll never look too far ahead and I'll never take anything for granted.
"You have to have a broad perspective and look ahead and understand what might lie ahead, but you have to go earn it. That's been our team's approach from the very beginning - not to accept some of the praise that's come our way. It's to go out and try to earn it with our play and that's definitely true in the month of September."