Braves’ Escobar: ‘I feel like I’m home’

Yunel Escobar says he was stung by criticism last year but feels comfortable now. (Phil Skinner/AJC)

Braves shortstop Yunel Escobar said he was stung by criticism last year but he feels more comfortable now. (Phil Skinner/AJC)

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Regardless of the sport, coaches would rather subtract from athletes than add. The old line of, “You can’t teach speed,” also applies to passion and attitude. Better to have to tell a player, “Calm down,” than feel the need to swing your right foot into his backside.

“I want the kid where I have to take something  out of him,” coach Terry Pendleton said. “I don’t want the ones who drag around. I don’t want to have to spend time trying to figure out how to make them go.”

Which brings us to Yunel Escobar. Go has never been the problem.

He is arguably the Braves’ best all-around player. Offense. Defense. Talent. Desire. Passion. Yes, there is a “but” coming here. But it’s one the Braves can work with, given the payoff. To grow up in Cuba, speaking a different language and playing baseball in an atmosphere where structure and decorum are not high on the agenda, can make for a difficult transition to the major leagues. With Escobar, we witnessed that last season.

So this should comfort the masses. When asked Thursday how he felt coming to spring training, Escobar smiled and said, “I feel like I’m home.”

And a few years ago?

“It was really hard,” he said, using minor league teammate J.C. Boscan as a translator. “I felt like I was mute. I felt like I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t understand English or anything. So I didn’t say much. It was really hard for me. And to be around so many people all the time – I never had that experience before. But now I’m more comfortable. I like it.”

On the field, there has been a lot to like about the shortstop. He is hitting .295 and has driven in 101 runs in 223 games over 2 1/2 seasons. Last year he hit .373 with runners in scoring position, which was third highest in the majors.

But we’ve also witnessed things the Braves want to subtract. Just last year, there was the game in Baltimore where he was pulled by Bobby Cox for making two mental mistakes on defense, after which the manager said: “We pride ourselves on doing things right and being in the game.” And the game where he didn’t run out a ground ball. And the game where he gestured to the press box after a play was scored an error.

He wears his emotions on his sleeve. Always has. When there was a backlash of criticism last year from fans and media, he was stung.

“It was tough for me,” he said. “I never experienced that before. I think people interpreted some things wrong. People who really know me don’t think bad things like that. I felt uncomfortable because I know the things that everybody reads. But that’s not who I am.”

When asked if he believed Escobar got a bad rap last season, Pendleton said: “He’s trying to learn the system here. There were some situations last year — maybe it wasn’t his fault, maybe he brought some things on himself, maybe some of it was blown out of proportion. But the kid is learning how to come to the ballpark and do what’s asked of him every day to help the team to win.”

Said teammate Matt Diaz: “I don’t think he was ever malicious in his actions that got him in hot water with Bobby or the fans. I think it just took some time getting used to baseball in the States.”

We know the story of his defection, how he come over in a crowded fishing boat in 2004 and wasn’t reunited with his parents until years later. By comparison, he can handle criticism. “What happened in Cuba, to go through that, you can’t explain it until you live it,” he said.

He is asked if he had any baseball heroes growing up.

“I am my own hero,” he said. And this is where critics might slap their forehead. But sometimes things get lost in translation. The context seemed to be more: I’m my own man.

“I don’t [follow] anybody else,” he said. “I think I am a good teammate, a good friend, a good player. That’s why I call myself my own hero.”

Earlier posts from Thursday at Braves’ camp:

Eric Hinske and his $5,000 tattoo.

♦ Derek Lowe looking forward after rough year and trade talk.

99 comments Add your comment

MrATL

February 25th, 2010
5:13 pm

Well written

Terrible Truth

February 25th, 2010
5:16 pm

How many tattoo’s you got,Yunel? Inquiring Jeffs want to know.

Steve

February 25th, 2010
5:17 pm

Nice blog Jeff. Got your e-mail, thanks! Stinks that it is so cold down there I see.

thin

February 25th, 2010
5:34 pm

Jeff-
Who were the 2 highest with RISP? Thanx, if you know.

SimpleDawg

February 25th, 2010
5:44 pm

Escobar is going to be a star player for many years…..as long as he can continue to mature and learn to channel his emotions. Not suppress, but channel in a positive way. Use his passion to excel, not let his emotions control his reactions.

The Braves could have a good every day 8…..I’m still not comfortable with the starting rotation. Too many questions. And now a major spoke in the wheel appears weakened…..maybe injured worse than we know.

Tron5000

February 25th, 2010
5:45 pm

thin, Jason Bartlett (Tampa) was 1st in MLB with a .386 BA/RISP. Escobar actually tied with Hanley Ramirez at .373. Perhaps if you extrapolate the decimals further than that Hanley is the actual #2, but for all intents and purposes, he an Yunel are tied.

Reid Adair

February 25th, 2010
5:46 pm

Great blog post, Jeff. I think Yunel Escobar has all of the tools to be a great player. Hopefully this year will show the same amount of improvement he made a year ago.

thin

February 25th, 2010
5:55 pm

Tron5000-

Thanx man. I had said Escobar hit better with RISP than Ramirez so I was at least almost tied for correct.

beauvighn

February 25th, 2010
5:57 pm

I love the guy..his passion is infectious. Cox pulling him for not running out a ground ball is BS.
Watch how many times others hit a ground ball and flip the bat and jog to first. I call BS on that. Cox needs to get off the kids back and quit making him something he is not. Let the kid be himself and play. I believe we would all like the results. Hey Yunnell, how do you tell them to kiss your *** in Spanish

thin

February 25th, 2010
6:00 pm

beauvighn-
I too thought that was a bit heavy handed. Didn’t see the “presser gesture” but I damn sure read a lot about it.

Tron5000

February 25th, 2010
6:02 pm

"Chef" Tim Dix

February 25th, 2010
6:02 pm

Did he give you any hair styling tips?

Speaking of tips is Yuni still sporting them?

Buzz

February 25th, 2010
6:03 pm

Escobar is the best athlete on the team, hands down.

If McCann could run he would be close.

In other news, I say we trade the Melky and Kawakami for Toronto’s Travis Snider.

Jeff Schultz

February 25th, 2010
6:04 pm

MrATL — Thank you.

thin

February 25th, 2010
6:04 pm

beauvighn-
What I thought was absolutely absurd about pulling Escobar for what was sure to be an out, was that we were playing the Fillies and needed that game at the end of the season last year. Thought Cox was cutting off not only his own nose, but all the fans noses. For what – Love Cox, but last year was really strange.

Jeff Schultz

February 25th, 2010
6:04 pm

Terrible Truth — Sorry. Only one tattoo story a day. Or maybe a year. Or maybe a career.

Yowza

February 25th, 2010
6:05 pm

Anyone who’s lived here over five years and is earning an excellent living and still refuses to learn a little English is a pompous a#@.

Jeff Schultz

February 25th, 2010
6:05 pm

Steve — No problem. I actually forgot to give him the message but I’ll remember tomorrow.

Tron5000

February 25th, 2010
6:05 pm

According to the above site, Escobar and McCann are #2 & #3, respectively (behind Jason Bay) in the Clutch category. This is the site’s definition of the “Clutch” stat:

“Clutch” is the name we’ve given to the portion of Bill James’s Runs Created formula that includes the impact of a batter’s batting average with runners in scoring position and the number of home runs with runners on. The specific formula is Hits with RISP minus overall BA times at bats with RISP, plus HR with runners on minus (all HR/AB) times at bats with runners on. This stat is not a definitive description of “clutch hitting,” just one way of looking at it.

shane

February 25th, 2010
6:06 pm

First !!!!!

Oh Wait

The Grinch

February 25th, 2010
6:06 pm

Hey Jeff, were you wearing a brown sweater today? If that was you I stood next to you for a few minutes this morning. I couldn’t figure out if it was you or not and by the time I started to ask you walked off.

Steve

February 25th, 2010
6:08 pm

No problem Jeff. The message is for Pam though if you see her. Nice lady.

thin

February 25th, 2010
6:08 pm

Tron5000-
Again thanx. Seems much more versatile than Baseball Ref.

Jeff Schultz

February 25th, 2010
6:11 pm

Thin — Aramis Ramirez (Chisox) hit .425 with RISP. Jason Bartlett (Tampa) was at .386.

Jeff Schultz

February 25th, 2010
6:12 pm

Tron5000 — .373 was Escobar’s avg.

Jeff Schultz

February 25th, 2010
6:14 pm

Thanks, Reid, and I agree. Even though I criticized Yunel for some of his actions last year, I never thought team should trade him, as some suggested.

thin

February 25th, 2010
6:14 pm

Jeff Schultz-
If you’re going to stick with this blog deal you’ll need a handle. JS or JeSchu. I’m just more accustomed to your views on newsprint. Have enjoyed reading you and Bradley for years.

Jeff Schultz

February 25th, 2010
6:15 pm

Shane — There is honor in 27th.

Jalb3rt

February 25th, 2010
6:16 pm

beauvighn,

”Hey Yunel, how do you tell them to kiss your *** in Spanish?”

Besame el Culo.

Tron5000

February 25th, 2010
6:21 pm

Jeff – you’re correct about Aramis, but he only played in 82 games and just over 300 AB. Don’t know if that would qualify him to take home the BA/RISP award, were there such a thing. Certainly wouldn’t allow him to qualify for a batting title.

Cletus

February 25th, 2010
6:22 pm

Schultz, find us a quality young RF. We need someone a year or so away from the bigs that can absolutely crush balls and make pitchers wince.

Who is that person and how do we trade for him?

thin

February 25th, 2010
6:24 pm

Tron5000-
That’s great, I was even a little closer to being tied for correct.

Tron5000

February 25th, 2010
6:24 pm

SportsCenter just mentioned a piece coming up this hour on a certain “exciting young pitcher” for the Braves who could someday join the company of Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz. This should be interesting. I wish TiVo could fast forward live TV. That would be wicked awesome.

thin

February 25th, 2010
6:25 pm

Tron5000-
What do you think of the Braves 2010 edition?

bobbymahlon

February 25th, 2010
6:34 pm

If we had a Escobar at every position we would win hands down. Beauvighn is exactly right BC should get off his back and treat everybody equally.

Tron5000

February 25th, 2010
6:39 pm

thin –
Some of what I think will be based upon what I see from Glaus and our RF position this spring. Love the Starting 5 (would’ve l liked to have kept Javy, but I know how it goes in MLB). JJ is as close to being a #1 as you can be, Hanson is definitely the real deal, Lowe can’t be much worse than last year (and excluding those couple of monstrous meltdowns, the rest of his season wasn’t all bad), Hudson should be fine after having a year off following surgery, and Kenshin looked solid in the second half, once he had been through a few lineups a couple times. If Wagner and Saito perform at the level the Braves hope, I think the pen is excellent, with O’ Flaherty, Moylan, Medlen, and apparently this Chavez kid is supposed to be the real deal.

I expect a bounceback year from Chipper (hard to get worse for him), McCann and Escobar to perform to their usual levels, McLouth to swipe some bases and pop a few dingers (20 or so would be excellent), and Prado to give us what he can, which is enough in my opinion. I see some healthy production in LF with a Diaz/Cabrera platoon possible. Glaus needs to stay healthy and play passable defense at 1B while having enough power to provide Chipper and McCann with some insurance. I love what I’m hearing about Heyward. Even if he’s all he’s cracked up to be, he’s still a rookie, but I hope he can provide a boost to the team in the field and at the plate.

Overall, I’m what you may call Cautiously Optimistic. I like what I think we’re going to put on the field, but I’m hesitant to make any postseason declarations this early in the game.

Herschel Talker

February 25th, 2010
7:48 pm

Schultzie – only 35 comments after 2 and a half hours. What can we do to get the readership up?

RomeDawg

February 25th, 2010
8:21 pm

I love this kid! Keep the passion, just focus it!

Jeff Schultz

February 25th, 2010
8:27 pm

Grinch — Yes, I had on a brown v-neck today, my hair slightly off the shoulder. Next time say hi and I won’t blow your cover, I promise.

Jeff Schultz

February 25th, 2010
8:28 pm

Thin — Thanks. You can just call be DOB. Oh no, wait. That’s taken.

Jeff Schultz

February 25th, 2010
8:31 pm

Tron — I went by what’s listed in Braves’ official bio of Escobar in 2010 media guide, so I guess MLB considers Aramis’s numbers official.

Jeff Schultz

February 25th, 2010
8:32 pm

Cletus — I think he’s here and his name is Jason Heyward — except he’s ready now.

beauvighn

February 25th, 2010
8:33 pm

Thanks Jalb3rt….I may us that sometime, especailly at the park the summer… Your right Bobbymahlon, I would take a Yunnell at all 7 field positions, keep BMac and our pitchers.

Bill

February 25th, 2010
8:47 pm

Thanks Jeff for all the info…How about something on Melkey…etc.

NRBQ

February 25th, 2010
9:25 pm

“I never experienced that before. I think people interpreted some things wrong. People who really know me don’t think bad things like that. I felt uncomfortable because I know the things that everybody reads. But that’s not who I am.”

Sounds a little too much like Canseco, Manny, etc. for my comfort.

matt r

February 25th, 2010
9:29 pm

Jeff, do you get the feeling that TP is taking over for Bobby next year?

Jeff Schultz

February 25th, 2010
9:30 pm

Bill — Something on Melky? Hmmm. I’ll have to think about that one.

todd grantham

February 25th, 2010
9:37 pm

Jeffrey, is the weather any better now than when you arrived?

Jeff Schultz

February 25th, 2010
9:40 pm

Matt R — My pure speculation: If the Braves have a good season, it helps T.P.’s cause. But I really don’t think Frank is tied to anybody, and it’ll pretty much be his call.

Jeff Schultz

February 25th, 2010
9:42 pm

Todd — Actually it was nice today (60ish and sunny). But it’s fa-reezing now and will be in 40s tomorrow, supposedly.