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: