Jose Abreu estimated he first heard about Yoan Moncada’s baseball prowess when Moncada was 7 years old.
If this is shocking — and perhaps it’s less so in an era of televised Little League World Series games and college scholarships for preteens — Abreu shrugged it off as the way of life in their culture.
“We live for baseball,” Abreu said through a White Sox interpreter. “We breathe baseball, and we love baseball in Cuba.”
It helped that the word on Moncada didn’t have very far to spread.
Moncada hails from the municipality of Abreus.
The friendship must have been fated.
The lockers of the 17th and 19th Cuban players in White Sox history occupy a corner of the home clubhouse at Guaranteed Rate Field.
Fewer than four years ago, Abreu signed a six-year, $68 million contract with the Sox after defecting from Cuba. Moncada took a less direct path to the South Side, signing for a $31.5 million bonus with the Red Sox in 2015 before joining the White Sox in the Chris Sale trade in December 2016. He was called up July 19 to continue a long line of Cuban Sox players that includes Minnie Minoso, Alexei Ramirez, Jose Canseco, Jose Contreras and Orlando Hernandez.
But the paths of Abreu and Moncada — Pito and YoYo, they are nicknamed — were intertwined more than a decade earlier.
Moncada had two idols growing up. One was Freddy Cepeda, a longtime Cuban player who also briefly played in Japan. Moncada’s father taught him to switch hit, but Cepeda convinced him to stick with the approach. The other was Abreu, who is eight years older than Moncada and whose family name is not related to the municipality from which Moncada comes.
“When I was a young kid and I started listening about him, it was like he was a figure to follow because he was a leader in Cuba,” Moncada said through an interpreter. “All the young kids tried to follow him, tried to copycat all the things he was doing there because he was big. … To have the opportunity to play with him was even more special because I was playing with my idol.”
Moncada said he had no idea Abreu also knew who he was as a child.
“He was always ahead of his age, in all of the levels he played,” Abreu said. “The first time I saw him, I was shocked because of his talent. He was very, very advanced. From that point on, I was keeping track of him.”
Abreu began playing for Cienfuegos in Cuba’s Serie Nacional at age 16, and by the time he was in his early 20s, he was hitting around .400 with 30 homers while playing about 85 games a season. Moncada reached the national league at age 17, and he played for Cienfuegos in Abreu’s final season there before Abreu left the country.
Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig is also from the province of Cienfuegos and played for the team. Before he met them, he didn’t know stories of the other two, except that Abreu could hit a lot of homers.
“They are both good athletes, and they are putting the name of our country and province high,” Puig said through Dodgers media relations. “I hope it continues that way. I hope God blesses them and gives them a lot of health, so they can stay away from injuries.”
Representing their province continues now in Chicago.
Abreu hasn’t had a chance since Moncada was called up, but he plans to soon bring him to one of his favorite restaurants in Chicago, 90 Miles Cuban Cafe.
Abreu may only be four years into his major-league career, but he already finds himself in a spot to guide his countrymen. When the Astros were in town earlier this month, Abreu had food delivered to Cuban rookie Yuli Gurriel as a way to pass on welcoming gestures he received when he was a rookie.
“That’s something that is just for us, to try to make us feel comfortable,” Abreu said. “We can taste a little bit of our country.”
But Abreu has the opportunity to affect Moncada in a deeper manner. The Sox have traded away many of their veterans this season as part of their rebuild, and while Abreu always could be dealt too, he is embracing a larger leadership role for now.
He has accompanied Moncada to the video room to help him study pitchers, and hitting coach Todd Steverson said Abreu is “putting him under his wing” to help him learn the game and keep him grounded.
Abreu said he is trying to instill three rules: Respect the game. Be on time. Work hard.
“When Abreu sees somebody do something wrong, he will come to you and tell you, ‘Do this,'” Sox infielder Yolmer Sanchez said. “That’s what he does with Moncada. Twenty-two years old. He’s going to be a superstar. But Abreu tries to help him because when you’re 22 and you play every day, sometimes you get frustrated. But Abreu says, ‘Hey, take it easy.'”
Moncada is five years younger than Abreu was when he began his major-league career, but he has advantages Abreu did not.
He has been in the United States for more than two years, living in the offseason with his agent and the agent’s wife, a surrogate family in the Tampa area. However, Abreu said there will always be difficulties.
“It doesn’t matter how long you are here because once we make the decision to leave our country and come here, it’s a difficult process,” Abreu said. “It’s tough. You have to be patient. You have to be sure this was the best decision. It’s a matter of being confident and finding good people to be around, people who can take care of you and advise you and people you can really rely on.”
Steverson also thinks Moncada has a different challenge than Abreu had when he emerged as the 2014 American League Rookie of the Year — more hype.
“Pito came straight to the big leagues with kind of an unknown,” Steverson said. “We didn’t really know what we were getting from Abreu. We had heard things. But (Moncada) has been playing. He’s been touted, and there’s a lot of fanfare and press behind him. The buildup (for Abreu) wasn’t as much as it was for this kid.”
That hype has the ability to make Moncada’s slow start with the Sox more difficult.
In his first 29 games, he has hit .192 with six doubles, a triple, three homers, 11 RBIs and 43 strikeouts. But he has also walked 18 times for a .328 on-base percentage.
Abreu said the most impressive trait he has seen from Moncada is “his eyes.”
“He has very good eyes for recognizing pitches, for the strike zone,” Abreu said. “That’s something you can’t teach. … Maybe the outcomes right now aren’t as good as we would expect, but at the end of the day, they are going to be there, because that’s something that comes with natural talent.”
Abreu has had a successful start to his career with the Sox, becoming the 10th major-leaguer and first Sox player to begin with four straight 25-homer seasons. But he also has had rough patches, including much of last year as he dealt with off-field issues.
Moncada said Abreu’s best advice so far is that focusing on the process is more important than the results.
“You are going to have ups and downs,” Moncada said. “He’s always reinforcing that message to me. You have to work hard and you have to learn as much as you can because this can be a roller coaster.”
At least Moncada has a friend from home along for the ride.
By Colleen Kane