Legend has it that White Sox slugger Jose Abreu once cracked a home run 490 feet in Cuba — farther than any long ball in the major leagues last season.
Asked to verify the longest homer of his career Friday, the thoughtful 6-foot-3, 260-pound thumper smiled knowingly like someone prepared for the question. Looking relaxed at a downtown hotel in a gray V-neck sweater, Abreu made eye contact that suggested the sincere answer in his native tongue had nothing to do with baseball.
"I've actually had three big home runs in my life,'' Abreu said through Sox coach and interpreter Lino Diaz. "The first was my 3-year-old son (Dariel). The second was Peter, a handicapped child in Cuba that I got to know at my games. But the longest one was being able to come here, to America, to play baseball.''
And I thought when scouts raved about Abreu's prodigious strength, they meant the way he hit a baseball. Nobody with access to YouTube can dispute that skill, but the power of Abreu's purpose left the deepest impression before having a chance to see him go deep.
"I am born again,'' said Abreu, who turns 27 on Wednesday. "Now I'm going to learn new things and take it slowly — like when you crawl, then walk, then run.''
It was only five months ago that Abreu fled Cuba with his wife, Maria, and son, a defection he prefers not to detail. The success of countrymen such as Yoenis Cespedes of the A's and Yasiel Puig of the Dodgers — his former Cienfuegos teammate — inspired Abreu to follow the secret, circuitous path to the States, where stardom awaits.
"Abreu did what he had to do,'' said Sox legend Minnie Minoso, MLB's first publicly recognized Cuban player.
Abreu first settled in Haiti, and once cleared to sign, the first baseman often compared to the Phillies' Ryan Howard agreed to a six-year, $68 million deal with the Sox. Sure, Abreu followed the money to Chicago, but it didn't hurt that the Sox won a World Series with Cuban pitchers Jose Contreras and Orlando Hernandez and have Cubans Alexei Ramirez and Dayan Viciedo on the roster.
"It's like having a mother in the organization,'' Abreu said.
Besides exposing Abreu to his favorite Cuban restaurant in the city — 90 Miles on West Armitage — Viciedo can lend his new teammate a sympathetic ear. The adjustment takes time, and before Abreu fits into the Sox batting order, he must feel comfortable as a young man in a strange world.
"It's definitely hard,'' said Viciedo, who defected in 2008 on a boat to Mexico. "You leave much of your family behind. I was lucky to be able to bring a lot of mine with me.''
On the October day the Sox introduced Abreu at U.S. Cellular Field, he shed happy tears. There have been sad ones too. The unorthodox No. 79 Abreu will wear was chosen by his mom because people would remember it. She remains in Cuba with the rest of a proud extended family he knows understands his leaving for a better life.
"I hope one day they'll have the opportunity to watch me, but right now they can't,'' Abreu said. "I thank God for the things that happened. The decision I made in coming to the United States, there were good things and bad things, like leaving part of my family. But overall, it's been incredible.''
The Sox believe Abreu will enjoy himself even more once he faces major league pitching for the first time, but mystery surrounds his potential. Will Abreu look like the dominant right-handed hitter who hammered 13 home runs in 42 games in his final Cuban season or the guy whose bat speed gives some scouts pause?
Kit Krieger, an expert on Cuban baseball who has operated Cuba Ball Tours since 1997, considered Abreu's competition Double-A level and claimed, "He hit a lot of stuff off guys who would be pitching at Peoria State.'' On the other hand, Krieger was at the ballpark the day Abreu uncorked the 490-foot homer and compared his straightaway power to Mike Piazza's.
Projections of Abreu's power numbers range from 25 to 40 homers. One scout guessed he will strike out 125 times. The Sox will guard their optimism but cannot hide their glee over a core player whose biggest asset could be his maturity.
The way Abreu carries himself made it easy to see why Sox executive vice president Ken Williams, when asked what stood out most about his team's biggest offseason addition, answered succinctly.
"Focus,'' Williams said.
Staying focused sounded like Abreu's only goal for 2014.
"I respect everybody's opinion, but I'm just here to do my best no matter what people expect,'' Abreu said. "Pressure is part of the game. You have to deal with it.''
In so many ways, Abreu already has.