By Chris Cwik
After a 99-loss season in 2013, the White Sox now sit at a markedly improved 31-31, through Friday night, and the team's core of Cuban players has been a major factor. Jose Abreu led the league with 15 home runs before a stint on the disabled list put his season on hold. Alexei Ramirez has been one of the American League's best shortstops, and Dayan Viciedo is having his finest season at the plate at age 25. This isn't a coincidence. Over the past several years, the team has invested a large share of resources into scouting and signing Cuban players.
Any discussion of Cuban ballplayers in Chicago has to start with Minnie Minoso, whose impact on Latin American players is hard to overstate. "For many [Cuban players], he's the first Cuban star to play in the major leagues," according to Dr. Adrian Burgos, professor of history at the University of Illinois. Orlando Cepeda called Minoso the Latino version of Jackie Robinson. He was not only a standout player for the White Sox, nearly winning the 1951 Rookie of the Year and making six All-Star games over 12 seasons, but he also pioneered integration in the organization and around the city.
Minoso still plays a significant role with the White Sox today, and it's clear he's had an impact on the club's current Cuban players. "To talk about Minnie Minoso, I need five to six hours to talk about what he means to us," Ramirez said through an interpreter. "He's an encyclopedia of knowledge. He opened the door for all of us. We always have him in our hearts, and we're always thinking about him." Catcher Adrian Nieto agreed, saying Minoso "lives and dies" watching the Cuban players' at-bats. "When he talks, the Cuban guys are all ears," Nieto said. Nieto was born in Cuba but grew up in Florida after his family left the country. While it's unclear whether Minoso actively participates in the recruiting of Cuban players, his presence cannot be overlooked.
Chicago's recent success in signing Cuban players is also linked to former pitcher Jose Contreras, who enjoyed the most successful stretch of his career with the club, including a World Series victory in 2005. Contreras was still a member of the team when Ramirez was being pursued, and his success in the majors was not lost on Ramirez. "Jose Contreras plays a very special role in my life, and all Cuban baseball players," according to Ramirez. "He's a symbol of baseball and a symbol of success." Contreras reportedly walked Ramirez down the aisle at Ramirez's wedding.
With Ramirez and Contreras in tow, the team focused its attention on Cuban outfielder Dayan Viciedo the following offseason, and Ramirez played a role in the recruiting. "I think he saw that there were Cuban players here," Ramirez said. "He saw that I was here, he saw that Contreras was here. I think it was a personal decision, but we did what we could to let him know how this team works."
Contreras was traded the following season, but Ramirez and Viciedo were still around when the team began to pursue first baseman Jose Abreu. The White Sox reportedly offered the most money to Abreu, so it's fair to assume that's why he signed with Chicago, but surely Ramirez and Viciedo's presence and past success played a role as well.
"There is definitely a great sense of fraternity" among Cuban players, according to Burgos. Ramirez has cited the Cuban players' sense of "togetherness" due to their shared experiences. "It's like anyone from any country," Ramirez said. "We all have the things that bring us together. We help each other, we support each other, and it's not just on the baseball field." Though Nieto has been with the club for the shortest time among the four Cuban players, he already feels close to this group. "We all look out for each other like a family would. Anything you need, you ask each other for a favor and for help," he said, adding that Abreu has been "like a big brother to me."
It's also apparent that, as an organization, the White Sox value loyalty, a consistent element of the team's regime under owner Jerry Reinsdorf. General manager Rick Hahn was thought to be a popular candidate for jobs with other teams, but he remained with the White Sox. In order to make Hahn the general manager, Kenny Williams, who played for the club and worked his way up through the front office, was promoted to executive vice president. The last two White Sox managers, Ozzie Guillen and Robin Ventura, were former players who had no managerial experience at the time they were hired. A number of players have chosen to return to the White Sox for second stints. Once you become a member of the White Sox, you tend to stay a member of the White Sox.
That sense of loyalty and respect isn't lost on the current players. "It's the whole package," Ramirez said. "It's how we're treated as players. How were respected as players. Everyone from the managers we've had to our owner, who really treats us with respect, I think it's the total package, playing with the White Sox." The team's commitment has played a role in its success over the past decade-plus. Despite playing in a large market, the White Sox haven't been particularly active in free agency since the early 2000s. Ignoring Abreu, the team's most prominent free-agent additions over that period have been Adam Dunn and Jermaine Dye. The White Sox usually go into each season with a high payroll, but that money has been spent on re-signing their core players, along with talent acquired through trades and waiver claims.
For those reasons, the club's success acquiring Cuban players becomes even more important. While Abreu's $68 million price tag suggests that prices are rising, it's still a bargain for premium talent. Ramirez signed out of Cuba for just four years, $4.25 million. He earned that money during his rookie season and outperformed the contract almost immediately. Viciedo signed for $10 million over four years a season later, and though he hasn't experienced the same type of success as Ramirez or Abreu, that price too is a small price to pay, based on Viciedo's current production. The Sox may not receive elite production from any of the three players, but the money they save on these contracts can be put toward other acquisitions.
Even the newest Cuban player, Nieto, said he would absolutely recruit the next one the team goes after, and players around the league have taken notice. "We play other Cubans on other teams, like Leonys Martin from Texas and Yoenis [Cespedes] from Oakland, and they are like 'Wow, it's pretty cool there are four guys on the one team,'" Nieto said.
Chicago's investments have paid off thus far. Abreu looks like a legitimate star. Ramirez has been an above-average player. Viciedo is on pace to have the best season of his career, and Nieto is being groomed as a possible catcher of the future. On top of that, Minoso remains a highly influential and respected figure among Cuban players. Until the league starts handing out astronomical contracts to Cuban players, the White Sox have a significant edge over the competition in recruiting Cuban talent.
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