April 17, 2010: Jays’ prospect Hechavarria faces plenty of hurdles

Fellow Cuban big leaguers caution Jays’ signee to learn English and the value of a dollar.

April 17, 2010

Morgan Campbell

Sports Reporter

Three days after Cuban shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria arrived in Dunedin, Fla., to finalize his contract with the Blue Jays, he took a short trip to St. Petersburg with his agent, Bart Hernandez, to watch the Rays play the Yankees.

Hechavarria left Cuba for Mexico in June 2009, and luck put him in the Tampa area at the same time as the Yankees. Though he wanted to watch childhood idol Derek Jeter in person, maybe he should have thanked the Yankees star for helping him become a Jay.

When the former star of Cuba’s junior national team officially hit the free-agent market in January, most observers felt the Yankees would outbid any other team interested in him. Hechavarria, however, lost interest when he learned Jeter was seeking a contract extension.

So he instead agreed to a four-year, $10 million (all figures U.S.) contract with Toronto because the Jays offered him a faster path to the major leagues.

But it won’t be a smooth one.

Adeiny Hechavarria at extended spring training in Dunedin, Fla.

Hechavarria won’t just have to adjust to a new country and a higher level of play, he’ll have to do it while learning a new language, all while his closest relatives remain in Cuba.

And he’ll have to deal with the minefields that can crop up when young men from humble backgrounds suddenly find themselves flush with cash. Hechavarria’s contract paid him $4 million up front.

Job No. 1 for Hernandez? Putting Hechavarria on a budget.

And job No. 2 is to help the Jays make Hechavarria as comfortable and productive as possible in North America.

“As far as how the game is played, it should not be all that difficult for him,” Hernandez said. “(But) we’re making sure he has a good support system around him.”

On the field, White Sox shortstop and fellow Cuban expatriate Alexei Ramirez doesn’t foresee Hechavarria struggling. The game is the same, he says, although it certainly is faster. Major league pitching is better than in Cuba’s national series, where Hechavarria hit .262 in 2008-2009, but Ramirez thinks Hechavarria has the talent and drive to make the transition.

“He has good hands and a lot of promise,” Ramirez said. “He’s fast. He can reach the big leagues quickly. All he needs is dedication and the results will come.”

But away from the field, problems can arise.

On his way to the majors, Angels first baseman Kendry Morales endured small stadiums and 3 a.m. bus rides between minor-league towns, but says none of that compared to the inconvenience of not knowing English.

As for any advice he would give Hechavarria, Morales kept it simple.

“If you don’t know English, learn as fast as possible,” Morales said, in Spanish.

Six years after leaving Cuba, Morales still speaks little English, though he said he has picked up a few words from his American teammates.

The Jays won’t take that chance with Hechavarria, enrolling him in an English class general manager Alex Anthopoulos describes as “aggressive.”

The club has also found him a Cuban roommate — Double-A pitcher Kenny Rodriguez — to ease the isolation many Cuban players feel when they join major league clubs.

And then there’s the money.

The $4 million signing bonus is the largest the Jays have paid to an amateur free agent, and it will have a ripple effect among young Cuban pros thinking about leaving their homeland.

Asked if he had advice for Hechavarria regarding finances, Ramirez cautioned that he shouldn’t let it swell his head.

“There are guys who make money and then change, but my family always taught me (differently),” said Ramirez, who will make $1.1 million this year. “The money can (disappear) tomorrow, and when you go looking for your friends you don’t have any because money has changed everything.”

But a lucrative contract can also make him a target.

In February, Morales fired his agents, Randal and Alan Hendricks, after he learned $300,000 had gone missing from a bank account he had left under the supervision of Rodney Fernandez, a Hendricks employee who recruited Morales and fellow Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman to the firm.

Hernandez, who also represents Cuban expats Yunel Escobar of the Atlanta Braves and Reinier Roibal of the San Francisco Giants, says his financial advisers will watch Hechavarria’s cash closely so that no one, even Hechavarria himself, will waste it.

“(He’s mature for his age) because he has travelled the world and has already been out of Cuba for a year,” Hernandez said. “But we have to make sure he understands the value of money.”

Copyright ©2010 Toronto Star

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