July 14, 2010: Brothers in Baseball Destiny

Shortstops Adeiny Hechavarria and Jose Iglesias were like brothers until Iglesias defected from communist Cuba. On a Monday night in July, after a two-year estrangement, the two blue-chip prospects renewed their friendship.

July 14, 2010

Morgan Campbell

Sports Reporter

PORTLAND, ME.—Five minutes into last Monday night’s infield drills, Adeiny Hechavarria’s manager had grown weary of watching the Blue Jays’ blue-chip shortstop prospect miss ground balls as he stole glances at Portland shortstop Jose (Candelita) Iglesias.

“Forget about infield practice,” New Hampshire Fisher Cats manager Luis Rivera shouted in Spanish. “Go over and give him a kiss.”

But Iglesias, the Boston Red Sox’ 20-year-old shortstop prodigy, was already on his way to Hechavarria, right hand extended.

Hechavarria grinned and grabbed it, pulled Iglesias to him, threw an arm around his friend’s shoulder and murmured in his ear. When Hechavarria freed his right arm he wrapped Iglesias in a bear hug and lifted him off the ground.

That hug held two years of heartache and hope.

In communist Cuba, Iglesias and Hechavarria weren’t just the middle infield combo that helped propel the national team to a Pan Am junior championship in 2007. They were teens who had come from far-flung provinces to grow as close as brothers.

And in the United States they’re two of a growing number of Cuban expatriates who have left the island to pursue careers in pro baseball, finding mixed results on the field and isolation away from it.

Among their colleagues in the Double-A Eastern League, Iglesias and Hechavarria, 21, stand out because they’re already rich. In September, Iglesias, a Havana native, signed a four-year, $8.25 million contract with Boston, while in April Toronto signed the Santiago-born Hechavarria for four years and $10 million (all figures U.S.).

Cuban-born players are unique in that few of them know when, or even if, they’ll see their families again. Iglesias and Hechavarria each have hazy plans to bring their parents to the U.S., but neither can return to Cuba to visit relatives.

Iglesias fled Cuba in July 2008 and hadn’t seen his best friend since then until the afternoon he emerged from the Sea Dogs clubhouse and saw Hechavarria taking batting practice.

Until diplomatic tensions and travel restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba disappear, occasions like last week’s four-game series between New Hampshire and Portland are the closest either man will come to a family reunion.

“It was really important to see him,” Hechavarria said. “Out of all the Cubans who have come over here, my best friend is him. It felt good and gave me a lot of joy to see him.”

For the remainder of infield practice they stood at shortstop, arms folded, smiling in the fading sunlight. Two boys becoming men, united, separated then thrown back together by their big-league dreams.

“In some ways it’s easier to live without seeing your family,” Iglesias said of his separation from Hechavarria. “When you have someone you grow to care about and you have to separate yourself from them, it’s hard.”

Pero es parte del destino, he says.

It’s part of my destiny.

*     *     *     *

Ninety minutes before the series opener, Iglesias watches from Portland’s dugout as Hechavarria take his pre-game cuts, spraying line drives with a fluid swing that belies his batting average, which hovered below .200 that week.

They met six years ago at a national team camp in Havana, and while the Iglesias family already had six kids, Hechavarria quickly became like the seventh.

“We were from different provinces but that didn’t mean anything,” Hechavarria says. “We have a really good friendship. I’ve even slept in his house. I got along really well with his family.”

Their on-field partnership blossomed just as quickly, two players with different physiques but similar styles.

Both are listed at 5-foot-11, but Hechavarria, sleek and sinewy, looks taller while Iglesias is put together like a punt returner — compact, solid, explosive.

But both play shortstop with fast feet, a strong arm and swagger, and the same tools that set them apart in Cuba convinced pro scouts they would thrive in the majors.

“People say (Hechavarria) is like a cat (but) he’s like a wildcat. Those feet are quick,” Rivera says. “As soon as you see him take ground balls, you know right away he has the talent to be a great defensive player.”

A natural shortstop, Iglesias moved to second to make room for Hechavarria on the national team, but he didn’t complain. Instead, he embraced the opportunity to turn double plays with his best friend.

“It was something really beautiful,” Iglesias says, with as much nostalgia as a 20-year-old can summon. “(We have) a lot of energy, and defensively we’re really strong. It was a lot of fun . . . together we would try to steal the show, always.”

They stood out even on a 2007 team that included current Royals pitching prospect Noel Arguelles and Chicago White Sox third baseman Dayan Viciedo.

Iglesias and Arguelles were the first to defect, slipping out of the team hotel during a tournament in Edmonton and taking a taxi to Montana. From there the pair moved to Miami and then to the Dominican Republic, where they established residency and were eventually declared free agents.

As all this unfolded as Hechavarria remained in Cuba, battling conflicting feelings over Iglesias’s departure.

“I felt a little sad because he had left but I was thrilled because it was his dream,” he said. “It was my dream too.”

If Hechavarria had ever resented Iglesias for leaving Cuba without him, it didn’t show Monday night. Instead, the two friends slid into a familiar routine: Iglesias talking trash to Hechavarria as he batted, Hechavarria trying to remain focused but conceding an occasional smile.

Even after two years apart, the pair remain as close as brothers.

Closer even.

Como costillas, Iglesias says.

Like ribs.

*     *     *     *

Two batters into last Tuesday’s game, Portland starter Casey Kelly keeps throwing Hechavarria the same fastball in the same spot: knee high and off the outside corner.

Hechavarria keeps swinging. And missing.

Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston preaches a selective yet aggressive approach to hitting, drilling batters on attacking the pitch they want and laying off, or fouling off, everything else. Gaston wants that philosophy to filter through to the club’s lowest rungs but it has taken a while to reach Hechavarria. He waves weakly at another fastball outside for strike three, and finishes the game 0-for-4.

Though Iglesias and Hechavarria developed along parallel tracks in Cuba, here in the Eastern League their paths have diverged.

Both came to the U.S. with questions about their bats, but Iglesias answered them by batting .306 in 40 games before an errant pitch fractured the index finger on his right hand. He hasn’t played since May 29.

When he’s not at the ballpark, Iglesias devours hours of television to improve his English, and unleashes his new words on teammates, coaches and reporters.

Hechavarria, meanwhile, still grapples with the language, taking English classes but speaking chiefly in Spanish.

Despite weak numbers, Hechavarria says he’s improving incrementally, and that baseball is easy compared to the culture shock of coming to the U.S.

“I’m still not used to this life over here,” he says. “It’s not any one thing. . . . Over here doesn’t feel the same. It feels the same in baseball, but not in other things.”

Hechavarria batted just .193 with five walks and 25 strikeouts at Class-A Dunedin, but Jays assistant GM Tony LaCava maintains his June 30 promotion came right on time. He says the team’s plan was always to place Hechavarria at New Hampshire for the bulk of the season.

In comparing the two shortstops, LaCava points out that Iglesias had a seven-month head start in learning both English and big-league-style ball, playing in the Arizona Fall League and going through spring training with the Red Sox. With similar experience, LaCava expects Hechavarria’s development to accelerate.

“We’re going to be very patient,” he says. “He’s learning a new language and he’s learning the American game. It’s a lot.”

The Blue Jays also moved Hechavarria to New Hampshire to team him with Rivera, a Spanish-speaking former Montreal Expos shortstop who acts as coach and mentor. Rivera sees Hechavarria struggling with stresses Iglesias dealt with months ago, and still wrestling with the consequences of his defection.

“He knows he’s not going back to Cuba and he knows he’s probably not going to see his family again. There’s a lot of things on his mind right now,” Rivera says. “But there’s going to be a time when everything is going to settle down. And after settling down he’s going to be a very, very good baseball player.”

By week’s end, Hechavarria’s smooth stroke had begun to yield base hits, and a five-game hit streak pushed his average to .265 heading into Wednesday.

How good either player will be, and how soon, still isn’t clear.

While Hechavarria learns to temper his aggressiveness at the plate, Portland lists Iglesias as day-to-day. But last week his right index finger remained tender, and when a ball bounced his way he scooped it and threw it with his left.

Neither player has a target date for reaching the majors but Iglesias says that when either does, both will be thrilled.

“If he gets there first I’m happy and if I get there first he’ll be equally happy,” Iglesias says. “Whoever gets there first, it’s the same.”

Porque somos como la misma persona.

Because we’re like the same person.

Copyright ©2010 Toronto Star

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