Grateful tears. If White Sox slugger Jose Abreu’s reaction to winning the 2020 American League MVP Award can be summed up in two words, you just read them.
But maybe “emotional overload” is a more compelling way to put it. In his home office in Miami, Abreu received the news during the MLB Network awards show Nov. 12 and — gobsmacked — raised his fists in the air and uttered, “No,” before crossing his arms on his desk, putting his head down and remaining in that position for merely an eternity. It was the worst and best television ever.
The studio host and analysts fruitlessly lobbed questions at Abreu, who finally looked up after a minute and a half, pointed to a photograph of his grandmother and dissolved anew into the rivulets running down his face. Three minutes in, he gave thanks for the life he’s living, for those close to him and for all the Cuban ballplayers who came to the major leagues before him. And then he smacked himself in the head, perhaps the only thing he could think of that might shut off the waterworks and retrieve his composure.
Know this, though: Winning the MVP at the age of 33 didn’t just make Abreu feel like throwing thanks here, there, everywhere. It didn’t just make him grateful. It also unburdened him. In his heart, explicit recognition of his excellence as a player had long been lacking and was long overdue. He made this clear during an interview from his spring-training hotel in Arizona a day after he arrived there ahead of a 2021 Sox season he expects to be memorable.
“The MVP gave me and my family, and gave to all the people that have been around me and supported me and helped me, just some sort of respect,” he said through translator and friend Billy Russo. “I feel like I gained the respect. It’s not just recognition of what I did last year but what I’ve been doing my whole career. It’s respect to what I’ve done in Cuba and what I’ve done here.
“I’m not afraid to say it: I truly believe people underestimate my stats and what I’ve been doing on the field. The numbers are there; the stats are there. Not that I’ve been hoping for [an MVP], but I’ve been feeling that all I do, all my stats, have been underestimated throughout my career, in Cuba and in the United States. So I finally got recognized last year? OK. Finally, people are respecting what I’m doing.”
For seven seasons, Abreu has been the ultimate Sox warrior: selfless, nose to the grindstone, the team’s finest leader. But even someone cut from such rare cloth wants what’s coming to him sometimes.
“It is not out of vanity that I’m saying this — it’s just the way it is,” he said. “Finally, I got the respect I deserve, the respect that my numbers deserve in the sport. That’s why my greatest satisfaction right now is the MVP.”
AT THE 2018 ALL-STAR GAME in Washington, AL players were asked who in the visiting clubhouse was the only player in big-league history other than Joe DiMaggio and Albert Pujols to hit at least 25 home runs and drive in at least 100 runs in his first four seasons. The most common guess, in a runaway: Mike Trout. The correct answer: Abreu.
Only one teammate that day, Twins pitcher Jose Berrios, got it right, and that was after an incorrect guess — Trout, imagine that — and an inquisitor’s helpful nod toward the 6-3, 250-pound first baseman standing in front of the very next locker.
Abreu was the AL Rookie of the Year in 2014. He’s a three-time All-Star, a three-time Silver Slugger winner and the AL’s RBI champ two years running. But all of that happened — the first six years of it, anyway — as the Sox were losing.
One way to look at Abreu’s career on the South Side is that everything he has given the Sox so far — while making a case for individual greatness — was Act 1 of his big-league story. All the numbers, all the patience, and then an MVP to cap it off just as the team began to turn in the direction of glory.
Act 2 is where the rewards that matter even more come in, or so one hopes. Not the honors for his own performance, not the overdue respect, but the winning on a serious scale.
“You definitely nailed it when you said the first chapter was crowned with the MVP,” he said. “It was a very good chapter, but it was more about individual accolades. Now, entering that second chapter, what’s important and what drives you is the real chance we have to win a championship. It’s the ultimate goal as a player, what every player wants. You dream about winning it all.
“I think we’re going to embrace it. We’re good, and we’re ready for this new chapter that I’m hoping — and I believe in my heart — is going to end with a championship. That would be the perfect ending to my career.”
Ending? Perhaps that’s the wrong word. Abreu is on a three-year, $50 million contract that runs through 2022. He jokes, though, that he’d like to play until his 1,000th home run.
“I’d like to play as long as I have the desire and the tools to play, the ability to play,” he said. “If I wake up one day and I don’t feel that desire, don’t feel that motivation to keep playing, then that’s going to be my last day. I don’t have any set goals. I’m playing because I like to play and I love the game.”
What he’d really like to do is see this Sox rebuild through to the end and raise a World Series winner’s flag or two to the top of Guaranteed Rate Field.
“I hope that we can win a championship during my time with the team,” he said. “If, for whatever reason, that doesn’t happen, I know this team is going to win a championship sooner rather than later. I’ll do my best to win a championship with this team. I can’t guarantee it will happen in the next two years, but I can promise you I’m going to do my best to win it all. And it’s going to happen for this team eventually.”
NO CURRENT BIG-LEAGUER with seven or fewer seasons under his belt is within 160 RBI of Abreu’s 671. George Springer is closest in homers, with 174, to Abreu’s 198. Whether Abreu is destined for the Hall of Fame — it’ll take a ton more production and probably a ton of winning for him to have a chance — it goes without saying that he’s the Sox’ most accomplished position player.
But are there players on this Sox team — maybe several of them — who have more pure talent than Abreu? As he weighed the question, names spilled out: Luis Robert, Yoan Moncada, Eloy Jimenez, Tim Anderson and Yasmani Grandal among position players; Lucas Giolito, Dylan Cease, Reynaldo Lopez and others among pitchers.
“I can name a bunch of guys who can do what I’ve done and more, who can be even better than what I’ve been,” he said. “They all have a lot of talent, and they can do better and bigger things than I’ve done.
“But that’s going to require commitment. It’s going to require work and sacrifices. In order for anybody to be good in what they do, they have to accept that it’s going to require a lot of work. And you have to believe in yourself. If you don’t believe in what you’re doing, in the goals you set for yourself, then nothing else matters.”
Abreu arrived in Arizona intent on nipping any signs of entitlement or winning-is-inevitable nonchalance in the bud. Then he tested positive for COVID-19, delaying the start of his spring program. It left him in an awkward position, to be sure, on the outside looking in as bats thwacked and gloves popped in Glendale.
His imprint as a leader, though, was making a difference without him. His MVP win was, too.
“When they said Abreu is the MVP of the American League, I was crying,” Jimenez said. “You know why? Because I know the work he puts in every day. I know that he works hard every single day, no matter how he feels, and I feel proud of him, you know?
“You want to get better, and you want to be [recognized for it], and I think one day I’m going to be the MVP. I don’t know what year, but I think soon.”
Abreu is often characterized as the bellwether of the Sox’ Latin players, but his reach is greater than that.
“To be right in the mix and be right beside a guy like Abreu, I knowI’m going to be good,” Anderson said. “I see the work he does day in and day out. I pick up on things that he does. I know I’m in good hands. Those awards are going to come as long as I continue to follow what he’s doing.”
Giolito, the ace of the team, described Abreu’s honor as a “beautiful” triumph shared by all in his midst.
“Abreu already leads by example,” he said. “I mean, the amount of work he puts in on a daily basis is just astounding. I know that he has a bunch of guys under his wing, kind of showing them the ropes, and nowhe has that big piece of hardware to kind of be like, ‘Yeah, this is what you get if you work like this.’ I think it’s going to be great for our team.”
ABREU WAS RAISED IN MAL TIEMPO, a neighborhood in the town of Crucesin Cienfuego Province. That’s 250 kilometers from Havana and a million miles from Guaranteed Rate Field, for those of you scoring at home. Anyway, he has an idea of how he hopes to someday be remembered as a player.
“At the end,” he said, “I just would like people to see me as a bad little peasant from Mal Tiempo, Cuba, who was always open to help people, open to people in life and to helping them to be better.”
As much as that side of him means to the Sox these days, it didn’t show up in the wins column for the first six seasons of his career. He’s not sure how much his nature — as a leader, a grinder, a consistent performer — amounted to before the rebuild that began in earnest heading into 2017.
“The first few years, maybe we didn’t do the things as we were supposed to do them, and those were reasons why we had bad seasons,” he said. “I wasn’t happy, but I probably wasn’t one of the reasons why we weren’t as good as we could be.”
Losing defined Act 1 of Abreu’s career, at least in part, but it never sat well with, or made any sense to, him. The good-soldier narrative that’s often written about him simply misses the mark.
“I think as human beings, we aren’t born to lose,” he said. “That’s just human nature. You learn how to deal with losses, but we weren’t born to lose. Maybe you can struggle at any time in life, in any field in life, but you always have to try to succeed because that’s what human nature is.
“I don’t know. Maybe sometimes it’s better to start from the bottom up and learn how to go to the top instead of going straight to the top.Maybe that’s a life lesson.”
He is a thoughtful man. A man whose longview dream is to be retired and with his family — where, he isn’t sure — helping his sons become, as he put it, “good human beings.”
“For me,” he said, “that’s my dearest treasure, my family.”
Abreu laughed as he said his most fervent wish is to be a Gold Glover for his mother and the MVP of his family. He has a sense of humor, too. These awards and honors, they don’t define a man.
But that MVP award is his and his alone. He knows better than anyone that he earned it.
A World Series win, though? The one he knows in his heart is coming to the South Side?
“When we win the World Series,” he said, “that’s for the White Sox.”
A city would be grateful.