Escobar enjoying journey to Majors
Two years after fleeing Cuba, Braves prospect climbing ranks
PITTSBURGH -- When Yunel Escobar boarded a boat nearly 20 months ago, there were no guarantees that he'd ever reach his destination or ever see his family again. Yet the insatiable desire to realize a dream led him to take that lonely and secret journey out of Cuba.
While traveling those rough waters toward Florida, all that he carried were his vast baseball talents, which he hoped would allow him to realize a better life.
Now nearly two years since realizing his freedom with that three-day journey on the boat, Escobar is on the verge of making his dreams of playing in the Majors a reality. He was the only Braves prospect selected to play in this year's Futures Game, which is annually held in conjunction with the All-Star Game.
When he arrived in Pittsburgh to compete in Sunday afternoon's game, which pitted the top talents from the Minor Leagues, Escobar was still carrying his dream and sporting a smile that provides further indication that the ongoing journey has been worthwhile.
"Not only am I so proud to be here, but this is the biggest thing that has ever happened to me in my entire life," said Escobar, before walking and grounding out in his only two at-bats for the World Team in their 8-5 loss to the United States in the Futures Game.
When the Braves took Escobar with the 75th overall selection in last year's First-Year Player Draft, they knew they had obtained a special talent. Over the past year, they've come to realize that the 24-year-old shortstop, who defected from Cuba in October 2004, can certainly be an asset in Atlanta as early as next season.
"He's pretty impressive," Braves assistant general manager Frank Wren said. "He's full of energy and fun to watch."
When working for the Marlins, Wren remembers that it took some time for Livan Hernandez to adapt to life outside of Cuba. Likewise, Escobar has been forced to adjust to life in the United States, where he now has the money and freedom he wasn't previously afforded in his native land.
But from all indications, he's kept himself focused. Through 84 games with Double-A Mississippi this season, Escobar is hitting .282 with 18 doubles and 34 RBIs. With runners in scoring position and two outs, he's batting .342 (13-for-38).
"This is my future," Escobar said. "This is what I've always dreamed of. This [is a] way I can help my family as I get ahead."
Escobar spent his first seven months in the United States honing his baseball skills in Miami. His tremendous energy and power potential to all fields allowed him to draw some early comparisons to current Atlanta shortstop Edgar Renteria.
Many clubs backed off because they didn't know much about Escobar's background. But the Braves had an advantage from the fact that Brayan Pena, a catcher at the Braves' Triple-A affiliate, grew up with Escobar and played with him on the Junior National team.
Once Pena, a highly respected individual, backed Escobar, the Braves took the calculated risk. To help Escobar's transition into the United States, the Braves kept him at Class A Rome throughout most of last season. In 48 games there, he hit .313 and committed just six errors.
"[Pena] is a great friend of mine, actually my best friend," Escobar said. "He's taught me so much, and eventually, I'm hoping that we can play together."
With Renteria likely in Atlanta through at least the 2008 season, the Braves have been giving Escobar some time at third base this year. When he took the field for the World Team in Sunday's fourth inning, it was at third base, a position at which he says he's growing more comfortable.
Of course, Chipper Jones is also seemingly set as the Braves' third baseman through at least 2009. But Escobar doesn't object to enhancing his versatility. If asked, he'll also get more acquainted with second base.
Understandably, he simply wants to do whatever is necessary to make sure that journey out of Cuba takes him to his intended final destination.
"I'm very happy with this organization," Escobar said. "I'm happy with the way things went and are still going. I'm just hoping to get to the Majors soon."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.