Watching Jose Abreu react to the news he had been named the American League MVP of the 2020 MLB season on Thursday night is a moment that will stick with White Sox fans. The immense emotions that overtook the 33-year-old slugger, as he fought back tears and struggled to compose his thoughts, was palpable.
In a statement issued by the team, Abreu thanked God, his family, and the Chicago White Sox for affording him this opportunity.
“First and foremost, I want to thank God for this blessing. It is very special to win this award and even more doing it this year with all the adversities and challenges we faced. I feel extremely honored and humbled. I’ve worked hard for this, and even though I don’t focus on winning awards, getting this one just feels like recognition of all the work, all the effort I’ve been doing during my whole career to get to this point. Now, my mom can really say that she has an MVP as a son, and she can keep saying that I am her MVP.
“This award is for my family, for Jerry (Reinsdorf) and the Chicago White Sox organization who gave me the opportunity to play in the big leagues and made my mom’s dream come true. To the fans and to all my coaches, teammates, and everyone who has helped me and supported me, this is for you too. Thank you also to all the writers who voted for me.”
Abreu isn’t your average MVP winner, but more importantly, he’s not your average human being. To understand his emotional state on Thursday night, you have to understand the sacrifices he’s made as a human just to be sitting in the position he sits in today.
Back in 2013, he was playing for the Cuban National Team in the World Baseball Classic as a 26-year-old phenom in his native country of Cuba. He entered the WBC coming off of a season in which he slashed .382/.535/.735 with 13 home runs, 37 runs, 36 RBI, and 37 walks in 42 games in the Serie Nacional, Cuba’s equivalent to Major League Baseball.
Abreu was dubbed by some as the “Cuban Barry Bonds,” a slugger who crushed a whopping 111 home runs and drove in 304 runs in just 284 games over a span of four seasons in the Serie Nacional before finally making the cut to play on the biggest international stage for his Cuban National Team in 2013.
Abreu went 9-for-25 with three home runs, nine RBI, six runs scored, a walk, and a double as Cuba fell to the Netherlands in the semi-finals of the 2013 World Baseball Classic. According to Abreu in a 2014 interview with the Chicago Tribune, that’s where he decided that he was going to seek out a new challenge and bring his talents to the United States.
“I realized I could go elsewhere with baseball,” Abreu said in Spanish. “Everyone knows we’re here playing in the world’s best baseball league. The differences [with Cuban baseball] include the level of professionalism among players here.”
In leaving his native country of Cuba in August of 2013, Abreu wasn’t just seeking a new challenge as a professional baseball player, he was seeking a better life for his family. In a 2016 chronicle of his journey to America, Abreu said he remembers his heart pounding while thinking about his family and his two-year-old son as he drifts into the rough waters under the guise of nightfall.
“It was the hardest decision I have had to make but it was exactly what needed to happen. I couldn’t have imagined how blessed my life was going to be after I left; how my dream of becoming a professional player in the Major Leagues would become a reality, as well as becoming a symbol of pride for my people.”
Abreu along with his fiance Yusmary, his parent, his sister, and her husband embarked on a dangerous journey that lasted 12 hours by their account and featured 15-foot waves surrounding them. Even the massive six-foot-two, 258-pound figure that Abreu is physically didn’t stop him from fearing for his life on this journey, according to former White Sox catcher Adrian Nieto.
“Jose was scared for his life in that little boat,” said Nieto in an interview with Chicago Mag in 2015. Nieto is a fellow Cuban native and was one of Abreu’s closest friends during his early years in Chicago.
Growing up in Cienfuegos — which Abreu calls, “La Perla del Sur,” meaning the “Pearl of the South,” — Abreu never imagined the life that he has been able to provide for his family since completing his journey to the United States. Abreu told Michael E. Miller of Chicago Mag that the amenities available to the middle-lower class in Cuba are a stark contrast to that in which he now has in America.
“In Cuba, someone who is middle or lower class doesn’t have the luxuries they do here. You can’t eat something different every day. You eat whatever you have. If you have 10 days of eggs, you’re going to be eating eggs for 10 days. If you have plain rice for 10 days, you’re going to eat plain rice for 10 days. There is no menu. No variety. What you have is what you eat.”
Two months after his harrowing journey to the Dominican city of Santiago, he struck a six-year deal with the Chicago White Sox worth $68 million. That deal was — until just last winter when the White Sox landed Yasmani Grandal in free-agency on a four-year, $73 million deal — the largest contract ever given out by the franchise.
It was a big splash and a big gamble that the White Sox were taking on Abreu, giving him the largest contract ever awarded to a foreign player with no major-league experience. Abreu never forgot that gamble that the White Sox took on him.
In 2019 Abreu was an impending free agent who balked at the idea of playing for anyone but the Chicago White Sox. At one point during his 2019 campaign that saw him lead Major League Baseball with 123 RBI, Abreu said that he would “play for free” if he had to.
“I always look at [Derek] Jeter’s story and I look at Mariano [Rivera]’s story, who played their whole career with one team. I haven’t been here that many years, but I want it to be that way for me, with the Chicago White Sox. That’s why I say if they don’t sign me, I’ll sign myself. I’ll play for free.”
The White Sox did extend Abreu last winter, keeping good on Jerry Reinsdorf’s word that Abreu would never play for another team, in the form of a three-year deal worth $50 million.
“This is a dream come true for me and my family. To the fans, I told you I would come back. I never doubted it.”
Many scoffed at the deal last winter, stating that signing a 33-year-old first-baseman to a three-year deal was risky. The narrative continued into the 2020 season, and I even admit that I was skeptical of Abreu’s value moving forward.
I have always said that the contract itself — even if Abreu flamed out — was warranted. If for nothing else, a reward for Abreu’s loyalty to a club that spent the better part of his career wallowing in the cellar of the American League Central. Abreu was the clubhouse leader on a team that couldn’t hit or pitch its way out of a wet paper bag for a half-decade, and now it was time to reward him with an opportunity to be a part of the brighter years on the Southside.
Instead of the White Sox rewarding Abreu, he ended up doing the rewarding in 2020, finding the fountain of youth in what would turn out to be possibly his best single-season body of work yet. Abreu slashed .317/.370/.617 (76-240) with 15 doubles, 19 home runs, and 60 RBI in 60 games this season, accumulating 2.6 fWAR and a 167 wRC+.
More importantly, Abreu led a team of budding White Sox stars to a 35-25 record and their first playoff appearance in 12 years. Before the start of the Oakland series, Abreu again thanked the White Sox for their loyalty and gushed about his excitement about playing his first MLB postseason game.
“I’m thankful for the White Sox, thankful for the chance that they gave me to play here, thankful for my family for all the support they’ve given me. I’m thankful for all the people that have helped me get to this point,” Abreu said through team interpreter Billy Russo. “I think it’s an exciting moment, and I’m just thankful for the life and all the things I’ve been getting since I got here.”
Abreu would lead the White Sox to victory in that opening game, singling in the first inning and then taking Jesus Luzardo deep to left-center for a two-run home run that made the score 3-0 in favor of Chicago at the time.
In many ways, the 2020 season has been a culmination of Jose Abreu’s life journey. All the hard work, and all the risk, culminating into all that he dreamed of as a little boy growing up in Cienfuegos. Winning the American League’s Most Valuable Player Award isn’t Abreu’s ultimate goal, make no mistake about that. He’s made it clear that he wants a World Series ring with the White Sox team.
But, as Abreu broke down on Thursday night he thanked his “la Abuela,” his grandmother, who he said is simply “his world.” This individual accolade is a sign that he made it, he reached those dreams and made his family proud.
When Abreu first donned a White Sox uniform in 2014 many wondered why he chose to wear the number 79. Jose’s Mother, Daysi Correa, chose that number for her son so that people would remember him. Well, Miss Correa, you don’t ever have to worry about anyone forgetting your son now.
Hopefully, this journey of Abreu’s ends with a World Series ring — or two — on the Southside, but regardless, Jose Abreu has cemented himself as an all-time great in the history of the Chicago White Sox. When his No. 79 is one day retired and enshrined with the rest of the White Sox greats, Daysi Correa can rest easy knowing that no one will ever forget who Jose Abreu is.
If you like the magnificent painting used as the featured photo for this story by painter and animator, Tom Borowski, head to his website to purchase a limited edition of the Jose Abreu MVP print. The limited edition print will be available through Sunday, but will be limited to just 79 prints, so act fast!