JUPITER, Fla. — I wrote a story about Yunel Escobar on Friday — about how his brash temperament and seemingly rebellious attitude has led to negative perceptions, and about how some of that may be caused by a culture and language barrier. Anyway, I think it’s an interesting topic, and I felt it was worth exploring a bit more.
Braves fans know Escobar’s situation, others may not. In a nutshell, he is one of the most underrated players in baseball (that’s not just me talking, but also those who cover the Braves on a daily basis) because of his ability to hit for a high average, occasionally display power, run and play slick defense at a very demanding position. But he gets a bad rap — whether undeservingly or not — because he has barely no communication with the Atlanta media, occasionally comes off as a “hot dog” on the field and has been known to lose focus at times.
I wanted to know if he was a misunderstood guy. And while I don’t defend a lot of Escobar’s recent actions — some of which have gotten him benched by the usually lovable Bobby Cox — I can understand how a player who is aggressive and brash by nature and speaks barely any English could get his actions and words misconstrued at times.
I had a good conversation with Escobar (pictured, right) about whether he felt like he’s in fact been a misunderstood guy, and he told me he feels that’s absolutely the case, and the language plays a big part. He talked about how he wishes he could be in front of the cameras talking in English and eventually getting those endorsement deals, and he said it’s a disappointment for his parents in Miami to have to mostly read negative things about him, instead.
“I have family, and my family worries when they talk bad about me in the press, and they think I’m behaving bad,” he told me in Spanish before his Friday workout at Champion Stadium. “But I always talk to my family, and my family has never liked the perception of me from people who don’t know me. And those are the types of things that worry me. My door is always open for those who want to get to know me because I don’t hide from anybody. I’m always here.”
To be fair, though, Escobar’s door isn’t always open. There have been times where he did something to affect the game and simply denied to be interviewed by the Atlanta media, hence the tense relationship with the local press.
While Escobar has never really found trust with the media, he’s relied heavily on bench coach Chino Cadahia, a fellow Cuban who has served as his confidant and interpreter since the start of the 27-year-old’s career.
Cadahia (pictured, left) made a good point to me. He said that while some of Escobar’s actions are destructive and have warranted disciplinary action (though not very serious ones), some of that cockiness and aggressiveness is what makes him great — it’s what gives him sort of an edge.
So, it’s all about finding that balance with Escobar.
One other thing he pointed out was that Latin players, for the most part, are just different, and they’re used to a different style of playing the game and different mannerisms.
While there are a few marketable Latin players — namely, Albert Pujols and David Ortiz — there are also guys like Escobar and Marlins superstar shortstop Hanley Ramirez, who also doesn’t have a great relationship with his local media, and while his actions haven’t led to benchings, also doesn’t have the greatest of reputations on the field.
“You have to understand where [Escobar] came up playing baseball; even though it’s still the same game, it’s still a little different,” Cadahia said. “And he’s also got his own mannerism. I guess it’s the way he got accustomed to playing in Cuba, and here, it’s perceived a little different than it is over there, I guess. But he’s toned that down quite a bit. I think Bobby has been a very big influence on him. Every time he does something, Bobby makes it a point to tell him, ‘We don’t do it that way here.’”
The Braves would love nothing more than to give the soon-to-be-retired Cox the type of sendoff he deserves (at least a playoff berth would be warranted). But it’s important to note that in a division that features a Phillies team I don’t feel has any weakness, the Braves will be relying on a closer (Billy Wagner) and cleanup hitter (Troy Glaus) coming off major surgeries.
One guy who should illicit hope, however, is Jason Heyward. The 20-year-old lefty-hitting outfielder has all the tools (he’s the No. 1 prospect in baseball for a reason), and he’s already starting to show it in batting practice. David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution writes about Heyward’s thrilling (and destructive) BP sessions at the Wide World of Sports complex here