Ramirez, Viciedo grasp Cespedes' situation
Both hope Cuba opens doors to let players come, go freely
CHICAGO -- Alexei Ramirez and Dayan Viciedo can relate to the process Yoenis Cespedes is going through.
While neither fostered the exact same hype as Cespedes surrounding their respective defections from Cuba, they still drew quite a bit of Major League interest upon entering free agency. They clearly understand the thought process involved in these life-changing decisions and applaud talents such as Cespedes, Gerardo Concepcion and Jorge Soler making the move to American baseball.
It could only be the beginning where the Cuba-to-the-Major Leagues connection is concerned, even this far into the process, as expressed by Ramirez and Viciedo during a SoxFest sit-down with MLB.com.
"I definitely hope there will come a time where Cuba would be like Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, where doors are open and they can come here and succeed," said Ramirez, through White Sox director of cultural development Jackson Miranda. "The kids playing in Cuba really work their tails off to get that opportunity and feel like they will have great success like quite a few have done."
"I'm hoping that at some point players will be able to come [from Cuba] and also be able to go back," said Viciedo, also with Miranda's assistance. "I feel in the future that there will be more of a Cuban influence."
The 2012 White Sox certainly will have a Cuban influence, but that flavor has been on the South Side since Havana native and organization legend Minnie Minoso became the first black player in franchise history in 1951. Jose Contreras served as the ace of a World Series championship rotation in 2005, and Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez tossed one of the most memorable relief innings in Chicago baseball history against the Red Sox during Game 3 of the 2005 American League Division Series.
That legacy falls upon the Viciedo/Ramirez tandem, with Ramirez beginning his fifth Major League season and fourth as the team's starting shortstop, after opening as a center fielder and then second baseman in 2008. Ramirez, 30, originally agreed to a four-year, $4.75 million deal with the White Sox, and plays under a four-year, $32.5 million extension in 2012 with a $10 million club option for 2016. He was able to jump from Cuba to the Majors, hitting .290 with 21 homers and 77 RBIs and playing an integral role in the White Sox 2008 AL Central title.
A chance to immediately play in the Major Leagues pushed Ramirez to the White Sox over strong interest from the A's and Rangers. Viciedo, 22, held that same big league hope when joining the White Sox through a four-year, $10 million deal before the 2009 season, but the '12 campaign marks the first time Viciedo enters as a projected everyday player.
Viciedo came to the White Sox as a third baseman, known as a supremely talented young player who needed to find the work ethic to match. As the team's new right fielder, Viciedo has figured out what it takes to reach the Majors and stick without holding animosity for the time it took him to arrive.
"Really, I wasn't disillusioned coming from Cuba to play," said Viciedo, who has 1,299 Minor League at-bats, compared to 206 in the big leagues. "It's a process just like anything else. For me to come in and start in the Minors and move on from there, it has helped me to be where I am now."
"Us Cubans are pretty alike in the sense of how we view things and how we go about things," Ramirez said. "We mirror each other in our games."
Listed at 6-foot-2 and 175 pounds, Ramirez, dubbed the Cuban Missile by his former manager Ozzie Guillen, has a much thinner build than the 5-foot-11, 230-pound Viciedo, who was nicknamed the Cuban Tank by Guillen. Both have strong arms, a high level of athleticism, a pure enjoyment of the game and power to burn.
Having Ramirez and Contreras already in place in Chicago when Viciedo was listening to overtures from the Yankees and the Red Sox, among other teams, gave him a comfort level in picking the White Sox. There also was Guillen, who spoke both Spanish and English, as did bench coach Joey Cora, who frequently worked with Ramirez and Viciedo.
Not knowing the native language in the country where you are living and earning a living represents one of the obstacles for these Cuban players. The language barrier hasn't been the biggest one to overcome, as Ramirez points out. He has thrived in the Majors for four years with a gradually improved understanding of English, while doing interviews in Spanish through a translator, as an example.
"About 90 percent of what's being spoken is in English," Ramirez said. "So you definitely have to try to get a grasp."
This original decision for Ramirez also was steeped in family, with Ramirez on a visa to visit his Dominican wife, Mildred, when he defected. But when the original decision gets to the baseball stage, it becomes much like any other free agent: listen to your representative, who was Jaime Torres for both Ramirez and Viciedo, try to find the best fit and get by with a little help from your friends.
"At the time, the Cuban market for players wasn't what it is now. It wasn't good," said Ramirez, thinking back to the 2007 offseason. "There weren't that many players. It was a lot tougher to find the best fit."
"We lean on each other and help each other," said Viciedo, who expressed excitement in starting the season with Ramirez and the White Sox. "Definitely Alexei and Contreras, having the guys signed before and already here, helped in that decision. They were so instrumental in helping me out."
Concepcion, the left-handed hurler who is represented by Torres, reportedly reached an agreement with the Cubs. Cespedes and fellow outfielder Soler still are on the open market, a Cuban market that Ramirez and Viciedo hope someday will become the regular rule instead of the yearly high-end exception.