“I heard him say ‘thank you’ at Starbucks. I thought that was a big step.” Initially chuckle-inducing, it didn’t take long for the profound meaning behind Joe Maddon’s comment to sink in. Now four years into his contract with the Cubs, Jorge Soler’s adaptation to life in the U.S. is not only noteworthy, but still a major part of the story. For me, imagining the continued level of cultural discomfort this statement implies was simultaneously heartbreaking and eye opening.
When considering Soler, it may be tempting to compare him to other twenty-four-year-old sophomores in the majors. No way. Even to categorize him among international players from Latin America would be erroneous and unfair. Judging an individual’s development must be rooted in understanding the starting point. With much of Soler’s past shrouded in mystery, that beginning may tend to be forgotten or ignored. In his trademark holistic manner, Maddon was gently reminding that context matters. Especially when it takes place in Cuba.
Until he defected in 2011, Havana was home to Jorge Soler. Growing up in modern day Cuba is not easily imagined by most Americans. Of course, as a closed society, that is largely by design. When the high school history word associations–communism, oppression, poverty–quickly dry up, the picture remains fuzzy for lack of detail. We do not know the specifics of Soler’s situation there, but have a generalized sense of his hometown from journalist accounts.
Amid difficult conditions, baseball has been a source of light in Cuba. Although professional play for Cubans was outlawed with the Castro revolution, they have historically excelled on the world amateur stage. Playing baseball is typically not a panacea for life’s struggles on the island. It does provide, for a select lucky few, the opportunity to find a way out. Cuba’s top prospects have always known that ninety miles to the north, Major League Baseball’s mindboggling prosperity awaits. But the costs of a ticket for that lottery have been great.
Recent changes to U.S.-Cuban relations and an easing of restrictions on Cuban players are indicators that a better path may be in store for up-and-coming talent. Soler’s only option, however, was defection. When reports mention a player “leaving” Cuba, they are simplifying an often terrifying and expensive process of escape, bribery, and denunciation of citizenship, which in most cases means an individual may never return home. Facing the choice as a teenager to potentially never see family and friends again is unthinkable, yet part of the deal.
The details of these defection stories are not typically made public, for obvious reasons (although Yasiel Puig’s journey is a notable, hair-raising exception). The fragments that have emerged of Soler’s incredible voyage reportedly include up to six failed attempts and imprisonment by Cuban authorities before ultimately escaping by speedboat to Haiti. In addition to the great personal risk he assumed at only 18 years old, the process also allegedly came with a $40-50,000 price tag, owed to those who facilitated the illegal endeavor.
Beyond the personal, emotional, and financial burdens of defection, Soler’s long path to freedom involved a baseball cost as well. During two critical development years, he understandably played very little, making his baseball age younger than his chronological one. Addison Russell, two years his junior, has played in over a hundred more games and registered more than 500 additional plate appearances. The importance of this experience gap cannot be overlooked. And, of course, when Soler finally did achieve his goal of a professional contract and a new life in the U.S., an incredible culture shock awaited.
It’s a problem all Cuban defectors have faced: “Cubans… have to make a rapid cultural transition from a communist system where they earn the equivalent of only $10-$20 a month. Virtually all players from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela—MLB’s top two sources of foreign-born talent—attend academies in their homelands that prepare them for American life.” Beyond having to learn English, Cubans are thrust into a totally foreign lifestyle of needing to manage wealth and freedom for the first time with no mental model for how to do so. International players from nearly anywhere else on Earth would feel more at home in the U.S.
Soler may have been pursuing this dream with everything he had, but he was unable to fully prepare for it. Predictably, his initial development period proved challenging. An isolated ejection and suspension for approaching the opposing dugout with a bat provides a glimpse at the mental strain he was likely under. Soler’s body also revealed a lack of physical readiness. Whereas American prospects out of high school and college had been training for the professional level for years, Soler required a physical overhaul from the Cubs’ staff. To address nagging injuries and overall health, his diet, posture, running stride, and distribution of muscle mass were all targeted for improvement.
The results of these training efforts have been positive, with Soler staying mostly healthy of late, but his performance remains erratic. Flashes of brilliance, as seen in the 2015 NLDS, appear often enough to intrigue, though hitting slumps and defensive struggles persist. As for his psychological and emotional development, even more questions remain. Maddon has been outspoken in his belief that an extended learning curve and a longer path of development are to be expected, and that patience in Soler’s case will be rewarded. A notable proponent of the importance of mental skills on performance, Maddon recognizes the intangible pieces that still need to come together:
“Beyond the adjustment to the game itself is the cultural differences and the cultural adjustments that need to be made that can hold you back, whether it’s just socially or self-esteem-wise by being unable to communicate your thoughts as you would like. All these things factor in. So when it comes to young Latin players—especially a kid from Cuba—I think you have to be even a little bit more patient. He’s going to be a really good player and he’s still very young.”
One of the best indicators for Soler’s future is that his manager is clearly in tune and on board with his special circumstances. How quickly he can make up game experience is yet to be determined with a stacked Cubs roster, but the door that slammed so cruelly on Kyle Schwarber’s 2016 has likely opened a window of opportunity for Soler’s playing time. As for the rest, only time will tell.
From a cultural comfort-level perspective, it is important to remember the many layers involved: Since his defection, Soler has had to navigate what it means to be an adult, a professional, an American, and now a Cub. Learning the staggering number of social rules each demands, all while struggling with the language, is an incredible feat. The upheaval has undoubtedly impacted Soler’s ability to focus entirely on the game. But he is lucky to have landed with a club known for its dedication to personal growth, and he has certainly had help every step of the way.
An unlikely mentor has been key in his progress. When the Cubs pulled Manny Ramirez out of retirement to utilize his expertise as a Triple-A player-coach, Soler was suddenly face to face with a childhood hero. He explained how Manny was featured in his limited exposure to major league ball on the island: “He’s my favorite player. In Cuba, you always hear about the best players, no one else, and you always heard about him.” Out of the isolation came a familiar connection to the past, even if only from television.
The mentorship continued to grow as Manny transitioned to a hitting consultant with the big league club during Soler’s debut season. Soler even credited Manny’s wisdom and instruction for his outstanding playoff performance last year. Through the bond they have formed, he’s been able to influence Soler’s mental approach at the plate. According to Maddon, “Manny’s a very informed and good hitting coach. I’m not just talking about physical (stuff). Everybody (says): ‘Oh, you put your hands here.’ Manny talks hitting really well, and he talks to the mental mechanics more. That’s what really benefited Georgie last year.”
With mental conditioning and supportive coaching, Maddon’s goal is to effectively manage stress, particularly for those who may be feeling added pressure. He emphasizes trust in the process, execution of the routine, and the results will follow. For this season, he spoke positively about what he is seeing early from Soler:
“He’s really engaged right now. It’s great to see that. This guy is going to be very big for us during the entire season… He’s engaged. That’s the best way I can describe it to you right now. There’s a tremendous, a greater amount of engagement this year per at bat than I saw last year in the first half. I think being part of a winning culture last year, he’s starting to understand that. And then understand where the kid came from and what the motivation was to get here. When he was motivated to get here it wasn’t about winning baseball. It was about getting off the island and making money for him and his family. Now he’s at the point now where I think he understands what winning is all about and being part of a winning culture. This can be learned. And you have to understand where did this kid come from, and I’m really cognizant of that. So now he’s starting to get it, and he’s going to keep getting better as he gets more in tune with what we’re doing.”
Still a prospect in big league clothing, Soler has not yet arrived at the place where everything clicks. He was dealt a tougher hand than most but is on the path, trusting the process, with as much to prove to himself as to anyone. In writing up a nine-year deal, the Cubs were banking on a long haul with Soler. If they keep racking up wins, they can afford to invest the at bats and fielding chances he needs to improve.
Someday, we have every reason to hope Soler will fully settle in: to his new home, his team, and his potential. When that happens, the noise can fall away, and focus can finally be the focus. With any luck and a great deal of confidence-building, today’s flashes will give way to tomorrow’s trends. And perhaps the next time Soler takes a playoff series by storm, we will look at it and shrug, “that’s just Jorge being Jorge.”
Lead photo courtesy Jeff Curry—USA Today Sports.