Before I began capturing video and writing about Cuban baseball, my photos connected me with the Cuban baseball community. Some of my early photos were the first to circulate as the internet was in it’s naissance. I have had the good fortune to return many times and capture the Cuban National Team in Canada as well. Join me in a new series where I share some of my favourite photos and tell the Stories of some of Cuba’s best players. Today let’s look at José Abreu Through My Lens.
The first decade of the 2000s in the Cuban National Series was dominated by sluggers. Many of these big bats eventually made their way to Major League Baseball. The most consistent hitter of this cohort in both Cuba and MLB has been José Abreu. He dominated the National Series for close to a decade and bookended his 2010-2011 MVP with the American League MVP award in 2020. My first Cuban baseball game was in 2012. I knew I was seeing a dynamic talent but had no clue I was capturing a future Most Valuable Player and Silver Slugger award winner.
Abreu debuted with Elefantes at 16 and took a few years to establish himself in the Cuban National Series. His breakout season came in 2005-2006 when he hit .337 with 11 HR and 64 RBI in just over 300 AB’s. It would signify the beginning of one of the most dominant runs a player has ever had in Cuba’s top league. His three straight 30 plus home run seasons had never been approached before and likely won’t be again. For reference the average Cuban National Series is 90 games in length.
Photos of Abreu from his time with Cienfuegos are somewhat sparse. This is a testament to the digital transformation Cuba is undergoing. In 2012 when I first captured him in action only professionals photographers in Cuba had access to camera gear. Fewer had access to the internet to share these photos with the public. Camera gear has trickled in or at least the adoption of smart phones has increased the number of photographers exponentially. Increased access to internet has created an explosion of photo sharing as well.
José Abreu debuted for the Chicago White Sox in 2014 and took home the Rookie of the Year Award in the American League. He effectively replicated his average year from Cuba although in a 162 game schedule. This is still impressive when one considers the talent gap between the two leagues. The Cuban National Series is a talented league but the Majors are the Majors. I captured Abreu in action the next year in Boston.
The 2010s saw a mass influx of Cuban talent to baseball’s top league. During my visit to Boston, Abreu was joined by Alexei Ramirez of Pinar Del Rio with Chicago. They faced off against Rusney Castillo of Ciego de Avila who was the most recent big signing with the Red Sox. Castillo might represent the last true Cuban free agent. Signing rules have changed to provide cost certainty to teams and players are getting out younger. The Castillo signing might be the counter to José Abreu. They both signed for over $60 million. Abreu has been a star since the jump but Castillo underperformed and became the highest paid AAA player in the world. Castillo more recently signed in Japan after his contract with Boston expired.