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Cuban countrymen tap into Luis Robert Jr.’s national pride, coax Home Run Derby 180

Vinnie Duber Avatar
July 5, 2023

Luis Robert Jr.’s 180 on participating in baseball’s Home Run Derby on Monday in Seattle didn’t have much to do with raising his profile or strolling onto one of the game’s biggest stages, swinging for the fences under brighter lights than he’s been playing under for the 13-games-below-.500 White Sox this season.

“If you’re a baseball fan and you don’t know who he is by now,” Pedro Grifol said Wednesday, “you’re probably not watching too much baseball.”

Instead, he was lured into the always entertaining exhibition event by two friends who also happen to be participating.

“I talked with a couple of my countrymen who said they are going to participate in the Derby, and then they convinced me, Randy and Adolis,” Robert said Wednesday through team interpreter Billy Russo. “We all said, ‘Let’s do it.’”

Randy and Adolis are Randy Arozarena of the Rays and Adolis García of the Rangers, two more sluggers also heading to the Pacific Northwest next week to be a part of the Derby and the Midsummer Classic.

All three are Cubans. And even though Robert was the only one of the trio to suit up for Team Cuba in the World Baseball Classic this past spring — Arozarena played for Team Mexico, while García was one of the vast majority of Cuban big leaguers not to represent their home country — hitting that note of national pride was music to Robert’s ears.

Of course, they’re his friends, too, and such bonds over heritage are well known to White Sox fans, who have seen their favorite team repeatedly bring Cuban players aboard, creating a community inside the clubhouse. José Abreu was a mentor to Yoán Moncada and Robert, who in turn has taken fellow Cuban outfielder Oscar Colás under his wing.

It’s helped the White Sox draw top talent on the international free-agent market. And now it’s helping draw the top talent that is Robert into one of baseball’s biggest events.

“Just knowing that when you have offers from different teams, one of those teams is the White Sox and you know what they’ve done with Cuban players,” Robert said a couple years back, “you know that when you sign with that team, you’re going to have other Cubans that are going to take care of you, that can help you in the adjustment process.

“That’s something that you really can’t measure, how valuable that is for us. But it’s something that plays a big role in our decision when we choose a team.

“I don’t know — and I don’t really want to think about — how that would be in another organization. I’m just glad that I made the right choice, that I have other countrymen here with me taking care of me and helping me out.”

That’s obviously a glimpse into what was a far more serious decision for Robert than whether or not to participate in the Home Run Derby, but the same logic applies, and Robert now gets to spend the event hanging out with his friends and countrymen.

“It definitely is an honor to represent Cuba, my country,” Robert said Wednesday. “I feel proud of it. We left our country with a lot of sacrifices trying to look for a better future. We were able to get that.

“Now being on this stage, being able to represent our country, it’s something that makes you feel happy and just makes you proud and you carry your country wherever you go.”

Robert had to dial his memory all the way back to when he played in his country to recount the last time he was in a home-run contest, one that also featured García.

“(We participated in one) in Cuba,” he said. “I was talking about that with Adolis a few minutes ago. We said at least we have to break the record that we set in Cuba because we didn’t hit any homers in that competition.”

Robert’s White Sox teammates don’t think that will be a problem.

“We know he’s going to do pretty good,” Elvis Andrus told CHGO on Wednesday. “If he just swings the same way he’s swinging in the game, he’s going to have no problem hitting like a hundred homers there.”

Indeed, Robert’s place in the Derby has everything to do with how he’s been swinging in regulation games this season, another thing White Sox fans are plenty familiar with. A sensational first half already locked him into an All-Star spot, and with Mike Trout’s injury forcing him out of next week’s game, Robert might find himself in the starting lineup.

Heck, if it wasn’t for Shohei Ohtani doing things no one has ever seen done, Robert would probably be in the AL MVP conversation.

Finally free of the injuries that plagued him during his first few years as a big leaguer, Robert is finally living up to the immense hype that accompanied him on his road to the majors. He’s also been lauded for the behind-the-scenes work he’s done this year, transforming in a blink from someone who was swinging at everything to a selective batter that’s doing damage on the right kinds of pitches.

This is the six-tool player, the “Cuban Trout,” as he was hyped by managers and teammates.

“Unbelievable, man,” Andrus said. “It’s something that not only us but the whole organization, the whole city has been waiting for. Everybody knows how talented he is. For him, it’s been the injuries that he got the first two, three seasons. For him to be healthy and doing this is what we all knew he was capable of. I don’t think he has to stop. If he stays healthy, he can do this every single year.”

“Watching his growth as a player has been incredible,” Lucas Giolito told reporters Tuesday night. “When he first came here we could all see he was a superstar in the making. Now it’s happening live. What he does for this team offensively and defensively, it’s amazing. … This is who he is.”

There will be the expected fretting from certain White Sox fans who will fall back on the old question of whether participation in the Home Run Derby can wreck a player’s swing and crater his production for the second half of the season.

Predictably, that’s not a concern for Robert, or he presumably would have stuck to the opinion he voiced a week and a half ago and not signed up.

“I won’t try to pull every single ball because that can create some issues,” Robert said. “I’m just going to go out there and have fun. Hopefully, I can do a good job and maybe win. But my main goal is to go out and have fun.”

“There would be (concern) if I thought that he would be one of these guys just trying to change his swing,” Grifol said. “I am anticipating that doesn’t change. He might be a little pumped up about it, but I don’t think his swing’s going to change or anything like that. I’m not too concerned about it.”

As Grifol mentioned, Robert has indeed been good enough that it won’t take the Derby to launch him into the consciousness of fans across the country.

In fact, he might not even have this country on his mind at all Tuesday night as he bashes baseballs with his fellow Cubans.

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