I had the chance to sit down with Andy Ibanez, as well as a translator, about a month ago in order to prepare a feature writeup for the Hickory Daily Record. Because this is very much a part-time gig for me, my schedule on completing it didn’t come together as well as I’d hoped.
Finally, my schedule was going to allow time to write it up for publication next week, but then Ibanez got promoted. Such is the life of a part-time beat writer.
At the time of the interview, Ibanez was tearing up the South Atlantic League, bashing opponents in April at a .402/.479/.659 clip. The cry at the time was to get him moving to AA Frisco; the game was too easy for him at Hickory.
Mike Day, Texas Rangers Senior Director of Minor League Operations said in a recent interview that the club did have internal discussions about an early promotion. Yet, the group decided to be patient.
“Obviously, he was outstanding there in April,” said Daly. “But it’s a five-month season here at the minor league level and it’s a grind each and every day. Andy will definitely have his time at the higher level and it’ll probably come sooner rather than later. I think for the foreseeable future, right now he’ll be right here in Hickory and really getting that first year under his belt.”
Perhaps the bat was too advanced for Class Low-A, but there were parts of Ibanez’s overall game that needed work. The most obvious was the baserunning, which saw Ibanez get picked off easily. He’d also run into easy outs and at times look confused on set plays such as a double steal. (One such play had him return to first, even as the other runner scored on a throw home.)
Several of the Rangers brass also made it clear that there was work to do at second base. Hickory Crawdads manager Steve Mintz said the eye-opener that Ibanez was making progress to that end came during a May series at Charleston S.C..
“Our infield coordinator Kenny Holmberg was in Charleston with us,” said Mintz. “He made a couple of plays and I walked up to Kenny and I said, ‘He don’t make that play in spring training.’And he said, ‘You’re right.’ His angles and reading balls off the bat and different things like that, we’re tickled to death with.”
Ibanez is looking to adjust to baseball in the U.S. and learn the terminology and get used to the style of play, the greater emphasis on structure, and the constant running that he says they don’t do in Cuba.
But perhaps the biggest adjustment Ibanez had to make was simply living on his own in the United States – to make long bus road trips and live away from home and the Rangers Arizona complex for the first time in an area in which you don’t speak the local language. It’s hard enough for a kid who does speak English to make that adjustment, but even moreso for a guy who only recently told his parents he was leaving Cuba, because he wanted to be like the former Cuban players he saw on TV.
In a country that oozes baseball, Ibanez wants to be among those players he saw on a grainy picture screen broadcast to Cuba, even as it has cost him his home life, especially his parents.
In the following interview, Ibanez speaks about his early season successes, the process of coming to the U.S., and his hope for a face-off with a specific top Major League hurler.
First of all, let me ask you, obviously your season has started well. How do you feel about your start here with Hickory?
Ibanez: I’m really thankful for the outcome of the season. I’m really happy with that. This season is coming because of the training that I had in Miami with Texas Rangers coach Jose Fernandez, who has helped me train in order prepare to get ready for the season.
What have you learned in that training that has prepared you to play baseball here that maybe was different from playing in Cuba?
Ibanez The game passion for the game is pretty much the same here and there. For me, there is more equipment and more resources. There’s more organization of the time schedule for practices. That is the big difference. But, the passion for the sport is still the same.
You played in the World Baseball Classic with Cuba. Did you feel like that environment helped you grow up? You were very young then (18 years old). Did that make you grow up quicker with the expectations to play well in an international setting?
Ibanez: I think that being exposed to so many good people at that early age, it really made me learn from them and the experiences. I had the opportunity to talk to people and to get their advice and apply it to become better.
What made you decide when you were little to play baseball in Cuba?
Ibanez: I started when I was six years old. Everybody in Cuba plays baseball. Although my father did not play, everybody in Cuba is exposed to the sport. Everybody begins to play at a certain time and I started very early.
At what age or circumstances do you begin to figure out that maybe you could play baseball professionally?
Ibanez: I was a child that always liked sports. I played basketball, soccer and baseball. When I was 11 years old I represented my province (Isla de la Juventud, Island of Youth) and I felt that this was my passion and that this is what I would do the rest of my life. That was my turning point.
You played professionally with Cuba?
Ibanez: There’s a difference between what you call leagues in Cuba. You do not call them professional, you call them amateur, because you don’t really get paid to that level. I reached the highest level (Isla de la Juventud) that you can play in Cuba and I played at that level for three years.
What’s it like to play baseball in Cuba? We hear stories of the passion that the people have for baseball. Take me to a game where you’re playing and the fans are into the game?
Ibanez: It’s a celebration in Cuba. They have congas that people will be playing; people are dancing and cheering you up. But I don’t want to make a comparison because each place has a different life or dynamic. I want to point out that I actually appreciate that the fans here are quiet and they let you play. If you make a mistake, you still have a chance to keep pushing to do things right. In Cuba, if you happen to fail, they actually call you out and the fans yell at you and say not really nice stuff all the time. I don’t quite miss that. Here, the fans still support you and show you more respect.
What were the circumstances of your decision to defect from Cuba and leave home?
Ibanez: When I was in Cuba, I used to watch baseball from the big leagues in the states and I always wondered, “Why can I not take advantage of it? Why can I not give myself an opportunity?” I had seen on TV how many Cubans had done a terrific job in baseball, so I wanted to take the chance.
I did everything how it was to be done. I first talked to my parents and they said “Okay, we’ll support you.” So, I decided to move to the states with his girlfriend Yisel when he was 20 years old.
What were the sequence of events or the circumstances by which you were able to say, I defect? Were you here in the states, somewhere else?
Ibanez: First, I had to ask his local baseball to resign – to tell them I didn’t want to play anymore. I was also playing with the national team. So, I went to the central office and I had to ask for my resignation. When you’re with that team, you cannot get a passport. You cannot buy one. I had to wait for two months after I was approved to resign. Once I got the resignation approved, then I qualified to get a passport. Once I got the passport, then I could file for a tourist visa to travel to the Dominican Republic, not to the states.
So you traveled to the Dominican and then you decide not to travel home to Cuba? How does that work?
Ibanez: Once I got there, I started training. Not to play with any kind of team or league, but I just started training. My intention was to reach anybody, any scout that would be out there at the showcases where they’re trying to get the best baseball players. So I trained six months for it, because that was my goal, to be in a showcase and be picked.
Finally, last year on July 10, I signed a contract with the Texas Rangers. After I signed, I got a work visa with which I was able to come to the states through that visa and work here.
So we see stories in this country about getting on a boat or sneaking away, but that was not the case for you?
Ibanez: No, I did everything in the right way and I’m thankful to God that I didn’t have to go through that. It happens to a lot of people that I know that made it here, but not in my case.
So, in doing everything the right way, you are able to go home to Cuba?
Ibanez: I can go back to Cuba and I want to, but the problem is that my visa gives me a year. According to the immigration law, as a Cuban, I have to be out of Cuba for one straight year without returning in order to qualify to become a resident of the United States. If I return to Cuba, no one is going to shut the door from me, but I would not qualify to carry on with the visa that I have. So, I have to be out of Cuba for a year so I can I petition for the residency status, and then eventually become a citizen.
So you hope to become a U.S. citizen?
Ibanez: I am willing to. I think it’s a great goal. Why not?
Are you able to talk to your parents, or call home?
Ibanez: I call them twice a week and I am able to communicate. Nowadays, actually my parents have access to email through their phone, so it’s a lot easier for them to keep that communication going.
You started well here. What did the Rangers say they wanted you work on before you promotion?
Ibanez: I’m thankful to God for the outcome of the season. I’ve not been told a particular skill that I have to work on. I’ve just been told to keep doing my best though this season so I’ll be ready when I do move.
Are there things in the American game that you have to learn that are different than what you might do in Cuba?
Ibanez: In Cuba, they play really good baseball, but I acknowledge that here is the best baseball in the world. I notice that here, no matter what, you’re running all the time. Whether you’re batting or fielding constantly, you run all the time, which I really enjoy. Even if you hit a fly ball, you still run the bases out.
It’s really well organized and disciplined and I appreciate that.
One thing that we’ve noticed is that running the bases has been an issue, whether it’s been pickoffs our getting caught stealing. What are you working on related to that?
Ibanez: Absolutely. Part of the training is to watch video and see if you can predict the move the pitcher will make during the game. Also during the game, we’re trying to see what’s going on. Even though I’m not on the field, the team is trying to see what the moves will be.
Who is your favorite baseball player?
Ibanez: Jose Abreu of the White Sox. I had the opportunity to play with him in the National League in Cuba and I had the opportunity to know him as a person. He was always willing to give me advice and the way he way he gives himself to the game and the training. So I’ve seen him in all those instances as a person, as a human being, and as a baseball player. I seem him as a role model to follow.
Do you feel challenged here in Hickory? You’re doing so well with hitting. Is it too easy here at this level?
Ibanez: No. I consider baseball as a discipline. It’s a serious business. Whenever I play, I take it seriously. I give myself to the game every time. I don’t underestimate anybody. I take it seriously. I set myself every day a goal to do better, based on what I can give. I always want to get better every day.
How anxious are you to get to the big leagues?
Ibanez: That’s my dream. Anybody who feels the passion of baseball, that’s where you want to go. So yeah, that’s what all the drive and persistence and the commitment to work are for me. I want to go there with Texas and I see that happening.
You get the call that you are going to the big leagues, whether it be with Texas or elsewhere. What do you think that will be like for you?
Ibanez: (smiling with a long exhale). I have imagined that day and I know that it’s going to be a really happy day for me. I’m working for it every day and I’m committed to it. Any baseball player has to sacrifice a lot to make it there. It’s been hard for me because I have given away my family and my parents. That weighs more because I have to miss my parents birthdays and Christmas and other holidays. Being away from all that sometimes hurts, but I’m committed to it because I want to make it happen.
I watched this movie in which you picture good stuff happening in your life and you pull them towards you by the work you do.
What pitcher do you want to face most?
Ibanez: Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Ibanez: Because he’s good. He’s a good player, so he’s a good challenge and he’d love to take it.