PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Like most of the Braves’ relative unknowns in spring training, Hector Olivera hopes to match meteoric expectations with acceptable results. Unlike most prospects, he is living in a new country, adjusting to a new culture, barely understanding a new language, supporting a family with a young son, a mother and an ill sister, and facing the realization that as he nears his 31st birthday, his window for professional success is relatively small.
“He’s in a tough spot,” said Braves coach Eddie Perez, a native of Venezuela. “It was hard for me but I was only 17 so I had time. He has to show everybody that’s he’s ready for the big leagues and at the same time learn a lot of things, not only the language but just getting up in the morning and knowing what to do, where to go, knowing the rules and the laws. There are a lot of things you just don’t think about it.”
This Braves’ season won’t tip solely on how effective Olivera hits or fields his new position (left field, moving from third base). There’s no shortage of issues.
But Olivera commands more attention because of his age; because he was so coveted by the Los Angeles Dodgers that they gave him a $28 million signing bonus and a $62 million contract; because they then strangely decided to trade him only four months later (did they see something wrong?); because the Braves gave up a young, inexpensive and dependable left-handed starter (Alex Wood) and a top prospect (Jose Peraza) to acquire him.
Braves general manager John Coppolella said they’re not going to push Olivera just because of the circumstances. “There’s no real time limit for us,” he said.
But let’s be real. Of course there’s a time limit. Because if Olivera isn’t reasonably successful in his first two years, he will be 33 going into the 2018 season with three years left on his contract and his success will be viewed as a long shot.
“I’m going to be patient and work every day and not think about the next day,” Olivera said through his translator, Perez. “I want to do the right thing. I’m not in a rush. I’m not feeling pressure. I don’t want to feel pressure. If I go 0-for-4 today, I’m going to come back tomorrow. I know what I can do and the Braves know what I can do.”
Fortunately, there’s the early comfort of this spring. Olivera went 2-for-3 with a sacrifice fly and two RBIs in Sunday’s exhibition against the New York Mets. He is 6-for-13 in the spring (.462). Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer has worked with him to simplify his swing, eliminating unnecessary pre-pitch movement of his bat and front leg.
“They cleaned up a lot,” manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “If you do that, that will get you quicker to the ball.”
Gonzalez, also a native Cuban — he moved to Florida when he was 2-years-old — bonded quickly with Olivera. He twice traveled to the Dominican Republic as part of Braves’ scouting missions in the winter of 2014, only to see the Dodgers sign him.
“If we’re going to invest a lot of money in him, you want to be sure what kind of guy he is,” he said. “I liked him. He wasn’t talking about buying race cars and stuff (with his impending income). I asked him about playing 162 games, because in Cuba the season is shorter. He said, ‘Fredi, the stuff I have to go through to play three or four times a week, it’s almost the equivalent of playing 162 games. Wash the uniform. Driving 2-1/2 hours to practices. And sometimes there’s no food.’”
That’s no exaggeration.
“Over there, sometimes you have one ball to play the whole game,” Olivera said. “And you don’t just go play the game. You have to figure out how you’re going to get here. What are you going to eat? Sometimes you didn’t have any food before you played.”
As a national team member, he could eat at a team hotel on road trips but he sometimes found it difficult to bring food home for his family.
“It’s easier here,” he said.
He drove a 2006 Hyundai in Cuba.
“But over there, that’s like a Ferrari,” he said.
His car now?
“Mercedes,” he said.
(Note: He didn’t need a translator for that.)
He defected to Haiti in September 2014. A difficult year followed. There was the stress of trying to bring over his single mother (who worked in a candy factory), his sister (who is need of a kidney transplant and undergoes dialysis twice a week in Miami) and his son (Hector, Jr., now 6). There also were injuries on the field and the difficult transition to life in the U.S. off it.
“It was hard,” he admits, when he was called up by the Braves last September. He played in 24 games, hitting .253 (20-for-79) with two home runs and 11 RBIs.
“Everything was new,” he said. “Now I’m set up better and I know what I need to do. I’m not in a rush like I was last year. I’m very happy that my family is here. It’s something that I need to have.”
The rest is up to him.
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