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OC Register: Angels SS José Iglesias went from Cuba to a Montana jail on his path to freedom

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TEMPE, Ariz. — Although the decision José Iglesias faced at age 18 was incredibly hard, the execution was easy.

Unlike many of his Cuban countrymen who risked their lives on rafts in the Atlantic Ocean to seek freedom, Iglesias simply needed to walk out of a hotel and hop into a car.

While there were still difficult moments – like the night Iglesias spent sobbing in a Montana jail after he’d walked across the border from Canada – he describes a journey without regrets.

The new Angels shortstop has already endeared himself to those around him with his ever-present smile, his energy, and of course his ability to turn almost anything hit in his direction into an out.

His fifth big-league team is the latest chapter in a story he began to write on that summer day in Edmonton in 2008.

“When I was 18 years old, I came to this country with shorts and a T-shirt and a dream to be a big-league player,” said Iglesias, 31. “I put in the effort, and the discipline. And obviously God’s hands touched me. And that’s why I’m here today. I couldn’t be happier with everything I’ve done in my life and the way that I’ve done it.”

Getting here required a gut-wrenching decision when he was a teenager, leaving everything and just about everyone that he knew behind.

“It was so hard,” Iglesias said of the decision. “Ridiculous hard. You left everything. Your family. Your friends. Your bed. Your home. Everything. And all for that dream.”

Iglesias said he only confided in his father, who supported him in his decision to defect. He didn’t tell his friends or siblings or even his mother, because he worried that if authorities saw her crying when she said goodbye at the airport that they would be suspicious.

“If that happened, I probably wouldn’t be here today sharing this story,” Iglesias said. “I’d be back in Cuba.”

In July 2008, Iglesias was traveling with Cuba’s national team to a tournament in Canada. He and pitcher Noel Arguelles, whose father had defected in 1994 as a member of Cuba’s national soccer team, had hatched a plan to escape.

They had a narrow window of opportunity when team security at their Edmonton hotel was at its lowest. With Arguelles’ father helping to coordinate the escape from the outside, the two players simply walked out of the hotel, got into a car and drove off, not sure where they were going.

Although they were free from Cuban authorities, they still didn’t have the proper documentation to enter the United States. Iglesias said he walked across the border in Montana, eventually arriving in the hands of law enforcement.

Iglesias said officials there weren’t as accustomed to such crossings as those on the southern border of the U.S., so they kept Iglesias overnight in a cell with no mattress while working through the paperwork.

“I started crying,” Iglesias said. “Why did I do this? It was a tough time. It was a very tough time. But it was over in 15 hours, and it was totally worth it.”

From there, Iglesias found an agent who helped facilitate his entry to professional baseball. Iglesias established residency in the Dominican Republic over the next year, which allowed him to negotiate with major-league teams as a free agent. In 2009, the Boston Red Sox signed him to an $8.25 million deal, including a $6 million signing bonus.

While playing in the minors with the Red Sox, Iglesias worked hard on his English, crediting roommate Nate Spears for helping him to learn the language. Iglesias reached the majors with the Red Sox in 2011.

He would bounce from the Red Sox to the Detroit Tigers to the Cincinnati Reds to the Baltimore Orioles, who traded him to the Angels in December.

The Angels are getting Iglesias after his best offensive season, in which he hit .373 with a .956 OPS. It was just a 39-game season for him, though, because he missed time with a series of nagging injuries. Even when he did play, he was limited to DH in 15 games.

While the injuries may have prevented him from playing shortstop at the high level he had throughout his career, so far his new teammates are impressed with what he’s done in the field.

Earlier this spring, he caught a popup in shallow left field and then flipped the ball behind his back to left fielder Justin Upton, who was in better position to throw to second for a double play.

Although Iglesias is replacing Andrelton Simmons, arguably the best defensive shortstop in baseball, the Angels don’t believe it’s much of a downgrade.

“I’ve been lucky to play with Simmons and now Iglesias, two of the best defenders in the game,” second baseman David Fletcher said. “He’s definitely different. His hands are unbelievable. He’s definitely really smart and has instincts out there, so it’s been really fun so far.”

Fletcher and Alex Cobb, who played with Iglesias in Baltimore last season, also raved about what Iglesias provides off the field.

“He’s just so much fun to be around,” Cobb said. “Great energy.”

Fletcher added: “His energy is off the charts. He’s a real positive guy and he brings a lot of energy to everyone around him.”

It’s no surprise Iglesias is so positive. Iglesias has made more than $28 million. He’s now a U.S. citizen. He’s married and a father of three. He doesn’t take any of that for granted, because he has not forgotten what he left to have this life.

He also knows there are so many others – friends and family in Cuba who he hasn’t seen since he was 18 – who are still struggling.

Although there had been a softening of relations between the United States and Cuba early in the last decade, policies have been reversed in recent years.

“The word ‘freedom’ has never been one you’d use (in Cuba),” Iglesias said. “Hopefully that will change for those who have a dream to play in the big leagues or just to leave that tough life. Families are just fighting to put food on the table. It’s tough. Families go through a lot. Hopefully one day that will change, for the good of the people.”

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Great article. Excited to see Iglesias play on both sides of the ball, and he sounds like a thoroughly nice bloke too. I was expecting a huge drop-off after Simmons, now I'm thinking 'how have I never really heard of this guy Iglesias?' - he pulls off incredible highlight-reel short-stop plays, improvises brilliantly in the field, and can hit above .300 at the plate, and has an inspirational back-story: why isn't this guy a star?  

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1 hour ago, Second Base said:

Excellent article. I really feel for the 18 year old kid that went through that. I also hope the Angels can find a way to keep him around longer than one year.

Yeah we need someone at least until Paris is ready. 

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3 hours ago, tdawg87 said:

Yeah we need someone at least until Paris is ready. 

Could be Rengifo or Barreto. Rengifo is going to be a starting SS/2B somewhere in MLB. And Barreto has the top prospect pedigree, is still only 25 and had looked impressive this Spring.

Or maybe Iglesias has a heck of a season at the plate like last year and wants to lay down some roots, maybe like a 3 year deal 

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