Cuban Hustle Crisis: The Curious Case of Jorge Soler

While it was just a small blurb wedged into a wrap-up of the weekend that was in the minors, Jeff Moore of Baseball Prospectus got a few Cubs fans hot and bothered. You can read the whole piece if you like, but here’s what got things started:

Jorge Soler, OF, Cubs (Iowa, AAA): 2-3, 3 R, 2B, HR, 2 BB, K. Soler could learn a lot from coach/teammate Manny Ramirez, a former immensely talented yet sometimes troubled player. No one is doubting Soler’s talent, but he’s had some hustle-related issues that the Cubs may not want to reward with a call-up. Still, he doesn’t appear to be getting too much of a challenge in the minor leagues. He’ll probably see some time in the majors this year.

While it’s true that this isn’t the first time the topic has been broached — after all, Soler was in fact benched last year for a perceived lack of effort — one questions the inclusion of the line “the Cubs may not want to reward with a call-up.” Some might even go so far as to say that Moore is trolling, though I won’t go that far.

No, I think he simply performed a virtual raid of Cubs fans’ underwear drawers, twisting the panties up a bit before putting them back. Moore later took to Twitter to defend his position, at which point he also brought up the fracas last year in which Soler menaced the opposing dugout with a bat.

He was also quick to distance himself from the ever-present specter of narrative, that go-to buzzword any time a negative viewpoint is repeated. It does, however, seem that this view of being lazy or lacking drive or hustle is something being increasingly ascribed to Cuban players.

Like Yoenis Cespedis, Jose Abreu and Yasiel Puig before him, Jorge Soler defected from Cuba in order to play Major League baseball. As a born-and-raised American, I can’t imagine the culture shock involved in that transition, though Puig’s incredible journey certainly adds perspective.

And while we’re not to the point of disparaging someone by saying they’re as worthless as a Cuban baseball player in a work ethic-powered car (which, in this case, would make it a Soler-powered car), some have begun to question whether the “lazy” tag is perhaps racially motivated.

That’s entirely possible, but I also believe that there’s an inherent desire to classify anyone not living up to their full potential as being lazy. The same goes for players who are perceived as showboats. Just this afternoon, I was having a conversation about much-maligned phenom Bryce Harper.

While Harper hails from a city that may well be the antithesis of Communist culture, Las Vegas, he’s received much the same criticism as Puig. Both display incredible talent and both appear well aware of those displays at time. But what some deem fun, others view as an affront to the game.

And nothing, in most eyes, is a greater affront to baseball that a lack of hustle. Pete Rose’s nickname, Charlie Hustle, was a testament to the way he played, the stains on his uniform badges of honor in a storied career.  Likewise, Cubs fans celebrate the grit and guile of players like Mike Fontenot and Ryan Theriot, despite the fact that the latter’s “hustle” was just as likely to land him in a pickle (TOOTBLAN) as earn him an extra base.

Then you’ve also got Mark Grace, whose occasional unwillingness to round second helped him turn triples into doubles. Of course, stretchign a hit like that was a surefire way for the Slumpbuster to pop a hammy. Interestingly enough, it’s that same muscle that has been at the heart of so many of Jorge Soler’s issues.

Could it be that between his balky leg muscles and a lower leg fracture, the Cubs brass has actually requested that Soler tone it down in order to keep his progress on track? This is a commonly-held thought that probably holds more water than the boats some defectors have turned to in efforts to flee Cuba in search of better lives.

I’m sorry, but I can’t, in good conscience, condemn as lazy anyone who goes to the lengths that some of these ballplayer and other folks do to gain freedom.

In all likelihood, we’ll see Soler, he of the linebacker’s build and the easy smile, at the Friendly Confines in less than a month. And at that time we can all judge for ourselves what kind of player and person he is. But it’ll be as a Cub, not a Cuban; well, unless he’s up for 90’s weekend and they wear those jerseys that look like they say “CUBA.”

I can’t speak to the intent of others who have shared similar views on Soler’s countrymen, and it’d be irresponsible for me to guess at their motives. The relative scarcity and notoriety of Cuban players has created a bright spotlight, and with it, broad-brush statements.

But when it comes to Soler himself, the only race I’m concerned with is the one for the pennant and how he can help the Cubs into one again.


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