Monday, February 27, 2006

Living his dream

Published: Monday, February 27, 2006

Living his dream
M's Betancourt has come a long way in a short time since defecting from Cuba
By Kirby Arnold
Herald Writer

PEORIA, Ariz. - Yuniesky Betancourt's incredible journey is far from
complete, but he wakes up every day thankful for his good health and
tremendous hope.

"It feels good to be me right now," he said.

Yuniesky Betancourt, who signed with the Mariners after defecting from
Cuba, established himself as the Mariners shortstop after being called
up from the minors last season.
Betancourt has become a major leaguer with unknown potential for the
Seattle Mariners, establishing himself in the final two months last
season as their shortstop for now and the future.

"I'm more comfortable in the clubhouse. I have more friends here," he
said. "I'm where I've always wanted to be."

It has been a quick rise to stardom that began 21/2 years ago in a slow
boat from Cuba to Mexico. That's when Betancourt defected from a life
without the future he wanted, and he's already living most of his dream.

He is scheduled to be the Mariners' opening-day starting shortstop, and
those who got a good look at him last year already are comparing his
defensive skills with Omar Vizquel's.

"Hopefully, with God's help, I'll be able to get to that level,"
Betancourt said.

And with God's help, he hopes to get to see his mother and grandmother
again. They are the closest of the family Betancourt left behind when he
defected, and he thinks about them constantly.

It would take a visa, plus a letter of permission from the Cuban
government, to get his relatives out of the country.

"With the families of ballplayers, they make it especially difficult,"
Betancourt said. "They know that I can't go back. The government is not
happy that I left, but my family is proud."

Betancourt's best times are on the baseball field, where he can take his
mind off the distance - both physically and politically - that separates
him from his family.

"The most difficult period was the offseason," said Betancourt, who
spent most of the winter in the Miami area. "I was in my house alone and
I wasn't going to the park every day."

It helped to work out with Mariners teammates Raul Ibanez and Mike
Morse. Betancourt credits them with helping feel more comfortable, and
productive, in his offseason work. He reported to spring training
broader in his upper body and stronger overall.

The changes have been noticeable at spring training, especially to those
who've paid close attention to Betancourt at batting practice.

"He's stronger and a little more sure of himself," manager Mike Hargrove
said. "It is early, but it's obvious he worked real hard this winter.
He's got good power right now, but he's got a chance when he puts it
together to have really big-time power. I'd like to be around to watch it."

Nobody needs to critique Betancourt's defense, which was the main reason
he reached the major leagues last year.

He began his first pro season at Class AA San Antonio but was promoted
to Class AAA Tacoma on June 2.

The Mariners, meanwhile, had spent the first half of the season looking
for their next shortstop. They had tried Wilson Valdez, Willie
Bloomquist, Ramon Santiago and Morse with no resolution to their search.

As the Mariners slipped farther behind in the standings and shifted
their focus to young players, Betancourt got his chance. The M's
promoted him to the major leagues on July 28 and he started 57 games.

Betancourt hit a triple in his first major league at-bat and he finished
the season with a .256 average, one home run and 15 RBI.

"They talk about his defense, but what I saw offensively was not a weak
shortstop," hitting coach Jeff Pentland said. "He's got more strength
than I was led to believe. Anybody can do the drills when the ball is
coming at you at 50 miles an hour (in batting practice), but I like what
I see early."

Defensively, Betancourt solidified a position that had become so
uncertain that the Mariners used their first pick on shortstops in three
of four drafts from 2001-2004.

With comparisons with Vizquel being tossed around and Betancourt giving
every sign that he'll be the team's shortstop a long time, the Mariners
began clearing the logjam at the position.

They began teaching Morse how to play left field and they sent Adam
Jones, their first-round pick in 2003, to the Arizona Fall League to
learn center field. Matt Tuiasosopo, the Mariners' third-round pick in
2004 and considered a certain major leaguer, will remain at shortstop in
the minor leagues but also could shift to another position.

"People like Betancourt change a lot of careers," Hargrove said.

If only Betancourt could change his off-field dreams. He hasn't seen his
mother, grandmother, relatives and friends in Cuba since he climbed
aboard a small boat on Nov. 28, 2003, and pushed away to freedom.

"I would like to see my mom and my friends, but until the system changes
that's not going to be possible," he said. "But as we say in Cuba, what
is meant to be is meant to be."

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