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Yunel Escobar's journey lands with Rays

PORT CHARLOTTE

The first 10 days were spent on the run, hiding from Cuban authorities who might be on to his plans. Next were three harrowing days at sea, with three dozen others crammed into a boat, navigating amid storms and sharks. Then a couple days in a holding cell pending immigration processing before finally getting to start his new life in the United States.

"Things," Yunel Escobar said, "I never thought I'd go through."

As tough as it was for Escobar, the Rays' new shortstop, during those two weeks in late 2004, it was worse for the parents, brother and sister he left behind and couldn't update until he got safely to Florida.

"My family thought I was dead," he said.

Escobar was 21 at the time, leaving the life he knew in Cuba, where he'd been dropped from the national team, for what he hoped was a better one.

"We made a goal for me to come over here," he explained Monday, with teammate Joel Peralta helping interpret. "Making it to the big leagues was like a dream because I know not many players get the chance to get there. That's why I put forth the effort every day to be a big-league player."

Escobar made it in about two years, drafted by the Braves in June 2005 and reaching the big leagues in June 2007. He has since settled in south Florida, bringing his family over a few years ago, having a couple of kids of his own and earning about $10 million along the way, with a $5 million salary this season.

There have been some issues, too, criticism about his cockiness and dedication and questions about that very work ethic. He was traded in July 2010 to the Blue Jays, where there were more whispered complaints and a suspension last season when he made what he admitted was a mistake in having an anti-gay slur written on his eye-black. He was traded again this offseason to the Marlins, who flipped him to the Rays for prospect Derek Dietrich.

Sitting in front of his locker in the back corner of the Charlotte Sports Park clubhouse, Escobar, 30 now, said he couldn't be any happier to be with the Rays.

"The way they've welcomed me, everyone has had open arms," he said. "I feel like this is a good family, and I know I'm in good hands with (manager Joe) Maddon and the coaches and around the players. I feel really good this is going to be a good year."

As aware as the Rays were of the reputation that preceded Escobar, they have — at least thus far, in the relaxed days of spring — been thrilled to have him, pleased with his attitude and excited by his all-around potential on the field.

"This guy is a complete baseball player," Maddon said. "I don't think he's really been given credit for being all that in the past. But he has all the necessary ingredients — all five of them — and I think you're going to see them."

What has struck Maddon the most during the first few weeks of camp is how strong Escobar is, how well-muscled his 6-foot-2, 215-pound frame is.

"You can't appreciate it as much until you actually see him daily," Maddon said. "I didn't know he was that strong. The range and foot speed are better than we had seen. I thought that was there, and now we're seeing that."

Escobar showed a glimpse of that power Saturday, with an opposite-field home run into the bullpen.

And his work in the field has been even more impressive. "The plays he made the other day, those are big-league plays," ace David Price said. "Probably half the shortstops in the majors don't even get to those balls, much less make those plays."

Overall, Price has liked what he has seen.

"He's awesome," Price said. "He's been really good. I was thinking about that (the other) night, how good he's been in the locker room and how he's been talking in the dugout. He's being very personable."

Maddon has made a point to praise Escobar whenever asked, touting him as a potential All-Star and Gold Glover. Peralta says he will keep a close tab on Escobar. Catcher Jose Molina, a former teammate in Toronto, plans to do the same.

And Escobar seems well aware.

"I feel grateful to be here," he said. "I'm going to try my best to not disappoint anybody here. I'm just going to play baseball and play hard every day."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@tampabay.com.

Yunel Escobar's journey lands with Rays 03/04/13 [Last modified: Monday, March 4, 2013 11:08pm]

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