Two months ago, Yunel Escobar said Sunday at Angels camp, he decided he wanted to become an American citizen. Many of his Cuban countrymen who'd escaped already had completed the process, and his two children were born citizens.
So he spent the off-season studying this country's history and scheduled a naturalization test for Thursday in his adopted hometown of Miami. He passed the exam and now needs to take only the official oath to become a citizen. That will happen Friday, back in Miami, according to a team spokesman.
"It's not an easy process, as people might expect," Escobar said through broadcaster Jose Mota, who served as an interpreter. "The time was now. I'm going to be a guy with 10 years in the big leagues. … We thought it was the appropriate time to take the next step."
Escobar said he learned a lot of American history. He had not known of the Civil War, or details regarding the Axis powers within World War II.
Also two months ago, as part of the ongoing efforts to normalize U.S. and Cuban relations, the previous presidential administration announced an end to the 20-year-old "wet foot, dry foot" policy that had allowed Cuban immigrants to become legal residents after one year in the United States.
Escobar has lived in the United States since his September 2004 defection. To become an American citizen, he had to renounce his Cuban citizenship, a decision he called difficult.
"But I also know that this is the country that has provided for me, now and in the future," he said. "I left Cuba on a boat. It's one of those things where I know that the sacrifice I made was the best thing for my family."
Escobar, 34, spoke to reporters Sunday for the first time in many months. A free agent at year's end after his $7-million club option was exercised as expected in November, he answered questions about his goals for 2017.
He said he'd like to make more contact on offense, although his 11.8% strikeout rate was well below the league average and in line with his 2015 mark. And, he said, he'd like to eliminate errors he made a year ago on defense and on the bases.
"Defensively, I know there were some things that fundamentally, mechanically, I was not very good at last year," Escobar said. "I can learn from the mistakes I made last year and move on, but the one thing is understanding when to take the extra base and when to hold off. Overall, in terms of baserunning, as a team, we should all be better."
On Sunday, Garrett Richards faced major league hitters for the first time since May 1. His fastball hummed up to 97 mph, and he plopped in sliders and curveballs for strikes, but he struggled to locate the fastball inside to right-handed hitters and gave up four hits and three runs in two innings.
"It was a good outing to build off of, but most importantly, I came out of it totally fine," he said. "I'm still working on a little bit of feel things, but that's part of spring training, part of this part of the season."
Richards received a stem-cell injection in his right elbow in May as an alternative to Tommy John surgery. The injection regenerated the ulnar collateral ligament, and he was back pitching in the instructional league the day after the regular season.
Perhaps the biggest difference he demonstrated was his use of the curveball, a pitch he had phased out of his repertoire. He threw several Sunday, including one to strike out Scott Schebler looking to end the first inning.
"Having a year off and being able to kind of think about how I want to throw that pitch, when I got to instructs something clicked where I was able to have a better feel for that," Richards said. "Mechanically, it's nothing that I'm doing differently."
Richards said he is trying to not throw at 100% of his capability right now, so as to keep himself calm and steady. But rival scouts who watched him Sunday said he seemed like he was using maximum effort, and Manager Mike Scioscia agreed, comparing his intent to a regular-season game.
"In my mind, I'm trying to go 85%," Richards said. "My body may not be at 85%."
Infielder Luis Valbuena has not played since Thursday because of leg soreness, but is expected to return to action in a couple days, Scioscia said. … The Angels optioned three pitchers to minor league camp: left-hander Kevin Grendell and right-handers Abel De Los Santos and Osmer Morales.