Yunel Escobar’s loyalties are with the Angels, who are relying on the new third baseman to provide solid defense and a high on-base percentage from the leadoff spot, but his heart strings were being tugged toward the opposing dugout Monday night.
“Joe Maddon, in baseball terms, was like my dad,” Escobar, speaking through an interpreter, said of the Chicago Cubs manager. “My relationship with him is extraordinary. I’m very grateful for what he’s done to help me improve.”
Maddon spent 30 years in the Angels organization before moving on to manage Tampa Bay in 2006 and the Cubs in 2015, and the time and effort he invested in Escobar with the Rays in 2013 should benefit the Angels.
The Cuban native played his first four seasons (2007-10) in Atlanta, but his occasional lapses in effort and his flamboyant approach to the game reportedly rubbed the Braves the wrong way.
Though Escobar hit .291 with a .368 on-base percentage and showed flashes of brilliance at shortstop, the Braves traded him to Toronto in July 2010.
Escobar hit .272 with a .335 OBP in 2 1/2 seasons with the Blue Jays, but he hastened his exit by playing a game in September 2012 with a homophobic slur written in Spanish on his eye black.
Escobar apologized, but Toronto suspended him for three games without pay and traded him to Miami in November 2012. A month later, the Marlins dealt him to the Rays. Maddon immediately investigated the eye-black incident.
From the beginning of spring training through the end of the 2013 season, Maddon made a point of talking to Escobar every day.
He came to learn that the aggressive, even brash, way Escobar played was how he grew up playing in Cuba, and that Escobar wasn’t trying to disrespect the game, even if his actions — like his flashy double-play turns or his dramatic reaction to an umpire’s call — sometimes showed otherwise.
“There is not a mean bone in that man’s body,” Maddon said. “It’s just the emotional challenge of learning the language and culture of the U.S. and how you do things here, as opposed to how he did things [in Cuba], where he wasn’t as scrutinized and where the lifestyle is different.”
With mentoring from his manager, Escobar matured as a player and person and became more comfortable in the clubhouse.
Escobar’s average (.257) and OBP (.328) dipped in two seasons at Tampa Bay, but Maddon said he played Gold Glove-caliber defense.
Escobar was traded to Washington in January 2015 and moved from shortstop to third base. He had one of his best offensive seasons, hitting .314 with a .375 OBP.
The Angels, in need of table-setters to hit in front of Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, traded promising young reliever Trevor Gott to Washington for Escobar in December.
Escobar, who is signed for $7 million this season with a $7-million team option for 2017, hit .450 with a .492 OBP in 20 spring games and did not strike out in 60 at-bats.
“He’s a good contact hitter, I like his approach,” Manager Mike Scioscia said. “He’s not going to expand the strike zone very often. When he gets his pitch, he turns it loose and hits the ball hard. He’s going to bring something very needed in our lineup.”
“He went through a time in spring where he had trouble finding his release point, but I think he’s comfortable throwing the ball now,” Scioscia said. “He has the potential to be a terrific defender.”