GLENDALE, Ariz -- Baseball might be a team sport, but for the White Sox to compete for a division title and possibly a World Series championship, it all starts with one person, a certain MVP who reported to spring training on Saturday morning to cheers, balloons and three giant banners that greeted his arrival outside Camelback Ranch.
“Welcome back, José!” read one banner.
“We missed you!” said another.
“Our MVP, our leader” was the final message for José Abreu who was delayed five days because of a positive COVID-19 test.
“That was a very, very good surprise. I was not expecting that,” Abreu said through a translator about the banners and balloons. “Those are the little things, the little details that make you feel proud to be on the White Sox, make you feel proud to be a baseball player.
“I’m excited to be here. It was an exciting morning, walking in and seeing my teammates just the way that they welcomed me here. The atmosphere that we have here is something that definitely makes you feel happy and hyped. Everybody is pushing for each other. It was a very good morning, workout and first day for me.”
Abreu is ecstatic to be back and relieved that his COVID symptoms were not only minor, but did not infect anyone in his family.
“In late January I had a headache and a runny nose. Those were the only symptoms I can think of because I didn’t have anything else. I didn’t have a fever or soreness in my body or anything. It was pretty mild,” Abreu explained. “I just kept doing my routine. I kept working. I kept lifting. I really didn’t feel anything major. I was feeling good. I’m glad that my family is good, too. They never had anything. They’re good. I just feel glad that it was just me.”
And for eight days in Arizona it was just me, myself and I for Abreu who isolated himself in his hotel room until he was cleared by doctors to report to camp. Not the best way to prepare for spring training, so Abreu was forced to improvise.
“Being in that situation, I just started looking for options. How can I exercise? It was on YouTube that I found a guy who does at-home workouts. I saw that and said okay, this might work. I started doing those exercises and I felt good,” Abreu said.
But the time away from his teammates and family wasn’t easy for the White Sox All-Star.
“I was not myself in the hotel room. It was definitely a difficult moment where I couldn’t see the people who really care and loved me, giving me that support and strength to get over it.”
How does he feel now?
“I’m in a very good spot.”
Good enough to smash an RBI single in his first at-bat against bench coach Miguel Cairo in an intrasquad game. Earlier, he faced actual pitcher Zack Burdi in a live batting practice session, and all eyes were on Abreu.
“Every time he would come to the plate it was just dead silent. Everyone was just honoring his presence, and it was just really cool to watch,” pitcher Garrett Crochet told NBC Sports Chicago about Abreu. “Just the energy that everybody was giving him as soon as they saw José was just unreal.”
However, the energy Burdi was feeling going up against Abreu on his very first day might have gotten the best of him. With most of his coaches and teammates watching from behind the cage, Burdi accidentally buzzed Abreu’s tower with a fastball, almost hitting him in the head.
“C’mon bro!” shortstop Tim Anderson joked in the direction of Burdi. “I’ll see you in the locker room!”
Abreu went through multiple drills and the batting session in the morning, followed by a three-inning intrasquad game and more hitting in the batting cage in the afternoon. Just another day in the office for Abreu. But the time spent in his hotel room away from spring training has him a little behind his teammates.
“I would be lying to you if I said that I’m ready to play tomorrow (in the first spring training game against Milwaukee). I spent almost eight days (in the hotel). But if the team needed me to play tomorrow I’d do it,” Abreu said. “I will definitely need a few more days to get used to live pitching and all the stuff. It doesn’t matter if I feel ready or not, but if the team needs me tomorrow I’ll be ready to play.”
During Abreu’s first day at camp, he was thinking about a conversation he had a few days earlier with Albert Pujols. The future Hall of Famer played 11 seasons for Tony La Russa with the Cardinals.
“(Pujols) said I know that you haven’t started to prepare with the team at spring training. You haven’t had your first workout with Tony. After the first day, just call me back and let me know you’re impressions," Abreu said. "He’s right. Today and throughout all the conversations I’ve had all offseason with Tony and today I definitely notice that he cares about people, he cares about us about the team and that’s something that’s going to be very important for us. It’s going to unite us as a team and make us stronger.
“He’s a Hall of Famer. We’re glad that he’s here with us. We’re glad that we can take advantage of his knowledge because he’s going to help us get in a very good position to win and succeed. I’m glad that he’s here with us.”
A reporter asked Abreu if he planned on calling Pujols back later in the day.
Abreu smiled and said, “yes.”
It was all smiles Saturday at Camelback Ranch.
The MVP is back.