Living his dream

  • By Kirby Arnold / Herald Writer
  • Sunday, February 26, 2006 9:00pm
  • Sports

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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