PORTLAND – The decision that would change Jose Iglesias’ life was not planned.

Iglesias figured he would leave Cuba for good someday. He just did not know how or when.

Then came the night in July two years ago when the Cuban national junior baseball team was playing a tournament in Edmonton, Alberta, 400-plus miles north of the U.S. border. Iglesias saw a chance to get away.

“We were in the hotel,” Iglesias said. “Everybody was sleeping. I said, ‘This is my opportunity. I’m leaving.’

“We went to the border and asked for political asylum.”

Iglesias, then 18, and pitcher Noel Arguelles took a taxi to Montana, searched for a policeman and stated their intentions.

As a result, the Boston Red Sox may have found their future shortstop.

Iglesias, now 20, received political asylum and initially joined Arguelles’ father in New York before traveling to Miami and finally the Dominican Republic, where he established residency and began showcasing his skills for major league scouts.

The Red Sox signed him to a four-year, $8.25 million contract last summer. Iglesias has gone from a country where food is rationed — “there were days we had no food; you just went hungry” — to riches with the Red Sox.

He is playing his first professional baseball season with the Portland Sea Dogs, Boston’s Double-A minor league affiliate.

The Red Sox so far like what they see.

“He’s very advanced,” said Gary DiSarcina, the organization’s minor league infield instructor. “It’s easy to get excited about him.”

And Iglesias is excited about the opportunity.

“I’m very grateful,” he said.

But despite the money and the freedom, all is not wonderful.

“He misses his family big time,” said Alex Ochoa, a former major leaguer employed by the Red Sox in a variety of roles. Recently, Ochoa has served as Iglesias’ mentor, confidant and interpreter.

“He is really close to his parents,” Ochoa said. “He gets sad. It’s a tough thing.”

Iglesias, the youngest of six children, said he misses his family the most “after the game when I go home.”

Iglesias has been able to send money to his parents and helped his father buy a car. Iglesias has spoken occasionally with family. His ultimate hope is that they can join him in the U.S.

Until then, Iglesias finds comfort on the diamond.

While Iglesias brings energy and excitement, he shows his true love for the game during pregame drills. Iglesias fields practice grounders with enthusiasm, always moving, communicating.

“One thing I love about him is that he enjoys taking ground balls,” DiSarcina said. “He enjoys working. He wants to get better.

“If you hit him 20 ground balls and he misses one, he wants to take 20 more.

“The pride he takes in being an infielder, you don’t always see in young kids. He’s a joy to be around.”

Now, how will Boston mold Iglesias into someone who will stabilize a position that has undergone so much change the past seven years?

The Red Sox are being careful. They introduced him to professional ball last autumn with exhibition games in the prospect-rich Arizona fall league.

At major league spring training, Iglesias held his own, both with his play and his maturity. That performance convinced the Red Sox to start him at Double-A against players with much more experience.

And Boston assigned Ochoa to help Iglesias blend into his new country and new employer.

Although born in Miami, Ochoa, 38, knows about Cuba. His parents immigrated only months before he was born. And he knows about being a touted prospect in a big city, as he was with the Mets in 1996.

“You have to concentrate on what you have to do,” Ochoa said. “It’s great that people talk great about you. My thing was I was trying to appease everybody and be what they wanted me to do, instead of playing my game and letting my abilities gravitate to that level.”

His advice to Iglesias: “Just do what you have to do. Improve, and you’ll be what they’re saying. But let it happen. Don’t force it.”

Hyped prospects can take on mythical abilities in the fanatical New England fan base known as Red Sox Nation. Sea Dogs Manager Arnie Beyeler has been in Portland four years. He knows about hype and expectations — and about error-prone youth.

“He’s a special kid, but he’s a young kid. He’s going to make mistakes,” Beyeler said.

Just last Wednesday, Iglesias made two errors in one game — a bad throw and a missed grounder.

“I need to clean up stuff I need to clean up to get to the big leagues,” Iglesias said.

He seems to get the idea of the minor leagues and development. Portland has seen flashy shortstops, including Hanley Ramirez and Argenis Diaz. Both provided exciting moments, but they also failed to perform up to expectations.

Ramirez remained a touted prospect and was traded to the Florida Marlins in a deal for pitcher Josh Beckett. Diaz’s stock faded and he was traded to Pittsburgh last year. He is playing well in Triple-A.

Iglesias is touted as a better fielder than either Ramirez or Diaz, though certainly not equal to Ramirez in offensive skills.

Iglesias can make acrobatic plays with his great range, quick release and strong arm. But Boston expects more.

“We have to understand that he’s still young,” DiSarcina said, “and he has to learn the intricacies of the position and being in the right place at the right time, executing fundamentals properly.

“He still has a ways to go. You watch him take ground balls and he has some flash to him. And it’s a good flash. He’s not hot-dogging it out there.”

At the plate, Iglesias has not looked overmatched despite facing experienced pitchers. Through Friday, he was batting .266 with seven doubles and a triple. He has avoided slumps.

“He has the ability to adjust at a quicker pace than you would think a 20-year-old kid coming from a foreign country would have,” Ochoa said.

Iglesias is always trying to adjust. He is learning English, conversing with teammates and coaches, asking questions. During the interview for this story, Iglesias listened to the questions in English and tried to answer some of them before Ochoa translated.

Is his English getting better? “Of course.”

Is he still watching TV? “Every day.”

What’s your favorite? “Discovery Channel.”

After the interview, Iglesias shook hands and said thank you. He seems grateful for the attention, but does not try a false humility act. He is aware of who he is.

The Red Sox did not throw millions his way out of charity. They expect Iglesias to deliver, and he believes in his heart that he will.

“He’s really talented,” Ochoa said. “He has that thing about him, the special skills.

“He believes in his ability. He believes in himself. He has a lot of confidence. He doesn’t get down too much. The little trouble he’s had, he’s been able to overcome.”

While part of his heart remains in Cuba with his father, mother, sister and four brothers, the rest of it is displayed on the diamond, which happens to be Hadlock Field this year.

“He loves to play the game,” Ochoa said. “His passion for the game is unbelievable. People can say ‘I love the game,’ but with him, you can see it.”

 

Staff Writer Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or at:

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