A 22-year-old Cuban, a 106-year title drought, a tedious rebuild and a Pat Neshek fastball all managed to collide at the perfect moment on August 29, 2014.
Whether it was coincidence, fate or some mix of the two, the moment allowed anyone who had lived through the 1969 collapse, the Leon Durham error or the Bartman game to let their optimism run wild.
Busch Stadium buzzed as Jorge Soler bit his lip rounding second base, trying to hold back a smile. Circling the bases for the second time that evening (his third game in the big leagues), Cardinals and visiting Cubs fans alike looked on at the first glimpses of a possible star being born.
Meanwhile, the Chicago Cubs organization was waking up from an extended hibernation.
Drawing any kind of conclusion from a 20 something game sample size probably isn’t an exact science, particularly for a player who just finished April in a 2 for 26 slump. In fairness to Jorge Soler, he spent most of his life playing baseball 1,300 miles closer to the Equator and April in Chicago takes some getting used to.
Slumps aside, the evidence continues to mount and it certainly looks like the Chicago Cubs will, at the very least, matter for the foreseeable future.
Jorge Soler wasn’t part of the crew that broke ground on the Cubs’ thorough rebuild project. That exclusive group consisted of Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo. Soler would, however, be the first seed planted by the original crew that began to blossom.
He was also the first reason for fans to believe this run of prospects wasn’t simply the next run of guys like Corey Patterson, David Kelton, Bobby Hill, Hee Seop Choi, Rich Hill, Brett Jackson or Josh Vitters.
In the interest of being objective, declaring a guy with barely 200 plate appearances an established pro is probably premature. Still, his frame, tools, and early production make it hard to see a situation where Jorge Soler isn’t, at the very least, a productive major leaguer. The fact that Soler is even in the big leagues is in itself an accomplishment.
The path he travelled was a difficult one, a path that has become common among Cuban players dreaming to play in America.
Soler defected from Cuba in 2011 to pursue his professional baseball aspirations. He established residency in Haiti while awaiting his clearance to play in America – which he received in June of 2012. He signed a 9-year $30 million dollar deal with the Cubs that same month.
Jorge Soler’s Cub career started with a thud when he initially refused to report to minor league spring training, believing that he should be a day one major leaguer like fellow defector, Yoenis Cespedes.
Then in an April Single-A game, Soler had a moment that would define his early career in America. After an altercation between the benches, Soler charged the opposing bench with a bat. He was suspended five games by the league, and many wondered if the Cubs had made a mistake bringing in this unknown Cuban who appeared to have a hair trigger.
Once Soler returned from his suspension, his season was cut short with a leg injury – adding ‘durability’ to the mounting pile of doubt that was beginning to surround his future. After an uninspiring campaign, most Cub fans turned their attention to the next big thing, Kris Bryant, and Soler was allowed to become an afterthought in the background of Bryant’s enormous spotlight, a twist of fate that may have saved his career.
In 2014, Soler put his sour year behind him and started to hit. A lot. Enough that he rocketed through Double-A and Triple-A without incident or injury to make his major league debut on August 25, 2014 – promptly hitting a home run in his first at-bat.
What was most striking about Soler’s first few weeks in the majors was not his power (immense) or his arm (a hose) or his size, (6’4” 215) it was the smile that seemed to be constantly on his face whenever the camera cut to him.
A guy having fun playing baseball for the Cubs? Was that even allowed? The statuesque Cuban was still the same guy who charged a Single-A dugout the year before, but that was when he was a kid 1,000 miles from home. On August 29, 2014, he officially had found a new home: The right-handed batter’s box, wearing Cubbie blue.
Jorge Soler’s power, arm, size and smile are all wonderful, but at this point he’s much more than that to the Chicago Cubs. He has become a type of symbol, the first flower after a long and cold winter. Before the arrivals of Joe Maddon and Jon Lester, Jorge Soler was the initial spark to the competitive Cubs.
He was the first flicker of light in a long, dark tunnel – writing the opening line in a story that seems destined to become a masterpiece.