During the bottom of an inning at Mark Light Field, sophomore Willie Abreu hangs over the edge of the dugout like a dog sticking its head out the car window. He stands first in line, closest to his teammate at bat, trying to catch the best view of the game.
Once it’s Abreu’s turn to walk up to the plate – Latin music playing in the background – the crowd seems to cheer the loudest.
That may be because Abreu is playing here in Miami where he grew up, but it might also have something to do with the permanent smile he wears, his coach suspects.
“He’s serious about baseball, but he’s always got a smile on, and is hollering and running around and giving high fives and rooting for everybody,” coach Jim Morris said of his right fielder.
A high-energy player with a never-negative attitude, the brawny athlete is also the baseball team’s own biggest cheerleader. Abreu is always first on the field when a teammate rounds home plate, and he channels that spirit off the field, too.
“I don’t like to be uptight,” he said. “Even when people are upset or sad, I just try to be the guy that calms them down or messes around.”
Whether he’s singing along to the radio without knowing the song lyrics, faking a great catch during an inter-squad game, or fighting over ham and cheese sandwiches with teammate Zack Collins, Abreu knows that life is a game played for fun.
Growing up with baseball
As a child, Abreu attended countless Marlins games and annual FanFest events with his baseball-loving Cuban family. That stopped, though, once he started playing baseball himself.
When he was very young, Abreu started out doing karate. He took up baseball at around age six, when he told his parents he wanted to play in the little league.
“One day after karate, my mom told me, ‘Hey, we’re going to go to the park to sign you up,’ and then after that day, I haven’t let it go,” Abreu said.
Since that time, Abreu has been playing baseball alongside Collins, Hurricanes catcher and Baseball America’s 2014 National Freshman of the Year. Collins said Abreu used to be the little guy on the field – more of a leadoff hitter – until he hit his growth spurt.
“Now he hits for power and he hits a lot of doubles,” Collins said. “He’s still pretty fast, but not a leadoff guy.”
Abreu had eight doubles in his first season as a Cane. This year as Miami’s co-captain, he has 24 RBIs, fourth best on the team.
Playing ball in Hialeah – surrounded by Cuban Americans like himself – taught Abreu to be loud and enthusiastic about the game.
“Since we were little kids, me and Zack, we’ve always screamed and been the loud team,” Abreu said. “Yeah, we win, but we’re also really loud doing it.”
Abreu’s talent began to shine in middle school, but it wasn’t until high school that he began taking the idea of playing professional baseball seriously.
“In high school, finally I started seeing my friends that were older start going through the ranks and get drafted or get scholarships to come play, so it was pretty surreal,” he said.
That’s when Abreu thought, “Oh, there might be a shot that I could play at a university. I can play at the professional level.”
A high school teacher reminded Abreu of the importance of perspective, and that has since helped him exude confidence, stay determined about his dreams, and remain competitive.
Working toward MLB dreams
Even as a little leaguer, Abreu dreamed of playing Major League Baseball.
“I never thought it could be reality,” he said.
In 2013, however, Abreu was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the 14th round of the MLB First-Year Player Draft. He chose to attend the University of Miami instead.
Now, the 20-year-old gets to play with his family in the stands — his mother and sister sitting together, his father usually walking around and talking to the other baseball dads.
“We’re very close as a family,” said his sister, Janelle Abreu. “We do everything together.”
Abreu’s girlfriend, Melanie Ortega, is also there at every game. To support the man she calls her inspiration, she typically sports a custom-designed shirt with Abreu’s name and number (13) on the back.
Abreu said he’s realized this year how lucky he is to be able to have all his friends and family come watch him play.
“I have friends all over the place playing baseball and they don’t have that same opportunity,” he said. “Fifteen to 20 of their friends that are old teammates can’t come to their games at the same time.”
Once he’s home, Abreu fits in time to hang out with Collins, also his roommate, in their Hialeah apartment. Together, they race remote control cars and watch old Nickelodeon shows, like “Zoey 101” or “Ned’s Declassified.”
“We want to stay kids forever,” Collins said.
Getting back to his best
After quietly sustaining a hamstring injury at the end of last season, Abreu spent his summer going through rehabilitation therapy while feeling nervous about his recovery.
“Once school started, I wasn’t at 100 percent, fall ball was going to start, and I couldn’t run, so I was trying to do my best to keep getting healthy,” he said.
Then one day during winter break, Abreu woke up and finally thought, “Wow, I feel good.”
“I got on the field, and there was no pain,” he said.
As the 2015 season began, Abreu stepped back on the field feeling ready to keep winning. He likes to win – and won’t let you forget it.
However that win happens, though, doesn’t matter to him. Abreu says his stats aren’t the most important.
“We’re winning, for sure, 100 percent,” he’ll tell his teammates. “And we’re going to have fun doing it.”