Don’t be surprised this season to see University of Miami right fielder Willie Abreu reach under his Hurricanes jersey, grab a pendant with a diamond wedding ring attached and give it a gentle kiss.
“It’s just meaningful to me to be able to carry a piece of Mom with me everywhere I go,’’ Abreu said this week as the Canes prepared for their home opener at 7 p.m. Friday against Rutgers. “She’s real happy that I’m wearing it.”
Abreu is just happy that she’s alive and getting stronger by the day.
The talented and ever-upbeat Miami junior, expected to be integral in the Hurricanes’ quest to return to the College World Series, has had a tumultuous 8 1/2 months after his mother, Rosy, sustained a massive stroke in their Hialeah home and underwent emergency brain surgery the morning after the family returned from the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in North Carolina.
Abreu slept by his mother’s side in a hospital reclining chair every night during the postseason’s first two rounds at Mark Light Field — the NCAA regionals and super regionals — leading into the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska. The morning of the stroke, May 25, was the only day Willie missed practice. He rushed to Palmetto General Hospital where his mother, about to have her head shaved for surgery, was surrounded by his sister, Janelle, father, Manny, and doctors “trying to keep her breathing,’’ Janelle, 23, said.
Willie and his sister followed doctors’ orders to remove all her jewelry. Janelle had most of it piled into her hand, while Willie, on his mother’s left side, went for the wedding ring. “It took me a while to get it off,” he said. “By the time I did and looked for my sister to give it to her, she had gone to talk to a nurse. I didn’t want to lose it, so I put it on my chain and totally forgot about it.
“Go figure. Now I won’t take it off.’’
If you keep a positive attitude, everything ends up so much better. That’s what my mother has told me since I was young, and it has worked for me.
Willie Abreu, University of Miami Hurricanes outfielder
Abreu, 20, who had a Mohawk hairstyle at the time, shaved his head in solidarity with his mother, a gas company accountant who never liked the mohawk anyway. That was the easy part. Maintaining a full class schedule while excelling on the baseball field and helping his mother through her rehabilitation is what makes even him sometimes ponder how he managed.
“I guess I just kind of thought about what she would have wanted me to do,’’ he said. “Like my mom, I see the positive in life because this world isn’t always easy and a lot of people are going through things that others might not understand. But if you keep a positive attitude, everything ends up so much better. That’s what my mother has told me since I was young, and it has worked for me.’’
Willie’s father, a math teacher at Miami Spring Middle School, respectfully declined to be interviewed, knowing his children and others would tell the story. Rosy and Manny came to Miami-Dade from Havana, Cuba, in the 1970s, said Janelle, a Barry University senior, and have been Miami Hurricane baseball fans for many years.
“The nicest lady you’ll ever meet,’’ said UM catcher Zack Collins, who shares an apartment with Abreu and has been best friends with him since the two played travel baseball together as youngsters. “I’ve known Willie’s mom since I was 7. She’d do anything for people, whether you knew her well or not. Thankfully, she’s getting a lot better.’’
$15,000 Money raised in a private donation drive for the Abreu family
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Rosy Abreu, 53, has been to three hospitals, including a respiratory facility and Jackson Memorial for acute rehab. She’s now back home trying to arrange for outpatient therapy. With her left side compromised, she is in a wheelchair and cannot stand on her own but can slowly take steps with support. She still has a feeding tube in her stomach for medication but can eat puree-type food. She talks slowly and softly, her children said, but understands everything. “All the words come out,’’ Abreu said. “It’s just a little raspy sometimes. Mentally she’s OK. It’s all physical right now. It’s been an amazing comeback from when she couldn’t do anything at all on her own.’’
This past fall, UM helped fundraise for Rosy Abreu, raising nearly $15,000 in private donations that went directly to Willie’s father and have helped defray the cost of necessities such as part-time caregivers.
“To be honest, it scared me to death when I walked into the hospital with my wife after it happened,’’ said coach Jim Morris, who has always boasted about Abreu’s character, not to mention skills that got him drafted out of Hialeah Mater Academy in the 14th round by the Cincinnati Reds. “I asked him every day how she was doing, and Willie would always say, ‘She’s getting better.’ Just blinking her eyes was the first step, and he’s been there with her the whole way.
“Willie is nice to everybody. He goes out of his way to say hello, shake your hand, give you a hug. He inspires everyone because he has such a great attitude.’’
Thomas Woodrey, Miami’s starting pitcher Friday, called Abreu “the heart and soul’’ of the team. “Last year really hit him and us pretty hard. But if you know Willie, he’s got a personality bigger than anything. He led by example and somehow still brought a lot of energy. Despite everything, we never lost him.’’
Abreu, a left-handed physical specimen at 6-4 and 225 pounds, will likely get drafted after this season, but Morris and associate head coach Gino DiMare said he has to make sure not to put too much pressure on himself. Abreu, whose goal this year is to earn a national title ring, started 66 of 67 games last year, hitting .288 with six homers and 47 RBI.
Though he is clearly one of the team’s top players, he still hasn’t played up to his potential offensively, both coaches said. “He’s the most physically gifted guy on the team,’’ DiMare said. “He’s very strong, flexible, runs really well for a big guy and has one of the best, most accurate arms in the country.
“The key is the hitting part of it. His personality is very outgoing, very high energy, and he tries to do too much at the plate. So the swing gets a little big, a little long. He doesn’t need to muscle the balls out of the ballpark. He’s got as much power as anyone.’’
Abreu agreed, and said he’ll be working on that come Friday — with his dad, sister and grandfather back at the ballpark to see him.
“We’re extremely proud of Willie,’’ Janelle said. “At one point I didn’t think as a family we could work through all this. But Willie was one of the strongest ones. I think baseball gave him the motivation to be strong and to know that giving up was not an option.”