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The connection between Braves' Hector Olivera and his manager

CLEARWATER, Fla. – Who knows the secret? Who knows the secret to unlocking the mystery that is Hector Olivera?

Defected from Cuba in September of 2014. Signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers last May for $62 million. Then traded away abruptly last July to the Atlanta Braves.

Traded away after just 19 minor league games. Traded away in a complicated three-team deal that required the Dodgers, essentially, to eat nearly half of Olivera’s contract and left the Braves on the hook for only about $33 million of it. Traded away for reasons no one has ever fully explained.

But whatever the Dodgers thought of Olivera, he’s now a puzzle for the Braves to solve. And who knows the secret? Who knows the secret to solving that puzzle?

Well, here’s a thought: It’s possible no one knows better than his manager.

Long before Hector Olivera became a Brave, Fredi Gonzalez established a connection with him. And now, all these months later, the Braves need that connection to pay dividends.

Back in January of 2015, when Olivera was still a man without a team and, for all intents and purposes, a man without a country, the Braves manager flew to the Dominican Republic to pay him a visit. So what was he doing there?

He was there, Gonzalez said Friday, because “the guy is 30 years old -- 29 years old at the time. And we’re considering investing a lot of money in him. So we’ve got to make sure what kind of guy this guy is.”

Gonzalez had already been to the Dominican twice that winter -- once to take a look at a number of Cuban defectors who were working out, a second time for a showcase just by Olivera. But this third time? This time was just “to talk,” Gonzalez said.

“And I ended up talking with him,” the manager remembered, “for quite a long time.”

Asked Friday what struck him about Olivera, Gonzalez replied, with zero hesitation: “His maturity, obviously, because he was 29 years old. And he wasn’t talking about getting race cars and stuff like that.

“We talked about how many games he played in Cuba,” the manager went on. “You know, he only played three or four times a week. But he goes, `You know, Fredi, the stuff that I’ve got to go through to play three or four times a week, it’s almost the equivalent of playing 160 games a year. I’ve got to wash my uniform. I’ve got to drive 2 ½ hours to practice. There’s no food.’”

But the conversation kept going. Gonzalez asked “about what would happen in certain situations, what kind of guy you are when you’re 0-for-30, or 0-for-27.” He was assured Olivera could handle it. Gonzalez asked how Olivera treated umpires -- and was told: “You can look at the record. I’ve never been thrown out of a game.”

Gonzalez remembers it all vividly -- in part because he had to cancel his birthday party to take this trip. But he knew this was something he had to do, because these are the types of questions a manager has to ask. And the type of questions an organization has to answer.

“Those are things you want to find out about the character, not about the talent,” he said, “because we felt like, if we had to invest that type of money on a guy ... we wanted to know what kind of character he was.”

Gonzalez had never done anything like this before, he said. First time ever. Except, in the end, it didn’t matter. Or it seemed as if it didn’t matter. The Braves made an offer. ...

“And then the Dodgers got him,” Gonzalez said. “And I was like, 'Crap, I spent my birthday in the Dominican.' And the Dodgers got him.

“But who knew,” Gonzalez said with a laugh, a moment later, “that we’d make that trade.”

It’s funny how the world spins. It’s funny how, in the end, Olivera wound up getting his big chance with the Braves, a team with two Cuban-born coaches (Carlos Tosca and Jose Castro) and the only manager in baseball who was born in Cuba.

So even though Gonzalez’s family left Cuba when he was two and Olivera left Cuba when he was 29, they still shared something that no other manager could with Olivera. A bond over their heritage. And a bond from a conversation that took place many months before the trade that brought them together wearing the same uniform.

“There was a connection there,” Gonzalez said. “He was really open with me. And he goes, 'If I do something wrong, I want you to tell me. I want you to tell me because I don’t know.' And for me, I thought it was maturity when he started saying that.

“He said, 'Look, I don’t know what time I’ve got to go to the ballpark. I don’t know anything. If I don’t do something right, if I don’t wear my uniform right, if I don’t run the bases, whatever, I want you to tell me everything.' So it was good.”

But now, can that connection help turn Olivera into the right-handed middle-of-the-order masher the Braves need him to be? A guy who can balance their lineup and hit behind Freddie Freeman? A guy who can learn to be a reasonably passable big league left fielder?

We’re about to find out.

In Cuba, Olivera once strung together five straight seasons with an OPS of .924 or better, including three with an OPS over 1.000. But the last of those seasons came five years ago.

He has played just 59 games since 2015 -- all of them in the final few months of last season. And there was nothing special about them. A .272/.326/.376 slash line, with just two home runs, in 35 minor league games. Then a .253/.310/.405 cameo with the Braves in September.

His team is willing to chalk that up to rust on the field, and hamstring issues and major cultural adjustments off the field. But that was then. And now, the Braves need him to prove he’s the talent so many teams thought he was following his defection. And they don’t have much time to wait around to see if that happens. After all, he turns 31 years old in a month.

“He’s not 23,” Gonzalez said. “He’s 30. And ... how many big leaguers play to the age of 35? Not many. And the guys who do have been playing since the age of 19 or 20 in the big leagues. They’ve had long careers. So shoot, I’m not worried about (what he’ll be at) 35 years old. I’m worried about now.”

For what it’s worth, Olivera went 1-for-3 on Friday in a 12-11 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies. He has gone 4-for-10 this spring, in his first three games. And early on, it looks as if he can handle left field, even if he won’t ever be Alex Gordon out there.

Meanwhile, off the field, he finally has a home, finally knows where he’s going to be living and playing, finally has gotten his family out of Cuba and over to America. So his team’s hope is that peace of mind will help bring out the best of him.

But who knows? Who knows the secret? Who truly knows the secret to unlock the mystery that is Hector Olivera?

“I’m always optimistic,” his manager said. “I think (he has) a year, or almost a year in the United States now. Everybody’s home. He just got his green card the other day. He’s thinking about just baseball now.

“So I think that we’re going to see something that our scouts saw,” Fredi Gonzalez said. “I really do.”