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Orioles send Urrutia down, but that won't stop him from working hard to return

On most mornings this spring, Henry Urrutia's black Camaro was parked in the players parking lot of the Orioles' spring training facility by the break of dawn. As the sun rose, Urrutia was often taking swings in the facility's indoor batting cages, working with new Orioles hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh.

Despite being cut from the Orioles' spring training roster — optioned to Triple-A Norfolk on Saturday — this was a meaningful spring for the 29-year-old Cuban outfielder, who had plenty to be excited about both on and off the field.

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"I work hard for a lot of reasons," Urrutia said. "I work for my family back home and my family here. I want to have a career in the big leagues. Some people might just be satisfied with getting here, but I want a career: eight, nine, 10 years."

Even though at-bats were tough to come by with a glut of outfielders, he took advantage of every plate appearance he had, hitting .320/.379/.520 with one homer and seven RBI in 25 spring at-bats. He impressed Orioles manager Showalter with the improvements he made defensively in the outfield as well as his ability to grasp the English language. Those two accomplishments have drawn praise from Showalter.

"He's a happy guy," Showalter said. "He's in a good place."

Just more than two years after arriving in the United States, Urrutia now has a family here, his wife Suse and an 11-month-old son also named Henry Alexander Urrutia. Still, his family in Cuba is never far from his mind.

"He's very motivated by his family in Cuba," Suse said. "One of the reasons he wanted to come to the United States was because he wanted to help out his family as well. He thinks about them every single day, every birthday. We do stuff for them every single time, sending stuff they need over there. He does everything to take care of his family over here just like his family here."

And now, after the Obama administration began lifting restrictions on Cuba in December, Urrutia seems closer than ever to his family.

Earlier this month, Urrutia was able to talk with his family on a Skype video chat for the first time. Cubans can now purchase prepaid internet access cards to call the U.S.

It allowed Urrutia to speak with his mother, Maria Victoria, "face to face" for the first time since he defected from Cuba four years ago. His mother works for the Cuban government as an auditor, making just $20 a month.

"My mom is a very important part of my life," Urrutia said this past week. "I have a big family back home, but my mom was everything. When I was playing baseball back in Cuba, I was 6 years old, my mom was back there watching me. Now, four years without my family, it's been very difficult for me and for her, too."

Previously, the only way Urrutia could keep his family informed was by sending photos, videos and articles by email. So being able to see his mother for the first time in four years was emotional. It was also the first time his mother was able to see her grandson beyond photos.

"She's so much in his life all the time," Suse said of Urrutia's mother. "When he's feeling down, she sends him an email. She's his spirit, she makes him feel better. Even though we can't see each other, she's very involved in our lives and the baby's life."

Urrutia's father, Ermidelio, played baseball in Cuba and was a member of the Cuban National Team, but Urrutia said his father wasn't entirely on board with his son leaving for the U.S. He didn't want him to risk his life, play in a foreign county and struggle to make the majors. However, since a 12-year-old Urrutia and his father attended the Orioles' 1999 exhibition game in Havana, Urrutia dreamed of playing Major League Baseball. Urrutia also has a younger brother, Jorge, who plays in Cuba.

The Orioles are very interested in returning to Cuba, and Urrutia is excited about that, but Urrutia would rather bring his family here to visit.

"I know my best season will be when my family is here with me," Urrutia said. "I can't wait for that."

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In his second major league camp, Urrutia has had a strong spring. Urrutia received more than two at bats in a Grapefruit League game just once, but he went 3-for-4 with a double and two RBIs on March 13 against the Blue Jays in Dunedin. In his second to last game of the spring, he hit a game-winning homer to center field, and pointed to Suse and little Henry in the stands at Ed Smith Stadium on his way back to the dugout.

"He started off a little slow, but he's really come on," Showalter said. "The thing that's been impressive is that you can tell he's put in a lot of work defensively. I know he spent a lot of time here getting ready. He's been impressive. He's had a good spring."

The Orioles signed Urrutia to a $778,500 signing bonus in July 2012, but he didn't join the club until spring training in 2013. He needed just 81 minor league games that season before he was promoted to the majors after the all-star break.

He played in 24 major league games that year, and he struggled to show the power he had in the minors —15 of his 16 hits were singles. Urrutia failed to make the big league team out of spring training last year and hit just .220 in his first 20 games at Triple-A Norfolk before he was shelved for more than two months with sports hernia surgery.

He's worked closely with Coolbaugh to shorten his swing this spring. It's helped him hit the ball to all fields this spring. He hopes consistent power, especially to right field, is next.

"I know I have the power," he said. "Now I'm working on my swing and I feel more comfortable at home plate. I know when I fix that problem, the power is coming.""

Showalter applauds how well Urrutia has grasped English. When Urrutia arrived in 2013, he didn't speak a word of English. But he had an English teacher during his first spring training and also one in Double-A Bowie, his first minor league club.

His elationship with Suse, who came to the United States from Cuba at the age of 12, also helped. She and her 11-year-old son, Emanuel, speak English around the house.

"He worked really hard because he wanted to be able to communicate on the field. He was like, 'I can't be out there on the field and not understand my teammates, them not being able to understand my thoughts,' " Suse said.

"He loves his job. He loves being on the field and he knows he has to work really hard because there's a lot of guys with a lot of talent out there."

So even though he will start this season at Triple-A Norfolk, Urrutia is driven to get back to the majors. He's motivated by many things, including his family back in Cuba, his new family here and making them proud.

"I'm happy with my work at spring training, but I know I have more (to show) for sure," Urrutia said Saturday. "I know I can play every day."

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