Commentary

Yoenis Cespedes: Away from home

It's a brand new life (and brand new pitchers) for Cuba's Yoenis Cespedes

Originally Published: May 8, 2012
By Hiram Martinez | ESPN Deportes

BOSTON -- In an ideal world, Yoenis Cespedes would be able to return to his country as other Latin American ballplayers do once the major league season is over.

Imagine this. He would build his house in Campechuela, the town in the south of Cuba where he was born. He would hang out with the two-year-old son he left behind, catch up with his family and friends and get a hero's welcome from Cuban baseball fans, known for the fervor with which they follow the game. He would throw out the first pitch in the Cuban league tournament, and why not? He would play in some games before returning for spring training.

[+] EnlargeYoenis Cespedes
AP Photo/Koji SasaharaYoenis Cespedes says he didn't see the steady diet of power pitchers in Cuba that he faces regularly in MLB. But they haven't fazed him yet.

"If I could do it, I would," Cespedes said. "Play here and enjoy myself in Cuba, yes I would. I would spend time with my family and my friends.

I don't regret the time that I lived in Cuba and I am not going to say that I wish I had come here earlier, but I also don't regret the decision I made. I am never going to regret having taken this step."

This "step" is defecting from Cuba in the summer of 2011. For Cespedes, like for the 30 or so other Cuban defectors expected to see action in the majors at some point this season, there is no going back. Their world is not that ideal.

As time passes, maybe Cespedes will feel differently, maybe not. The Oakland A's, with whom Cespedes signed a four-year, $36 million contract this past March, understood just how mixed up his feelings would be this first year in the majors, and they called up former A's pitcher Ariel Prieto from his minor league coaching assignment to mentor and interpret for their new outfielder.

Prieto left Cuba legally and was drafted by the A's in 1995, but he knows first-hand what kind of nostalgia Cespedes is feeling.

"It is a dream we all have," Prieto said. "I miss my country and I would like to go there to see my friends. I know he would, too. He would also love to be part of Cuban baseball. All this is part of the adaptation process.

"Arriving here in the United States is a shock for everyone. All of a sudden you are in the big leagues. I came in the middle of the season and Yoenis came at the start of spring training, but I know what he is going through in terms of adaptation and I know it is not easy.

"He is getting used to everything," Prieto said. "But the players are also adjusting to him. They have made an incredible effort to make him feel his best."

It has been less than a year since Cespedes and his mother, former Cuban national softball team pitcher Estela Milanes, left Cuba for the Dominican Republic via speedboat. Cespedes said he would never have considered leaving Cuba had the national team coaches recognized his talent, instead of leaving him on the third-string team after he had just finished playing a dream season.

From an economy that gives its citizens just enough to live, but no more, Cespedes has moved into a world in which he has the economic means to purchase almost anything he desires. So far, though, he has eschewed the principal accoutrements of the nouveau riche. He is living in a rented home in Oakland and says he has no immediate plans to make any major purchases.

[+] EnlargeYoenis Cespedes
Michael Zagaris/Getty ImagesHe hit .250 and drove in 19 runs in April. Not bad. And he expects to heat up as the summer progresses.

During a half-hour pregame clubhouse interview last month at Fenway Park, Cespedes answered questions in earnest, but without expressing much emotion. Only the question about whether or not he had a car in Cuba elicited a laugh.

"In Cuba, I didn't even have a bicycle," he said.

"I am in no hurry to buy a car," he said. "With a car comes all kinds of potential drama and my mind is focused only on playing baseball. After the season finishes, I'll see whether I need one."

With or without a car, Cespedes faces drastic changes. He has moved to a country in which he does not speak the language, he is dealing with the harsh reality that he cannot go home again, and he is playing in a league with -- and against -- players he has never seen before. Soon, there will come a time when he will have to deal with investments, funding to help his family, payments on a home, electricity, cable, water bills and such.

For now, Cespedes insists he is tuning it all out, preferring to focus on his progress on the field. He still calls his mother, who has made her home in the Dominican Republic, every day. But otherwise, his singular focus is on the Oakland A's and how to hit a Felix Hernandez fastball.

"He can't be thinking about other things," Prieto said. "He is totally focused on baseball, on being the best player possible and meeting the high expectations that have been set for him. When the season is over, he will think about a car and a home. But he will never stop calling his family; that is part of who he is. And he needs that comfort, that support and that love."

Adaptation 101

Everything came fast at Cespedes after the A's signed him. His arrival in Arizona for spring training took longer than expected because of problems with the visa process, but he was able to convince Oakland manager Bob Melvin that he was ready to play at the major league level, particularly for a franchise undergoing a restructuring process.

He now bats fourth for the A's and is a key piece in their renovation process. He hit a home run in his Cactus League debut. From there he traveled with the team to Japan for its season-opening series against Seattle, where he got his first hit, a double off the Mariners' Hernandez in the first game. He hit his first major league home run the next night. He has batted in a fifth of his team's runs so far this season. He also met his idol, Manny Ramirez, and finished up the month of April playing in Fenway Park, the scene of some of Ramirez's best baseball moments.

His welcome into this new system also included a breach of contract claim filed against him< by Edgar Mercedes, his former agent in the Dominican Republic, where Cespedes lived before signing his major league contract. News of the claim arrived as Cespedes was in Boston for the A's series against the Red Sox, and he downplayed its significance.

"I have no opinion about that right now," Cespedes said. "I talked to Edgar by telephone. Those are Internet rumors."

[+] EnlargeYoenis Cespedes
AP Photo/Koji SasaharaWhat a way to start. Cespedes' major league career began with a check for being named the MVP in the A's season-opening series in Japan.

Cespedes closed out April hitting .250 with five home runs, 19 RBIs, a .319 OBP and a .476 slugging percentage. The statistics are good, not great (an OPS of .810 and three stolen bases), but they don't tell the whole story about the man Baseball Prospectus considers the best Cuban player of his generation, or the five-tool player we saw in the 2009 World Baseball Classic. Melvin is trusting that this is all part of the adjustment process on and off the field.

"Do you know what? I am and I am not surprised," Melvin said. "I am surprised based on how little exposure he has had, the short spring training and the little or no knowledge of opposing pitchers. But I am not surprised now that I know him as a person, how competitive he is and how well he prepares every day. Each day he is looking to learn from the videos and using all the resources he now has in the major leagues that he didn't have before."

At the plate, adjustment has been a little painful. During his first month, he had more strikeouts (24) than hits (21), but Cespedes insists he usually starts his seasons slow and heats up as the season goes along.

"Sometimes I rush my swing because I am so anxious to play well," he said by way of explaining his strikeouts. "In Cuba, the quality of the pitching is not the same as it is here. There you might find one or two pitchers at 94 or 95 mph. Here, every day I find several and each pitcher who comes along throws his hardest stuff. That's why I am working with [A's hitting coach] Chili Davis to make the adjustment.

"In Cuba, I would start the first two months hitting around .260 with three or four home runs," he said. "After the first half of the season, I would get hot and that's when I would have my best results. I hope that it will be the same here. I am going to try to maintain my numbers because I know that in the third month, I think … I am sure I am going to hit even better."

So is Melvin, who has Cespedes signed through 2015.

"I am really impressed with all the progress he has made in such a short period of time," he said. "The best part is that we have yet to see what he can really do."

Prior to last month's series against the Red Sox at Fenway, Oakland catcher Kurt Suzuki saw Cespedes wincing, and tested out his own Spanish in the clubhouse.

"¿Te duele?" ("Does it hurt?") asked Suzuki in Spanish. "¿Donde?" ("Where?")

Cespedes pointed to his back and grimaced. Then he moved his arm to his back and indicated the middle part to show his teammate where it was bothering him. Suzuki tried to keep going in Spanish. He got stuck, but pointed to the team's physical therapy room, where Cespedes could get help.

Major league ballplayers and fans alike think nothing of a major league team offering the resource of a trainer's room for players. But for Cespedes, this, like the clubhouse luxuries and the team flights, is all new and all part of his adaptation process. When he left Cuba, his only focus was to advance his baseball career.

Estela's influence

Estela Milanes harbored a secret in her curveball, but only the coaches of the Cuban national softball team and Yoenis knew it.

"She threw her curveball along the side of her arm," Cespedes said. "The umpires never noticed but her coaches all knew that it was an illegal pitch because she didn't throw underhanded, but rather side-armed her pitches under her arm. It was not legal, but it was hard to notice. That was her best pitch."

[+] EnlargeYoenis Cespedes
AP Photo/Denis PoroyIn the 2009 World Baseball Classic, Cespedes hit .458 with seven extra-base hits in six games for Cuba.

Cespedes never hit against his mom, but he had the misfortune of being on the receiving end of her curveball.

"One day when I was really little, she asked me to catch for her and on one of her pitchers she threw that curveball," he deadpanned. "Hit me right in the face. I couldn't catch it."

Milanes, who played on the Cuban softball team at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, never threw any more curveballs to her son, but she is responsible for his baseball career anyway. She sent him away from the family home in the south of Cuba to attend a special baseball school, and she was the first person he consulted when he contemplated leaving Cuba.

"She taught me my love for baseball," he said. "From the time I was a kid she took me everywhere with her. I grew up on the softball field. Every day I would take my glove and my bat with me. When I was 10, she sent me to a special school in Bayamo, about 62 miles [west] from home, so that I would learn and develop as a player."

Although he was Rookie of the Year in the Cuban league in 2003, Cespedes made a name for himself outside of Cuba during the 2009 World Baseball Classic when he hit .458 with two home runs, two doubles and three triples over six games. The following year, he was co-leader in the Cuban league with 33 home runs, a league record. He finished that 2010 season hitting .333 with a .424 on-base percentage, a .626 slugging percentage and 99 RBIs in 99 games.

All about respect

Born in Campechuela, in the southern Granma province, Cespedes said it never crossed his mind that he would seek a future outside of the country he loved.

But in the summer of 2011, Cespedes says he realized that if he wanted to advance his career, he would need to play in the United States. Despite a stellar 2011 season, he had been relegated to the third-string national team and he knew he would have little chance of making the national team and playing in any big international events.

[+] EnlargeYoenis Cespedes
Mitchell Layton/Getty ImagesHe's already hitting cleanup for Oakland, and figures to be there for a long time.

"I had a chance to play for the Cuban national team during the 2009 World Baseball Classic, but at the time I never thought about leaving Cuba," he said. "I was just thinking that I could play at this level -- until last year when I finished the league season leading in several categories and they named three national teams and they sent me to the lowest ranking one.

"The head coach told me they had sent me to the lowest ranking team so I would have an opportunity to play. The message I got was if they don't think I can play on the first or second team, why was I going to keep playing baseball? Then I told my mom that I wanted to leave Cuba and my mom followed my lead."

Cespedes doesn't provide many details about the actual defection, but he and his mother arrived in the Dominican Republic, where they established residency. Cespedes knew that as a free agent, he had a shot at a multimillion-dollar contract like fellow Cubans Aroldis Chapman, Alexei Ramirez and Kendrys Morales received before him.

It wasn't about the money, though. Rather, it's the respect. And the proof of that is in his off-field lifestyle.

"My life has changed in many ways, both on an economic and personal level," he said. "All major league players are accorded the respect they deserve. In Cuba, it was not that way. National team players were not respected. The treatment was not adequate."

What would have happened had Cespedes been given a spot on the first-string team for Cuba? Would he be wearing red and white instead of the green and white of the A's?

"Despite the situation in Cuba, I had a chance to play on the national team; and compared to other baseball players and other people in Cuba, I had the opportunity to live at a level that was not very high class but in the middle. I had the possibility to live well there, but with much more difficulties, things that aren't a factor here," he said.

"Now, little by little, I will look for a way to do something with my money so it lasts. I have my financial advisers and I will look for a way to invest soon, not so much for profit, but so that I can save some."

So all seems to be as well as can be expected for Cespedes. While he learns to live with abundance, he is also learning to hit off pitchers such as Hernandez, the Rangers' Yu Darvish and the Yankees' CC Sabathia. Life might even be perfect if he could just catch a flight home to Campechuela at the end of the season.