Commentary

Cespedes steps up to national stage

Home Run Derby champion shows he has the power to make him a star

Originally Published: July 15, 2013
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- It is possible for a man who wasn't even an All-Star to upstage an entire All-Star Game?

Well, it is now. It is, thanks to Yoenis Cespedes, a man who jetted into Flushing, N.Y., on a sweltering Monday evening in July and became an All-Star phenomenon unto himself.

He won himself a Home Run Derby he wasn't even supposed to compete in.

He pounded 32 home runs into the New York night, tied for the third-most anyone has ever hit in one of these mash-fests.

He put a dent in a truck that was hanging out 455 seemingly safe feet from home plate.

He propelled three balls into the never-reached third deck in left, clanked two home runs off the windows of the Acela Club restaurant in the second deck, whomped three more space shots off the batters-eye background in center.

[+] EnlargeYoenis Cespedes
Scott Rovak/USA TODAY SportsCespedes had plenty in the tank after his incredible first round.

He became the first player ever to win a Derby who won't even be sticking around for the All-Star Game itself.

And yet, somehow, that doesn't even begin to describe what happened here. Before Yoenis Cespedes stepped to home plate in this Derby, he was barely a blip on America's radar screen. And now?

Now, he's a real-life fairy tale, a man who fled his homeland in Cuba just two years ago to begin his life and career anew -- and now, after this night, neither that life nor that career will ever be the same again.

"I'll tell you what," said A's coach Mike Gallego, the pitcher who served up those 32 home runs on this night. "This might just be the stepping stone that he's been looking for, that we've been looking for. We're all aware of the extreme talent that he has. But for him to produce like that, on this stage, was just tremendous."

This would have been an epic show whether it was staged in Kansas City, Bismarck or downtown Havana. But because Cespedes performed this magic act at Citi Field, in only the second Home Run Derby ever held in New York's epicenter, it felt just a little bigger, a little more powerful, a little more earth-rattling.

"It seems like stuff like this happens in New York," the Mets' David Wright said. "You've got Josh Hamilton at Yankee Stadium [in 2008]. And now you've got Cespedes here."

OK, so this wasn't quite the seismic equal of Hamilton's memorable Derby show in the old Yankee Stadium, when 28 majestic bombs danced with the ghosts of Ruth and Mantle in the first round alone. But in its own way, this was comparable -- because this, too, was a man of semi-mystery and intense fascination, hitting baseballs where baseballs had never traveled before, on the only baseball stage that mattered, and opening the eyes of pretty much an entire nation with every rocket he launched.

"It was amazing," Wright said, "It really was. I remember we all went out one time and watched [Albert] Pujols take batting practice here. But [where Cespedes hit them], I've never seen or heard of that. It was quite the impressive feat. It goes to show that I don't belong in the Home Run Derby. That's for sure."

Then again, Wright -- who didn't survive the first round of this Derby in his home park -- wasn't the only great hitter who was steamrolled by Cespedes. In the first round alone, Cespedes hit more home runs (17) than Prince Fielder, Robinson Cano and Pedro Alvarez put together (15).

[+] EnlargeDavid Wright
Elsa/Getty ImagesWright just couldn't get in the home run groove.

Those 17 homers traveled more than 1.3 miles altogether (6,980 feet), and they tied Cespedes with David Ortiz for the third-most ever hit in any round of any Home Run Derby. Only Hamilton (28 in the first round in '08) and Bobby Abreu (24 in the first round in 2005) ever hit more.

"That first round was tremendous," Gallego said later. "After he finished that first round, I was in awe, along with the rest of the crowd -- and the rest of the players. We knew, after that, that the only one that could screw this thing up was going to be me."

As it turned out, though, nothing was going to get in Yoenis Cespedes' way on this day. After that, down went Michael Cuddyer and Chris Davis in the second round. And that left just Cespedes and 20-year-old Bryce Harper as the last two men standing in this Derby.

Harper, who put on a sensational show of his own, with eight homers in three consecutive rounds, was up first in the finals, hitting against his dad, Ron. Harper dug in, sweat pouring down his brow. And it didn't take him long to send an instant message that if Cespedes was going to win this Derby, he was going to have to earn it.

First swing: Halfway up the upper deck in right. Second swing: Even farther up that same upper deck. Third swing: A 447-foot laser beam under the Dunkin' Donut's sign in deep-right center. And Harper was off and swinging, on his way to an eight-spot that would have been good enough to win four of the past seven Derby finals. Had he gone on to win, he would have been the youngest Derby champ ever.

But there was no intimidating Yoenis Cespedes. Not on this night. Not on this planet.

"Before I came, they asked me if I was going to be nervous because I would be participating in front of possibly 50,000 people," Cespedes said. "But when I was in Cuba, I participated in five Home Run Derbies. It wasn't 50,000 people, but it was 30,000 or 32,000. And I wasn't nervous."

So on his first hack of the finals, Cespedes fired a line-drive homer inside the foul pole that left the premises in about two-thirds of a second. On his second swing, he cranked one into the second deck in left. Then, after a slight intermission, he shifted into turbo-drive.

Seven of his next nine swings went roaring into Home Run Land. And his last three waves of the bat produced blasts so humongous, they should have been tracked by Air Traffic Control at nearby LaGuardia Airport.

The first rattled back to earth in the first row of the third deck in left. ESPN's Home Run Tracker estimated it would have traveled 473 feet if the stadium hadn't gotten in the way.

[+] EnlargeBryce Harper
Rob Tringali/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesWhile fans buzzed about Harper's hair, he let his bat do his talking.

The second thumped off the windows of the distant restaurant in left field. Home Run Tracker said that one would have gone 454 feet had the Mets not decided to serve cheeseburgers in the vicinity.

And the final home run of this unforgettable evening was, to Cespedes' defining performance, what that Humphrey Bogart quote -- "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship" -- was to Casablanca: Not just The End, but a grand finale for the ages.

Gallego delivered one last pitch, right at the knees, where his partner in home-run crime likes it. Cespedes unfurled one last mighty swing and flipped his bat into the Flushing sky. And the baseball went careening off into the distance, and landing on the hood of a maroon Chevy truck, parked out there beyond the center-field fence, just to the right of the ballpark's famous giant home run Apple.

Wow.

Even Harper was blown away by the man who'd just beaten him.

"He's incredible," Harper said of Cespedes. "He's an absolute machine. He's a lot of fun to watch. What a great competitor he is."

His 32 home runs traveled a combined 12,962 feet. And they might have traveled another 12,000 feet if they'd been pitching to him on a runway at LaGuardia instead of in a ballpark with all those obstacles in his path.

"The power is just tremendous," Gallego would say afterward, still in awe of what he'd just witnessed. "And the bat speed is so [intense], you can't even see the ball off the bat as a BP pitcher. I mean that. It just explodes, and you can't even see it."

But fortunately for us, we all witnessed this performance, from a 27-year-old burgeoning superstar with barely more than 200 games played in the major leagues. He now can add this claim to fame to his list of accomplishments: He's the only active right-handed hitter in the entire sport who has ever won a Home Run Derby.

"He's just got sick pop," said his Oakland teammate, Grant Balfour. "For me, he's just a freak of nature. He hits every ball so hard, even when he hits a ground ball, it's a bullet. You see guys in the infield see them coming and take a couple of steps back. They need a little more reaction time when the ball comes off his bat."

And now we all may need just a little more reaction time to digest what we've just witnessed.

It's hard to say where Yoenis Cespedes goes from here, after a home-run barrage he will never forget. But one thing is for sure:

A whole lot more people will be paying attention now, after seeing what this man is capable of.

"He's going to be something," Mike Gallego said. "He's going to be something to watch."

Yep. Except for one thing: He already is.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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