09/27/12 3:28 PM ET
A season under his belt, Cespedes feels at home
By Jesse Sanchez / MLB.com
Sporting his favorite "I play for the American League" light blue T-shirt with a green-and-yellow Phiten necklace dangling from his neck, the Oakland outfielder tears the plastic wrap off of his personalized bat, holds it out in front of him from the handle, and waves it at Brandon Moss.
The conversation, part English and part Spanish, between the teammates is their own version of "Spanglish," and it's complete with head nods, simulated swings and smiles.
"I don't really speak English, but I try," Cespedes, 26, said in Spanish. "I know some words and some phrases. I'm learning little by little, but the guys here are great. It's a challenge, but it's fun, like everything else here in the United States."
The expression "¿Qué hay de nuevo?," the Spanish version of "What's new?," is a phrase Cespedes knows well and it almost always elicits a chuckle because the answer is everything. The freedom, the language, the money, the happiness -- and the loneliness -- are all new experiences for Cespedes. He's also never had things at his disposal like brand-new gloves, engraved bats, shiny shoes and high-tech undershirts -- everything many big leaguers take for granted.
In his first year in the big leagues, Cespedes has already played more regular-season games with the A's than he's ever played in one season in Cuba, so the fatigue he's feeling now is foreign, too. The Cuban star is in uncharted territory, but that's really nothing new.
Cespedes' club trails the first-place Rangers by three games in the AL West standings heading into Thursday's series finale in Texas. The A's currently hold the second AL Wild Card.
"How has my life changed? How has it not changed?," said Cespedes, who signed a four-year, $36 million deal with Oakland in February. "This is a country that is very different from where I come from. There are a lot of adjustments I've had to make to living here and I do that every day. This is the best baseball in the world. I played on a high level in Cuba, but nothing like this. You have to make and continue to make adjustments."
Although the details of his defection from Cuba remain a mystery, Cespedes left the island with his mother, Estela, a former Cuban national softball team pitcher, along with his aunt and three relatives sometime last year and landed in the Dominican Republic, where they reside. Yoenis Jr. is among the loved ones he left behind in Cuba.
If baseball is Cespedes' No. 1 passion, then goofing around on the Internet and video-chatting with his family is a close No. 2. He's described as a "homebody," a man who likes to flip through all the channels on his remote control for fun and take his Mercedes SUV for a drive to clear his head.
It was Estela who inspired a young Yoenis to be a baseball player. It was also Estela who nailed a 9-year-old Yoenis in the face with a curveball during the first and only time he tried to be his mother's personal catcher.
"Before the season, my mother asked me to hit 20 home runs and she's happy I reached that goal for her," he said. "But for me, I just want to be able to play every day at a high level. I'm not thinking about numbers. I think about winning and making my family proud."
Cespedes' interpreter, Ariel Prieto, who is also from Cuba, is the closest thing Cespedes has to family in Oakland these days. Prieto lives with Cespedes during the season and offered to let the outfielder stay at his home in Miami until he finds a place nearby.
"Everybody knows what his physical tools are, but for me, his mind is his biggest tool," Prieto said. "He's a survivor. He has a tough mind. He knows how good he can be and he believes in himself. He doesn't let anybody intimidate him and he doesn't intimidate himself with negativity. He's so positive and that's why he is where he is."
"Positive" is one way to describe Cespedes. Confident is another. He no longer admires his home runs from the batter's box or shows up opposing pitchers, but he still walks with a swagger. The rookie overcame a few nagging injuries and became an integral part of the club's playoff push, erasing the last remnants of the mysterious air around him when he joined the club during Spring Training.
It helps Cespedes that the A's are considered among the friendliest players in the league and have a reputation for welcoming new teammates into their clubhouse.
"He's been terrific the whole season," A's manager Bob Melvin said. "I have never been around a guy that has had the type of obstacles he has had like the language barrier and new country and still be able to make adjustments as quick as he has. He's very mentally tough and that allows him to get through some of the obstacles that he has gone through this season."
Cespedes said the biggest challenge this season has been the adjustment to Major League pitching, although his statistics don't always back that claim. For the season, he is hitting .288 with 21 home runs and 78 RBIs. He has struck out 100 times this year.
"I played in Cuba and all over internationally, but it does not compare to this," he said. "You have a starter going six or seven innings and then they bring in quality relievers, who are just as good and pitching just as strong. Imagine, five different pitchers trying to get you out each night. You go to a different city and a different team has five different guys doing the same. They are scouting me and I am scouting them. That's not easy."
Not surprisingly, Cespedes says the best part of his new life is the freedom and the simple luxuries that come with living in the United States, things like a leisurely walk in a new city.
"When you play with the Cuban national team, you go from the hotel to the stadium and back and maybe if you are lucky, you get a day to go eat or buy something," Cespedes said. "You can't enjoy it. I don't miss that part."
Cespedes originally burst on to the international scene during the 2009 World Baseball Classic and next March, his former teammates will compete in the 2013 version of the tournament. Cuba will play at AT&T Park in San Francisco, not far from where Cespedes plays his home games, if it advances to the semifinals.
Cespedes isn't allowed to play with Cuba because he defected and says he's not sure he would join the team even if he was eligible.
"I'll try to see them on television if I can," he said. "It won't be hard to watch them play and not be there. I'm happy where I am now. I've already done that."