Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes finds instant friendship with Manny Ramirez at A’s camp
The spectacularly talented Cuban defector stretched, took a speedy sprint down the foul line and stepped into the batting cage for his first swings. The results weren’t stunning – he admitted to nervousness and nothing he hit cleared the wall – yet when he exited the cage a teammate greeted him with a soul handshake, a shoulder bump and a smile.
Manny Ramirez has his own job to win, his own reasons to approach each day with focus and urgency, but he spent the entire workout Sunday talking to Cespedes, listening to Cespedes, soothing Cespedes. It was the oddest sight of spring training so far: a dreadlocked, all-but-washed-up 39-year-old facing a 50-game suspension for steroid use willingly taking under his wing a somewhat mysterious 26-year-old phenom with five tools and enormous expectations.
After they’d hit, the two men walked side by side to center field, where they stayed an hour, nothing but green grass stretching 100 feet in any direction, occasionally chasing down a fly ball, but mostly chatting. The prevailing topic was hitting because they took turns simulating batting stances. Ramirez seemed intrigued by the absence of a timing mechanism in Cespedes’ stride and illustrated how an inward turn with his own left knee keeps him from over-striding.
As long as the advice doesn’t stray to fertility drugs, testosterone levels or intimidating the traveling secretary, the A’s have no problem with Ramirez mentoring Cespedes.
In fact, they planned it.
Cespedes agreed to a four-year, $36 million contract Feb. 14. Ramirez, who hasn’t played since walking away from the Tampa Bay Rays last April after testing positive for PEDs for a second time, signed a minor-league deal Feb. 20.
[Jeff Passan: Signing Yoenis Cespedes is a calculated gamble for the A’s]
A’s general manager Billy Beane implemented “Moneyball” a decade ago and has since doggedly explored other creative ways to compete despite a low payroll. Knowingly teamming Cespedes with Ramirez for introductory lessons and a comfort zone is his latest example of daring to try something nobody else would.
“Yoenis is a unique physical talent,” Beane said. “He has strength and speed, and a history of producing. He’s a center-of-the-diamond talent in the prime of his career. Any time you spend these kinds of dollars, there’s a risk, but you don’t see a guy like this come along too often.”
What Cespedes doesn’t have is professional baseball experience. Or familiarity with intense media scrutiny. Or an understanding of American culture. Ramirez, who is beginning his 20th season with his sixth team, has all of the above.
Because of his mental lapses, odd behavior and hot-and-cold relationships with reporters over the years, Ramirez is sometimes mistakenly portrayed as being a selfish teammate. Every manager he’s played for is impressed by his work ethic, and he quickly assumed a leadership role with the Dodgers when they acquired him at the 2008 trade deadline, loosening a tight clubhouse and relieving pressure from young stars Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier.
The A’s hope he can do the same for Cespedes, whose nervousness was noticeable Sunday. He ducked into the dugout before batting practice and went through a private ritual of knocking his knuckles against the bat barrel, then giving it a kiss. It was as if he were preparing for an at-bat with the bases loaded in the World Series. At the very least, Ramirez should help Cespedes relax.
It’s hard to say how much assistance incumbent center fielder Coco Crisp will offer in making his new teammate feel at home. Crisp is in no mood to surrender the position and move to left field, telling the San Francisco Chronicle, “Unless he’s a demigod come down from the heavens, no one is going to outshine me in center field.”
Beane said the decision would be manager Bob Melvin’s. It’s conceivable that Cespedes could even begin the season in the minors if he struggles this spring. Not many of the 30 or so Cuban defectors have made a splash in the big leagues, and not a single position player has become an All-Star.
The A’s are counting on Cespedes to buck the odds. He wore No. 51 in Cuba because nobody else had worn it, and he wanted the number associated with his accomplishments. He’s No. 52 with the A’s because pitcher Dallas Braden is 51 and it’s the closest he could get. Cespedes should begin playing in Cactus League games in about a week.
“I’ve been working out every day, and I feel ready for this,” Cespedes said through a translator. “I think if I hit .280, doing the things I need to do, that’s good. I expect good numbers.”
Cespedes, who will be paid $6.5 million this season, $8.5 million 2013 and $10.5 million in each of the last two years of the deal, is expected to supply power in a lineup devoid of it. A now-infamous 20-minute highlight video includes several long home runs against top Cuban competition. It also includes Cespedes roasting a pig, hanging out with family and engaging in seemingly superhuman feats of strength and athleticism.
In one memorable sequence he leg-lifts a bar with two men crouched on 1,000 pounds of steel plates. In another, he jumps from a standing start atop boxes stacked 45 inches.
Cespedes wouldn’t discuss the details of his defection, although he said his mother, an aunt and four cousins left Cuba at the same time and live in the Dominican Republic.
“I miss Cuba,” he said, a rueful look crossing his face. “But I have part of my family here and that means a lot. It’s a positive.”
And as of Sunday, Cespedes has a friend in Manny Ramirez. The A’s are hoping that relationship is a positive as well.
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