The easy thing would have been to gloss over the transgression, to ignore the mercurial superstar’s lapse in focus, to let somebody else see something and say something.
But looking the other way doesn’t suit Asdrubal Cabrera.
So when Yoenis Cespedes got doubled off at second base earlier this season — a careless gaffe that looked worse when he didn’t bother to slide — he found Cabrera waiting in the dugout to deliver a few pointed words.
The veteran shortstop did so without hesitation, without regard for the stature of his peer. It did not go unnoticed, one of the many deeds that have made Cabrera into perhaps the strongest and most respected voice on the Mets.
“It’s always good to have people like that on your team,” third baseman Jose Reyes said. “You’ll always need that.”
The demands of a grueling season have revealed much about these Mets, including the pivotal role that Cabrera has played in their improbable late-summer resurgence. Without his willingness to grind through a knee injury that has lingered since spring training, there would be no push for the wild card, no defying of broken down bodies, no pleasant reprieve after a summer of pain.
“The way his body is feeling right now, he could be sitting and saying, ‘You know what? I feel like [expletive],’ ” Reyes said. “But the fact that he’s on the field and everyone’s seeing that from him, it’s like whoa, let’s follow that.”
‘HE’S PLAYING WITH HIS HEART’
When the Mets signed Cabrera to a two-year, $18.5-million contract during the winter meetings, they banked on getting a steady glove at shortstop and a switch-hitter with some pop at the plate. What they hadn’t banked on was acquiring a clubhouse firebrand.
“I think we underestimated his leadership ability and influence in the clubhouse,” Mets general manager Sandy Alderson said. “You see it in the level of his play, the determination in his play.”
It’s common for Cabrera to grimace during trips around the bases. Recently, he landed hard after making a leaping grab, leaving him rattled. He is often slow to rise after sliding.
Sudden stops are the most painful for the tender patellar tendon in his left knee. When he was given a late stop sign while rounding third on Friday night, Cabrera entered into a slide in the grass, which he’s found to be easier on his banged-up knee than slamming on the brakes.
Earlier in the game, Cabrera fouled a ball off his right knee, his good one. Again, he was doubled over in pain. Afterward, Mets manager Terry Collins floated the possibility of rest. But in the clubhouse, Cabrera laughed and shook his head.
“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” he said.
On Saturday, Cabrera found his name in the lineup, his bat too valuable for the Mets to go without in the final days of a tight race for the wild card.
“Right now, people know he’s not 100 percent,” said catcher Rene Rivera, who has known Cabrera since 2003, when both were farmhands in the Mariners organization. “But he’s playing with his heart, he’s playing for his team. He wants to win so bad. He’s earned another level of respect.”
In a season defined by all that has gone wrong, Cabrera has been a ray of light.
On one leg, he is hitting .281 with 22 homers. Through it all, Cabrera, 30, has offered a steady hand in the field. What he lacks in range he makes up for with instinct and feel and balance, allowing him to make throws from all angles.
Weariness has only brought out his best. Entering play on Saturday, Cabrera was hitting .364 with nine homers since Aug. 19, his first day back from the knee flare-up that had sent him to the disabled list earlier in the month.
Yet those contributions might be dwarfed by the steady presence he’s brought behind closed doors.
“He’s added a big dimension to us, not only on the field but in the clubhouse,” manager Terry Collins said. “When this guy’s got something to say, people listen.”
If the Mets make good on their late-season surge, it will be because fill-ins and replacements have filled roles that would otherwise be left vacant. Few have better embodied that spirit than Cabrera.
Policing the clubhouse is a tricky proposition, requiring credibility that can only be attained over time, and a deft touch for navigating a minefield of egos. But when team captain David Wright went down for the season — leaving the Mets without their heart and soul — it was Cabrera who stepped into the breach.
“I like to keep my team together,” he said. “I talk with everybody, and I try to feel comfortable here . . . I don’t like to talk too much about it. That’s not my job. But if I can help anybody on the team, I’ll do it.”
‘EMPATHY FOR OTHER PEOPLE’
Every year at spring training, Collins convenes a meeting of veterans, encouraging them to speak up when necessary. With 10 years of experience in the big leagues, Cabrera was invited. He took the message to heart.
In his first year with the Mets, Cabrera quickly demonstrated a willingness to hold teammates accountable, regardless of their standing.
“You need guys who will push around the other guys,” Rivera said.
No one was immune, not even Cespedes.
Cabrera’s laid-back style, teammates said, has only enhanced the meaning of his words. Even in times that require uncomfortable honesty, he softens the blows with humor while never diluting his central message.
“You know he’s telling you to do something right,” Reyes said.
Cabrera said the point isn’t to embarrass teammates but to build them up, always with discretion, always with respect.
“That’s really important, always like a gentleman,” he said. “Nice and relaxed.”
Even when he approached Cespedes for his failure to slide earlier this season — getting doubled up in that situation had cost the Mets a run — Cabrera insisted that the conversation was far from a rebuke. At the time, Cespedes was still playing through a banged-up leg that he bruised while diving into the stands for a fly ball.
Cabrera understood. But through his own experience, he insisted that awkwardly avoiding slides might actually make things worse.
“It was about playing smart,” Cabrera said.
The message was sent. Despite the pain, the team needed its superstar to stop worrying and slide again.
“It’s leadership by example,” Alderson said. “But also leadership by personality and empathy for other people. It’s been great to see.”
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