PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Yoenis Cespedes joined the Mets in the summer of 2015, but it was only a few weeks ago that he played his first round of golf with manager Terry Collins.
During an afternoon of riding in a cart side-by-side and fishing wayward drives out of the woods, it didn’t take long for Collins to sense a difference. And on the 16th hole of the posh Floridian National Golf Club, Collins said Cespedes made his newfound reassurance seem unmistakable.
“Are you going to be in every trap on the course?” the player asked the manager.
And so they shared a laugh, two men basking in the security of knowing that Cespedes will be in a Mets uniform not just this season but for the three after it.
Finally, Cespedes has found a home.
“Having that really gives me a sense of calm, knowing that I’m no longer year-to-year and that my home is here for the Mets for the next four years gives me some tranquility,” Cespedes said through a translator yesterday. “I’m able to focus and prepare better.”
ALWAYS ON THE MOVE
The moment that Cespedes began his harrowing defection from Cuba in the summer of 2011, his life has been marked by varying degrees of uncertainty. Even his first big league contract, a four-year, $36-million deal with the A’s, offered little in the way of job security. The contract was modest enough for a notoriously cash-strapped franchise to be able to trade him away.
And in 2014, they did just that, beginning Cespedes’ tour of the United States.
He was traded to the Red Sox, to the Tigers and then to the Mets, in a deadline-day deal that already has proved to be one of the most significant moves in the history of the franchise. A World Series appearance followed, as did acceptance by fans eager to embrace the slugger and his fast cars, fluorescent sleeves and prodigious power.
Yet only after free agency proved unfruitful following the 2015 season did Cespedes re-sign with the Mets. But when the time came to negotiate again this past offseason, the vibe seemed different from the jump, and in December they agreed to a four-year, $110-million deal.
When Cespedes signed his new contract, speculation raged about his level of commitment now that the powerful incentive of gunning for a payday had been removed from the equation.
Instead, Collins said the opposite has happened. Cespedes has only sharpened his efforts.
“I said when he signed, I told some of the coaches, this is either going to be really, really good for us or really, really bad,” Collins said. “And I said I bet you this guy is going to take this and run with it, because for the first time in his career, he doesn’t have to look over his shoulder and say hey, where am I going to be tomorrow.”
Cespedes’ golf habit took on a life of its own last summer when a well-publicized morning round coincided with a flare-up of a leg injury. But according to Collins, Cespedes golfed only three times this offseason. He was too focused on preparing for spring training.
In this goal, proximity became his friend. With a ranch not far from the team’s complex in Port St. Lucie, Cespedes made himself a regular at workouts with Mike Barwis, who has been in charge of the team’s physical fitness program. They focused on strengthening Cespedes’ legs in an effort to avoid a repeat of last season’s quadriceps issue.
“He knows he’s a Met,” Collins said. “He knows he’s going to be a Met for a long time. He’s happy, he’s relaxed, he’s content. This guy’s going to be dangerous.”
Of course, he already has proved toxic to National League pitchers. Cespedes, 31, hit .280 with 31 homers and 86 RBIs in 132 games. His .354 on-base percentage was a career high. “The plan is the same this year, just narrowing in on my strike zone and being more selective at the plate and hopefully getting some more walks,” he said.
SPEAKING HIS LANGUAGE
In the clubhouse, Cespedes truly found his place last season, growing especially close to Asdrubal Cabrera and Jose Reyes. Despite Cespedes’ status as the team’s star, Cabrera and Reyes developed a rapport based on trust, the seeds of a relationship that has allowed for unflinching honesty.
“I call him my brother, too,” Reyes said this past week. “In the short time that I had last year, we developed a very good relationship. That’s something that I like, with Cabrera, too.”
The relationship, Cespedes said, is part of the reason that the Mets feel like home.
“Some may not believe it but that’s a very important part, just having those teammates that speak your own language,” Cespedes said. “When you’re feeling a little bit down, they can come up and lift you up and put you in a good mood again, and that’s very important.”
Cespedes generally shies away from vocal leadership, and Collins insisted that he won’t mind if it stays that way. In his previous stops, Collins shared clubhouses with Jeff Bagwell and Barry Bonds. Neither took a leadership role, but both brought their best come game time.
Said Collins: “If he does that, he’ll make me real happy.”
It’s a luxury granted by having Reyes and Cabrera on board. Neither has backed off holding players accountable, even if it’s Cespedes.
“If there’s two guys who keep him focused a little bit, it’s those two guys, because they are both no-nonsense players and people,” Collins said. “They play the game the right way, they get ready to play, they want to play every day and they’re in his ear all the time.”
KEEPING IT LOW-KEY
In spring training last year, Ces pedes created a stir by parading his collection of exotic cars, choosing a different ride in the early days of camp. It became a red-carpet show, with players and media members alike gathering in the parking lot to catch glimpses of his tricked-out Lamborghini. It never was the plan, he said yesterday, but the intention this year appears to shy away from the spectacle.
Collins insisted he never saw the impromptu auto exhibition as a distraction because it never got in the way of Cespedes’ preparation. But if a similar scene unfolds this year, Collins said he won’t mind.
Cespedes said he won’t be bringing his horses to camp again. Last year, everyone from Noah Syndergaard to media relations director Jay Horwitz went for rides. Even if another carnival breaks out, Collins laughed off the possibility. It spoke to a larger point. “He’s at ease,” he said. “Right now, he’s in the best frame of mind since he first got here.”
Indeed, Cespedes has enjoyed the spoils of certainty, embracing his spot on a team that he believes has “a really great chance” of winning the World Series if its members stay healthy.
In the golf outing a few weeks ago, Cespedes played in a foursome that included Collins and Mets chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon. The day began with range time alongside famed pro Claude Harmon. Also on the premises that day: Michael Jordan.
The conversation centered mostly on golf, not baseball. Those talks could come later. All those years after leaving Cuba and accepting the life of a nomad, Cespedes could simply relax. “Yes, I knew that moment would come,” he said. “I didn’t know when that moment would come, but here it is, it’s arrived.”