When Yoenis Cespedes turned 3, his mother told him it was time he learned how to hit a baseball. Estela Milanes took a machete, fashioned a bat from a tree branch and began pitching to her son in front of the four-room house they shared with eight relatives in Campechuela, Cuba.
About 26 years and one very twisted path to New York later, much has changed. Milanes lives comfortably in an expansive home her son bought her in Boca Raton, Florida -- and Cespedes is one of the most impactful hitters in baseball, having led the Mets into the postseason.
One thing has remained constant since Cespedes first picked up his tree-branch bat: Milanes is her son's most important coach. She not only carefully watches every one of his games on television but also keeps a notebook that details his every at-bat since his first season with the Oakland A's in 2012.
"Every day before he goes to the stadium, we talk,'' Milanes told Newsday in a phone interview with an interpreter. "I will tell him what I want him to do and other tips, and at the end of the game, we'll speak.''
To understand Cespedes' remarkable rags-to-riches story -- to understand what it is like to grow up in rural Cuba, defect from a country you love and land at the top of the baseball world -- one has to understand the incredible bond Cespedes has with his mother, a 47-year-old former softball superstar who could throw 80 mph and pitched for Cuba in the 2000 Olympics.
When asked recently if his mother has opinions about the way he plays, Cespedes laughed deeply and nodded as if he had just heard the world's greatest understatement.
"Definitely when I'm not in a great mood and I don't feel like talking about baseball, it's not pleasant to talk to her after a game about baseball,'' Cespedes said through an interpreter. "But I have to talk to her every day. It's not even by choice.''
OUT OF HIS ELEMENTCespedes is not much of a big-city person, and he says it has been an adjustment playing for teams in the urban centers of Oakland, Boston, Detroit and New York.
He likes to fish. He likes to hunt. When asked about his favorite Cuban restaurant in New York City, he says he has not been out on the town since the Tigers traded him to the Mets on July 31. The Mets have a Cuban chef, and Cespedes prefers to take his meals at Citi Field.
It is a life he never could have imagined while growing up in Campechuela, which he describes as having "just a few streets and a small amount of houses.''
Cespedes didn't have a car in Cuba. In fact, he points out, he didn't even have a bike. But he did have good baseball genes and a mother who believed that he could be something great.
His father, Cresencio Cespedes, was a former Cuban League catcher who separated from Milanes when Yoenis was a year old. A star softball pitcher on the Cuban national team for 17 years, Milanes took her son on the road with her, depending on the help of her extended family to watch him while she played.
By the time he was 10, it was clear that Cespedes had a unique talent, and Milanes sent him to a state-run school about 50 miles from home where he could concentrate on playing baseball.
In 2003, at age 18, he was Rookie of the Year in the Cuban League. In 2009, he made a name for himself outside of Cuba during the World Baseball Classic when he hit .458 with two home runs, two doubles and three triples in six games.
It was at about that time that Cespedes began being approached by Cuban street agents, known as buscons, who worked for Latin American baseball agents. Cespedes loved his life in Cuba and politely told them he had no interest in leaving. That changed, however, in 2011 when he inexplicably was assigned to Cuba's third team for a tournament in Venezuela.
Cespedes realized he was going to have to leave to pursue his baseball dream. He also realized he couldn't leave without his mother.
"I was very afraid. It was a very serious and difficult decision for both of us because we essentially had to abandon our family,'' Milanes said. "It was especially difficult to leave my mother and my grandson, but I had to respect his decision and follow him . . . I decided I would follow him where he went so that he could realize his dream of playing the best baseball in the world.''
In the summer of 2011, Cespedes, his mother and several other family members fled Cuba by boat for the Dominican Republic, making a 23-hour trip. They were forced to leave many family members, including Cespedes' son Yoenis Jr., now 6, who lives with his mother in Cuba.
Oakland was a good place for Cespedes to break into the major leagues. Manager Bob Melvin had worked with Cuban players before, most notably Orlando "El Duque'' Hernandez when Melvin was with the Arizona Diamondbacks. He and Cespedes quickly developed a close relationship.
"I don't think we here could ever understand what these players have to go through to live their dream,'' Melvin said. "I saw it with all of them. There is this passion to get out and play here, yet this strength to be able to leave everyone around you and go out and perform. You have to be very strong-minded to do something like that.''
That strong-mindedness was sorely tested during Cespedes' first season. While he was putting together an impressive season that would earn him second place in the American League Rookie of the Year voting, his mother and family members still were trying to get visas to enter the United States from the Dominican Republic. At one point, afraid they would get caught in an immigration raid and be sent back to Cuba, they decided to leave for Turks and Caicos.
It was a small boat for 12 passengers, including a baby, and the sea was rough. The driver, Cespedes said, got scared and wanted to turn around -- and ended up leaving the passengers on a small, deserted, treeless island with only six bottles of water. For three days, Cespedes heard nothing from them.
"They got to the point by the end of the three days they were almost out of water,'' he said. "There was just a little left in one of the bottles that they were saving for the baby. They started saying their goodbyes to one another, assuming they were going to die there.''
On the third day, a helicopter Cespedes said he had hired spotted the family members, and a ship was dispatched to pick them up and take them to Turks and Caicos.
The immigration problems continued until March 9, 2013, in the middle of spring training, when the family made yet another furtive boat trip, this time to the United States, and immediately applied for residency under the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act.
WORTH EVERY PENNYCespedes is in the final year of the four-year, $36-million contract he signed with the A's. And what a contract year it has been.
Acquired from the Tigers for minor-league righthanders Michael Fulmer and Luis Cessa 13 minutes before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, Cespedes helped change the Mets from a weak-hitting, pitching-heavy club into a force. They were 53-50 when he began his Mets career Aug. 1, and they won 30 of their next 41 en route to a 37-22 finish, easily clinching their first division title in nine years.
With 17 home runs, 44 RBIs and a .287/.337/.604 slash line in 57 games, it's fair to say that Cespedes has been the most impactful midseason acquisition in the team's 54-season history.
Fellow Cuban Rusney Castillo, who was Cespedes' teammate on the Red Sox last season, said he's not surprised by what Cespedes has done with the Mets.
"He knows how to arise to the big occasion,'' Castillo said. "It's definitely a reputation he had back in Cuba, the ability to arise to bigger moments.''
It's hard to imagine a bigger baseball moment than the one Cespedes will have this postseason. In playoff appearances with Oakland against Detroit in 2012 and 2013, he hit .316 and .381, respectively. And Melvin said he would not be surprised to see Cespedes come up big with the Mets.
"He loves the big stage. He loves the bright lights,'' Melvin said. "He loves it when the games were important and the stands were packed.''
The stands certainly will be packed at Citi Field as the Mets take on the Dodgers. And Milanes is planning to be there, book in hand, tracking her son's every move.