Yoenis Céspedes Stops Time

Once upon a time, on a Friday in the middle of July, Yoenis Céspedes hits a home run.

***

It’s only been a few days since I’ve once again had the opportunity to spend my days sitting around watching MLB.TV. I’m already sick of the MLB Flashbacks that get shown during commercial breaks. The idea behind them is solid: There are so many feats in major league baseball’s memory bank, so many of the magical sports moments that people cite when they talk about why they love the game. Why not use otherwise unoccupied airtime to remind fans just how great the game can be?

But in my experience, at least, they end up having the opposite effect. Devoid of context, unhinged from past and future, the homers and robberies — and they are almost always homers and robberies — start to blur, then to lose meaning altogether. Like a favorite word repeated too often and too excitedly by a little kid, I start to get tired of hearing the same hype music leading in, the same fever pitch of the broadcast, the same reaction of the crowd. It’s what watching baseball feels like if you don’t like baseball. Swing. Bat hits ball. Ball leaves yard. Cheer! Repeat.

That sense of numbness one gets watching home run after home run, back-to-back, packed into the space of a minute or two — it isn’t what drew me to baseball, what continues to draw me to baseball sometimes in spite of myself. The rhythm is too much like time, or at least too much like the way we so often measure it as working adults. Seconds and minutes and hours clipping forward relentlessly, reminding you that in every idle moment you are wasting your life, wasting moments you could have spent being productive. Your time is limited. There is a distance between you and nothing, and that distance is even now getting shorter.

In this system of measurement, it’s hard to describe a fan’s passion for baseball, with all the idle, unproductive appreciation it entails, as anything other than a waste.

***

The pitch is a four-seam fastball — 93 mph, thrown by a right-handed pitcher. Céspedes swings. Contact.

***

Fully appreciating a home run is not something that can be done without, for a moment, stopping time’s march into nothingness. A home run contains a fullness of past and present and future that is incommensurate with the number of seconds it takes for the ball to leave the yard. The eyes recognizing the spin on the pitch; the neurons firing, the muscles activating, the body coordinating just so — the result of untold hours of training, training, training, so many hours that they at some point ceased to be counted. The density of the bat and the elasticity of the ball. (The bat cut from what was once a tree, which began its life as a tiny seed and survived. The ball, both a product of thousands of years of humans making round objects in order to play games, and of the skill of laborers at the Rawlings factory in Puerto Rico, developed over lifetimes.) The precise launch angle, the precise exit velocity; the ballpark, built to these precise parameters.

And then there is the way that the home run fits into history: the history of the individual game in which it happens, obviously — how the home run affects the score, the win probability, the choices both managers make. The history of a team within a season, the history of a season in an era. The history of the pitcher who allows the home run, and the history of the player who hits it.

The ball arcs through the air and hangs there, asking you to watch for a moment — to suspend your marking of the passage of time. And when it lands, the player will move: sometimes slow, sometimes fast, sometimes wavering, sometimes with flourishes, but always returning to close the circle. And then — only then, at the closing of the circle — do we start again.

***

The ball leaves the bat at 103.5 mph. It soars into left — into the empty stands.

***

The history of Yoenis Céspedes: He was born to a family for whom baseball was a legacy — his father caught in the Cuban League; his mother was a national softball player. At the age of 10, he went to school far from home to pursue baseball. And he excelled. At the 2009 World Baseball Classic, though the Cuban team was eliminated in the second round, Céspedes shone. He would launch a towering fly ball and then turn to watch it, the bat extended in the air. As the ball landed, he dropped the bat.

Céspedes grew disillusioned with the Cuban team, or perhaps the Cuban team grew disillusioned with him. He met with fixers; he made arrangements. He rented a coastal house and moved his family there. One night in 2011, as the family crowded into cars, ready to make their journey, Céspedes’ mother — the person who, more than anyone, taught him how to play — was arrested; several days later, Céspedes was involved in a car accident. Eventually, he made the boat journey to the Dominican; his family followed, their journey much more harrowing than his. And in the United States, people watched the 18-minute-long video his agent uploaded to YouTube — a video that begins with a Star Wars text crawl and ends with a tribute to his mom.

When the A’s signed Céspedes, expectations were high. Céspedes met them. He was traded Red Sox, then the Tigers, and then, finally to the Mets at the 2015 trade deadline for Michael Fulmer and Luis Cessa. The 2015 season remains the best of his career. With him, the Mets went to the World Series. They came close to winning, and then they lost.

Céspedes played through injury in 2016. He got re-signed. He played through injury in 2017, to far worse results. And then, in 2018, he played through even more injury.

Céspedes played until July 20, 2018. That day — a Friday in mid-July — Céspedes came up to bat in the third. Domingo Germán served him a 3-0 fastball, 93 mph and over the plate. Céspedes swung. Contact. The ball exploded off the bat, 104 mph, headed into the left-field stands. He didn’t even have to watch it — he knew it was gone.

***

So much has happened, in and out of baseball, since that last home run Céspedes hit in 2018. The Mets are not the same as they were. Baseball is not the same as it was. The world outside the ballpark is reeling. Still, time keeps going. When Céspedes debuted, he was 26 — young, still in his prime. Now he is 34. His ability to recover is growing weaker. He is a risky player to invest in, a risky play to bet on. On the horizon, you can see the end of his career as a baseball player. The distance gets shorter by the day.

Last Friday, when Céspedes stepped up to the plate in the seventh — when he saw that fastball from Chris Martin, 93 mph and over the plate; when he turned on it, and the sound rang out, the sound of a ball hit almost 104 mph, soaring into left —  he didn’t even have to watch it. It was a no-doubter.

But he did watch it, anyway. He took a few steps backward, clutching the bat, watching as the ball he had just hit rose and fell. Everyone else — the people in the ballpark, and all the people far from it — watched it, too. A ball, in its pure physical properties, so similar to the one that he’d hit the last time he was on a major-league field. So similar to so many other home runs hit over the years. Yet it didn’t feel like a waste of time, admiring the arc of that ball. There was so much more contained within it.

Céspedes watched it, and we watched it. And then he took off around the bases, back around to meet his screaming, cheering teammates. Back to close the circle — to where things start again.





RJ is the dilettante-in-residence at FanGraphs. Previous work can be found at Baseball Prospectus, VICE Sports, and The Hardball Times.

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Ryan DCmember
1 year ago

Beautiful