Cespedes arrives early, puts on a show

'Coming home,' Mets star -- fresh off big new contract -- has entertaining first round of BP

February 21st, 2016

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Moments after Yoenis Cespedes rolled into Mets camp for the first time Sunday morning, hopping down off his cloud-white pickup truck and pausing, as if for effect, while a gaggle of cameramen snapped his picture, he stepped inside the clubhouse and eased a bag off each shoulder. Minutes later, Cespedes was seated at a lunch table on the far side of the room, swapping laughs with Bartolo Colon, Hansel Robles and a trio of younger pitchers.

It has been seven months since the Mets traded for Cespedes, riding him to the World Series and -- only after making peace with an inevitable breakup -- signing him to a three-year, $75 million deal that transformed public perception of their offseason. Cespedes said all the right things at the time, brushing aside talk of his negotiated opt-out clause -- he can leave without penalty after a single season -- and speaking instead about his love for his adopted team and city.

Early Sunday morning, one of the game's flashiest stars began the task of showing exactly what he meant.

"Meeting some of the new guys, creating that bond, getting in there early, that's one of the things that was important to me," Cespedes said through an interpreter. "That's why I'm here early."

Arriving three days in advance of the team requirement, specifically on a morning that all other position players took off, also afforded Cespedes the opportunity to put on a show. Once Colon, Robles and friends trotted outside for their daily drill routine, Cespedes threw a baggy blue windbreaker over his head and strutted out to Field 2, where hitting coach Kevin Long threw him multiple rounds of batting practice. Almost immediately, Cespedes cracked a ball over the fence, letting out a yelp and staring it down the whole way. Long counted three others that thudded off the batter's eye in straightaway center.

"Just like any other player, it's Spring Training," Long said. "It will take him a little bit of time to get completely locked in, but he looked pretty good today."

That's as pleasing a sign as any for a Mets team that had a devil of a time evaluating Cespedes this winter. Fans desperate for the outfielder's return pointed to the 17 homers he hit during one 31-game stretch last August and September, almost singlehandedly willing the Mets into the postseason. But Cespedes' history suggests he's probably something less than that; in his previous two seasons, the outfielder averaged 24 homers with a .298 on-base percentage. Even throughout his first postseason in New York, albeit battling injury, Cespedes was a shadow of the slugger he had been down the stretch.

The Mets took a chance anyway, confident in Cespedes' upside at the plate.

"Could we really expect him to stay at that pace? I don't know that that was realistic," Long said. "It is baseball. You're going to go through some peaks and valleys. Unfortunately he wasn't red-hot during the playoffs, but he carried us for so long."

Along the way, Cespedes developed a type of swagger unseen here for years. He wore his favored chain on Sunday, adorned with an oversized No. 52 pendant. His truck is a customized Ford model, dwarfing most everything else in the players' lot. His social media habits include trading messages with comedian Jerry Seinfeld and individually thanking fans who have purchased his Mets jersey.

"When he signed, there was a lot of chatter," manager Terry Collins said. "He's back. And what a thrill it is to have him back."

For the Mets, the reasons are many. But for Cespedes, it remains something simple: Over the span of two months last summer, the outfielder developed enough lasting relationships to feel as comfortable as he ever did during two-plus years in Oakland. Ping-ponging from Northern California to Boston to Detroit gave Cespedes the perspective to understand what he found in New York. And so he returned, dipping back into a room full of friends Sunday in Port St. Lucie.

"That's exactly what it is," Cespedes said, looking around the clubhouse. "It's just coming home."