Monday, March 12, 2012

A Star In The Making

The records will show 6,644 paying customers saw it in person at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, and a few thousand more tuned in to watch on Bay Area TV.

What they saw on Saturday may someday be remembered fondly as the coming-out party for a guy who could easily become a Very Big Deal.

Yoenis Cespedes is a 26-year-old legend in Cuban baseball but a virtual unknown here in the States. My guess is that, despite playing in the relative anonymity of Oakland, Cespedes will soon be a household name in baseball circles.

Until Saturday, he was little more than a myth to most fans. An imposing physical specimen, Cespedes looks like he could easily be an NFL running back. His defection from Cuba last summer opened the door to a Major League Baseball career, and the A's surprised a lot of people when they nailed down a 4-year-deal with him just before Spring Training opened.

Until Saturday, Cespedes was doing all his damage in batting practice and "simulated games", which are a slightly-more-realistic form of BP. Reporters and the small handful of fans who hung around the A's Papago Park complex were impressed, but batting practice is batting practice.

And then Cespedes dug in for his first real at-bat in a Major League uniform (which, by the way, he wears like a superstar). On the mound: Johnny Cueto, the Reds righthander whose 2.31 ERA last year ranked as one of the best in baseball.

Anyone would have forgiven Cespedes for trying to do something heroic in a hurry. Instead, he displayed the patience and pitch recognition of a veteran hitter and drew a walk off Cueto. In his second at-bat, he lined a single up the middle. He punctuated his coming-out party in his final at-bat, fouling off several pitches before ripping a loud, no-doubt-about it home run.

A's fans who've been griping about what they see as management futility may still not be satisfied; the team is in a tough division and may remain far short of competitive. But they should take heart in the knowledge that in Yoenis Cespedes, the A's have a player you have to watch.

It's a long way from starring for Granma Alazanes in the Cuban National Series to starring in the Major Leagues. But anyone who saw Yoenis Cespedes' debut has to believe it's more than possible--it appears probable.