Not your best, Joel Sherman. Not your best...
In the interest of fairness, let's establish that Sherman presents both sides of the argument; that different may not be disruptive. But that side comes across more as a straw man argument waiting to be taken down by the case that Yoenis Céspedes is aloof, selfish, and lazy. And it's a narrative that is as dangerous as it is tired.
Céspedes is, in fact, different. A Cuban defector who likes both his tranquil Florida ranch and flashy custom cars, a dusty pair of cowboy boots and big, chunky jewelry. It's all part of a personality that would stand out even if he wasn't a hulking athlete who can crush a baseball routinely into Citi Field's upper tank.
It shouldn't come as a surprise then that Céspedes, made from this incredibly rare mold, also has a varied approach to Spring Training. One notable example Sherman gives is how he tailors an outfield drill to his preference.
"Perhaps everything is personal perception. Midway through this particular drill, Céspedes lies on the ground, not rising until the ball is in flight. His personal add-on makes the drill more difficult and trains him to track the ball under more arduous circumstances," Sherman wrote.
Sherman openly muses if this is the action of a leader by example, or someone just trying to goof off throughout drills. But where things go off the rail is the coded and not-so-veiled references to notorious "assholes" of baseball's past.
Sherman relays an 18-year-old anecdote from Buck Showalter when he was Yankees skipper:
“Joel," Buck told him as Showalter watched Mel Hall like a hawk in camp in 1992. "You can have an asshole on your team. But that asshole better be Barry Bonds.”
Not only is that an inherently-flawed assessment, it's an arcane one, too.
Leaving aside that, when healthy, Céspedes is as close to Barry Bonds as the Mets have ever had (and that Hall was truly terrible), Céspedes doesn't really strike me as an asshole. Just an individual at a time when the game has never been more able or more willing to embrace them. Even more importantly, he doesn't strike his teammates that way either.
“He’s a very friendly human being,” Jerry Blevins, who has been Cespedes’ teammate with two teams, told Ken Davidoff last winter. “Easily approachable. Loyal as it comes. And that’s rare for a guy with his talent, to have a personality as friendly as that."
So loyal that the San Francisco Chronicle's Susan Slusser once wrote a story of Cespedes, who after he had learned he had been traded from the Oakland A's to the Boston Red Sox, being completely despondent. The A's were the team who gave him his first chance, she explained, and as a result, he never intended to betray them. To repay them, he wanted to be an Athletic for life. It's a pull of loyalty he still feels so much so that, when his career is coming to an end, he'd hope for one final stop in Oakland.
But that doesn't make for good tabloid fodder, and the truth is that anyone could see a story like this coming a mile away. Shortly after Céspedes was traded to the Mets in July of 2015, I saw the writing on the wall. I even tweeted at the time that not every player has to be the guy who runs hard. Some players just have to do what they do: Be themselves and let their freakish talent ooze out of their pores.
Of course, that doesn't fly with everyone. The game, led by the bastions of its old guard, tends to canonize the Paul O'Neills and David Ecksteins of their world: Players who, yes, won championships, but are known more for their "grinder" qualities than their stat lines. It's not that those qualities are meaningless; they aren't. Any SABR or stat head who ignores the human element of baseball dismisses the biggest x-factor in the great mathematical equation. Grinders have their place, but so do the flashy superstars who are content to concede their ground ball to short and live to fight another at bat.
That's why the guys in the locker room and the fans in the stands alike shouldn't write Céspedes off as selfish or a prima donna. He's just Yoenis Céspedes, for better or worse. No agenda. Just himself. And that should really be enough for everyone involved with this team and this game.
The narrative, which is not exclusive to Sherman, offends me, not just as a Mets fan, but as a person. I'm not comfortable with the idea that the "assholes" are African American and Latino players, like Bonds, Céspedes, and Manny Ramirez, all mentioned by name in this story. I'm not comfortable dismissing the way the game is played by those with different cultural influences -- stuff like the massive celebrations, bat flips, and chest beating we saw on display at last year's World Baseball Classic -- that differ from White America's.
Noted birther Luke Scott still got jobs after he threw banana chips at a Dominican teammate. People still clamor for Pete Rose (note the value of hustle in his nickname) to be enshrined into Cooperstown, despite indiscretions to both the game and society. Why does showmanship get lumped in with "hot dogging" so easily, and why does that inspire such vitriol from a select swath of fans, columnists, and ex-players?
The odd truth is that baseball sometimes requires perfection and harmony from imperfect and rambunctious people. Everyone is imperfect, and by definition, everyone is an individual. Those who thrive in life revel in those facts. Céspedes strikes me as that type. And as many jokey segments that WFAN's Morning Show makes about it, it's also why managers who "care" and take an individualized approach to their players are the game's hottest trend; because after over a century of trying to jam one man's personality down 25 other's throats, we're finally starting to see how completely backwards that idea is.
So as the game evolves, maybe it's time for us to stop projecting our values onto athletes. Maybe its time to stop with the assumptions and just enjoy the show. Because once you do, you start to realize how fun of a show it can be when a guy like Céspedes is center stage.
Tailgate with us on Saturday September 16th at Citi Field! Kick the night off with us in the Marina Lot! The Mets take on the Reds at 7:10pm so we expect fans to start showing up around 3pm. If you can't swing that early, just get there when ya get there.