WEST PALM BEACH, FLA. -- This was a long way from what had been billed as Snowpocalypse, a long way from the storm hitting Citi Field and the rest of New York City a week before the official start to spring. This was a game between the Mets and the Astros at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches on Tuesday, and the kind of big swing that would do exactly what these games are supposed to do at this time of year: make people think they could see all the way through a snow day to the baseball summer.
This was Yoenis Cespedes doing what he has done since Sandy Alderson made a Trade Deadline deal for him in the summer of 2015, a deal that would eventually take the Mets all the way back to the World Series: This was Cespedes being the most exciting at-bat the Mets have ever had.
He had come up in the first inning against Lance McCullers of the Astros and hit one that was just far enough up the bat and into just enough of a wind sometimes blowing sideways on this afternoon that the ball died in left. Not the second time around against McCullers, though. This time, in the top of the third, Cespedes cranked one off the Astros' starter, his fifth home run of the spring, and another one that turned outfielders into spectators.
"They don't have to move," Mets owner Fred Wilpon says. "Mostly, they just watch."
Manager Terry Collins puts it another way about Cespedes:
"He commands your attention."
Cespedes has already hit a couple of others like it this spring, one to dead center up in Port St. Lucie, where the Mets train, that they are still talking about. Now this one against McCullers. Wind couldn't stop it. Ballpark couldn't hold it. And as soon as the ball disappeared over the fence in left, you knew this was going to make them happy later in National League New York, which has come to life again these past two years because of all the young arms the Mets have, but also because of Cespedes, and all the stick he has brought to the Mets.
There have been other home run guys for the Mets across their history. There was a time when Dave Kingman hit balls out of sight, and Darryl Strawberry did the same thing when he was young, before he made a mess of things, when a tough old baseball man named Dick Williams once compared Strawberry to a young Ted Williams. And there were years when Carlos Beltran was something to see for the Mets, all the way to Game 7 of the National League Championship Series against the Cardinals in 2006, before Adam Wainwright of the Cardinals hit Beltran with his best hook and the Mets season died with the bat on Beltran's shoulder.
But there has never been a more exciting Mets hitter than Yoenis Cespedes, who came to the big leagues from Cuba and bounced around in Oakland and Boston and Detroit before not just landing in New York, but deciding he liked it in New York, and wanted to stay. Not everybody does.
"He's what I call a one-percenter," Mets second baseman Neil Walker, who'd only known Cespedes as an opponent before last season, says. "That kind of talent plus that kind of baseball intelligence, and passion for the game, and drive."
Walker adds, "He's a show even in batting practice. He'll go, 'I'm going to hit one out to left now' and then does it. 'I'm gonna hit one out to center.' Then he does that."
Walker laughs and says, "All I'm doing is trying to hit the ball hard anywhere."
"Tool for tool," Collins says, "the tools he has compare to anybody else's in this game. Mike Trout's. Bryce Harper's. That's my opinion. There's nothing those guys can do that he can't."
Collins watches Cespedes walk toward home plate for his batting practice, maybe 90 minutes before the Mets-Astros game will start.
"Once he got to the U.S.," Collins says, "I think there was always the sense with him that he never knew where he was going to be, or if he was going to stay anyplace. It was like he always had some kind of out in his contract. But now he's here. I honestly believe he feels like he's a part of something. He feels like he belongs. He's at the park at 6:30 this morning. He played four games in a row last week. I see him with his arm around some of our younger players, like our kid at short, [Amed] Rosario, talking to him about what it's going to take in the big leagues."
"And I'll tell you something about this guy," he says. "He knows how to handle the bad days, but maybe that's just because he knows there aren't going to be too many of them."
Cespedes came to the Mets from Detroit in the kind of game-changing trade that the Mets made in the '80s for Keith Hernandez, and Gary Carter. Over the last 57 regular-season games of the '15 season, he hit 17 home runs and had 44 RBIs, along with an OPS of .942, and for the last two months of that season was as valuable as any player in baseball. The Mets caught and passed the Nationals and ended up sweeping the Cubs in the NLCS and finally lost to the Royals in five games in the World Series, things going wrong for the Mets in the ninth inning of Game 5 when they were an inning away from taking the whole thing back to Kansas City.
Last year, around his own injuries and all the others the Mets suffered, with so little support ahead of him or behind him in the batting order, Cespedes still managed to hit 31 home runs in 132 games and knocked in 86 RBIs and was still the best they had when they came back from being 60-62 in August and finished 27-13 to earn an NL Wild Card Game berth against Madison Bumgarner and the Giants at Citi Field. Cespedes had signed a three-year contract before the season that gave him a one-year out. He exercised his option to become a free agent, but then decided he did want to stay in New York and stay with the Mets, four years and $110 million and a permanent home -- about as permanent as anything gets these days in big-league baseball -- for the first time, really, since he got here from Cuba.
"Even before they worked out the new deal," Collins says, "he told me, 'See you at Spring Training.'"
It was Spring Training on Tuesday, a little less than an hour down I-95 from where the Mets train. We always start the conversation about the Mets, and their chances, by talking about starting pitching, about Jacob deGrom, who pitched four innings against the Astros, and Noah Syndergaard, and Matt Harvey, and the rest of them. But they have no chance without somebody like Cespedes in the middle of Collins' batting order. He commands everybody's attention, as he keeps hitting the kind of home run he hit against McCullers.
You know the kind: Sometimes the ball doesn't stop rolling, even on a snow day, until it makes it all the way up north.