Senior Baseball Columnist

Cespedes still a bit of an unknown, so A's start him with a known


A's outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, who could begin the year in the minors, takes batting practice. (AP)  
A's outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, who could begin the year in the minors, takes batting practice. (AP)  

PHOENIX -- They're not stupid, these Oakland A's. Yoenis Cespedes had been in uniform for barely the amount of time it takes to get a pizza delivered, and already I was thinking back to Ted Williams.

Naw, not exactly while watching him hit. For one thing, he's a lanky right-hander. Teddy Ballgame, of course, batted lefty.

It was something else.

First thing the Athletics did with their exotic new Cuban import on his first day in the majors Sunday was run him through the requisite press conference. Which he did in full uniform, because the second thing the A's had him do was report immediately from there to the field for batting practice.

That's where I thought of Williams, and the tremendous story Twins coach Rick Stelmaszek tells from when he was a young catcher with the Washington Senators in 1970 and Williams was managing.

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One spring day, the Senators were working on rundowns when two veteran coaches -- one of them Nellie Fox -- became embroiled in a heated argument. Each coach insisted his way of doing it was the right way. The players stood still, riveted, watching and waiting. Stelmaszek says it was so ugly he was sure the coaches were going to fight.

A few minutes later, Williams shows up on the field and wants to know what's going on. Fox tells his side of the story. The other coach tells his. The players wait for direction from the manager. Which was the right way?

"F--- it!" the great Williams finally boomed. "Let's hit!"

Eventually in this game, it's all about comfort level. If you've got skills, you've got skills. And Cespedes, by all accounts, is loaded with them.

Now it's up to the A's to make him comfortable, get him relaxed and put him in the best position for those skills to flourish. There is plenty for Cespedes to learn after defecting from Cuba. New culture, language barrier, new pitchers, the list goes on and on. That will all come in time.

For now, the A's figured, stick a bat in his hands.

As for the rest, well, don't ask vice president and general manager Billy Beane quite yet about what to expect from Cespedes, because no one knows for sure. Beane doesn't dare allow himself to dream of numbers and production. Yet.

"Based on the contract, the sooner the better," Beane deadpanned, grinning.

Here's what the Athletics do know about the brand new $36 million outfielder who joined them Sunday: He starred in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, hitting .458 as Cuba's starting center fielder. He crushed 33 homers in 90 games during the 2010-2011 season Cuban National Series, which tied the single-season record for the best baseball league there. He plays a mean center field, is incredibly athletic and does some crazy things jumping (a 45-inch box jump!) and lifting (1,300-pound leg press! 350-pound bench-press!) on a YouTube video that long ago went viral (though the inclusion of Christopher Cross' 1980 hit Sailing as part of the soundtrack didn't appear to help sell Athletics manager Bob Melvin).

"We have great reports on him," Melvin said [of Cespedes, not Cross]. "We hear he's a heck of an athlete. I'm sure he'll be pretty happy to be here.

"There's a lot going on. Coming into a situation like this can be uncomfortable. Sometimes, the solace is actually getting on the field and playing baseball."

Cespedes, through a translator (Juan Navarrette, a minor-league coach), said he has been waiting seven months to get back on the field, spending most of that time working out and preparing for the challenge.

"He's laser-focused," said his agent, Adam Katz. "I've never seen anything like it."

Wearing No. 52, Cespedes said, "I'm very close to my dream of playing in the big leagues. ... I feel in very good shape and I'm ready to take on the challenge."

He signed with Oakland, he said, because he was intent on getting a four-year deal. Many in the industry had pegged the Marlins as favorites, given their high level of interest and the huge Cuban population in South Florida.

"Oakland was the one interested in four years," Cespedes said. "Once I knew Oakland's offer was four years, I didn't hesitate."

He knew little about the organization. He did talk with former Athletic Miguel Tejada briefly in the Dominican Republic, his way station between Cuba and Oakland, and Tejada told him what a great organization Oakland is, with terrific people.

Lots and lots and lots of those people can be found here in the outfield. Incredibly, with the addition of Cespedes, the A's now have 16 outfielders in camp. Coco Crisp ... Jonny Gomes ... Josh Reddick ... Seth Smith ... Michael Taylor ... Manny Ramirez ... if you meet an A and don't know him, chances are he's an outfielder.

As manager, Melvin swears he knows them all.

"Just the last names," he quipped. "Not the first names.

"I know who they all are. I feel bad for some of them because they might not get the number of at-bats they want this spring."

Crisp does not want to give up center field, though most figure he'll wind up in left and Cespedes in center.

"It'll play out," Melvin said. "I'm not too concerned about that yet. From what I understand, center field is his most comfortable position."

When Cespedes finished hitting Sunday morning, he jogged out to center field with one of his hitting-group partners: Manny. The two of them stood and talked for the longest time, Ramirez demonstratively waving his arm at one point. Yep, folks around the batting cage figured, they're talking hitting.

The A's do not know for sure when they'll get Cespedes into a Cactus League game, though it sounds like he'll be ready within five or six days. They're unsure whether he'll break camp on the opening day roster -- remember, the A's open with Seattle in Japan on March 28 -- until they see him play.

"We thought he had unique physical skills," Beane said. "Strength, speed. Really, to find a center-of-the-diamond player in the prime of his career, those players usually aren't available to us.

"Listen, anytime you put that kind of money out, it's a risk."

With a bat in his hand, same way it was in Cuba, the A's are hopeful that it's low-risk, at worst.

"At the end of the day, it's the same game," Gomes said. "It's 90 feet to first. Sixty feet, 6 inches. Three outs in an inning.

"And whoever touches the dish most wins. That shouldn't be any different."


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