By Circles Robinson
HAVANA TIMES, March 11 — Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes got off to a fairy tale start in Major League Baseball on Saturday with his debut in the Spring Training Grapefruit League.
Hounded by cameras and reporters wanting to see the $36 million player in action, Cespedes, admittedly nervous, started in centerfield and in three at-bats he managed a walk, single and solo home run.
He drove in two runs and also caught the only ball hit his way to top off the perfect day.
When the MLB season begins in April, the Oakland Athletics will pay Cespedes upwards of US $15,000 for each time he comes up to the plate, a mind-boggling sum that is far more than his accumulated salary in six years in the Cuban League.
Cespedes, 26, played in Cuba for his home team Granma, where he tied for the league record in homers during the 2010-2011 season with 33, a record that should be easily eclipsed this year by his former teammate Alfredo Despaigne, who has 29 with a third of the Cuban League’s 96-game season still remaining.
“I feel great, the results I had today make me feel good,” Cespedes told AP through his interpreter, Ariel Prieto, a fellow Cuban trying to make it in MLB. “He was great,” teammate Jemile Weeks added. “That’s how you’re supposed to come onto the scene.”
Many of the 6,644 fans that turned out for the game, a large crowd for Spring Training, were there to see what the highly touted Cuban could do and were clearly not disappointed.
Another big name Cuban player, lefty Aroldis Chapman, who received a $30 million contract from the Cincinnati Reds, is currently vying for the fifth starter’s role on his team. If the Holguin native, who throws a mean 100 mph+ fastball, doesn’t get the nod, Manager Dusty Baker says he will be used again in the bullpen.
Baseball fans on the island like to keep track of the Cuban players in MLB, but they must do so via illegal TV or Internet connections and word of mouth, because the Cuban press is not allowed to even mention the names of “defectors” who are treated as traitors.
Cuban TV broadcasts professional soccer and basketball but never MLB baseball, the national sport.