Sunday August 2, 2020, started out as a relatively normal day in New York Mets-land. The team announced that morning that they had traded one of their top-20 prospects, Jordan Humphreys, to the San Francisco Giants for speedy outfielder Billy Hamilton. I expected that rather head-scratching move to be the biggest headline of the day.
Boy, was I wrong.
During that afternoon’s game, a story broke that was, at first, quite alarming. Or at least, it was framed that way. The Mets released a statement mid-game that Yoenis Céspedes had not shown up to the ballpark and that all attempts to contact him had failed. A media firestorm ensued, with fans and journalists alike speculating about Céspedes’s whereabouts and fearing that he could be in danger.
Minutes after the game, Mets General Manager Brodie Van Wagenen revealed what many fans had begun to suspect: Yoenis Céspedes had decided to opt out of the rest of the 2020 season. He had only appeared in eight games with the Mets since the middle of the 2018 season. And now, his Mets career was essentially over.
Almost exactly five years prior to this date, the sentiment about Céspedes in Queens was very different.
On July 31, 2015, minutes before the trade deadline, the Mets announced that a deal was in place to acquire Céspedes from the Detroit Tigers in exchange for minor league pitchers Michael Fulmer and Luis Cessa. This news came immediately on the heels of the now-infamous “no trade” of Wilmer Flores and Zack Wheeler for Carlos Gomez.
I vividly remember having SNY on and hearing the story break about Céspedes, then seeing the crawl at the bottom of the screen display the exciting news. After a rollercoaster of a week in Metsland, my emotions were on a high once again. Céspedes was here to save a stagnant offense and back up a talented pitching staff. He was a sign that special things might be on the way in the second half of the season.
Sure enough, Céspedes was everything Mets fans could have dreamed of in the summer of 2015. In just 57 games with the Mets, he hit 17 homers and drove in 44 runs. He led the Mets to win after win, and eventually to the NL East division title. Céspedes also provided steady outfield defense that let Mets fans exhale whenever the ball was hit in his general direction.
In the 2015 postseason, Céspedes drove in a few runs, but he was not quite as magical as he had been during his remarkable half of the regular season. His misplay of Alcides Escobar’s leadoff fly ball in Game 1 of the World Series led to an inside-the-park home run, which effectively killed my hopes of the Mets winning it all that year.
After the disappointing end to the 2015 season, many Mets fans were clamoring to bring Céspedes back and soar towards another postseason berth. His contract with the Detroit Tigers was up, and Céspedes was a free agent. In January of 2016, the Mets finally made sure that their prize acquisition of 2015 would be back, and signed him to a three-year, $75 million contract with an option to opt out after the first year.
At the time, I was thrilled by this news. With the monster second half that Céspedes had in 2015, it seemed only natural that he would repeat those heroics in 2016. He was one of the most gifted hitters I had ever seen in Queens; the ball just seemed to explode off of his bat. Whenever the Mets needed a home run, he was there to save the day. I couldn’t wait to see what else he would do as a New York Met.
Céspedes had another fantastic offensive season in 2016, and mostly lived up to the lofty expectations that Mets fans had set for him. He had to miss a few games here and there due to nagging leg injuries, but he finished the year with a .280 batting average, 31 home runs (including a memorable walk-off shot on August 29 against the Miami Marlins), and 86 RBI in 132 games.
The Mets ended up making another improbable run to the postseason in 2016, thanks mostly to Céspedes’ bat and the stretch-run pitching prowess of Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo. Their efforts to return to the World Series were thwarted one game into the playoffs, when they lost the NL Wild Card game to the San Francisco Giants, 3-0. Céspedes went 0-4 with two strikeouts. Still, his regular-season efforts were rewarded with an All-Star selection, a Silver Slugger award, and finishing 8th place in NL MVP voting.
When the 2016 season concluded, Céspedes performed the first opt-out of his Mets career by opting out of his three-year deal with the Mets in early November. They responded by signing him to a four-year deal worth $110 million later that month. Our slugging outfielder was locked up for the foreseeable future. With his potent bat still penciled into the middle of the Mets lineup, 2015 didn’t feel so long ago. He was a reminder that a magical postseason run could occur at any time, and that when they felt like it, sometimes the Mets actually held on to their best players.
2017 started off promisingly for Céspedes, with a 3-homer game on April 11th against the Philadelphia Phillies. But from there, his Mets career began to unravel. Several hamstring injuries limited Céspedes to just 81 games, which played a large role in the Mets finishing the 2017 season in fourth place in the NL East with a 70-92 record.
By the time the 2018 season began, there were very few reminders left of 2015’s glory. David Wright’s official position was “injured,” Matt Harvey was no longer dominant, and Daniel Murphy, Lucas Duda, Curtis Granderson, and Terry Collins were gone. But Céspedes was still here, so maybe, just maybe, he could recapture some of that 2015 magic and anchor this Mets lineup once again. Anything was possible, right?
Unfortunately, his 2018 Mets season was over before it really started. Céspedes played in only 38 games in 2018 before being shut down for the year with surgery needed on both of his heels. This news was disappointing, but with the lack of production in the lineup outside of Céspedes, I hadn’t held out much hope that 2018 would be a memorable year. Aside from Jacob deGrom’s Cy Young-worthy brilliance, it wasn’t.
But as has happened so many times in Céspedes‘ Mets career, his potential return the next year signaled that glorious celebrations might be just around the corner. That dream crashed and burned when, on May 20, 2019, it was revealed that Céspedes had fractured his right ankle in a freak accident on his ranch, and would need to miss the entire 2019 season.
The story spiraled from unfortunate to ridiculous in a matter of months. Several weeks before 2020 Spring Training began, Mets fans finally learned the truth about how Céspedes had actually broken his ankle. A “wild boar incident” on his ranch was to blame: apparently, the animal had escaped from a trap and charged at Céspedes, causing the two-time Home Run Derby champion to step into a hole and badly fracture his ankle.
Because of circumstances related to the non baseball-related injury, the two sides ultimately agreed to reduce Céspedes‘ 2020 salary from $29.5 million to $6 million, though the deal was laden with performance incentives. When this latest installment of “Days of Our Lives: Mets Edition” came out, all I could do was laugh. We thought we had seen it all with Céspedes, enjoying the highest of highs and the lowest of lows with him. This latest episode was neither. It was simply absurd.
But even THEN, despite all of that, I still believed when the 2020 season started that Céspedes could return to form and power the Mets to shortened-season success. With everything that’s happened in 2020, the presence of Céspedes in the Mets lineup gave me hope that perhaps he had another magnificent, team-carrying half season in him.
My prayers were answered on Opening Day when he hit a laser-beam home run to left field that accounted for the Mets’ only run in a 1-0 victory over the Atlanta Braves.
“CÉSPEDES IS BACK, BABY!!!” all of Mets nation cheered jubilantly.
That solo shot, as it turned out, was his last flash of Mets magic. Back on July 24, we had no idea that just over a week later, it would all be over. In a flurry of confusing public statements, mysterious disappearances, and COVID-related concerns, the curtain closed on the triumphant return of Yoenis Céspedes.
Mets fans have dealt with a lot of weird situations and heart-wrenching seasons over the years. Maybe that’s why we cling to our favorite players’ glory days, never giving up hope that they’ll one day bring a championship back to Queens. Mets fans aren’t always optimistic, but we’re generally hopeful, sometimes to a fault. We spend the months of April-September wavering between aggravation and elation, but we always believe.
When Céspedes arrived, he was a signal that the Mets’ front office believed in our team enough to try for a playoff spot. I think Mets fans have spent the last five years trying to return to that moment, the day when the season took off en route to the World Series. When there was so much hope, and no pain.
Despite the rollercoaster saga that was Yoenis Céspedes‘ Mets career, I’ll always remember him fondly. His injuries, for the most part, weren’t his fault. When he was on the field, he was productive. His teammates loved him. He brought a certain swagger and star power to Citi Field that, save for maybe Matt Harvey, we hadn’t seen in Queens in a while. His flair for the dramatic, both on and off the field, was undeniable. Most of all, he was a huge factor in the best Mets moments of the past decade.
I hope that if/when the baseball season (hopefully) returns to its normal, 162-game schedule next year, Céspedes is in a lineup somewhere, hitting bombs and giving another fan base hope that their team has the slugger they need to go all the way. The fact that he made it back on the field at all in 2020 was remarkable. He’s only 34 years old, and should still have a few good years left in him.
As long as he avoids wild boars.
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Photo: The Boston Globe