Yoenis, Superstar

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On Sunday night, a highlight video of Cuban defector and aspiring MLB center fielder Yoenis Cespedes, known as “Yoennis” up until a few days ago, appeared on YouTube. It set the sports world (well, one very specific quadrant of it) abuzz, and then just as abruptly, was removed by the uploader, presumably due to copyright issues.

The baseball clips of the 26 year-old Cespedes, generally considered the most talented Cuban position player of his generation, are impressive. Yet virtually no one wanted to talk about anything but the pure spectacle of the 20-minute package: the use of Christopher Cross’s “Sailing” as a backing track; more weightlifting reps than anyone could possibly want to see; an unexplained shout out to former Packers running back Ahman Green; sound effects seemingly cribbed from a high-school sophomore’s PowerPoint presentation; and a lingering close-up of a pig on a spit. 

On Sunday, Kevin Goldstein (who helped me track down a copy of the video) and Jeff Passan mulled the details. Yet the biggest question raised by the video, apart from where the fuck its editor went to film school, is exactly what kind of scouts Cespedes thought he would impress with such a bizarre reel. Most tapes, likethis one of rampant egoist and top prospect Bryce Harper, can only really be parsed by die-hards and scouts trained to identify holes in swings and improper throwing mechanics. The Cespedes video is more like an art installation in which the intricacies of playing baseball become irrelevant. It comes off as an act of personal expression rather than an on-message display of athletic dominance. 

Like many Cuban defectors, Cespedes has until recently been anonymous, playing for international audiences during the 2009 World Baseball Classic and otherwise spending time behind the wall of the Cuban embargo. This video is meant as much to announce a sense of purpose, to frame his journey to the majors and prove that he’s worth a multi-million dollar investment. It’s ridiculous to open with an English-text, Spanish-narration Star Wars-style crawl, but not completely baseless for Cespedes to compare himself to Luke Skywalker. Both come from humble beginnings with the hopes of becoming intergalactic heroes. Skywalker bullseyed womp rats on Tattooine; Cespedes mashed taters on dirt fields in Campechuela. 

However, this “El Duque”-esque origin story proves short-lived. Cespedes signals his broader intent with the “Sailing” music cue. It becomes abundantly clear later in the video that Cespedes doesn’t actually consider Christopher Cross to be the ultimate in rock-star cool — he’s much more into mainstream hip-hop. For all the times Cespedes shows the same home run three times or slows down a highlight to speeds that would make John Woo blush, his on-field exploits come across as small, in part because of the poor video quality but primarily because Cross is so lame. As any European soccer fan knows, a standard-issue highlight reel requires aggressive, club-ready beats. (For a dissenting opinion, read classically trained countertenor and soccer writer Richard Whittall.) While Cespedes wants his audience to take his stats in Cuba seriously, he knows that questions about the quality of play will dog him until he proves himself on a larger stage. There’s no point in turning a few Cuban records into apocalyptic events when Cespedes wants them to go down as prelude to his much loftier goals. 

Instead of treating his story as near completion, Cespedes next goes totally off the rails and offers an extended peek into his workout regimen—an over-the-top interlude meant to show, in the abstract, just how fucking awesome he is. Pec-shots and drill times tell scouts very little; they’re fetishistic bits of self-love reminiscent of a Kenny Powers/Stevie Janowski joint. Jay-Z, Juelz Santana, and Lil Wayne blare; the workout clips present a picture of an athlete at the cutting edge of popular culture and fitness. Despite having grown up in one of the few countries with no multinational corporate influence, Cespedes is presented in a way that makes him seem no less comfortable in the contemporary athlete’s world than a kid who grew up in Albuquerque. 

Until he faces major league pitching, Cespedes’s biggest hurdle to lasting success will be proving that he can handle the culture shock of moving from Cuba to North America. For most defectors, that transition involves staying quiet and adapting as fast they can over a few months of minor league ball. Cespedes appears to be taking the opposite track, cutting off potential criticism before it starts by displaying the flair of a modern athlete before he even his first pro contract. He even wants to show off his famous friends, starting with a fumble-prone running back best remembered by people who were lucky enough to draft him in their fantasy football leagues in 2003. 

Cespedes, to his credit, knows that his baseball skills and talent will matter most at team-attended workouts, not on YouTube. (Passan’s article contains a firsthand report from a scout who compares Cespedes favorably to Angels rookie Mike Trout, a five-tool player universally considered to be among the five best prospects in baseball.) But, until this video leaked, he lacked any sort of personal story beyond the normal wide-eyed awe of America associated with every defector of the past few decades. Many of them, including Cespedes’s peer Aroldis Chapman, have earned large contracts. Yet none besides El Duque have become particularly marketable or notable in the media. Cespedes, or at least his handlers, have a grasp of what makes a player worth noticing in today’s media climate. 

Cespedes’s video probably lure any teams to his workouts who weren’t attending already. Still, it accomplished quite a bit for its subject. No matter how wildly imprecise (or Dadaist, if you feel charitable) this attempt at brand-building feels, it does make Cespedes seem like an excitable kid with as good a chance at making it in the majors as any athletically gifted center fielder with a solid history of minor league production. Given that Cespedes may be older than his listed age and has proven nothing in the context of American baseball, those are not small achievements. No matter what, we know he’ll be a lot of fun. 

And remember, audiences didn’t know what to do with L’avventura when it premiered, either.

 This article has been edited to correct two typos.

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