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Yoenis Cespedes deserves to be remembered fondly

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La Potencia was, above all, a positive presence who brought us some amazin’ memories.

NL Division Series: Los Angeles Dodgers v. New York Mets Game Four

Yoenis Cespedes’ career with the Mets was messy, but then again life is messy. His tenure in New York was complicated, but then again life is complicated. His time with the Mets wasn’t perfect, but then again life isn’t perfect.

And just like that, La Potencia’s run with the Mets abruptly ended when the 34-year-old opted out of the 2020 season due to concerns over coronavirus on Sunday. It wasn’t the storybook ending we had dreamed about would be when we came to New York, full of power, promise, and potential, but life isn’t made up of storybook endings. It’s made up of individual instances, good and bad, that collate to form a complete picture. In the end, Mets fans should look upon the complete picture of Cespedes the Met with fondness.

It started with a stunning trade deadline acquisition, one nobody saw coming. As 4:00pm quickly approached on July 31, 2015, Mets fans everywhere sought their go-to source for baseball news, be it WFAN, SNY, or furiously scrolling Twitter, for any hint that Sandy Alderson and the Mets had a pulse heading into the final day of the deadline. At the time, the Mets found themselves three games back of the first-place Nationals—a minor miracle considering how the team had played since their 11-1 April start—and were still alive despite a string of dreadful losses and a Carlos Gomez trade that, very publicly, fell through, leaving the team sans the game-changing bat they desperately needed.

For those agonizing minutes leading up to 4:00pm, it looked like the Mets were about to do the unthinkable by standing pat and, in the process, waving the proverbial white flag on the season. Then, just like that, the Mets got their man. It’s one of those moments where fans remember where they were when they found out. I was streaming WFAN from work when Joe and Evan announced that the Mets had landed Cespedes, the slugger who made his mark at Citi Field by winning the Home Run Derby in exhilarating fashion two years earlier.

Following the move, the momentum decidedly shifted and the season took on a completely different shape. At Citi Field that night—a game made famous for the Wilmer Flores 12th inning heroics—the Mets made a point of playing video highlights of Cespedes in between every inning, and the anticipation and excitement among the paying crowd was palpable. The Cespedes era, which would begin one night later, was a watershed moment for the franchise, a signal that the Mets were ready to take center stage and make their mark on the baseball world.

As soon as he walked through the clubhouse doors, Cespedes was a big hit in New York. He brought with him a bravado that made him fun to watch and changed the perception of what the Mets were and what they could be. All of a sudden, the team was confident and unstoppable. In 56 games after debuting on August 1, he slashed .287/.337/.604 with 17 home runs, a 156 wRC+, and a 2.6 fWAR. More noteworthy than the individual accolades was the team’s 34-20 record when he started a game. His presence in the lineup made hitters around him better. He had a flare for the dramatic with big hits at key junctures of the game, and the team followed his lead, as they were never out of a game from that point forward.

Linda Surovich already did a terrific job of reliving his Mets highlights, but the parakeet appearance following his first home run and his game-defining dinger against Drew Storen and the Nationals bear repeating. They are the kind of pleasant memories you latch on to from a pennant-winning season, the sort of fun anecdotes you relive years down the road with other fans. His home run and subsequent bat flip in Game 3 of the NLDS that year was the stuff of legends, a titanic blast that sent Citi Field into a frenzy that made the very foundation of the stadium shake.

While his performance in the playoffs and the World Series didn’t quite match his output from the regular season, you could make the legitimate argument that the Mets would not have made it to the postseason without him. This is not a hyperbole to anyone who saw the swift change in fortunes once he arrived. Baseball is a team sport, and no one person can single-handedly will a team to the playoffs/ While everyone from David Wright to Curtis Granderson to Matt Harvey to Jacob deGrom played their part, all you need to know is that people debated whether the star outfielder could be considered for NL MVP after two months in the league. That is how his arrival affected the Mets and the landscape of the National League.

The following offseason, it felt almost certain that the Cespedes-Mets relationship was destined to be a short-term affair. The notoriously stingy Mets did not seem serious about bringing him back, and teams were ready to pay through the nose following his productive half-season in New York. When all seemed lost, the Mets won Cespedes over with a three-year deal—equipped with an opt-out after year one—while teams reportedly had more lucrative five-year offers on the table. All told, Cespedes took less guaranteed money to stay in New York, a fact that doesn’t get talked about nearly enough. He could have walked, but he chose to stay in an attempt to finish what the team started the previous season. It was an admirable move that proved the slugger cared far more than just the amount of money he would be making, and he further ingratiated himself to the Flushing Faithful.

Cespedes was once again a force in 2016, a year which began when he rode into spring training atop a horse alongside Noah Syndergaard in a display of swagger not yet matched around these parts. In all, he hit .280/.354/.530 with a team-high 31 homers and an All Star game nod. While he wasn’t the sole force that led the team to a Wild Card berth, he again played a pivotal role in the team making back-to-back postseason appearances for only the second time in team history. Between the two years, the team posted a .595 winning percentages when he was in the lineup, and they were a far different team than when he was absent. At his peak, there was nobody in the Mets’ lineup who was more electrifying to watch and more crucial to the team’s success.

After another offseason where it appeared a near certainty that he would depart for greener pastures, he stayed again, this time inking a four-year deal worth $110 million. It was a move that married the two sides for the long-term but, unfortunately, it did not work out nearly as well. Things started to turn in 2017, when injuries took hold and rendered him a mere shell of the player he once was. He was still fine when he was healthy, with 17 home runs, a 132 wRC+, and a 1.7 fWAR in 81 games, but he was far from the imposing presence he was in 2015 and 2016.

The following season, surgery on both his heels cut his season short after just 38 games and kept him out of the lineup until this season. Injuries are, unfortunately, a part of the game, and they became far too much a part of the Cespedes story, almost entirely overshadowing his positive impact from the past few seasons. Cespedes did not wish to have his legs fail him, but it was an unfortunately side effect of being an aging athlete. This is unfair, but then again life is often unfair.

Along the way, the trust between the two sides deteriorated, headlined by a boar accident on his ranch that led to a drastic restructuring of his contract and saw his favor among Mets fans diminish. He gained the reputation of an injury-prone primadonna who had other things on his mind besides baseball. The narrative shifted to him wearing a backwards baseball hat or hitting the golf course far too often. He received backlash among fans who thought he was eating away at the team financially. The memory of his home runs were swapped with back page headlines from the beat questioning his dedication or his place on this team. Perhaps it’s should have felt inevitable, as players far more beloved than Cespedes had fallen victim to this level of ire from fans, but it still felt unwarranted.

The last few years of Cespedes’ time with the Mets was marred by drama and dysfunction, sometimes self-inflicted but often-times an unfortunate byproduct of the organization that he had called home for the past five-plus years. Allison McCague already recapped how the Mets fanned the flames in the Cespedes opt-out debacle in her stellar editorial, and I would encourage you all to read the piece for more on how exactly the Mets and the Wilpons played a big role in how the narrative played out around his opt-out. This is not the piece to rehash those very valid criticisms, but instead to remind people that there is far more to the Cespedes story than the bad that we’ve become accustomed to over the past few years. Just because the story wasn’t all perfect, doesn’t make it any less worth celebrating.

When examining his legacy in New York, none of the well-publicized blemishes should take away from the incredible memories he brought us in his time of the Mets. Cespedes was a larger-than-life figure who created an immediate and everlasting impact and was a key contributor to the last pennant-winning Mets team. He generated a lifetime of unforgettable plays in five short years and, in reality, really did most of it over the first year—plus that he was here. He did great things while he was here, and the Mets were great when he was on top of his game. When he was on top of his game, he was a joy to watch.

It’s a borderline crime that recency bias will direct Mets fans to feel indifference at best and rage at worst towards Cespedes, rather than admiration and appreciation. He was not a perfect human being, but very few athletes are. He is a person who took pride in his craft and did his best to make the Mets the best team they could be. For all intents and purposes, when he was around, they were one of the best teams in baseball.

This is the Cespedes I will remember. In the coming years, the drama will be a distant memory, but the impact he had on the field will persevere. It’s so rare that we have a player as gifted as Cespedes, and he deserves to be remembering fondly.