There's always been a fascination with baseball players from Cuba that could do given the same shot that players from the free world have get to make it to the major leagues.
While their paths to Major League Baseball involve high risk, calculated decisions and going through dangerous routes that go along with arranging their defections, teams are quick to jump at signing some of the island's top talent.
When Yoenis Céspedes, a 26-year-old Cuban center fielder received a four-year, $36 million deal in February he admitted that he felt the pressure to produce from the get go with Oakland but with the help of his teammates, he was able to find some relaxation.
Despite hitting .245, his 21 RBI lead the team and is tied for second on the team with five home runs. Last Sunday the Athletics placed Céspedes on the 15-day disabled list with a strained muscle in his left hand. He says he's OK and can return as early as May 22, just a week before Manny Ramírez's 50-game suspension is up.
Céspedes recently chatted with Fox News Latino his career, Cuba and his decision to leave.
Fox News Latino: What has this experience been like so far?
Céspedes: First and foremost I have to give a lot of thanks to the Oakland organization for giving me the opportunity to make one of my dreams come true so that I can test myself in this game of baseball. I feel very happy with the results that I have had up until now. I'm working day to day to see if I can maintain myself at the level I'm at.
FNL: Is this what you expected? Are the any differences you see between playing baseball in the big leagues and the baseball you played in Cuba?
Céspedes: Well, yes. For me, the between this brand of baseball and the Cuban one is the consistency in quality --particularly, in the pitching. In Cuba you will find two or three pitchers on each team that throw the ball at 94 mph or 95 mph. Here you get the starter throwing 93 or 94. The relievers also throw hard and, the closer throws even harder. I think that's the difference.
I can't tell you if this is what I expected because I had the opportunity to play in the 2009 (World Baseball) Classic --which went very well for me-- but that was simply six games. Here the season is very long. First of all, I have to adapt myself to this type of baseball. The only goal I do have is to maintain myself in form so I can help the team.
FNL: Did playing the World Baseball Classic open your eyes up?
Céspedes: Well, before playing the Classic, I never had thought about playing here in the big leagues. When I had the chance to play in the Classic with major league baseball players, that's when I started to think I could play at this level, but never with intentions to leave Cuba. But some things happened in Cuba which made me think about leaving the country and realizing this dream of testing myself in major league baseball.
FNL: What happened in Cuba that made you change you mind and defect?
Céspedes: Last season in Cuba I tied the record for home runs. I finished as the RBI leader. I finished among the top three in runs scored, leader in slugging. It was my best season in eight years. But the national team had three teams --the main team, the second and third string-- and, with everything I did, they sent me to the last team. I went to talk to the director of Cuba's baseball program. I asked why was I sent to the last team, and he told me that it was so I could play more. It meant that with everything I did I couldn't be on the first team. That's when I made the decision to leave Cuba.
FNL: In adapting to the American way of life, has anything surprised you? Who has helped you out during this major transition?
Céspedes: I started travelling in Cuba in 2003. I have gone to a lot of developed countries. For me, what's given me a hard time is the language. But thanks to an American trainer I had in the Dominican Republic, who was with me there for seven months and who is still with me in Oakland, and my close friend [Athletics coach] Ariel Prieto, who's my interpreter here, they have helped me a little bit with my development. But, little by little, I have to adapt to a lot of things.
FNL: You had the chance to meet Manny Ramírez during Spring Training. What was that like and how has he helped you?
Céspedes: First of all, it was a privilege and a pleasure to have met Manny Ramírez. He's a player that's produced a lot in this game of baseball. When I met him, I told him some of the things I did in Cuba and he told me that everything would be alright, and that he would help me. We went to the cages everyday --early in the morning-- to work. He told me that this brand of baseball was much more psychological. He told me, 'I’ve seen you play in the Classic. You have the capacity to do it. You simply have to believe in yourself and you will be fine.'
FNL: Your first game as a major leaguer was in Japan at the end of March to open the season. What was that like?
Céspedes: I had the opportunity to travel to Japan in 2010 during the World University Baseball Championship. It went well for me in that tournament. The Japanese fans supported me a lot. I thought that with what I did in 2010 they would support me a lot, and that's how it went. What can I say? I felt a little bit of pressure at the beginning in my first big league game.
FNL: When you wake up in the morning and look yourself in the mirror, do you pinch yourself to see if this is all true?
Céspedes: I've never thought about that. I simply get up, call Ariel, and ask him at what time we're leaving to the stadium. I'm just thinking about what I did wrong in yesterday's game and that I have to be there early to work on what I did wrong.
FNL: Have any of the Cuban players given you any tips and words of advice?
Céspedes: Not really. I did have the opportunity to meet Kendry (Morales) when we played against the Anaheim (Angels). He's spent a lot of years here. Since he saw me play, he told me that everything will be OK. He said 'You're doing good. This is about to start now. Its 162 games just keep doing what you've always done because you're going to be good.' I spent an hour and half talking with [Boston's Jose] Iglesias about how it is that you live in this country and how you have to go about things in this country.
FNL: With the Los Angeles Angels and Texas Rangers being the favorites in the American League West division, what are you expecting out of this Athletics team?
Céspedes: What's really important about this team is that the majority of us are young, and the best thing we have going for ourselves is that we have the desire to play baseball. It's better to have a team that does not have a lot of stars but has the desire to play baseball, rather than a team that has stars who play for their individual stats. You have to play together. I think that, little by little, this team is going to make its adjustments and the results will come out.
FNL: You're the highest paid player on the team. Is there any added pressure?
Céspedes: Well at the beginning I thought that I had to, I don't know, since I was the highest paid that I had to do more than everybody, go harder. But a lot of the guys have spoke to me and they've said no, just play my normal game and do my job and that everything will work out little by little.
FNL: Do you envision a day when baseball players in Cuba can play in the major leagues without having to defect?
Céspedes: Well, I won't say it's not going to happen, but if it does occur, it will take a few years to happen. I think it will be the best thing to happen for Cuba, because when they go to international tournaments, Cuba's goal is to win --and you're seeing that other countries have gotten stronger in the game and it makes Cuba work to win championships. But if that does happen, like I said, it's the best for Cuba, so that when they go out to other tournaments, the players are going to me better prepared and will have played at a higher level. I hope it does happen.
Adry Torres, who has covered MLB, NFL, NBA and NCAA basketball games and related events, is a regular contributor to Fox News Latino. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter: @adrytorresnyc