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Over the last three decades, 52 Cuban-born players have appeared in at least one major league game. Ariel Prieto was among the first of that group to come to the U.S. When he arrived to pitch for Oakland at 25 in July 1995, he felt utterly alone. He would ride a hotel shuttle between the Hilton, in which he lived, and the Coliseum. At night he would lie awake in bed and think, I don't know what I'm going to do here. It was not until his teammates Geronimo Berroa and Stan Javier, both from the Dominican Republic, took him under their wings, to explain to him not only the workings of a new league but also an entirely new culture and country, that he began to feel comfortable.
Given the money they'd invested, and over a relatively short term, the A's knew they could afford no such lost period for Cespedes. So Forst telephoned a pitching coach in the A's minor league organization and told him he had a new job as Cespedes's translator and cultural guide: Ariel Prieto.
Now 43, Prieto became Cespedes's housemate and constant companion last spring, and he set about instructing Cespedes in the ways of American ballplayers, and Americans as a whole. "Everyone thinks the United States is easy, but it's not," Prieto says. Through him, the sudden millionaire learned about insurance and how banks work. And Prieto warned him not to drive too fast. (Cespedes now owns an Alfa Romeo 8C.)
Prieto helped the A's understand some of Cespedes's habits while at the same time trying to cure him of some of those that were the most unhealthy. Like his favorite beverage: a glass of whole milk sweetened with six spoons of sugar. And his desire to consume little but red meat. "When he come over here, the first day, he wants steak—right now. I'm teaching him how to eat salmon." And the cigarettes he sometimes smokes, such as during an early-morning interview with a reporter in the clubhouse manager's office at the team's spring training facility.
Of course, any team that would have been turned off by a foreign player's dietary peccadilloes or the occasional cigarette wouldn't have ended up with Yoenis Cespedes. "I think everybody around him has at least had an appreciation for how difficult an adjustment there was ahead for him," says Zaidi. "That helps a lot."
In other ways Cespedes quickly bonded with his teammates, at least as far as their continuing language barrier has allowed. "He likes to show off his toys, which everybody in here does," says outfielder Josh Reddick. "The big 52 on his gold chain that somehow doesn't weigh his neck down." More than that, though, he has connected with them through their shared devotion to baseball.
During spring training Cespedes often awoke in advance of his 5 a.m. alarm, and he was at the facility by 5:30. "Sometimes it's only the clubbie, the manager and me," he says. There, he works out with the energy seen in his famous Internet video—"Oh, he kills those freaking weights," reports Prieto—but the A's always knew, based on his thickly built 5'10", 210-pound body, that he liked to work out.
What they hoped was that he had the drive and the intellect to continually adapt to a league in which pitchers had abilities and resources—such as scouting reports and video technologies—that were more sophisticated than any he had previously faced. This was the part of the gamble that ultimately held back every other team's pursuit of him. It was the part that would be almost entirely up to him.
The result? "The quickest learning curve I've ever seen," says A's manager Bob Melvin. "Early last spring he was swinging at pitches that were way out of the zone. The next time he faced that guy, he wasn't."
"The thing he could do right from the start was crush mistakes," says Forst. "The homer he hit that won our second game of 2012, in Japan, proved right away that he can hit a hanging breaking ball. But the ability he developed to lay off those pitches, know how teams were pitching to him and make adjustments was very impressive."