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This off-season, I built a batting cage on my ranch down in South Florida. Actually, my two cousins and I built it. They live and work on my ranch with me. So, we went out one day to the far side of the pond in front of my house, mapped out a large rectangular area and dug postholes around the outside of it. Then we mixed some concrete, put metal posts in each hole and filled the holes with the concrete. Once the concrete was set, we laid a green turf carpet on the inside between the posts and hung black netting down the sides and across the top, and we were done. We were ready to hit. It was a good afternoon’s work.
It’s funny: When I told my teammate Asdrúbal Cabrera that I was going to build a batting cage, he started joking with me like, “If you want to pay somebody to come build it for you I can loan you some money.”
We both laughed, and then I told him that, of course, it was not about the money. Doing work on my land is just a part of my life. If the animals need to be fed, or something needs to be cleaned, or a new chicken coop needs to be built, I chip in and do it myself. I enjoy it. That is just the work ethic I was raised to have.
One day recently, Lucas Duda and I were hitting in the cage my cousins and I had built, and I was just hitting … hitting … hitting. I think I took like 200 swings. When I finished up, Duda just kind of looked at me and said, “You must be crazy.”
Everybody’s workout is different, but for most guys 200 swings is a lot. I think 50 swings during a workout is pretty normal, and some guys take as many as 100. But for me, 200 is pretty normal. When I was playing for Alazanes de Granma in Cuba, our manager required us to take 550 swings a day. So, for me, 200 is not a lot at all.
That is not to say I work harder than Duda or anybody else. I think every ballplayer is different. Everybody has a different routine. And I have seen how hard Duda works. He works very hard. I think I work hard, too. I just work a little different — the way I was taught to work when I was growing up and playing ball in Cuba.
I was born in the middle of nowhere, in a town called Israel Licea in the Cuban municipality of Campechuela. There’s nothing but open space as far as you can see. Just animals and farmland.
When I was young, one of the jobs I was required to do on my family’s farm was harvest rice.
I don’t know how much you know about growing rice, but you plant it on watery, swampy land. So, when I would go out to harvest it, my legs would sink into the land, sometimes up to my waist, and I would have to fight my way through the mud. When my bag was full, it would sometimes weigh as much as 100 pounds. I would throw it on my back and make my way out of the swamp in the 35°C heat. (We don’t use Fahrenheit in Cuba, but 35°C is like 95°F. So, it was very hot.)
I had a lot of jobs on the farm. As soon as I was big enough to swing an axe, I started cutting down the plants and brush on my family’s property for us to use for fuel or for cooking. It was hard work. Sometimes I would get blisters all over my hands … but I had to keep going, because no matter what condition my hands were in, the work still needed to be done. So, I would keep working until the job was finished. That is what I was taught to do.
The same work ethic carried over to playing baseball out in the open fields in Campechuela. If I was tired from working on the farm all day, I still played ball because that is what I have always loved to do. I never let the fact that I was tired or sore stop me from playing ball, or from working to be a better ballplayer.
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All of this prepared me very well for when I turned 17 years old and started playing pro ball for Alazanes de Granma.
The baseball season in Cuba is very different than it is here in the U.S. Here, we prepare for about 45 days for a 162-game season. In Cuba, the season is only 90 games, but we prepare for it for about 3½ months. And our managers work us out very hard.
During our training, we were made to wake up every morning at 5 a.m. and run 10 kilometers. And that was just our warmup. After our morning run, we would then do about 40 minutes of sprints, ranging from 20 to 100 meters. We ran a lot, we worked on our fielding and throwing a lot, and we hit a lot — remember, 550 swings a day.
I also lifted a lot of weights. One of my cousins, who had always liked working out, built a gym for himself. It was open-air — there was no roof — and the weights weren’t the weights you would normally see in a gym. We didn’t have any real equipment, so we would take old tractor parts, like wheels and gears, and we would refurbish them. We would clean them up, weigh them and mark them with their weight so we knew how much we were lifting. Then we would use old axles or metal rods and slide the wheels and gears on the ends, like a barbell.
On the days when I would wake up at 5 a.m. to work out with my teammates and lift weights with my cousin, there would still be work to do when I got back to the farm. So, no matter how tired I was, I would go right back to work.
Today, it is very much the same. My ranch in South Florida is close to the Mets’ facility in Port St. Lucie. This off-season, I would go to the facility in the morning to run and lift, and then I would go home and finish my workout. But when I was done, my cousins still had work to do on the farm … and I could not just sit back and watch them work and not contribute. So, I would help out, even when I was tired and sore from working out.
A perfect example is that this off-season, we had to build a cow pen on my property. It required us to dig 300 postholes for the foundation, each four feet deep. And instead of paying somebody else to do it, or letting my cousins handle it alone, I helped do it myself. It was one of the many jobs I did on my farm this off-season, and I think the work I do there helps me out when the season comes around. The work on the farm is hard work. It is physical work. It is great conditioning.
And it is also part of my routine. It is what I have always done. It is the work ethic I was raised to have.
Working on the farm reminds me where I come from, which is something I do not want to ever forget. Because I love where I come from. For me, working on the farm is like meditation. There is a tranquility that I find in it. It also keeps me grounded.
I think there are a lot of things that people do not know about me, and that is okay. But a lot of people see me arriving at practice in different cars every day, and based on that, they get an idea in their head about the kind of person I am. And I understand why. I do love my cars, and that is what they see. But my cars alone do not determine who I am as a person. I would be just as happy riding a different horse to practice every day. That is closer to who I really am.
Honestly, because I love the land I live on and I love my home so much, I was very motivated to re-sign with the Mets. Knowing that I could work out at the team’s facility in the off-season and still be near my home — that was very important to me.
If I had to put a percentage on it, I would say that how close my ranch is to the Mets’ facility was 30% of why I decided to re-sign with New York.
The other 70% was a combination of a few different factors.
First, I like to win. So, I want to be a part of a team that I know has a chance to win. And I believe that we do.
I have not talked much to anybody about losing the World Series to the Royals in 2015. Honestly, my teammates and I do not really talk to each other about it much, either. To get that close to winning, and then to lose on our home field, in front of our fans … that did not feel good. That is really all I have to say about it.
It did not feel good.
This season, unlike last year, we are fully healthy, so we are going all in. We believe we can win, and I think my teammates and I are going to talk more about that World Series loss so we can use it as a motivator to get back there and finish what we started.
Another factor in my re-signing with the Mets was that I wanted a home. I wanted a team and a city and a fan base that I could call my own again.
In Cuba, players do not get traded. There is no free agency. You play for the team in the province where you were born. It does not matter if you move to another municipality or a different province. You play for the team where you were born. My team in my birth province of Granma was called los Alazanes. That was the only team I played for in the Cuban National Series, which is our professional league.
In 2011, when I came to the U.S. and signed with the Athletics, I knew that baseball in this country was much more of a business than it is in Cuba. I understood that there was a possibility that I could get traded at some point in my career. But getting traded is one of those things that you do not think will ever happen to you.
Until it happens to you.
When the Athletics traded me to the Red Sox, I was hurt. For the first time in my professional career I felt like I was not wanted.
Then, a few months later, the Red Sox traded me to the Tigers.
And then the Tigers traded me to the Mets.
Being traded so many times was difficult. But, I knew that no matter what, I was still going to be able to play baseball. And that was the most important thing to me.
When I arrived in New York, something felt very different.
Kathy Willens/AP Images
The first time I put on a Mets uniform and walked onto the field in New York, the fans greeted me with so many cheers. I knew that the Mets were going to be a good fit for me. I could feel it. The way I was welcomed by the team and the fans, and the way they made me really feel wanted for the first time since I had first signed with the Athletics — I just knew I was not going to find that anywhere else. Not like that.
So, when I became a free agent, and I could have signed with multiple teams in Major League Baseball, I thought about my ranch in South Florida. I thought about how much I wanted to finish what our team had started when we got to the World Series in 2015. And I thought about the fans who had opened their arms and welcomed me to New York and made me feel so special — and how much I feel that they deserve a championship.
That is my goal this season. That is our goal. And I would not be here if I did not think we could win.
I am happier right now than I have been in some time. It has been a crazy couple of years. And to Mets fans, I have to say, thank you. Please keep putting your trust in me, and know that I am going to go out every day and that I am going to give everything that I have to pay back the love that you have shown me since I arrived. I am going to help this team finish what it started. I am going to make sure my new home achieves the title it deserves. Because ultimately, the feeling of home brings out the best in me.