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Making Baseball Fun Again

No disrespect to Buster, Hunter, or MadBum, but this season, we’re all in on Johnny Cueto.


Johnny Cueto

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Johnny Cueto chillin’ in Arizona during spring training.

Photo: Via Instagram

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Chillin’ in the clubhouse.

Photo: Via Instagram

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Chillin’ away from the ballpark.

Photo: Via Instagram

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Johnny Cueto is running up and down the stairs inside AT&T Park between sections 122 and 123. He’s been at it for half an hour or so, and in a few minutes, he’ll finish up by sprinting several times from the third-base line into center field, then jogging back. He’d considered taking his jog outside the stadium today, along the Embarcadero, but ultimately decided he preferred the peace and quiet of the nearly empty stadium. “Los fanaticos,” he tells me by way of explanation as we sit down inside the home team’s dugout.

Up close, one is struck immediately by Cueto’s physique: He’s listed at 5 foot 11 and 220 pounds, but neither those vitals nor descriptors like “barrel-chested” quite do him justice. Rather, Cueto gives the impression of two people having been scrunched into one body. From the left field bleachers, Cueto’s girth makes him look like the latest in a line of lovable plus-size pitchers (think Liván Hernández, Bartolo Colón, or CC Sabathia, but a little shorter). So I’m surprised, and perhaps even a little disappointed, to learn that Cueto, like most other elite athletes, is in fact ripped. Probably because in just about every other way, Cueto is so refreshingly unlike most elite athletes.

Take, for instance, his lavishly dreadlocked and orange-tipped mane, which necessitates a do-rag and size-8 hat to accommodate it. Or his flagrantly unorthodox pitching delivery. Whereas most others are drilled into the simplest, most easily repeated motion through years of practice, Cueto seems to make his move up on the fly—sometimes twisting around so his back faces the hitter, other times rocking back and forth on one leg in a move he calls “La Mecedora” (the rocking chair), other times feigning the exaggerated motion and then suddenly lunging forward to catch a hitter off guard. Or take his laissez-faire approach to hitting: Earlier this year, Cueto tried, for no reason in particular, to bunt for a hit with two strikes. (He struck out.) For anyone else, the move would have flown in the face of accepted baseball wisdom. For Cueto, it was practically par for the course. This is, after all, the guy who was nearly thrown out at first base on a hit to the outfield this spring, who once tried (and failed) to break a bat over his knee, and who took a running swing at a pitch à la Happy Gilmore lining up a tee shot.

Erwin Higueros, the Giants’ Spanish-language radio broadcaster and team interpreter who’s translating for us today, sums up Cueto’s attitude toward his profession by comparing him with his more severe teammates: “Casilla [Santiago, the team’s closer] gets frustrated—you can see it on his face—when a ball doesn’t get called a strike. Or Bumgarner [Madison, the team’s ace], he shows it, he’s all business. But Johnny, he smiles. Like he’s having fun. Every time I translate for him, it’s, ‘It’s a game. It’s baseball. Let’s just have fun.’”

The mantra’s catching on. Where once fans toasted to a happy Lincecum Day whenever their pint-size star toed the rubber, it’s now Cueto’s turn to give us the warm fuzzies. Cueto Day—#DiaDeCueto in Giants marketing speak—promises two things fans love: the possibility of something strange happening and, most important, a Giants win. (Through early September, the team was 20–9 in games he started.) Says Danny Dann, the Giants’ VP of marketing and advertising, “We’re starting to see the same thing we had with Lincecum—you’d see a bump in ticket sales. There’s a little extra excitement when he pitches.”

Announcer Mike Krukow says he saw that coming from the moment Cueto signed his six-year, $130 million contract with the Giants last winter. “I said, Johnny’s going to be an absolute fan favorite from the first day he walks out there. We’re San Francisco: We not only like a guy who’s good, but who’s got some style being good.” Or, as KNBR radio host Marty Lurie puts it, “You can’t wait for his next game.”

Cueto is tapping into the same wellspring of fan love and cult of personality that other team favorites of the past have. Recall the “yippee-kiyay” mania of a young Will Clark, or the stoner vibe that attended long longhaired Tim Lincecum—even our Fear the Beard–era bromance with Brian Wilson. And who can forget the sea of Pablo Sandoval panda hats that once filled AT&T Park—vestiges of which are still occasionally visible on particularly chilly nights?

To the last point, rest assured that the team’s merch department is on it: A Cueto-esque dreadlocked wig is now for sale in the team store, and midway through the summer the team started hanging skullcaps and dreadlocks in right field for every Cueto strikeout. “It hasn’t reached panda-hat level yet,” says Dayn Floyd, the team’s senior merchandise buyer, but then, it’s still only year one of the Johnny Experience.

There is, of course, a sometimes enormous gulf between the perception fans form of a player and the reality. Sandoval, for instance, played the game with an infectious joy and carefree spirit that was all but impossible not to root for. But off the field, as Giants beat reporters could tell you, he could also be frustratingly moody. In Cueto’s case, fans’ best views of the “real Johnny” come from his collection of on-the-field tics and his bizarre presence on social media, particularly Instagram. (Here’s Johnny kissing a beluga whale; here’s Johnny blowing a bubble the size of his head; here’s a picture of Johnny’s dead horse—like, literally, its deceased corpse.)

Taken together, they paint a picture of a big flaky goofball like Bill “Spaceman” Lee. In person, though, Cueto comes off as affable enough, yet markedly reserved and quiet. Bobby Evans, the Giants’ general manager, describes his first impression of Cueto as “just a quiet presence—a very uplifting personality, even though he’s really quiet."

Cueto generally doesn’t speak English with the press, so he may come off as quieter than he truly is. (The counterexample to this is, again, Sandoval, who, despite a limited command of English, was the highest-decibel player the team has had in recent memory.) Either way, in conversation Cueto seems to tend away from introspection. Ask him what some of his most outrageous online missives were all about and you’ll get a “What, me?” response: “I want the fans to see I’m always happy,” he says through Higueros. “I like to have a good time.”

The personal details of his life similarly fail to provide much insight into his oddball baseball persona. His favorite local haunt is Morton’s Steakhouse. He and his wife have four kids, all of whom have “J” names. During the winter, Cueto returns to his hometown of San Pedro de Macorís in the southeast of the Dominican Republic, where he owns a farm with horses, cows, goats, and chickens. His family sometimes travels with him, and for most of the summer they were in San Francisco, which they liked, but his wife and kids returned home once the school year resumed. A few assorted family members have remained. I ask what they do for a living, to which Cueto replies, half jokingly, “Nothing.” After a moment, he corrects himself. They drink.

The most that Cueto,
30, gives up is that he’s naturally mellowed out over the years since he was signed to his first pro contract at age 16. Growing up, Cueto had a penchant for getting into mischief, he says. His interest in horses dates to childhood, when he’d joyride on his neighbors’—often earning himself a smacking after he’d been caught. He also picked fights with kids from other neighborhoods. Fittingly, his favorite player growing up was the undersize but immensely feisty Pedro Martinez. I ask Cueto what he liked about him. “Cajones,” he says with a smile.

The impulse is to compare Cueto with Martinez, and indeed they share many similarities, chief among them an utter confidence in their “stuff.” But in important ways they’re very different kinds of players. Martinez was all swagger and bravado; Cueto makes hay with his guile. The tricky windup, the deep reserve of grips and arm angles he’s willing to employ during a game—they’re all in service of deception. In that regard, Krukow says, Cueto is more the matador of the mound, less the bull. “What’s hitting?” Krukow asks rhetorically. “It’s timing. And what’s pitching? It’s upsetting timing. He’s found a way to do that…. That’s the beauty of what he does.”

Lurie, the Giants’ pregame radio host, says it’s precisely that assortment of gimmicks that makes Cueto so fun to watch. “The twist, the shimmy, the stop, the hesitation—I think fans find that entertaining,” Lurie says. “And the best thing about him is he can win. People like a winner.”

Third baseman Eduardo Núñez, who previously played for the Minnesota Twins and faced Cueto when both players were in the American League, says all those feints and quick pitches can grind your gears when you’re the one in the batter’s box. When I ask him about facing Cueto last year, he laughs and says, “Lots of ground balls. He makes you pissed. His move, he mixes up your timing—makes you mad.”

Cueto’s style, however, does also have a tendency to backfire every once in a while. Although he has been one of the league’s premier pitchers for several seasons now, one of the reasons the Giants were able to snag him last December is that he’s had enough enigmatic moments throughout his career to keep alive the flicker of suspicion that he may not truly belong with the Madison Bumgarners and Clayton Kershaws of the league, among the no-doubt-about-it sure things.

To wit, after being traded last summer to the Kansas City Royals, Cueto simply wasn’t good, allowing two more runs per game for the Royals than he had for Cincinnati. Then, when Kansas City reached the playoffs, Cueto submitted what some statistics-minded sorts dubbed the worst starting pitching performance in postseason history—two innings, eight runs allowed—in a loss to Toronto. Even before that, his playoff résumé was spotty: Against the Giants in 2012, when he was with Cincinnati, he left a Division Series game with an injury after just eight pitches. In 2013, in the wild card game and with the Pittsburgh crowd jeering him with chants of “Jooo-nee,” he inexplicably dropped the ball on the mound. (The drop was entirely inconsequential, but added fuel to the notion that Cueto was the sort of head case who could be easily rattled.) Just this year, in the All-Star Game, Cueto was knocked around in less than two innings and took the loss.

Then again, pitching poorly in the All-Star Game isn’t exactly a demerit; after all, he was picked to start the game as the top pitcher in the league over the first half of the season. For what it’s worth, Cueto says he woke up sick the day of the game. And regarding his transformation into a pumpkin in Kansas City last year, the awful outing against Toronto was followed by an all-time classic: a complete-game two-hitter in Game 2 of the World Series.

Still, the questions about his ace-worthiness were significant enough to lead him to sign with the Giants, who offered him a somewhat unusual contract. While $130 million sounds like (and indeed is) a boatload of money, it practically pales in comparison with the $217 million deal David Price got in Boston, or the $206.5 million Zack Greinke landed in Arizona (both similar, if marginally superior, talents to Cueto). As Jeff Sullivan wrote for FanGraphs after the Cueto deal was announced, “Every team in baseball believes in Cueto’s talent, but they haven’t all believed in his body, or in his psychology. So Cueto wasn’t going to be looked at as a sure-fire No. 1. Not with all those question marks.”

In return for the slight discount, Cueto was given the chance to opt out of his deal after the 2017 season, when he’ll be 31 years old. In effect, he was given two years to prove he’s worthy of yet another monster payday—meaning that it’s entirely possible that the best-case scenario for Giants fans is that he pitches well, just not well enough to play his way onto the Yankees. Evans, the GM, acknowledges the double-edged sword: “That’s what you want,” he says. “A tough decision at the end of two years.”

And so, one way or another, both emotionally and economically, Cueto may break our hearts. Though the team’s marketing department doesn’t seem worried about Cueto leaving us just yet; Dann tells me they’re already dreaming up promotional giveaways for next year, including a “bobble-body” figure in which the torso, not the head, shimmies back and forth, just like in Cueto’s delivery.

Before Cueto heads back from the dugout to the team’s clubhouse to change into his uniform, I ask him again about his famously easygoing demeanor. How, given the pressures of the job and the weight of fans’ expectations and the multimillion-dollar contracts at stake, he’s so able to simply have fun playing the game.

Cueto doesn’t take very long to answer. “No tengo problemas,” he says, before switching back to English. “No worries.”


Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco 

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