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A tricked-out ambulance? A doctorate in deception? Johnny Cueto is still the most interesting man in baseball

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Published in Baseball
Saturday, 21 May 2022 05:02

A few years ago, Johnny Cueto bought an ambulance, though to call this particular vehicle an ambulance is something of a misnomer. It is more like a real-life Transformer. Open the back and 22 speakers -- nine in each door and a stack of four in the middle -- greet you. On top of the ride, emerging from a hidden compartment, is a literal wall of sound: two fold-out flaps with six speakers apiece attached to a central panel with 20 more. For a pitcher, Cueto's on-bass percentage is extraordinary.

He bought this audiophile's dream from Octavio Dotel, the longtime reliever, and immediately set about upgrading it so that during get-togethers at El Malecon, the main drag in the Dominican baseball hotbed San Pedro de Macoris, nobody would out-blare him (not even Robinson Cano, himself the owner of a souped-up ambulance). Most of the time Cueto positions it next to his pool -- near the twin dolphin statues -- and cranks it to provide the soundtrack he deems appropriate as he cooks beef or pork or chicken or goat or whatever bounty his 1,500-acre ranch provided that day.

"Once we were in the pool and he parked the ambulance next to it," said Reynaldo Lopez, his Chicago White Sox teammate and close friend. "He turned the volume up. And you could see the water in the pool splashing up."

Cueto denies it -- "He's a liar," he said, chuckling, when asked about the tale -- but whatever the truth, Cueto is self-aware enough to understand that if anyone in baseball were to have an automobile with a speaker system so turbocharged that it could make water dance, he'd be the likeliest suspect.

Cueto is now 36 years old, a veteran of 15 major-league seasons, winner of 135 games and one World Series crown, and, until he retires, a constant threat to hold the title of The Most Interesting Man In Baseball.

After spending the winter posting Instagram videos of his life of, alternately, leisure and strenuous workouts, he joined the Chicago White Sox last week after three weeks getting major league-ready at AAA. The lockout had delayed his signing, and ultimately Cueto settled for a minor league deal, he said through interpreter Billy Russo, because "I knew I'd be in the major leagues" eventually. Upon his return, Cueto made his way to the mound, unleashed a dizzying array of shimmying deliveries and promptly twirled six shutout innings in his 2022 debut. He celebrated the next day by spending 40 minutes running up and down stairs at Kauffman Stadium.

On the eve of a matchup with the white-hot New York Yankees in the Bronx, Cueto feels invigorated. He's walking with a spring in his step, like one of the Paso Fino horses he rides every day back home. That he made it out of San Pedro is a blessing. That, as a 5-foot-11 right-hander, he ascended to the major leagues is a gift. And that he pitched his way into more than $150 million in career earnings is a wonder; and that he is living proof pitching comes in all shapes, sizes and forms is his latest trick.

Cueto is a walking duality. He is short but plays big, bulky but moves gracefully. He throws slow but works fast. He has earned a doctorate in deception. "He's sinking the ball, he's cutting it, he's throwing off hitters' timing," White Sox starter Dallas Keuchel said. "He's everything that I want to see in somebody taking the mound. He's a pitcher."

The heyday of the pitcher -- someone who would rather bewitch hitters than blow them away -- is long past, phased out by a generation of executives that prioritize velocity and spin rate over pitchability. But Cueto is proudly old-school -- those runs between starts, seen as antiquated by most, are fundamental to Cueto pitching deep into games.

That means he also cares more about the RPM on a DJ's turntable than on his slider. When Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association came to terms on a collective-bargaining agreement to end the lockout, teams scrambling to fill out their rotations were curious about Cueto's form. Several inquired if Cueto could provide data on the pitches he was throwing this winter to quantify what they might get if they sign him.

Perhaps they should have known better. Even after spending time with the San Francisco Giants, among the most progressive pitching organizations in baseball, Cueto said he does not know about Rapsodo or TrackMan -- two pitch-tracking tools considered vital to modern analysis. He relies instead on the immeasurable sorts of things that helped him for nine straight seasons post a better ERA than FIP.

Nobody approaches the game quite like Cueto. On one pitch, he'll twist like Luis Tiant, and on another, he'll pause mid-delivery to wiggle his shoulders. Even now, as he seeks to deepen the White Sox's banged-up rotation, he'll try new things. On the seventh pitch of his first start this season, Cueto barely flexed his stride leg, planted his foot on the ground, lifted his leg back up and strode toward the plate. Never mind that it almost certainly broke Rule 8.01 governing legal pitches that mandates only one step per delivery. The umpire didn't call a balk, and Salvador Perez stared at an 85-mph Cueto slider for a strike.

"I can't tell everybody in this room that pitches, 'Hey, we're going to add this component to what you do,'" White Sox pitching coach Ethan Katz said. "Guys sometimes have a tough time just doing one. His ability to be able to mix things up -- it's an art, and he's an artist in what he's doing on the mound."

Katz first met Cueto in San Francisco, where he was a first-year assistant pitching coach and Cueto was in the fifth year of a six-year, $130 million contract. He was struck by the work Cueto put in, the willingness to fight for minuscule advantage. He couldn't get over how agile Cueto was.

"If you look at his body, you say, 'No way,'" said Lopez, who was introduced to Cueto by his trainer, a good friend of the pitcher. "But once you start working out with him, you just realize, yeah, he's an athlete. I remember the first time we were working out together. I told him, 'OK, let's go play catch.' 'What? No. We are going to run first.' We ran, played catch ... and then ran again. One day I told him, 'Man, what are you doing? You want to kill me?' I couldn't keep up with him. He said pitchers need to run. Because if you need to go out and throw 50 pitches, how are you going to do it? He was right. I started feeling better every time. That's the kind of thing that he does. He runs a lot to prepare his legs for what he's about to do.

"He works hard, and he eats a lot."

Any rational person loves a good feast, though Cueto's desire to publicly document his charmed life -- one that sometimes looks more like a beer commercial -- separates him. Some of the earliest photos on the Cueto oeuvre include him lounging in his bed, perpetually unbothered. To honor a deceased horse, he posted a snapshot of its lifeless body. In a more recent picture, Cueto cut the figure of a model on a baseball diamond, a modern-day answer to George Costanza posing on a couch, prompting his longtime Cincinnati Reds teammate Joey Votto to comment: "Wow, you look sexy on grass."

This window into Cueto's life, curated though it may be, is nevertheless worth appreciating. Cincinnati signed him in 2004 for $35,000. His career has lasted longer than even the most seasoned optimist could have fathomed. He lives an interesting life because he earned it.

So whether it's pitching at Yankee Stadium or informing the world that ambulances aren't always for emergencies, Cueto gladly pulls back the curtain and embraces the absurdity he personifies.

"Everything that I post, I post it from my heart," he said. "I don't post everything that I do. But I like to show off to people what I do -- how hard I work. It's just a way for me to connect, especially with the young fans, and then they can see, oh, man, he works hard.

"I'm a happy person. I like to enjoy what I do, and I like that people around me enjoy just being around me and being happy, too. I like to compete. I like to have fun."

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