The Yankees' talented youngsters learn to live the Major League lifestyle
By Kristina M. Dodge
Yankees Magazine |
There is a Yankee in Times Square. Two in fact. There is also an Elsa and an Olaf, both of Frozen fame, a Hulk, a Mickey Mouse and an Elmo. The costumed characters are limited in their movements by turquoise boxes painted on the sidewalk below their feet. The "zoning" is the result of a New York City regulation established to set boundaries between those visiting, or passing through, the popular Manhattan tourist spot and street performers eager to earn a living.
The Yankees are not in costume; they're dressed in street clothes. The taller of the two is wearing a lightweight orange T-shirt and jeans; the other, darker denim and a white polo shirt. They move freely and come bearing gifts -- Yankees baseball caps -- and distribute them to the characters, posing for photos afterward.
It isn't long before people catch on. The scene is social contagion at its most obvious. One person holding up a cellphone to capture the Yankees duo, which has now moved on to a conversation with two mounted police officers at the other end of the plaza, followed by another person and another person and another person until there is a semicircle a few people deep surrounding the players. The attention is no bother; actually, it is encouraged. A YES Network camera crew, a team photographer and writer, and team security tail the two players.
There is some murmuring among the small crowd that has gathered as people jockey to get a photo.
I think that's Gary Sanchez, a young woman replies in response to someone's question as she steadies her iPhone.
It is not Gary Sanchez.
The two Yankees and company are on their way to catch an uptown train toward the Bronx for the evening's 7:05 game against the Blue Jays. The meet-and-greet and hat distribution continue from the street level down to the platform and onto the subway itself. When the players introduce themselves as Major Leaguers on their way to work, they are peppered with questions and photo requests, to which they politely oblige.
As the group steps onto the D train, the recognition is almost instantaneous. Jeremy Santana, 23, a Bronx resident who played some college ball before an injury sidelined him, is up on his feet, in awe and surprised by just how big Aaron Judge is in person. The 6-foot-7, 275-pound Yankees outfielder -- who is joined on this subway adventure by Yankees infielder Tyler Austin, and definitely not by Gary Sanchez -- has to bend his neck slightly to stand comfortably in the car. Santana tells Judge what an honor it is to meet him and, after taking a photo, thanks him. Santana returns to his seat, where he watches intently as Judge and Austin are interviewed by YES Network clubhouse reporter Meredith Marakovits for an upcoming segment.
He's a rook, but he could rake for real, Santana said to the woman seated next to him, who is intrigued by the ability of the unfamiliar figure before her to garner the star treatment.
Big Apple Introduction
Full disclosure: Aaron Judge is not a subway guy. Prior to his Sept. 6 ride with Tyler Austin, the 24-year-old California native had only taken the subway once, shortly after he was called up from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre on Aug. 13. In all honesty, he says, he doesn't think he'll ride it again. No offense to the MTA or anything. Judge acknowledges the convenience, affordability and ease of the New York City subway system -- plus the uniqueness of the experience for those who are from out of town -- but for him, it's a temperature issue.
"It's a little too warm for me; I get a little too hot," said Judge, who has mainly taken taxis or used Uber to get to the ballpark.
No sweat. The ride wasn't an attempt to change the outfielder's traveling habits. It was part of a weeklong series of activities that introduced some of the Yankees' youngest players to the city and its fans, and vice versa.
With trade-deadline moves freeing up space and the expansion of rosters in September accommodating additional names, the Yankees clubhouse saw an influx of young talent. Judge and Austin made their debuts. Catcher Gary Sanchez, utilityman Rob Refsnyder and pitchers Luis Severino, Chad Green and Luis Cessa were recalled. Even first baseman Greg Bird, who made his debut in 2015, but has been working his way back from shoulder surgery this year, was in town to participate. And they were everywhere -- getting a bird's eye view of the Big Apple from One World Observatory in downtown Manhattan, working the register at one of Yankee Stadium's team stores, scanning fans' tickets at the gates, and discussing life as a Baby Bomber live from Studio 42 at MLB Network studios in Secaucus, N.J. If you didn't know who they were before, hopefully, you're starting to learn now.
The Yankees' executive director of communications and media relations, Jason Zillo, whose department helped arrange the outings, explained as much during two town hall-style meetings with Yankees season ticket holders. Prior to introducing the players -- all of whom fall under the "Baby Bomber" moniker, with the exception of ace Masahiro Tanaka, who sat on the second panel -- Zillo explained that the special event was not only a thank you for their support, but also an opportunity to "offer a different perspective than you get in a box score."
From the front of the press conference room at the Stadium, the season ticket holders asked questions and the young Yankees answered. Bird described the departure of Alex Rodriguez and trade of Carlos Beltran as losses to the team, adding, however, that the game doesn't stop for anyone. "The train keeps rolling," he said. Green talked about a boost in confidence among prospects in light of the Yankees' recent youth movement. Severino didn't shy away from one fan's inquiry about superstitions. The 22-year-old righty revealed he has one glove for home games, one glove for road games, and if he gets lit up with either of them, he gets rid of it, drawing laughter from the group.
The Yankees shared information about themselves, and in return, the fans showed their excitement for the future: Anthony from Brooklyn could hardly wait for Bird's scheduled return in 2017. Another ticket holder thanked the players for the increase in energy they've brought to the team. And still another assured them that "people out there are behind you."
Welcome to The Show
The young Yankees' introduction to New York and the Bronx faithful is but a small part of an even greater task at hand -- acclimating to the Major League lifestyle. A player's rookie experience is a rite of passage, no matter how much it sounds, at times, like the preference might have been to leapfrog some of the growing pains that can come with it.
Outfielder Aaron Hicks, who is in his fourth season in the Big Leagues, recalls being scared out of his mind when he debuted with the Minnesota Twins on Opening Day 2013, going 0-for-4 with three strikeouts and a walk against starting pitcher Justin Verlander and the Tigers' bullpen. He attributes some of his skittishness to his jump from Double-A farmhand to Major League leadoff hitter in one year and doesn't try to sugarcoat his experience that first season.
"There's nothing comfortable about it," Hicks said. "You're trying to stay respectful of the other guys; you don't want to get in their way. You have to make sure that you can learn as much as you can. Most importantly, you have to go out there and produce, and that's the hardest part because you want to impress, but going out there and trying to impress isn't the best way to go about it."
Making sure not to step on veterans' toes or embarrass themselves in front of their older teammates seems to be a running theme, at least for the elder statesmen in the clubhouse. CC Sabathia made the big club out of camp with the Cleveland Indians when he was just 20 years old. His new teammates -- Jim Thome, Roberto Alomar and Ellis Burks, among them -- were big brother figures to him, but he still describes a feeling of "walking on eggshells" that year.
Ditto for Adam Warren. "We had a lot of guys I looked up to playing," the reliever recalled. "You had Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, just guys that meant a lot to this organization. For me, it was almost like I didn't want to offend them."
Rivera wound up approaching Warren after a bad outing with an offer to help him with his pitching, and Pettitte became a trusted resource, with the veteran lefty even buying Warren a few suits when he joined the team.
"They welcomed me in, and to get a chance to be part of a team with them was really neat, but like I said, you don't want to get in their way, so you're always trying to make sure you're not doing the wrong thing," Warren further explained.
The Big League Transition
If this most recent crew of Baby Bombers has similar concerns, they didn't come up in conversation. But the young Yankees should rest assured. They are leaving a good first impression on the more experienced players.
"These guys have all come in very professionally," said Mark Teixeira, who -- as he counted down the days to his retirement -- recognized the final stretch of the 2016 campaign as a "little bit of the passing of the torch." "They do their jobs, they work hard, and they're willing to listen. None of them says they have all the answers."
"They are as poised as any young guys I've seen come up and make this transition," echoed catcher Brian McCann. "They expect to succeed, and they come in here and they work every day."
But going from the Minors to the Majors isn't as easy as they make it look, and it sure isn't a move that should be taken lightly. The promotion is, after all, "what everything's been for the last 10, 15 years of my life," as 25-year-old Ben Heller put it. While the young guys are frequently being reassured by their older teammates that the game hasn't changed -- that the talent that made them successful in the Minors will make them successful in the Majors -- the Baby Bombers are well aware that they're dealing with a whole new level of competition.
For the pitchers, that means facing better hitters and needing to execute pitches more consistently to beat them.
"Down [in the Minors], you might have two to four guys you really have to be careful with, but here, anybody one through nine can get you," said Bryan Mitchell, 25, who -- after making 23 appearances for the Yanks in 2014 and '15 -- was slated to join the bullpen out of camp before a toe injury derailed that plan. "You can't make mistakes."
Luis Cessa, the infielder-turned-pitcher who made the Opening Day roster out of his first Big League camp this spring, has "paid the price," he said, including an Aug. 14 outing in which he gave up five earned runs in three innings against the Tampa Bay Rays.
"But that's what it's all about -- make adjustments, continue to work on that and get better," an undeterred Cessa added.
And not everything about the rookie experience has to be a challenge. Enter better food, better travel, better accommodations.
"The long bus rides in the Minor Leagues and staying at the not-so-good hotels; late travel, like getting in at 8 a.m. and having to get up and play a game that day," said Judge, ticking off a list of those aspects that define the Minor League grind. "When you get a chance to come here, it makes it all worth it basically."
"I love the food," added Mitchell. "No matter what time you get here, there's going to be a full spread."
The Baby Bombers' assimilation into the Yankees clubhouse has seemingly been an easy one. When Green was called up in the middle of May, he was one of three rookies to appear in the May 16 game for the Yankees; in his last start, on Sept. 2, during which arm pain forced him out of the game early and would ultimately sideline him for the remainder of the season, he was one of eight rookies to make an appearance in the contest.
"I think it makes it a lot easier when you see more familiar faces around," said the righty, who was one of several young Yankees making the same Midtown hotel "home" in the beginning of September.
Additionally, having a group of veterans whose own experiences as rookies make them sympathetic to the younger guys filing in -- coupled with relationships forged during Big League Spring Training -- has made the newbies feel like true members of the team.
"Not only do I feel comfortable with the young guys, but I feel comfortable with the veterans of the team," Sanchez said through an interpreter. "It's a good line of communication between myself and the veterans and the other guys here. It brings up the opportunity to talk about things -- not only about baseball, but things in general."
"Even in Spring Training, they're going out of their way to talk to us," said Judge. "They say, 'Hey, if you ever want to do extra hitting, or ask me about my hitting approach …' Tex, Gardy, Mac -- they've got a game to prepare for, but they're still going out of their way to ask me or some of the younger guys what we need to help us feel comfortable, so we can go out there and produce."
And produce they did. From Aug. 3 through Sept. 21, the Yankees went 26-19, including a seven-game winning streak that coincided with the young Yankees' Big Apple tour. And that's to say nothing of the back-to-back homers Austin and Judge hit in their debut game or the eye- popping offensive assault Sanchez has launched on the league, the catcher hitting 19 home runs in 42 games after being recalled on Aug. 3.
"They brought a lot of energy," said shortstop Didi Gregorius. "It's fun watching all these guys play and playing with them."
But they bring more than energy. There's also an almost-endless supply of talent.
"You see some bright futures ahead for these guys," said Teixeira.
The Baby Bombers will continue on their professional path, hopefully moving on to long and fruitful Big League careers, but in the meantime they can enjoy that first subway ride, connecting with fans and racking up wins while they work toward that larger goal.
"This is my reality now," Heller said from the middle of the Yankees' clubhouse. "In your dreams, it always seems like a far-off thing that you're working toward, but now actually being here and getting to live it out, I'm just trying to soak it up and enjoy each day, just absorb the fact that I'm a Major League player."
Kristina M. Dodge is the executive editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the October issue of Yankees Magazine. Get this article and more delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription at yankees.com/publications.