After 14 seasons, Mark Teixeira walked away with his head held high
By Nathan Maciborski
Yankees Magazine |
There goes Mark Teixeira, celebrating. He didn't start tonight's game. In fact, he spent the whole night watching from the bench. Yet there he is, grinning from ear to ear, pumping his fist as he bounds out of the Yankees dugout and shuffle-hops joyously toward home plate.
First baseman Tyler Austin, who celebrated his 25th birthday two days earlier with his second career home run, just hit his third -- an opposite-field shot into the right-field stands on a two-out, full-count, bottom-of-the-ninth pitch from Rays reliever Erasmo Ramirez that sends the suddenly surging Yankees to their fifth win in a row.
Austin raises a triumphant fist as he rounds first base, and the exuberant Yankees move en masse toward home plate to greet him. Amid the tumult, Teixeira notices Greg Bird -- the heir apparent at first base whose 2016 season was lost to injury -- over his right shoulder. The veteran first baseman slows up just enough to throw his right arm around the 23-year-old, shouting in celebration above the roar of the crowd. Smiling broadly, they revel in the moment together.
When the Yankees begin the 2017 season, Mark Teixeira won't be on the roster. The 36-year-old announced in August that this season, his 14th, would be his last. But the way Teixeira has handled himself throughout his Yankees career -- especially during the team's recent youth movement -- ensures that his impact will be felt for a very long time.
A New Beginning
Here comes Mark Teixeira, glowing. It's Jan. 6, 2009, and the 28-year-old, who grew up in Maryland admiring Yankees great Don Mattingly, arrives in the Bronx full of optimism and excitement. In one of the final events held in The House That Ruth Built, the Yankees unveil their prized free-agent acquisition during a press conference in the Stadium Club.
Trailed by a gaggle of Yankees executives and men in construction hats, Teixeira walks across the street to the nearly completed Yankee Stadium that he will call home. Holding the hand of his wife, Leigh -- who nudged him to sign with the Yankees -- he envisions epic home runs and victory celebrations in front of delirious fans.
"Oh, I can't wait," he said. "This stadium's going to be the greatest in the world. I mean, every Yankee's excited about this; every fan's excited about this."
It doesn't take long for it to feel like home. Teixeira homers twice in the Stadium-opening series against Cleveland and displays the Gold Glove-caliber defense for which he is known. That October, he'll hit two of the most memorable home runs of his career here: an 11th-inning walk-off in Game 2 of the American League Division Series against Minnesota and a game-tying shot off Philadelphia's Pedro Martinez in Game 2 of the World Series. Six days after the latter, Robinson Cano will scoop up a ground ball off the bat of Shane Victorino and toss it to Teixeira, whose putout will secure the 27th World Series championship in Yankees history.
He finishes second in the 2009 AL MVP voting, then leads the league in runs in 2010 and wins his fourth Gold Glove Award. In 2011, Teixeira reaches the 30-home run, 100-RBI plateau for the eighth consecutive season. In nine Big League campaigns, he has averaged 153 games played per year.
The future looks bright as ever.
Leading by Example
There goes Mark Teixeira, working. It is a quiet February morning on a back field in Tampa, Fla. The spray from the fountains in front of George M. Steinbrenner Field makes for the only sound, save for the buzzing of a propeller plane overhead or the rumbling of a semi down Dale Mabry Highway.
Teixeira is the lone player on the field, taking extra ground balls from coach Joe Espada. Once again, Teixeira finds himself cajoling his body into game-ready form. Throughout his career, he has gone to great lengths to take the best care possible of himself, but in recent years, he has had a string of tough luck. Wrist, calf, hamstring and lat muscle injuries limited him to 261 games from 2012-14. In 2015, he rebounded to make his third American League All-Star team, but a leg injury stemming from a foul tip in August that was initially deemed a bone bruise turned out to be a fracture, ending his season prematurely.
The Yankees called up Bird to replace him, and all Bird did was lead the team in homers the rest of the way. Yet any controversy that might have been brewing as to who the starting first baseman would be in 2016 is squashed even before Bird is found to have a labrum tear in his shoulder.
"The support he showed me last year was just so welcoming," Bird said. "Everyone knew the situation, but he came up to me and said, 'Look man, you're doing a great job, and keep doing it. We need you.' For a young guy to come up and the veteran All-Star player says that to you, it was huge. It really was."
Under the shimmering palm trees, Teixeira practices making throws to second base. He vacuums up every bad hop that Espada smacks his way. Teixeira wants to believe he can play another four or five years after his contract expires at the end of this season, but in the back of his mind, he knows the clock is ticking.
The 2016 season begins with the Yankees fielding their youngest Opening Day roster (29 years, 99 days) since 1992, and that includes 38-year-old Carlos Beltran and 40-year-old Alex Rodriguez, as well as the 35-year-old Teixeira. After homering twice in the season-opening series against Houston, he starts feeling crummy again and hits .200 for the rest of April. Two cortisone shots to the neck and a trip to the disabled list for a balky knee ensue, and the voice in his head saying that it might be time to hang up the spikes starts getting louder.
July turns to August, and the Yankees' transition to a team reliant on youth is in full swing. Beltran is traded, as are Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller and Ivan Nova. Rodriguez will soon be released.
Energized by the Minor Leaguers called up from Triple-A to fill out the depleted roster, the Yankees improbably become one of the hottest teams in the Majors, winning 25 out of 40 games beginning on Aug. 1.
Teixeira sees the writing on the wall, but continues to contribute, even it that means mentoring the players who are coming for his job.
"I think for a lot of people who aren't around the clubhouse a lot, you can't really appreciate how much Mark means to the team," said Rob Refsnyder, who learned first base on the fly in 2016 thanks in large part to Teixeira's tutelage. "He's all professional. Even how he handled the situation with Bird last year, helping Bird out. He's one of our leaders, and he just leads by example. It's hard to put into words, honestly, just how much he's helped the team. He's been gracious on his way out. I think we all wish him nothing but happiness and success. We're all looking forward to seeing what he does next."
Austin, who made his Big League debut at first base on Aug. 13 and homered in his first plate appearance, says, "He's been absolutely amazing to me. No matter what the situation is, no matter what happened, I can always go to him. He's always open for us to come over and talk to him about it and try to learn from him.
"He's given me some really good advice, and I think it's ultimately going to help me be a better first baseman in the long run."
The young players appreciate Teixeira not only for his willingness to share on-field insight, but also for his candor about what to do and what not to do if they want to have long-lasting careers.
"I think when you're comfortable in your own skin, when you're comfortable with your career, you can do those things," Teixeira said. "For me, I welcome the opportunity to help guys out because I know how hard it is, and I know that the odds are against them. The difficulty of this game can be really frustrating, so what I try to tell them is, 'Listen, I've been through it. Look at the career that I've had. I was in your shoes. I had the struggles, I had the doubts, I had the anxiety, and there's a process. Trust in your talent and working hard and doing the right things.'
"I talk to them about some of the pitfalls that I've seen with other players, you know, guys that are super talented that never made it, or only had a couple years in the Big Leagues. Because I want to leave this game, this clubhouse, in a better place than when I came in, and hopefully, some of these young guys will be a huge part of the next Yankees championship, whenever that is."
An Emotional Goodbye
Here sits Mark Teixeira, fighting back tears. His teammates and the New York media are gathered in the press conference room at Yankee Stadium for an announcement that comes as a surprise to many. Despite all the physical ailments he has battled, Teixeira doesn't look that much older than he did during his first Yankees press conference, more than seven years earlier.
"After 14 years, it's time for me to do something else," he said, trying hard to maintain his composure. "And after this season, I'm going to retire."
He speaks of living out his childhood dream, of having more success than he ever imagined. He thanks the four organizations he played for, but when he gets to the part where he thanks the Yankees fans, he struggles mightily. He says that he wasn't perfect, but that he gave them his all. He lowers his head, choking back tears. A long pause is followed by his acknowledgment that it wasn't always enough.
When asked about it some weeks later, Teixeira explains what he was thinking about during that moment. It wasn't so much the disappointing lows of all the injuries in recent years -- "I've done everything I could to overcome them," he said -- as it was the incredible highs that didn't come often enough.
"There are a few moments in my career where the fans almost kind of jump inside of you, when you feel like the fans are literally on you, with you, running around the bases, and that's pretty special," Teixeira said, recalling the magic of 2009. "That's kind of what I was talking about. It's like, 'Listen, I would've loved to have won five World Series, but that's tough to do.' We had that one great year and had a nice little run after that and couldn't get over the top. I just wanted to let the fans know I appreciate everything that they've done for us and I wish we could give them more, but that's life."
Life. The thought of it after baseball produces a genuinely warm smile across Teixeira's face. Being a full-time family man and having time for friends sounds a lot better than being, as he quipped during his retirement speech, "on a trainer's table in Detroit." He's going to stay involved in Harlem RBI and his various philanthropic and business endeavors, but he's also looking forward to golfing more and making his own schedule for the first time in decades.
Out on Top
It's the night after Austin's Sept. 8 walk-off home run, and Teixeira is back in the starting lineup, playing first base and batting fifth.
A ton of media attention has been given to the "Baby Bombers" recently, and when Gary Sanchez homers to begin the third inning -- his 12th longball in 34 career games -- and put the Yankees ahead 2-0, the beat writers start mulling ledes with his name in them.
The veteran players still on the roster, however, are hardly wallflowers. Austin's walk-off was preceded by two home runs from catcher Brian McCann, whose team-first attitude while losing playing time to Sanchez drew admiration from inside the clubhouse and out.
Teixeira follows Sanchez' leadoff homer with a one-out double that hits near the top of the left-field wall, then scores on a wild pitch two batters later. The next inning, after the Rays cut the Yankees' lead to 3-2 with back-to-back home runs off Michael Pineda and after the first of three rain delays in the game, Teixeira comes up to the plate with two outs and the bases loaded.
Batting left-handed against right-hander Kevin Jepsen, Teixeira works a 1-1 count. The owner of 10 career grand slams, Teixeira knows that this might be one of his last chances to add to that total.
"I'm emptying the tank," he said later that night. "Whatever I have left, it's going to be thrown out there on the field."
Jepsen's third pitch to Teixeira is a 94-mph fastball, belt-high over the outer half of the plate. Teixeira hammers it off the top of the wall in right-center field 390 feet away, where it ricochets into the Yankees bullpen. Just like Austin did less than 24 hours earlier, Teixeira raises his right fist in triumph as he trots toward second base.
Teixeira's 11th grand slam -- Hall of Famer Eddie Murray is the only switch-hitter with more (19) -- proves to be the key blow in a 7-5 win that pushes the Yankees to within a game of the second Wild Card. The Yankee Stadium crowd refuses to stop cheering even as the next batter, Didi Gregorius, begins his at-bat.
In the dugout, Yankees Manager Joe Girardi prompts his first baseman, the one who recorded the final putout of the 2009 World Series, the one who has made more unbelievable scoops than anyone could possibly count, the one who has played through all kinds of pain, to tip his cap. Hatless and still catching his breath, Teixeira bounds up the dugout steps and waves to the fans throughout the ballpark.
It is more than a curtain call. It is a heartfelt salute to the Bronx faithful who became such a part of his life over the course of eight seasons. Moments like this are special.
Teixeira gives a quick fist pump as he retreats to a supremely upbeat Yankees dugout. Could he really leave all this behind? Trade in the grand slams and curtain calls and pennant-race baseball for an unpaid job as a chauffeur to three kids in Greenwich, Conn.?
It is a painless decision.
"One of the many reasons that I decided to retire now is I wanted to retire a Yankee," he said. "This is my home. You're not going to see me at Yankee Stadium a lot next season, but in the years to come, I'm going to take my kids to games. I'm going to be involved in the community. I'll always be known as a Yankee, and I'll always have that connection to the Yankees. I think that's exciting."
There goes Mark Teixeira, heading for home.
Nathan Maciborski is the deputy 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.