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Yankees Magazine: Grabbing the Pen

With their predecessors looking on, young Yankees have begun writing their own chapter in the history books
Yankees Magazine

It was Aug. 13 when the Yankees hosted a celebration commemorating the 20th anniversary of the 1996 World Series championship team, and Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera got together to shoot the breeze. Looking a little older, slightly grayer and more relaxed than ever, the quartet pulled up four chairs in the press conference room at Yankee Stadium and reminisced about breaking into the Bigs for an article on Jeter's website, The Players' Tribune.

As they joked about getting lost in New York City and being "scared to death" of George Steinbrenner, a TV screen overhead showed a live feed of the game out on the field. Tyler Austin had just homered in his first Big League plate appearance, and the four immortal Yankees craned their necks to watch the next batter, Aaron Judge, make his debut. When the hulking right fielder blasted Matt Andriese's change-up off the railing above the center-field sports bar and into the netting above Monument Park -- the longest home run at Yankee Stadium in more than five years -- the Core Four ate it up.

It was Aug. 13 when the Yankees hosted a celebration commemorating the 20th anniversary of the 1996 World Series championship team, and Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera got together to shoot the breeze. Looking a little older, slightly grayer and more relaxed than ever, the quartet pulled up four chairs in the press conference room at Yankee Stadium and reminisced about breaking into the Bigs for an article on Jeter's website, The Players' Tribune.

As they joked about getting lost in New York City and being "scared to death" of George Steinbrenner, a TV screen overhead showed a live feed of the game out on the field. Tyler Austin had just homered in his first Big League plate appearance, and the four immortal Yankees craned their necks to watch the next batter, Aaron Judge, make his debut. When the hulking right fielder blasted Matt Andriese's change-up off the railing above the center-field sports bar and into the netting above Monument Park -- the longest home run at Yankee Stadium in more than five years -- the Core Four ate it up.

 Video: Best of 2016: Back-to-back

"He hit a bomb!" Posada exclaimed.

"Who was that?" Jeter asked.

"Judge!" Pettitte replied amid giddy outbursts of laughter and applause. "Dead center."

"No. 99 -- I like his number," said Posada.

In 2016, the Yankees finished fourth in the American League East -- their lowest position since 1992 -- and missed the postseason for the third time in four years.

And yet, for the most part, a great deal of optimism surrounded the team.

Seeing the youngest roster in nearly a quarter-century start to develop had everything to do with that. A historic debut from two homegrown prospects who were high school seniors when the Yankees last won the World Series in 2009, and one of the greatest rookie seasons in franchise history courtesy of a 23-year-old catcher were among several hope-inspiring performances given by newly minted Bombers in 2016.

But last year's highlights will soon fade into memory, and those players will have to prove themselves yet again in 2017. With several roster spots to be contested and the Yankees again expected to rely on some younger players, many curious observers will look toward the Bronx to see whose career trajectories continue upward and which newcomers elbow their way into the mix this season.

When it ends, will Bombers fans feel even better about their team? You can't predict baseball, Suzyn, but optimism abounds for good reason.

In a perfect world, all of the young players who contributed in 2016 would continue to progress and perform even better in 2017. In actuality, baseball is a difficult game of never-ending adjustments that requires incredible skill, dedication, hard work and luck -- and even then the baseball gods might cruelly pull the rug out.

Responding positively to the inevitable tribulations can ultimately help a player achieve greatness. And none of the young players who made an impact on the Yankees in 2016 is a stranger to adversity.

Austin was a 17-year-old senior at Heritage High School in Georgia when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Fortunately, it was detected early, and just one week after having a tumor surgically removed, the highly touted prospect was back on the field. He became a 13th-round pick of the Yankees in 2010 and worked hard to raise his game as he ascended through the Minors. Judge was also a late-round pick in 2010 after starring at Linden High School in California, but opted to play college ball two hours down the road at Fresno State where he became a three-time all-conference first team selection and a first-round pick of the Yankees in 2013.

Judge's immense 6-foot-7 frame and prodigious power immediately put him on many people's radar, but his discipline at the plate has been a work in progress.

When the two 24-year-olds made history by becoming the first teammates ever to homer in their Major League debuts together, it represented more than two young players finally getting a chance to join The Show. It symbolized a changing of the guard in the Bronx -- and it was just the beginning.

The next day, Judge became the first player in American League history with a first at-bat homer in each of his first two games. With a double the day after that, he became the first player in Yankees history to record an extra-base hit in each of his first three games.

Austin ended up hitting five home runs -- all to the opposite field -- in 83 at-bats in 2016. His veteran teammates and manager marveled as his first three career longballs included homers in his first at-bat, on his birthday (he turned 25 on Sept. 6) and of the walk-off variety -- an unprecedented start.

"It's amazing what these kids have been able to do for us," Manager Joe Girardi said after Austin's Sept. 8 game-winner pushed the Yankees to within two games of a Wild Card spot. "It's a sign right now that these moments are not too big for them."

Yet it wasn't all Gatorade baths and back-page headlines for Austin and Judge, who will have to fight for their jobs in 2017. Austin endured some cold streaks at the plate, his average dipping below the Mendoza line before six hits in the final week lifted him to .241 for the season. Judge posted 16 strikeouts against just five hits in 11 September games before finishing the season on the disabled list.

Greg Bird, who missed all of 2016 with a shoulder injury, commanded his own sizable share of the spotlight in 2015, leading the Yankees with 11 home runs from the time of his Aug. 13 debut through the end of the season. He'll vie with Austin for the first base job, while Judge will try to hold off Aaron Hicks, a former first-round pick entering his second season in pinstripes, in right field.

One young player who can feel pretty good about his job security is Gary Sanchez. By putting together a rookie year for the ages in just two months, he wrested the starting catcher role from Brian McCann, who was traded to Houston in the offseason. Sanchez's biggest obstacle in 2017 might be the enormous expectations he faces.

Over the course of a full season, if he were to maintain his 2016 rate of hitting a home run in 8.7 percent of his plate appearances -- for comparison's sake, AL MVP Mike Trout homered in 4.3 percent of his -- Sanchez would make a run at Roger Maris's 61. But as opposing teams familiarize themselves with the runner-up for last year's AL Rookie of the Year Award and the law of averages comes into play, a more mortal production rate is likely.

Video: Quick Hits: All eyes on Sanchez

There are many reasons to believe, however, that The Kraken's initial explosion was no fluke. For one, Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman lauds Sanchez's intelligence, calling him "extremely bright," which was evident in his work behind the plate in 2016. An aggressive defender who threw out 41 percent of would-be base stealers and committed just three errors in 316 innings of work, Sanchez helped his pitchers out in ways not often seen from someone so young. Despite his lack of Major League experience, he developed a great rapport with his pitchers, even when there was a language barrier.

"I think he had a really good idea going into the game of how to call the game, and I think he did a really good job," Masahiro Tanaka told reporters through an interpreter after pairing up with the young catcher for the first time -- a 7-0 win over the Angels on Aug. 19 in which Sanchez went 3 for 4 with a walk. "Sometimes I did shake him off, but overall I think he did an excellent job."

In seven games calling pitches for the Yankees' ace, Sanchez helped Tanaka go undefeated with a 1.94 ERA and a .225 batting average against.

"The key when you catch a pitcher that you've never caught in a Big League game is the preparation before the game," Sanchez said through a Spanish-language interpreter after that first outing with Tanaka. "We got together before the game, we put together a plan and it worked out very well for us."

That kind of maturity is another reason to expect great things in 2017. When Sanchez came up to the Bigs for two games at the end of 2015, the baby-faced backstop looked out of place in the Yankees clubhouse. But he spent the following Spring Training soaking up wisdom from older players such as McCann and Austin Romine, and Sanchez seemed all grown up upon his return to the Bronx in 2016, both in his physical appearance and his demeanor.

The No. 1 reason to have high hopes for Sanchez, though, is that his power is for real. Three Yankees in history age 23 or younger have hit more than 10 home runs in a calendar month: Joe DiMaggio (15 home runs in July 1937), Mickey Mantle (12 in August 1955) and Sanchez, who hit 11 last August.

Just watching Sanchez take batting practice is a revelatory experience. Without trying to show off, the soft-spoken right-handed slugger puts on a Macy's fireworks display every time he takes his cuts. Balls that he intentionally tries to drive the opposite way but doesn't get all of -- which, for most players, die in shallow right field -- get sent to the wall. And when he gets all of a pitch that he is trying to pull … Stadium workers cleaning up the seating area deep in the left-field bleachers above the visitors bullpen know to stay on high alert.

It was enough to help Alex Rodriguez, who was released last August after hitting 696 career home runs, come to terms with the fact that there was a new star attraction in the Bronx.

"I saw Gary Sanchez have a huge series in Boston, and I looked at him and said, 'I can't do that anymore,'" Rodriguez said.

Yet whether it's outsized expectations or pressure to stave off competition for their jobs, it is not the individual obstacles facing these young players that will ultimately help the Yankees hoist the World Series trophy again. The reality is that they might need to have their hearts broken as a team before they can beat as one.

The 1995 postseason was the first to feature a Division Series round, and the Yankees were the AL's first Wild Card team. When team captain Don Mattingly, who had spent countless hours in the trainer's room throughout his 14th and final season in pinstripes, trotted out to the field prior to Game 1 against Seattle, Yankee Stadium rocked and roared like it hadn't in nearly two decades. And when he drove in Bernie Williams to break a 2-2 tie in the sixth inning of that game, the upper tier undulated under the exultant crowd's feet.

The Yankees won that game, then took the next one in 15 innings behind solid postseason debuts from a 23-year-old Pettitte and a 25-year-old Rivera to take a commanding 2-games-to-none lead in the best-of-five series. Mattingly broke another 2-2 tie in the sixth inning of Game 5 with a two-run ground-rule double, putting the Yankees on the cusp of an ALCS berth.

But it wasn't to be. The Mariners tied the deciding game in the eighth and then, after falling behind in the 11th, rallied for two runs in the bottom of the frame.

"After all those years we struggled, hearing Mattingly get announced before the first game of the playoffs in '95, and the look on his face in Toronto when we clinched a playoff spot," then-Manager Buck Showalter recently recalled when asked about his most poignant Yankees memory. "And then riding the plane with him back from Seattle. Him talking to me about how he was going to have to retire [because of] his back and his kids and everything. That was a lot sadder than the loss."

The brutal ending left an indelible mark on all who witnessed it -- especially the young players.

"I got a chance to play with Mr. Mattingly, and I saw in 1995 probably one of the toughest heartbreaks I've ever seen," Posada said recently in an interview with Yankees beat reporter Sweeny Murti. "I didn't want that to happen (again). I wanted to win. As a group, we wanted to win. Our main goal in Spring Training was to get to the World Series and win, and that's all that mattered to me."

Flash forward two decades, to the Core Four sitting in the basement of Yankee Stadium and watching the next generation of Yankees begin to etch their names in team lore.

"Both these kids, was that their first at-bat?" Jeter wondered aloud.

Upon hearing confirmation that it was, the legendary Yankees icon marveled at the feat for a split-second before he said: "The expectation level for these kids … oh my God!"

"Good luck," Rivera said.

The young Yankees will need more than luck on their side if they hope to leave a legacy approaching that of Jeter, Rivera, Pettitte or Posada. But no matter what they face, they'll have a legion of supporters -- from fans to coaches to former players -- pulling for them every step of the way.

Nathan Maciborski is the executive editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the 2017 New York Yankees Official Yearbook. The 2017 New York Yankees Official Yearbook is an official Yankees publication. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

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