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Yankees Magazine: The Understudy

Austin Romine may be producing like an All-Star, but he knows his role on the 2018 Yankees
Yankees Magazine

Let's stipulate for the record: there's no way Paul O'Neill meant anything negative. It's just … well, you understand. There's a real paradox in talking about what Austin Romine has been able to accomplish so far this season. Any praise that takes context into account almost has to come off as backhanded.

Entering this season, Romine was a .220 career hitter over parts of six seasons. He had a lifetime OPS+ of 54, meaning he was about 46 percent worse than the average hitter in the Majors. Yet on June 12, after a fifth-inning single raised Romine's batting average to .354 on the year, O'Neill tried to sum up the catcher's hot start. "Certain guys," O'Neill said on the PIX 11 broadcast, "are built for certain roles, and Austin Romine is built for the role of a backup catcher."

Let's stipulate for the record: there's no way Paul O'Neill meant anything negative. It's just … well, you understand. There's a real paradox in talking about what Austin Romine has been able to accomplish so far this season. Any praise that takes context into account almost has to come off as backhanded.

Entering this season, Romine was a .220 career hitter over parts of six seasons. He had a lifetime OPS+ of 54, meaning he was about 46 percent worse than the average hitter in the Majors. Yet on June 12, after a fifth-inning single raised Romine's batting average to .354 on the year, O'Neill tried to sum up the catcher's hot start. "Certain guys," O'Neill said on the PIX 11 broadcast, "are built for certain roles, and Austin Romine is built for the role of a backup catcher."

Which is fine, except, what does that really imply? Forget, for a second, that Romine will almost certainly see his numbers trend back toward the mean at some point. What O'Neill seems to be saying is that the Yankees' backup catcher -- and reality is reality; Romine is perfectly clear about his status as Gary Sanchez's backup -- would be an asset to any roster. But surely the catcher has greater aspirations. No actor on Broadway dreams of being a fill-in.

It's an impossible role, and pitchers who work with Romine marvel at the way he is able to stay consistent and precise despite such variability in his routine. Romine generally catches Sonny Gray's starts, and after an offseason adjustment in which he adopted a closed batting stance that has led to greater production at the plate, Romine has been seeing his name in the lineup more than anyone expected. And in between games of two back-to-back starts in mid-June, he chatted -- clear-eyed, confident and occasionally pugnacious -- with Yankees deputy editor Jon Schwartz about the intricacies and dueling ambitions of baseball's most challenging job.

You're starting today. How is your role different than it would be on a day you're not starting?

Today is going to be a little more relaxed. I'm still going to do my work, but I won't hit as much. I won't do as many drills, catching-wise or receiving. It's more along the lines of making sure I'm ready -- watching video, watching hitters. I was fortunate enough to catch last night, so this is a really cool thing for me, because now I have the hitters fresh in my mind. I know how I want to attack them, I know how the pitcher's stuff is going to line up.

But on days when I'm not playing, there's going to be a lot of hitting. More work, almost to the point where you're getting tired. You've got to work on those days off so that it bridges the gap until you play again. Because if you just take off, you get tight.

When you're not in the lineup, what are you doing during the game?

It switches. I will be in the video room watching, going over hitting, watching how our starter that day is pitching, so if something happens and I have to go into a game, I don't disrupt the rhythm that the pitcher had with the catcher -- how they're trying to work, how they're trying to get hitters out. I'll also go out onto the railing and be a good teammate, I guess. Root for everybody hitting. But I'm still watching. I'm watching how their guy's pitching. I'm watching how our guy's pitching. It's a lot of staying with the game, staying in the moment, thinking about situations, calling pitches in my head. It used to be just watching; now it's more dissecting the game, just in case I go in, or maybe if I catch that third game in the series or the fourth game of the series, I want to be sure I'm ready for everything.

So if Aaron Boone says to you, "Austin, get up, you're going in to catch," are you ready right away? Or do you have to chat with Gary or pitching coach Larry Rothschild or any of the coaches?

No, there's not much talking. Maybe Larry, to go over the hitters at hand, know what he thinks. But for the most part, I'm ready. I know how I want to attack the hitters. I know who's throwing. I have stretched -- you stretch throughout the game. Third, fifth, seventh innings, you want to make sure that you're still stretching. I'll hit during the game [in the cage] just to stay loose -- or in case I get bored. It's a long time, watching a lot of games as a backup player. You've got to make sure you're hitting and staying loose. So I'll go in there and hit if I'm thinking about something. It helps just in case they say, "Hey, Ro, you're catching," or "Hey, Ro, you've got the last inning."

What's harder, going in cold to catch or going in cold to hit?

I'd say hitting. Because that timing has to be so quick. You've got to go from the bench to hitting upper 90s. It's a tough thing to do. I have a tremendous amount of respect for pinch-hitters. I think it's unbelievable how some guys are good at that.

You get used to catching; you can anticipate. You know what pitch is coming. Hitting can be pretty difficult.

After one of your at-bats last night, TV announcer Paul O'Neill said, "Certain guys are built for certain roles, and Austin Romine is built for the role of a backup catcher." He meant it as a compliment. But does that feel backhanded at all?

I'm not going to start anything with Paulie. I think it's a compliment.

I'm certain that he meant it as a compliment. But do you take it as a compliment?

I don't really take it as anything. I don't worry about what people say. I appreciate him saying that. I think, and I hope, he meant it in a good way. But nobody wants to consider himself a backup. Everybody wants to start. But I think it's a great thing to say -- for a while there, I was an automatic out. An up-and-down guy from Triple-A to the big leagues. To say that I've solidified myself in the eyes of a guy who was an unbelievable player, I think it definitely was a compliment. I have to take it that way.

You know as well as anyone, it takes way more than nine guys, or even 25 guys, to win at this level. But you're a freak hamstring pull away from being the starting catcher for the best team in baseball. Do you ever let yourself think about that?

You can't. Because if you think about it the other way, I'm also a freak injury away from not being on the team. You don't worry about that. I know that going forward, we need Gary Sanchez to win a World Series. It's a given. He's an All-Star. He's a great hitter. He has an unbelievable arm. He can catch. We need him moving forward. I would never even entertain that idea. There's too many people in here who are working really hard for anybody to think about themselves.

I'm just here if they need me. I understand my role. And I'm just trying to do it the best I can because I see a bunch of guys working their [butts] off.

There are some kids probably coming to the game tonight in their Gary Sanchez shirseys. They might not be thrilled to see Austin Romine in the lineup. Do you take that as a challenge?

No. Not at all. I'm just here to play. I worried too much early in my career about what people thought, or what people said. I really just don't care anymore. I'm here to play hard for my guys, make sure my pitchers get through innings clean. Everybody's got families that they're providing for. I'm here to do my job. I have a hell of a time doing it. I have a blast. I'm one of the guys that has the most fun when I'm playing. But we're here to do a job. We're here to win. We're here to make sure people do well, so that they can make as much money as they can in this game.

What expectations do you have of yourself?

Just to be consistent. I just want to be as consistent as possible. The one thing that sticks out in my mind -- there are superstars, and there are guys that are really good at baseball, and then it kind of goes down from there. The guys that are really good at baseball - unlike the guys that are born with just crazy talent - their consistency sticks out. Every day, they're consistent with their swings, they're consistent with their emotions and their play. I'm striving for consistency on a daily basis. I'm just trying to be as consistent as I can be for as long as I can. Because I know that that's going to help our team win more games.

Video: NYY@DET: Romine crushes a 3-run jack to left-center

I've spoken to some guys in this room who say that you have the toughest job on the team as the No. 2 catcher because you have to be ready for absolutely everything.

You have to be. It's part of the job. And getting a little older, I've learned how to focus on the stuff I need to focus on, rather than everything that can get overwhelming. Tough? Not to me. I'm just here to do my job, and it's all part of it. Going in a game late? I'm used to that. It's all I've known.

Do you see yourself as a No. 1 catcher?

I think everybody sees himself as a No. 1 player -- you have to in this game. Even backup infielders, that's the type of mentality you have to have in order to succeed. Because it's so cutthroat - there's four or five guys behind me who want my job. So you have to put yourself in that state of mind, that I am the best at what I do. Whether you are or you aren't, you need that mentality to push you to be better. Because if you're complacent or you like where you're at, that's as far as you're going to go.

So, of course, I want to start. Of course I want to play more games. Everybody would be crazy lying if they said any different. But as I've said many times, I know my role on this team. Would I like to change it? Absolutely. But at this time, to help this team win, my job is to back up Gary Sanchez, who's an All-Star catcher. That's all I'm focused on.

If, hypothetically, you did this eight more years -- in this role -- would that be good with you? Would you retire happy?

Healthy?

Sure.

If I make it eight more years healthy, I would have to call that a win. In any capacity. If I'm in baseball for eight more years, that puts me at 37 years old. As a catcher, who's been catching his whole life? I have to call that a win.

How much fun is it to hit a home run?

It's the best thing. Everybody says it. It's an awesome feeling. Coming from a guy that doesn't hit very many, it's the most fun you have in baseball.

I love watching your trot because you're very stoic around first, second, and then the minute you reach Phil Nevin, the third base coach, this incredible smirk comes over your face.

I love it! It's because I see the dugout, and they're all happy, and everybody knows I don't hit that many home runs. But I'm trying to fix that! I'm trying to hit some more. But I love that I can help contribute for my team. I love how happy they get for you. It makes me happy seeing them happy, so it's hard for me to contain that at times. Because to see that many people happy for you, that's what it's all about.

There are fewer balls in play right now than ever before. More strikeouts than hits. Do you think that's a problem?

I don't really know. There's so many numbers and stuff people throw around now. Baseball's still the same for me. Throw it, hit it. Guys are throwing harder now. Balls are moving more. That's probably why. Guys are moving the balls at 98, 99 now. They're cutting, they're sinking. That's probably why. There's no other numbers that need to go into it. Guys are throwing harder, and the balls are moving. That's what I see.

Is there merit to an automated strike zone?

No. Because then I wouldn't have a job. I'm out on that. All the umpires would be out of jobs. The backup catchers -- the guys that are good at receiving pitches and making them look like strikes -- are out of a job. Catching becomes just an arm and a bat.

Before and after every game, you have 60 reporters in here asking you to break down everything. And some guys are like, "You're making this too complicated -- we see it, and we hit it." Whereas other guys say, "Let me tell you about my process …" Where are you more comfortable?

I think we know the answer to that. It's pretty basic for me. You throw it, you hit it, you catch it. It's all cliché at this point, but at the same time, it's baseball, man.

Sure, but we can watch your at-bats from last year to this year and see a totally different stance. So, obviously, you're thinking about this stuff …

I'm checking myself. I know what works. I've messed around with stuff, done certain things -- closed, open, hands, load, all that stuff -- but at the end of the day, you've just got to hit the ball. When we go through slumps or anything bad happens, the first thing everybody says is, "simplify it." And that's baseball in a nutshell. It's simple. You throw it and you hit it and you catch it.

If someone is giving you advice, are you trusting? Or are you saying, "Hey man, stay out of my head."

Certain people. It takes time to earn trust, the same way it takes me time to earn trust from pitchers when I'm catching and calling the game. It's hard to relinquish everything to someone and say, "Hey, you call the pitches for my career. It's my livelihood, and I'm going to look good if you call this, and bad if you call that." But people earn your trust by the way they approach things, the way they say things. Trust is earned. And certain guys get in there.

Are you finding that, as the numbers are trending up this year, that there's a difference in any part of your life away from the Stadium? Are you being recognized more?

No, I'm not. I don't really care if they notice me or not. I'm here to play baseball. If they think I'm doing good, that's great. If they want to talk about it, cool. If not, it will be like every other aspect of my career. I'm just down here to do my job.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Jon Schwartz is the deputy editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the July 2018 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

New York Yankees, Austin Romine