TAMPA, Fla. -- There was an inside joke among the Yankees throughout the shortened 2020 season. Each time Clint Frazier made a nice defensive play, he'd glance toward the dugout and theatrically tug on the shiny chain peeking out from his uniform top, as if to say: "That's gold."
His teammates would alternate between chuckling and rolling their eyes in mock exasperation, just Clint being Clint. Frazier got the last laugh in October, learning via Twitter that he had ranked among the American League's Gold Glove Award finalists. You can bet the Yankees heard about that, too. They still are.
"Any time your confidence is stunted, it makes anything in life hard -- not just playing baseball," Frazier said. "Ultimately, I think I made enough plays in a row for me to have all the weight off my shoulders going forward, feeling comfortable and a part of the team out there."
To properly examine Frazier's turnaround, we must revisit a Feb. 24, 2018, exhibition against the Pirates in Bradenton, Fla. Playing left field that afternoon, Frazier snared a fly ball while crashing headfirst into a portion of the scoreboard covered by a chain-link fence.
Then 23 and in his first spring with New York, Frazier wasn't about to ask out of the lineup. He logged his three at-bats and showed no concern in the clubhouse, laughing out loud as he watched a shaky video of the play on a reporter's iPhone. The symptoms started that evening: nausea, sensitivity to light, issues with depth perception.
Over the next several weeks, Frazier struggled to recall the names of his cats, Papi and Phoenix. For a while, he didn't trust himself to drive to the ballpark. The lingering effects ruined a season in which Frazier played only 15 big league games, spilling into his difficult 2019 campaign -- one during which he silently suffered.
"Anyone that has experienced post-concussive syndrome would understand -- it's a helpless feeling," Frazier said. "To try to hit a baseball that's being thrown by guys that are exceptional athletes and throwing as hard as they can, and then trying to track down fly balls -- it's very difficult. My everyday life was hindered."
The low point came on June 3 of that season, a nationally-televised Sunday night game against the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium. Frazier heard jeers as he misplayed three balls in right field, enduring arguably his most trying evening as a professional in the Yanks' 8-5 loss. Frazier was embarrassed, angry, and he didn't feel like talking about it.
When reporters gathered near his locker, Frazier refused to emerge from a dining area, leaving teammates like Aaron Hicks and Luke Voit to answer for the misplays. The episode earned a stern discussion with Boone. Frazier unloaded two days later in the Rogers Centre visiting clubhouse, going off-script in a raw eight-minute group interview. There was, as Frazier now reveals, more going on beneath the surface.
"It started in the morning for me, how I wake up," Frazier said. "You feel like you're one step behind. To try to hit a ball that's moving or trying to catch a ball that is caught up in the sun or caught up in a cloud; it was super difficult. Waking up every day, it was a struggle to go about my day."
The fog had cleared as Frazier watched the northeast corridor rumble past in July 2020, seated on the Yankees' chartered Acela Express bound for the pandemic-delayed season opener in Washington, D.C. Frazier's trip came to an early end; their bullpen sapped by an abbreviated James Paxton start, Frazier was the odd man out, dispatched to the club's alternate site in Moosic, Pa.
Frazier wondered if he had worn a Yankees uniform for the final time, expressing as much to Boone and general manager Brian Cashman, asking point-blank if he had a future in the organization. They assured him that he did, encouraging him to keep his skills sharp and wait for another opportunity. Frazier nodded, and when Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton landed on the injured list, Frazier was ready.
"I would say after the 2019 season, I started to experience some relief with the symptoms," Frazier said. "I tried everything. It's so difficult with concussions; I still get messages on social media about kids that are possibly going through it, asking for any sort of advice because it is something that affects people so much differently. But going into the 2020 season, I started to feel like myself again."
The bat speed that Cashman famously lauded as "legendary" was still there; Frazier hit .267/.394/.511 with eight homers and 26 RBIs in 39 games, compiling a 149 OPS+. Even more impressively, pitchers no longer had to wince or hold their breath when a sinking liner or deep fly ball was lashed in Frazier's direction.
"I know this guy rakes, but the fact that he got his confidence back in the outfield -- man, he needed that," said infielder Tyler Wade, one of Frazier's closest friends on the team. "He's not a bad outfielder. He just needed that swagger back."
Over and over, Frazier answered those challenges, whipping tosses to the cutoff man and grinning underneath the mask he sported in the field -- partly a public service announcement encouraged by his girlfriend, Kaylee Gambadoro. Frazier's improvement was a frequent topic of conversation in the Yankees' dugout; he quipped that he would accent his gloves and gear with gold flourishes.
"He blew us all up," Boone said, chuckling. "I think back to the Red Sox game where he had a couple of blunders out there. His defense has always been something that's been talked about or questioned: can he get to a certain point? We've seen the work over the last couple of years suggest that he could become a very good defensive outfielder. We saw that turn into results last year."
Reggie Willits, the Yankees' outfield coach, said that Frazier's increased confidence in his routes and speed resulted from hours of hard work in empty ballparks. Even during his frustrating 2019 season, Frazier was among the earliest-arriving players, squinting into the sun to track balls in the corners.
"That success didn't just happen," Willits said. "It’s something that he’s worked hard at for several years. All those reads and his correction routes, angles … it’s just scratching the surface. He’s a really gifted player. I think that if he continues to put in the time, which I know he will, he’ll continue to improve and become a better defender every year.”
Yet Frazier was as surprised as anyone on the afternoon of Oct. 22, when Major League Baseball announced him as one of three finalists for the AL’s Gold Glove in right field. The award went to the Rangers’ Joey Gallo, but Frazier doesn’t expect to be a one-and-done in that conversation. As he prepares for his first full season as a starting outfielder, Frazier says that we haven’t seen anything yet.
“I’m just trying to build off the foundation that I created last year; go out there and show 2019 was a fluke,” Frazier said. “It shouldn’t have happened, but it did. I’m ready to put it past me.”