TAMPA, Fla. – The phone call came late on Sunday evening, a few hours before the rest of baseball learned that the Yankees were trading for third baseman Josh Donaldson. Aware of existing tension, general manager Brian Cashman wanted to gauge Gerrit Cole’s temperature before completing the transaction.
“I’ll be fine,” Cole told the GM, who proceeded to acquire Donaldson as part of a five-player blockbuster trade with the Twins. Monday’s first order of business was to have Cole and Donaldson shake hands and clear the air, a brief and cordial exchange in manager Aaron Boone’s office at George M. Steinbrenner Field.
“We’re on the same team,” Donaldson said. “If there was anything that needs to be said, let’s say it. But after we had our conversation, I think we both felt very good about where it ended. We’re excited about hopefully winning the World Series this year. That’s what is our goal.”
The 36-year-old Donaldson was among the most prominent figures in Sunday’s swap, which also delivered shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa and catcher Ben Rortvedt to New York in exchange for third baseman Gio Urshela and catcher Gary Sánchez. Because Cole and Donaldson had a public spat last season, Cashman wondered if the deal would affect clubhouse chemistry.
“It’s actually not all that uncommon for [Cashman] to fill me in on stuff before it hits the wire,” Cole said. “There’s probably a little extra reason why he reached out specifically last night. But look, if you’re committed to winning a championship, this stuff doesn’t matter.”
The beef between Cole and Donaldson took root last June, when Donaldson spoke out amid Major League Baseball’s crackdown on pitchers’ use of sticky substances. Speaking with Minnesota reporters, Donaldson wondered aloud if it was “coincidence” that Cole’s spin rate numbers dipped after four Minor League players were suspended.
“First off, when I named Gerrit Cole as part of the thing, I said, ‘Look, he’s the first guy that’s pitched since suspensions have been handed down,’” Donaldson said. “I said that I thought this was a league problem, and those are my words. And I feel like the league has addressed the issues that were at hand. After that, you didn’t hear from me.”
Enforcement increased at the big league level on June 3, the same night Cole allowed five runs over five innings to the Rays. Cole’s next start was against Donaldson and the Twins, prompting speculation that Cole might throw a pitch at or near Donaldson. Instead, Cole exacted his satisfaction by striking out nine -- including Donaldson twice -- in a victory.
“He felt like it was a better idea to try and strike me out, which he did a few times,” Donaldson said. “At the end of the day, I’m happy to be on the same team and not have to strike out anymore.”
Donaldson later said he did not regret his comments, making him a less-than-popular figure in the Yankees’ clubhouse. He heard boos during an Aug. 19-21 visit to Yankee Stadium, hardly the first time that Donaldson – who was named 2015 AL MVP while with the Blue Jays – has experienced a hostile reception in the Bronx.
“I never really felt like I had a rough time with fans,” Donaldson said. “I think one thing you’ll learn about me is, I have a pretty good time when I’m playing baseball.”
Boone said that he considers the Cole-Donaldson tiff “buried and a non-issue.”
“Not to say it wasn’t a real issue for us last year, but I feel really good about those two guys,” Boone said. “The bottom line is, if you come in there with professionalism, grit, toughness and competitiveness, you’re going to fit in fine.”
In his 24th year as GM, Cashman said that he has seen similar situations work out positively over the years. He recalled players’ reactions when the Yankees acquired right-hander Roger Clemens before the 1999 season, a controversial figure in their clubhouse because of repeated hit-by-pitches over the years.
Cashman recalled that “when the dust settled, [Clemens] became one of the more impact Yankees I’ve ever had,” helping the club win a pair of titles. Donaldson bristled when a reporter relayed the Clemens comparison – “I’m not the most hated person,” he remarked – and said that he expects to fit in just fine.
“At the end of the day, we’re here to play baseball,” Donaldson said. “I think those guys in that clubhouse know from watching me, as a competitor, that I want to win baseball games. I think that they respect that.”