NEW YORK -- The pinstriped placard had faded and yellowed since Gerrit Cole cradled it in his 11-year-old hands prior to Game 6 of the 2001 World Series, proclaiming a lifetime commitment to the Yankees and assisting in a successful mission to procure a batting-practice baseball from Derek Jeter.
As its owner advanced to on-field stardom, that crinkled piece of poster board was tacked to a California bedroom wall, then stashed in a closet for safekeeping. It saw the light of day again on Wednesday, as Cole hoisted it to celebrate his nine-year, $324 million pact at a Yankee Stadium news conference.
“I’m here,” Cole said, posing for photographs in his No. 45 jersey alongside his wife Amy, managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner and agent Scott Boras. “I’ve always been here.”
The Yankees identified the 29-year-old Cole as their top target of the offseason, and Steinbrenner said that he refused to be denied in his pursuit of the standout right-hander, authorizing general manager Brian Cashman to swell the club’s offer to a guaranteed ninth year once it appeared that their initial proposal was too close to those offered by the Angels and Dodgers.
Having submitted to a close shave that Cole joked provided his first case of razor burn in years, the addition instantly elevated the Yankees to World Series favorites. Steinbrenner said that his expectation is that the franchise will win multiple championships during the hurler’s time in pinstripes.
“He’s an unbelievable player and an unbelievable human being, and he's going to be an unbelievable Yankee,” Steinbrenner said. “He checks all the boxes. He’s great with his teammates, great in the clubhouse. … We need to win some world championships, and I believe we're going to do that sooner rather than later. I believe we're going to do that -- plural.”
Cole’s contract includes a full no-trade clause and established new high marks in terms of total contract value for a free-agent starting pitcher, as well as average annual value for any player. Cole’s deal surpassed the seven-year, $245 million agreement that Stephen Strasburg signed with the Nationals on Dec. 9.
“I think it actually did make the biggest difference, going to that ninth year,” Cashman said. “It’s just a belief, but over time, the other teams would have gotten there and put a more difficult decision for the player. I think we were definitely of interest and one of the clubs he was hoping for, but that didn't guarantee we were the only club.”
The nine-figure outlay to a free-agent starter is the Yankees’ first since 2014, when Masahiro Tanaka agreed to a seven-year, $155 million pact.
When Steinbrenner greenlighted the massive outlay about a month ago, the Yankees organized a large excursion to meet with the Coles and Boras in Newport Beach, Calif., inviting former pitcher Andy Pettitte to accompany a group that included Cashman, assistant general manager Mike Fishman, manager Aaron Boone and pitching coach Matt Blake.
During that 4 1/2-hour meeting, Cole was presented with a golden box in the shape of home plate that contained an iPad preloaded with answers to all the questions the Yankees anticipated the hurler might have about life in New York. That piqued his interest, as did Boone’s presentation of two bottles of Cole’s favorite wine, the highly rated Masseto merlot.
“The Yankees did what the Yankees needed to do, and it was ultimately my dream to play here,” Cole said. “And so I wanted to follow that.”
Cole said that he wore a Yankees cap for about three consecutive days after agreeing to the contract, completing a circuitous route to The Bronx.
The Yankees made Cole their first-round selection (28th overall) in the 2008 MLB Draft, then were frustrated when he honored his commitment to UCLA. Selected first overall by the Pirates in '11, Cole reached the Majors with Pittsburgh in '13. He was 59-42 with a 3.50 ERA in 127 starts during his time with the Bucs, including selection as a '15 National League All-Star.
“He's changed a great deal since that high school Draft,” Cashman said. “He was more physical and less mental back then in terms of control. He was a man amongst boys.”
With the Pirates dangling Cole to interested clubs during the 2017-18 offseason, Cashman again attempted to bring Cole to New York. Cashman balked at including third baseman Miguel Andújar in negotiations, and Pittsburgh ultimately accepted a four-player package from the Astros.
Cole was 35-10 with a 2.68 ERA in 65 starts for Houston over the past two seasons, earning selection as an American League All-Star both years. He finished second to teammate Justin Verlander in the AL Cy Young Award balloting this past season, leading the Majors with 326 strikeouts and a 185 ERA+ while finishing 20-5 with an AL-leading 2.50 ERA in 33 starts.
“This is not a guy that comes around very often,” Boone said. “The fact that he was sitting out there as a free agent -- I think you saw ownership and Hal’s level of commitment that we realize what a special person this is out on the market. … I think we're going to see a guy that continues to push himself and probably never be satisfied.”
Boone chuckled when asked if he was ready to anoint Cole as his Opening Day starter. He almost certainly will fill that role, as well as any potential Game 1s in the postseason, heading a rotation that could also feature Tanaka, James Paxton, Luis Severino, J.A. Happ, Domingo German or Jordan Montgomery.
It is a challenge Cole said he will not be afraid to tackle, which is exactly why the Yankees made him their most important target of the winter.
“I want to compete every year for a championship, and I want to win a championship,” Cole said. “I was a Yankee fan, man. Every year you have that expectation that they're going to be competing. It doesn't scare me. It’s what I dreamed of.”