HOUSTON -- The daydreams developed on the multihour bus rides through nowheresville towns, interrupted only by stops for burgers and pizza from highway rest areas, and they continued while the new "Baby Bombers" core bunked up in Minor League motels, where the only other sources of entertainment were airing on basic cable.
Greg Bird and Luis Severino were the first to taste The Show, an immediate impact for the 2015 push. Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez brought their thunderous power to New York the next season, and now that they are all together on a Yankees roster that sits one win from the Fall Classic, they've discovered that reality is even better than the fantasy.
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"We dreamed of playing together here and figuring it out along the way," Bird said. "We enjoy each other and enjoy playing with each other, and we always have. You build a good clubhouse with talented guys, you've got something. I feel like we've learned that throughout the years, playing with each other and coming up together."
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Maybe that was why it didn't sink in when experts evaluated the Yanks' band of 20-somethings and declared them not ready for primetime. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said that he believed the team would be able to compete for an American League Wild Card Game spot, expecting that the offensive contributions of Bird, Judge and Sanchez would be greater than the disappointing output that the team got out of the trio of Carlos Beltran, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira in 2016.
With managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner making the difficult decision to green-light a youth movement, Sanchez's late-season surge supplanted Brian McCann as the Yankees' starting catcher. That firmly established in most minds that Sanchez represented the Yanks' future behind the plate -- McCann's included, as he waived his no-trade clause to permit a trade to Houston.
"It's never easy to say goodbye to players," manager Joe Girardi said. "Brian McCann was a quality player here, a quality person, and same as Carlos -- just great teammates, great to manage. And it's difficult. But we knew that we had to make some changes, and these kids have played extremely well and been extremely important in our run."
Bird missed the fun in 2016 while recovering from right shoulder surgery, but he cheered from afar as Judge and Christopher Austin made history in their big league debuts by hitting back-to-back homers off the Rays' Matt Andriese.
"The coolest part about it is everyone's understanding that you still have to put in the work and you've still got to do a job," Bird said. "They understand that, and they go about it in such a humble way. They're so pro. Through the ups and downs, they stay the same. We've all been through it, just the stuff we've dealt with. And I think what's even more impressive is how they've handled it as young players. It's really cool to watch."
A dizzying series of highs and lows have followed, beginning with Judge answering Steinbrenner's challenge to grab the right-field job from Aaron Hicks in Spring Training and then making the necessary adjustments to dominate big league pitching, keeping the number .179 -- his batting average last season -- atop the "Notes" folder of his phone as a daily reminder.
"It's my first postseason, and to do it in New York, there's nothing like it," Judge said, "especially with the group of guys we have in this clubhouse. We were all pulling for each other, and it was amazing."
Sanchez crushed 33 homers in the regular season despite missing most of April with a right biceps injury, but he received tough love from Girardi and the fan base over his defensive work behind the plate. Severino returned from a rough 2016 season to re-establish his value as a starter, crediting assists to pitching coach Larry Rothschild and Severino's offseason workouts with childhood hero Pedro Martinez in the Dominican Republic.
"Last year, I was watching the World Series, and now we have a chance to be in the World Series," Severino said. "I'm proud of the work that I did in the offseason, the work that I did with my pitching coach here that helped me be what I am. And I'm proud of myself and the team that we have."
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Fortunately for Bird, the Yankees kept the light on and believed that his left-handed stroke could still make an impact despite missing most of the season due to injuries. The Yanks tried other choices at first base -- Chris Carter, Garrett Cooper, Ji-Man Choi and Chase Headley among them -- but Bird is thrilled to have found a home with the new core.
"It's like, all these years you put in, and then all of a sudden, you're just there," Bird said, snapping his fingers for emphasis. "All of a sudden, you wake up and you're in the playoffs. It's really cool to see those guys and the years that they've had, and just to see them doing well now. Coming up with those guys, it's special."