An Oklahoma native with sinewy forearms who wore No. 7 for the last seven seasons, Matt Holliday is sure to evoke fond feelings from Yankees fans with every ball he puts over the Yankee Stadium fence. Signed as a free agent last December, he's expected to wear No. 17 and fortify the middle of the Yankees' lineup as the primary designated hitter this season -- his first in pinstripes and his 14th in the Majors.
Holliday is a seven-time All-Star, three-time National League champion and 2011 World Series winner, and he has seen it all on the diamond. But the fire still burns for the 37-year-old, whose past success and vast experience should serve the Yankees well as they chart a course toward their 28th title. If it is incumbent upon the veterans to help establish a winning culture in the clubhouse, count Holliday among those who know just what that means. Last October, Sporting News called him "a pillar of leadership and production, on and off the field," having played a huge role in helping the Cardinals remain perennial contenders after arriving in St. Louis midway through the 2009 season.
Although he has played about 1,700 games in left field, now that he's back in the American League, the career .303 hitter can focus solely on his hitting, with an eye toward returning to the postseason. Before embarking on that pursuit, Holliday sat down with Yankees Magazine at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Fla., during Spring Training to discuss his journey to this point.
Video: Holliday discusses transitioning to DH for Yankees
Your family is synonymous with Oklahoma State baseball. Your father, Tom, coached at OSU from 1978 to 2003, and your brother Josh is now in his fifth season as the head coach there. What was it like growing up in that environment?
Pretty much since I can remember, I was spending lots of time with my dad at Oklahoma State and just really grew up at the ballpark, so to speak, in Stillwater. It's a college town, and I pretty much just grew up around the university, around him and around the players. That's really where my brother and I and my mom (Kathy) spent most of our free time, playing sports, being around Oklahoma State, going to Cowboys games; that was our deal. That's just how we grew up.
Your dad became the head baseball coach around the time when you were a senior in high school, and you had an offer to not only play for him and alongside Josh on a team that would reach the College World Series in 1999, but also to play quarterback for the Cowboys. That had to be a tough thing to pass up.
It really was. It was a tough decision. Looking back on it now, it seems tougher maybe than it was at the time. I really had my heart set on pursuing baseball if the right opportunity came up, and I felt like the draft situation and the money was good enough to pass up the opportunity to play college ball.
Did you ever entertain thoughts of playing football professionally, or did you always know that baseball was the sport that you would choose?
Baseball was always my dream. I can remember back as a kid in school, people would ask, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" And it was always, "Pro baseball player." Football came later and was one of those things where I was good at it and I loved it, but I didn't have quite the same passion that I had for baseball.
What is it about baseball that appeals to you?
Being around it as a kid so much, maybe it's ingrained into you to enjoy it and to understand it, to know it. I think there's part of wanting to do what your father does, especially if you're around it a lot. I enjoy the game, lots of games, and just sort of the grind of it and the challenge of it. I would say I prefer to play games over practices. Whereas football is a five-to-one proposition, with baseball you've got games most every day. But like I said, I grew up around it, I love the details of it and the game inside the game, if you will.
You signed with the Rockies after being selected in the seventh round in 1998, and after six years in the Minors, you finally get "The Call" early in 2004. What sticks out in your mind from that time?
I remember having a really good spring and being super disappointed when they told me that I'd be starting the season in Triple-A, but I got off to a good start, and Larry Walker and Preston Wilson were both dealing with some injuries. I got a call, and they said, "You're going to Denver." I was super excited and called my wife, (Leslee) -- couldn't get a hold of her. I think she was watching The Bachelor or something, so she ignored my call. I'm like power-calling her, and she's not answering. Finally I just called my parents and told them. Finally she called me back. She's like, "What!?" I think she forever feels guilty about that.
After your second season in the Bigs, you played in the first World Baseball Classic. That must have been a pretty neat experience for a relatively young player.
Yeah, I was surprised. I got a call from USA Baseball inviting me to be on that team and I was like, "Oh man, that'd be incredible." To get a chance to be around [Derek] Jeter and Alex Rodriguez and Chipper Jones, Roger Clemens, Ken Griffey Jr., on and on and on. Derrek Lee, Mark Teixeira, Chase Utley, Michael Young. It was a really good team. I was a second-year player, and I got to sit around and listen and get to know some of those guys, so that was pretty cool.
In 2007 you had a monster year, winning the batting title with a .340 average and finishing runner up in the National League MVP race. But that Rockies-Padres game to decide the NL West on the last day was just crazy. Do a lot of people still bring that up?
Video: Holliday scores the game-winning run
I still get yelled at in San Diego. I'm like, "Jeez, turn the page. It's been almost 10 years!" But that was a pretty incredible game. The highs and lows, the back and forths, the feeling really good about it, not so good about it … to be right in the middle of it, to have a chance to make it into the playoffs in Game 163, and I think I ended up wrapping up the batting title and the RBI title in that game -- those stats count, so I could've lost the batting title -- it was a crazy game and really kind of spring-boarded us all the way to the World Series on a really young team, which was cool because it reminds me of this team as far as a bunch of young guys and some veterans and nobody really expects too much out of us.
What was your first World Series experience like?
Oh, man. Crazy. We started out in Boston. I think sometimes ignorance is bliss. We were pretty confident going in. The problem was we had like nine days in between, because we swept our way all the way to the World Series, and I think the Red Sox went seven games with the Indians. So we were a little rusty, and they had played three days before that. They took it to us. We couldn't get our feet underneath us. It was super exciting. The problem was we didn't really get to enjoy it too long.
The following year, you were involved in another memorable game: the 2008 All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium -- your first start as an All-Star, albeit in right field. Your solo homer in the fifth inning off Ervin Santana broke a scoreless tie, but the AL prevailed, 4-3, in 15 innings. What do you recall from that experience?
It was pretty cool. Never played right field before. I remember all the festivities and old Yankee Stadium, and it was awesome to be part of that. That was very, very memorable, and then I hit a home run in the game. I came out after [the sixth] and watched for like four more hours. Pretty neat, pretty neat.
That offseason, Colorado acquired Carlos Gonzalez, Huston Street and Greg Smith from Oakland for you, but after 93 games there, the A's shipped you to St. Louis at the 2009 trade deadline. How tough was it to deal with a midseason move like that?
To be candid with you, I was excited to get out of there. They thought they may have a chance to compete, and we just didn't. [Jason] Giambi, Nomar [Garciaparra], Mark Ellis, [Eric] Chavez, they all got hurt, so I knew that there was a good chance that I was going to get traded at the deadline going into my free-agent year. I expected it and ended up getting traded to St. Louis and making it to the playoffs, so I had a pretty good last two months.
The Cardinals agreed, locking you up to a long-term deal prior to the 2010 season. And then in 2011, thanks to another absolutely epic game in which the Texas Rangers were a strike away from a championship -- twice -- you're a World Series champion.
Quite a memorable time. It was a really fun team, really good guys. We had a bunch of guys that got along really well, had a lot of fun, a lot of personality, a lot of stuff going on all the time. Nick Punto, Lance Berkman, Skip Schumaker, some of my really, really close friends. But yeah, I think we were scuffling and then we got hot and ended up winning a World Series -- it was pretty amazing. That Game 6 is obviously one of the greatest games in baseball history. David Freese was incredible. The feeling of accomplishing a goal together, as a team, where it took everybody we had picking each other up, was a pretty gratifying feeling when it was over.
During your time in St. Louis, you became actively involved in the community, establishing the Homers for Health program to raise money for kids at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital. As a father of four, it must be a life-changing experience to meet some of these families and see what they endure.
It's really emotional, and sometimes hard. You get attached to these families, and it doesn't always turn out great. Some are good stories -- kids that are really thriving and doing really well -- and some aren't. You see the hurt that some of them are going through; it's hard. Part of my faith is loving people like that and trying to bear their burdens with them. It's not easy, it's challenging, but it's also so gratifying at the same time. Just being a part of that and creating a program that has benefited kids and families and the hospital in a way that hopefully lasts a long time was really neat and something that my wife and I are pretty proud of. We've gotten a lot of other players to be part of it, and they've been very generous with their time and efforts to help make it what it is. I think it'll continue to be great, and Matt Carpenter's going to chair it. We've still got Adam Wainwright involved. That was our goal, was to not make it about us, so that it could continue when we were gone.
Speaking of emotional goodbyes, at the end of the 2016 regular season, while much of the baseball world was focused on the farewells to Vin Scully and David Ortiz in Los Angeles and Boston, respectively, the outpouring of love and appreciation you received in St. Louis -- and your return to the field despite a broken thumb that had kept you out since the middle of August -- was pretty remarkable. What was that last weekend like for you?
It was a tough situation. I was kind of in the dark about what was going on. I hadn't had an at-bat in seven or eight weeks, and we were right in the middle of the Wild Card race, so I really wanted to just know what was going to happen so that I could enjoy those last three or four games and really thank all the people that you spend so much time with over eight years face to face. Because if you find out the last day, you're not going to have time to really have a meaningful thank you, and I never want to do it over text message or over a phone call. So basically in my mind, I wanted to keep it on the down low and just ask our GM, [John Mozeliak], "Hey, is this it for me here?" He was very candid with me, which I appreciate, and he basically said, "Yeah, we're not going to pick up the option. We don't want to shut any doors, but go ahead and do what you want to do. But we'd like to honor you at some point and get you an at-bat if you're able." And I thought, "Well, I don't want to jeopardize what we're trying to do as a team, so if an at-bat comes up where the game's not in the balance, then OK, but this isn't a must for me. I don't have to have this."
So they activated me that day, and I figured they'd try to get me an at-bat before the weekend was out. Sure enough, that night we get a 5-0 lead in the seventh inning and Mike [Matheny] says, "Hey, you're up." I was like, "Oh, man." Immediately you get that nervous energy and then you go out on deck and, of course, the crowd sort of figures it out. Then you get in the box, and it becomes very emotional when people and teammates start expressing their appreciation for you. So there's the whole emotion of it, then I get down 0-2 in the count, I've got tears in my eyes, and I'm thinking, "I sure as heck don't want to strike out in what could be my last at-bat here."
Video: PIT@STL: Holliday slugs solo homer in return from DL
And then I hit a home run. It was sort of a divine, out-of-body experience, so to speak. Just rounding the bases, it felt like a gift that God had given me that allowed me to shut the door on the whole chapter in St. Louis. I ended up pinch-hitting again the next day and got another hit, but for me that was the moment. It was pretty emotional. It was a memory that I'll have forever.
Hopefully you'll make a few more lasting memories in New York. How excited are you about putting on the pinstripes?
I'm really excited. As a baseball rat since I was kid, I have an appreciation for the history of baseball, and there's an element of the New York Yankees that's different. Getting a chance to play for the most storied and most successful franchise in the American League, and having just played for the most successful franchise in the National League, I consider myself pretty blessed to get to be part of two such historic, great, traditional organizations. I'm really looking forward to the home opener, being a Yankee in Yankee Stadium. I think it's pretty exciting.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Nathan Maciborski is the executive editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the April 2017 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.