A look back at when Gator met Gerrit

January 29th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Bryan Hoch’s Yankees Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

NEW YORK -- It was the spring of 2020 and all 30 big league camps had been abruptly cancelled due to the emerging coronavirus pandemic. A guest instructor with the Yankees, Ron Guidry piled into his Ford pickup truck, the one he boasted would make it all the way back to his native Louisiana on a single tank of gas.

There was great uncertainty about what the days ahead would hold as the retired pitcher, affectionately known as “Gator,” steered toward the Florida state line. But Guidry was sure about one thing: He’d seen enough in those few weeks of camp to recognize that the Yankees had a unique ace in Gerrit Cole.

“I remember driving back home and telling my wife, ‘I’ll probably be making a few phone calls to congratulate him on some of the records he’s going to wind up breaking,’” Guidry said.

Though that unorthodox stop-and-start season delayed Cole’s adjustment process, he found Guidry to be a trusted resource, crediting the four-time All-Star with helping him refine his mental approach. With help from Guidry and others, Cole registered his finest season to date in '23, earning his first American League’s Cy Young Award.

It was appropriate, then, that Guidry was there to see Cole claim his prize on Saturday evening. Not only was Guidry in attendance, but Guidry, the 1978 American League Cy Young Award winner, introduced Cole at the 99th dinner held by the New York chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, lauding the righty’s achievements to a black-tie crowd.

Guidry, indeed, has seen a few of his vaunted marks toppled, most notably the Yankees’ single-season strikeout record of 248, which Cole surpassed in 2022.

“I’ve enjoyed each one of them,” Guidry said. “I just hope that you continue all that success and you break a few more. You might have one that’s hard: those nine shutouts [in 1978] might be a little bit hard in today’s game.”

Perhaps, but now there is another link that the duo can share. Guidry won the Cy Young Award unanimously in ‘78, and Cole picked up all 30 first-place votes last year. They are the only Yankees pitchers to achieve that feat.

“I’m very humbled by this award,” Cole said. “It’s a truly special honor that fills me with pride and validation for the hard work and the effort that we put into our craft.”

Some of Cole’s improvement during the 2023 season can be traced to a spring chat with Guidry, who regularly attends camp as a guest instructor. Guidry encouraged Cole to focus less on strikeouts and more on commanding the strike zone with efficiency, looking to generate quick innings and make batters swing at pitches.

The tweaks worked. Though Cole’s strikeout percentage dipped to 27% in 2023, his lowest since '17 (23.1%), he tossed an American League-leading 209 innings while limiting opponents to a .581 OPS, the second-lowest of his career. Most notably, Cole’s home run rate dropped significantly; after surrendering an AL-leading 33 in '22, Cole allowed just 20 home runs in '23.

As Cole clutched the Cy Young Award, his thoughts drifted to his boyhood home in California, where his father, Mark, had taped a strike zone on a mirror and created a makeshift pitching rubber with blue painter's tape.

“I pounded that blue square over and over again with Wiffle Balls, determined to break the glass,” Cole said. “I believe I did crack it once, though I won’t say which kind of ball I used. The effortless swing that produces a line drive and the pop of my dad’s mitt are some feelings and sounds that never really leave me.

“I still dream most nights of the perfect pitch, of the biggest execution in the biggest moment. It’s hard for me to believe that those dreams I had as a boy are still the same dreams I have today.”