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Yankees Magazine: Won't Back Down

Amid countless setbacks and free falls, Tyler Austin never stopped running down his dreams
Yankees Magazine

On Aug. 13, 2016, Aaron Judge walked up to the plate for the first time as a Major Leaguer and promptly launched a ball deep over the center-field wall.

He was the first player to homer in his first career plate appearance since … one batter before, when Tyler Austin did the same exact thing.

On Aug. 13, 2016, Aaron Judge walked up to the plate for the first time as a Major Leaguer and promptly launched a ball deep over the center-field wall.

He was the first player to homer in his first career plate appearance since … one batter before, when Tyler Austin did the same exact thing.

It's kind of a fitting story for Austin, who has somehow never been the star of the show. He's a guy next to the guy, or batting for the guy, or being sent down to the Minors to make room for the guy. Everyone involved with the Yankees seems to love him, but few outside the room really know him.

Since that debut in 2016 through mid-April of this year, Austin only had 161 Big League at-bats to his name. It's not enough to get a read on a player, or on a person. And that's partly to do with circumstance, sure, to injuries that have slowed the 26-year-old at various points in his professional career. There's also a guy by the name of Greg Bird who regularly occupies the top of the Yankees' depth chart at first base.

But circumstances can change in an instant -- you've got to take what life gives you and run with it. Austin knows that. It's been a constant his entire life.

***

At times it can feel positively unfair, how little of life you can control. Just look at Austin's history since becoming a pro. You'll find a lineup of crises, enough to fill a season's worth of episodes on some Netflix medical drama.

After his senior year at Heritage High School in Conyers, Georgia, the Yankees drafted Austin in the 13th round of the 2010 MLB Draft. Soon thereafter, a series of unfortunate events unfolded that would have seemed unbelievable to Lemony Snicket.

In one of his very first at-bats as a pro, Austin got hit with a ball and fractured a bone in his hand, washing out the rest of his 2010 season. But when he came back in 2011, he tore up the Minors for a few months, raking in the Gulf Coast League before a quick promotion to Short-Season A-ball in Staten Island.

Then the injury bug took another bite.

Ten days after his promotion to Staten Island, Austin was placed on the disabled list. He came back and finished the year strong, but the next four seasons were filled with seven more trips to the DL or the temporarily inactive list. For every high, there was inevitably a low.

"He has always been a quality hitter," says Yankees general manager Brian Cashman. "He started immediately in his pro career putting himself on our radar with some elite performance. Unfortunately he has had a history with injuries, but when he's healthy, he has always produced and he has always battled. He's a pro in the way he goes about his business the right way. Health has always been the thing that stood in his way."

Austin was selected to play in the 2012 All-Star Futures Game but then suffered a concussion and had to withdraw. He made it back on the field that year, though, and produced enough to win the Yankees' Minor League Player of the Year Award and find his name on the top prospects list put out by Baseball America.

In 2014 he impressed at Double-A despite yet another injury, then was selected to take part in the Arizona Fall League, where he would compete alongside the top Minor League talent in the country. While chasing a foul ball during a game in the desert, Austin, who was playing right field, collided with a teammate and suffered a knee injury that ended his AFL season early. The teammate he collided with, Greg Bird, was fine.

"I went to the fall league three times and was hurt twice," Austin says, shaking his head. "It's just part of the game. I think my injuries, some of them are fluke injuries and it's just something that I've had to overcome, battle through and continue to get better every day from it."

By 2015 Austin had made it to Triple-A, but his production began to wane and the injuries were still stacking up. His poor showing led to a demotion. Eventually, in September of that year, when the Yankees needed to make room on the 40-man roster for some call-ups, he was designated for assignment.

"That was probably the most difficult time in my career," Austin admits. "I knew that on my ride home [after the season], I had a choice to make. I wasn't going to let that moment end my career. So I went back to the house and basically started over. I just worked as hard as I possibly could."

Austin had been low before, but this felt like rock bottom. If there was a silver lining, it was more practical than anything else; once you're down on the ground, there's nowhere to go but up.

"I don't think he was going to walk away at that point," says Brandon Thomas, Austin's longtime friend and offseason trainer. "But I think he was thinking, 'Is this ever going to happen? Am I ever going to get there?' He had been in the league for five or six years and kept getting injured and hurt, and he just can't crack that door down. So I think after that 2015 year, those thoughts were starting to creep in a little bit more. I told him, 'Let's just go to work because all you can do is go to work.'"

***

Austin and Thomas worked together for two hours nearly every day, with Thomas using a yoga-based regimen to help the first baseman improve his strength, flexibility and range of motion.

The Yankees retained the rejuvenated Austin and assigned him to Double-A Trenton to start 2016. By the beginning of June, he was back in Triple-A. When the calendar flipped to August and the Yankees needed a first baseman -- not to mention an infusion of some young blood -- Austin, who was batting .323 for the RailRiders, was called up to the Bronx for the first time. He would dress in the home clubhouse and take the Yankee Stadium field on Aug. 13, 2016.

And maybe it was some well-learned knowledge that his biggest moments had long been followed by some of the most frustrating, but Austin was determined to make his mark. Quickly. He walked up to the plate for the first time as a Major Leaguer and launched the sixth pitch he saw down the line and into the right-field seats.

By the end of the season, he had picked up 20 hits in 31 games and mashed five home runs -- including a blast on his birthday and a walk-off on Sept. 8. When Spring Training rolled around the following February, questions swirled as to whether Bird -- who had impressed with the Big League club in the second half of 2015 -- would be able to come back from a shoulder injury that had kept him sidelined the entire 2016 season. "Tyler Austin's going to have a lot to say about that, I'm sure," Cashman said at the time.

The Yankees prepared to open camp with first base up for grabs -- and there was also a job to be had in right field, where Austin also had considerable playing time. He had climbed out of his rock bottom to this new high -- a true make-or-break moment with the odds actually in Austin's favor. Were things finally turning around?

Pitchers and catchers reported to Tampa, Florida, on Feb. 14, 2017, with the rest of the roster due to officially arrive on Feb. 18. But Austin, like many players, reported early, hoping to get a jump on his breakout season.

And then, on Feb. 17, news broke that Austin had fouled off a ball in the cage and fractured his left foot.

What is the opposite of serendipity? Why did these things keep happening? And how does one build enough mental fortitude to stick through it long enough to see himself become the Opening Day first baseman just one year later?

***

You never know what you can endure. Your threshold for pain -- both physical and mental -- is, perhaps mercifully, indecipherable. But everyone has a limit. So you have to wonder how Austin isn't way past his by now.

The truth is, all that has happened to Austin as a pro … well that's just kid stuff, a secondary piece in his life's narrative.

The real story began in high school, when Austin seemingly had the world at his fingertips. He was a highly-scouted catcher at Heritage High with a chance to get drafted by a Big League club. His dreams were all there for the taking.

"I look back at high school, and you look at the way high school went -- we all knew that Tyler Austin was going to be somebody in baseball," says Thomas, who was a teammate of Austin's on the Heritage squad. "A lot of kids at that high school age can get arrogant with it and cocky. But he was never that way. He's always been a warrior and very humble, and he just works."

But something was wrong. Austin just knew it. He was feeling pain -- catchers always feel pain -- but this was different. After a visit to the doctor, he received a shocking diagnosis: testicular cancer. They would have to operate immediately.

"As soon as I found out, obviously I was scared," Austin says. "It was not something that I would wish upon anybody."

Any cancer diagnosis is terrifying and overwhelming. And for a 17-year-old, it can inevitably have a sort of life-defining quality. The way a person responds can color every decision for the rest of his or her life. Squint, and you can see everything refracting off that one turning point.

"I wasn't going to let it beat me, that's the big thing," he says. "I just kept telling myself over and over again that I was going to be all right and that I wasn't going to let this beat me."

Austin didn't have a choice in the moment. He would get healthy and then he would get back -- fast. There wasn't a Plan B, and there wasn't a pity party; he barely felt the need to tell people. He just wanted to beat it and get back to playing baseball as quickly as his doctors would allow.

And he did.

A week after surgery to remove the tumor, Austin was back on the field. He played in the 2009 Aflac All-American Baseball Classic at Petco Park in San Diego, despite the sutures having been removed just one day before.

Austin grimaces at the memory, saying it was one of the most painful experiences ever -- especially when he was moved from third base to catcher in the game. What got him through it? "Just the will to play, I think," he says. "I think that was the big thing, just being out on the field and getting the opportunity to play just gets you through it."

See, when you battle cancer, when you stare it in the face and beat it, everything that comes after is water off your back. You've already gotten some of the worst news a person can get, and yet somehow you're still here.

Austin has made a career of somehow finding a way to stick around.

Video: MIN@NYY: Austin belts a homer, makes a stellar catch

And it's not dumb luck -- if anything, it feels like Austin has walked under every ladder, opened a million umbrellas indoors and shattered every mirror he has ever seen.

"The best word for me to describe him would be a warrior," Thomas says. "I think that just embodies who he is. If you look at his career with the Yankees, I think it probably didn't go right off the bat the way he envisioned, just battling a lot of injuries and stuff like that. But he always keeps knocking at that door. He's always going to come back. You're never going to knock him out.

"I think he's had a vision and dream of himself playing Major League Baseball since he was 5 years old. That's just been in his mind, that's what he wants to happen, so he's going to make it happen."

Austin is a product of that will to play. He's pure resilience mixed with natural ability, hard work and an unwavering dedication to a dream. There has never been a Plan B for him. There has only ever been Plan A: play for the New York Yankees.

***

With Spring Training just about over this March, the Yankees still had one man too many on their roster. Austin was the odd man out. He was told he'd be starting the season in Triple-A.

Then, Bird went down and underwent surgery on March 27. He was officially placed on the DL two days later -- Opening Day -- and Austin was added to the 25-man roster. He had learned the day before that he was going to be batting ninth and playing first in the Yankees' 2018 opener.

"I was optioned in Spring Training, so I thought the chances of that happening were done for this year," says Austin, who grew up watching Yankees games with his grandmother. "You never want to see anybody go down like Greg did, but it was a special day for me to get the chance to be on that field on Opening Day for the New York Yankees.

"Getting the chance to put this uniform on every day is what I love most about it. This uniform is special and to know the people who have put it on before myself, to know the history that comes with it, I think that's what I love most about it."

The dream had come true. But the story couldn't just end there. Life keeps going. Circumstances change, so you have to adapt. For Austin, that means proving he has what it takes to be more than just the guy replacing the guy.

In his second game of the year, he mashed two home runs against the Blue Jays. As his at-bats became more consistent, he began contributing more and more.

But Austin brings more than just a bat with pop to the lineup. Many in the Yankees' clubhouse have been with Austin throughout his journey, and his passion for the game, his relentless pursuit of excellence, and his sheer force of will have left deep impressions.

"I have a lot of respect for Tyler," says Bird, praise that resonates considering their intertwined fates. "I didn't know him in high school, obviously, but I know the story there. Anyone who has gone through that, especially at that age, I have the utmost respect for. And in his professional baseball career, I've gotten to see that more firsthand, and he's had some challenging times. So I'm happy with where he's at, and I want to see him keep doing what he's doing and get a good chance because he's a Big Leaguer. He deserves it."

For Judge, who has enjoyed a smoother ride since the day of their joint debuts, Austin's evolution -- the good and the bad -- has been a sight to see. "It's pretty cool to see the struggles, the ups and downs in the Minor Leagues and then to finally get the call-up and do what he did in his debut. The way he contributes to the team is incredible. I love playing with him. He'll take the shirt off his back for you. He'll run through a wall for you, which he's done multiple times. It's just amazing to be around.

"He's a fighter, that's the biggest thing. He may get knocked down a couple times, but he's always getting right back up. He's not going to sit there and mope about past things that have hurt him, or a bad game or if he didn't make a play. Just seeing that positivity reflects on the whole team. When you see a guy like that run through walls and getting right back up saying let's make another play, that just fires you up as a teammate."

Maybe you're thinking, this guy might want to stop running through walls -- figurative or literal. But if Austin has learned anything in life, it's that opportunity is fleeting. So while he has the chance, he's committed to making an impact the only way he has ever known how.

"Just by going out and playing as hard as I can every day," he says of his new Plan A, which sounds a lot like his old Plan A. "I think that's the way I was brought up. Play hard, and play every play until the end of it. That's what I'm going to continue to do every day and whatever happens, happens.

"I just think [everything I went through] helps me to not take anything for granted and to continue to work hard every single day no matter the circumstances or the situation. To just enjoy this game and enjoy life."

Austin says and does all the right things. He knows anything can happen because anything and everything already has. But he's here now. He's playing this game that he loves so much now. After everything he has been through, what else could he possibly do?

Hilary Giorgi is the senior editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the May 2018 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

New York Yankees, Tyler Austin