TAMPA, Fla. -- Gerrit Cole has used the days since pitchers and catchers reported to Spring Training as an opportunity to bond with his new Yankees teammates, leaning on the art of pitching as a conversation starter. On Thursday, those deep chats transitioned into spirited trash talk with pingpong paddles.
While workers prepare George M. Steinbrenner Field for Saturday’s 1:05 p.m. ET Grapefruit League opener against the Blue Jays, the Yankees cleared the practice fields early in favor of an adjacent pavilion tent, where manager Aaron Boone and his coaching staff orchestrated a 64-entry, March Madness-style table tennis tournament.
“It’s a cool environment for everybody to disarm them a little bit,” Cole said. “We’re not all experts at pingpong, so we can all kind of relate in that sense.”
The bonding exercise has been a staple in Yankees camp dating back to Joe Girardi’s days in the managerial chair. In 2009, director of mental conditioning Chad Bohling suggested a billiards tournament that was well-received, with Mariano Rivera taking honors as the club’s best pool shark.
“We've got a big bracket and it’s catered in there, so it should be a lot of fun,” Boone said. “It builds togetherness away from the baseball stuff, so we’re trying to build into that close culture. These guys like to be competitive too, so I think it's one of those things where guys get competitive, talking smack. It should be a lot of fun.”
Aaron Judge resumed hitting drills in the indoor batting cages on Friday, Boone said. Judge has been proceeding deliberately after experiencing right shoulder soreness while taking swings at the Yanks’ Minor League complex earlier this month.
“He finished hitting in the cages off the tee and kind of gave me an across-the-room smile, thumbs up,” Boone said. “Everything's moving there the way it should, so it’s another good day for him.”
Judge will not be ready to play in Saturday’s exhibition opener, and Boone said that there is no set date to get him into game action.
“We'll kind of see how we ramp up his volume,” Boone said. “We won't be in a rush to put him in a game just because of where we are in the calendar, but I think he's pretty much good to go.”
Masahiro Tanaka threw two innings of live batting practice on a back diamond of the Steinbrenner Field complex, and his teammates kept him on his toes. DJ LeMahieu smashed a comebacker that sailed past Tanaka’s head, striking a portable net, though Tanaka said the ball wasn’t as close as it looked.
“I like how I feel right now,” Tanaka said through an interpreter. “Fastball, offspeed stuff, I like the way it’s coming out of my hand.”
“It always hurts when someone goes out on an injury, not just starting pitchers,” Tanaka said. “It can’t affect what I do. I really have to work on myself getting ready for the season, so that’s what I’m going to do.”
Boone has been pleased by Clint Frazier’s early work on both sides of the ball, lauding his focus in live BP and defensive drills. Frazier is coming into camp competing for a spot on the Opening Day roster, part of a crowded outfield mix that also projects to feature Brett Gardner, Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Mike Tauchman.
“Fraz can really play and has a chance to be a great player in this league,” Boone said. “We want to be there for him to continue to help them grow in his game. The defensive stuff, as I said last year, I felt like the strides were there. At different times I know it didn't always show itself, but there were stretches where it really did, and his athleticism really jumps out at you. He's continued to work really hard.”
The Yanks are scheduled to open their Grapefruit League exhibition schedule on Saturday, hosting the Blue Jays at 1:05 p.m. ET. Left-hander J.A. Happ will start for New York, to be followed by Michael King, Luis Cessa and Nick Tropeano.