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Yankees Magazine: What comes next?

As prospects work their way up the Minor League system, the Yankees do everything they can to make sure their players are adjusting to each new challenge
Yankees Magazine

The phone rings. A young man reaches to pick it up. Everything up to this point in his life has been leading to this very moment. Who cares if that life in question is only 18 years? Those days and nights have been motivated by hard work, dedication and a singular dream. That dream is about to become a reality.

On the other end of the line could be any number of people -- a school advisor, a parent, a former coach. Or it could be Damon Oppenheimer, Yankees vice president of domestic amateur scouting. Or Gary Denbo, the team's vice president of player development. No matter the voice, the message is the same. The young man was just selected by the Yankees in the MLB Draft.

The phone rings. A young man reaches to pick it up. Everything up to this point in his life has been leading to this very moment. Who cares if that life in question is only 18 years? Those days and nights have been motivated by hard work, dedication and a singular dream. That dream is about to become a reality.

On the other end of the line could be any number of people -- a school advisor, a parent, a former coach. Or it could be Damon Oppenheimer, Yankees vice president of domestic amateur scouting. Or Gary Denbo, the team's vice president of player development. No matter the voice, the message is the same. The young man was just selected by the Yankees in the MLB Draft.

In an instant, everything changes. Barely 18 years old, but now a professional athlete. He's about to start packing a bag every three days, taking buses to towns he's never heard of.

In the high school locker room, the conversation was easy, carefree. Now, in the stalls on either side, are guys gunning for his job. Some don't even speak the same language.

The shift this young man is about to go through is extreme, more so than most understand. But it's the dream. He hangs up the phone, but it will ring again soon, as the reality of a new situation begins to unfold.

He'll soon head down to Tampa, Fla., where he will start his journey from young athlete to … well, no one really knows for certain. He could become a star, he could become a coach, or he could wash out of the system before ever reaching the top.

Video: My Draft Story: Aaron Judge

Fortunately for him, there will be a staff of trainers, coaches, mental conditioning personnel and teachers working together to lend a hand, making the transition as easy as possible for that young man, just like they do for every Yankees Minor Leaguer who got that same call about a dream come true.

The Yankees Way

When bringing a young man into the fray, the first things the Yankees look at are that player's skills on the field, and how he can improve those moving forward. But by no means are baseball skills the only area of interest for the club.

On top of simply trying to figure out how to play professional baseball -- and there's nothing simple about it -- these young men have another important challenge: representing the interlocking NY, and everything that goes along with it.

The New York Yankees are the most successful organization in all of sports, and there are expectations and pride attached to that distinction. Therefore, anyone who puts on the pinstripes must buy into all that it stands for.

To help learn "the Yankees Way," Denbo instituted a program in 2015 called Captain's Camp. Every year, he invites some of the top prospects in the organization, as well as guys who have showed some other form of leadership, to a series of meetings and talks given by some of the most successful individuals to either wear the Yankees uniform or work behind the scenes.

Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte have talked to the youngsters, as have CC Sabathia and Joe Girardi, each expounding on how they handled the successes and failures in their career. Even Jason Zillo, the Yankees' vice president of communications and media relations, has spoken about how to handle the media and outsized expectations. The message: Much is expected. But if they are successful, the Yankees believe that much will be given back to them.

"Anyone who puts that NY on their chest knows that we don't just go about things in a normal way," said Kyle Holder, a 2015 first-round draft pick who attended Captain's Camp in 2016. "We're expected to play baseball the way the Yankees play baseball. That means keeping your hair short. That means shaving your face. That means jogging around the field instead of walking. It's been like that for so long, and I think that's the reason that the Yankees are such a successful franchise -- because they do things the right way. They enforce that on the farm system right when a player comes into the organization."

To Denbo, the goal of the Captain's Camp is to make sure all attendees learn to understand and embrace the spotlight that follows all members of the Yankees organization -- a spotlight that never turns off.

"Everyone else can look at [our players] and see how to prepare, how to compete every day, throughout games, no matter what the score is," Denbo said. "They are always competing at a high level, they know how to be good teammates, how to develop trust with their teammates. They have to do the right things all the time, even when nobody is looking."

Holder, especially, took that message to heart.

Last season, he and fellow shortstop Hoy Jun Park spent an entire year as roommates. When the two first met in instructional league in 2015, Park, who hails from South Korea, knew almost no English. By the time the two met up again in Spring Training in 2016, Park, who had worked with the Yankees' educational staff, was a bit more comfortable with the language, so much so that he asked Holder if they could room together in Low-A Charleston.

Holder welcomed Park with open arms, and the gesture blossomed into a genuine friendship.

"We hit it off and started hanging out and becoming close," Holder said. "We wound up being the last two in our house in Charleston at the end of the year. It was definitely a cool experience, learning a new culture, being around a guy that doesn't speak fluent English, helping him out and doing things along those lines. It was a great experience."

This type of bond is what helps carry players through the tough times they face in the Minors -- forming close relationships with people of similar mindset is often the X-factor that leads to success.

"You have to make a family with your teammates because all those guys have got the same goal," said Justus Sheffield, who came to the organization in the 2016 trade that sent Andrew Miller to Cleveland. "Everyone is working toward the same thing, and you're with each other for so long, you kind of grow with each other and become a family. When my family is not able to come watch me, I know I have those other guys that have my back and will be there for me."

In the months between February and September or October, when every day is spent with most of the same people, a certain kind of closeness evolves. Guys go from being strangers to friends to roommates to groomsmen in each other's weddings and godfathers of each other's children.

This type of acceptance is what Denbo and his team strive to foster. "[Park's] teammates really did a great job trying to help him adjust to the culture," Denbo said. "They took him in as a roommate, and not to be overlooked is that Holder and Park play the same position. These guys are competing against each other for a job, but they're great friends and good teammates and they respect each other and hold each other accountable. That's a great example of what we're trying to create."

Mind Over Matter

The Yankees' farm system consists of nine teams ranging from rookie ball to Triple-A, to say nothing of the 25 men who call the Bronx home.

All together, that equates to hundreds of baseball players at various ages, stages of development, in any number of states (whether physical, mental or geographic). Yet they're all working toward one goal: making the Yankees world champions.

The close friendships formed among teammates can take a player far on the path to that goal, but with each rung a prospect climbs, the adjustments get harder and harder.

A decade ago, only a handful of teams had anyone on staff that dealt specifically with mental conditioning. The Yankees were one of the first. Today, the team employs five full-time mental conditioning personnel who educate, challenge and support players, coaches and staff on the mental side of the game by emphasizing the right mindset that contributes to elite performance on and off the field. And they have made themselves fixtures in the players' lives.

"They're always around, in the clubhouse, saying hello, talking to the guys every single day," said Yankees infielder Tyler Austin, who spent parts of seven seasons toiling in the Minor Leagues before making his Big League debut in 2016. "You're around them, and you build a relationship with those guys and so it's not, 'Oh my God, I've got to go talk to somebody.' It's, 'I can go talk to somebody without worrying about anything.' That's the kind of relationship we have. They have a job to keep us mentally tough and right, but we're also friends."

Video: TB@NYY: Austin, Judge on their big MLB debuts

Building those relationships is one of the keys to success for every prospect who comes up through the Yankees' system. And those relationships are built around one organizational idea: Mental toughness is a skill that takes practice.

"For the Yankees, mindset matters," said Chris Passarella, the club's associate director of mental conditioning. "I think what was previously viewed as, you either have mental toughness or you don't, that it's not really something you can work on, I think the idea has shifted. We say, 'Let's approach it as a skill that you can get better at if you practice.'"

The game is brutal, Passarella explains. Brutal on the mind because for 20 out of every 21 days, an elite level of play is expected, but almost never achieved. Dealing with that kind of failure takes enormous mental strength.

For the youngest of prospects, confidence is easy to come by at first -- but it doesn't always last long. When an 18-year-old is drafted straight out of high school or signed as an international free agent, he is used to being the best in his league. His experience failing on the field is extremely limited. So, when thrust into a situation where all of the best athletes are in one place, the rate of failure increases exponentially. Naturally, this causes a dent in self-confidence.

"They're facing a difficult climb in terms of finding out, 'Wow, everyone is just like me here,'" Passarella explained.

"The type of players that you're playing against and with are a little bit better than what you were used to in school, and there's a little bit more pressure, because you're playing with a goal of getting to the Big Leagues," said Sheffield, who went 3-1 with a 1.50 ERA between Single-A and Double-A after coming to the Yankees. "You're playing for your dreams now, and nerves become a little bit more than what they were in high school. But the fun of the game is the same. You just try to go out there and have fun. As long as I'm having fun, I know everything else will take care of itself."

To help prospects establish that mindset, Passarella and the rest of the mental conditioning staff provide each player with motivational videos, words of advice, inspirational articles and an open invitation to talk anytime about any topic.

Members of the mental conditioning staff also take a proactive role in getting in front of any problems. Passarella and Hector Gonzalez, the cultural development coordinator, travel to each Minor League squad and spend a week at a time with the club, observing workouts and interacting with the players. Lauren Abarca, a recent hire in the department, has similar responsibilities throughout the Minor League system. Meanwhile, David Schnabel, the mental conditioning video coordinator, is stationed in Los Angeles, compiling motivational and educational videos for players and coaches and assisting with video needs for front office personnel and the scouting department. And from his office right beside the clubhouse entrance in the Bronx, Chad Bohling, the team's director of mental conditioning, works with the Big Leaguers every day. The five staffers are in constant communication, discussing where their attention should be focused, how certain players are adjusting and next steps for development.

They look for warning signs, like whether participation is dropping off in practice, or if a prolonged slump is having an effect on a guy's mood. But they also check in with players who are doing well in order to establish a strong foundation for when a slump or an injury inevitably creeps its way into that player's game.

"We're not going to wait until a player is hitting rock bottom to go in and talk to him," Passarella said. "We're going to go in and really talk to the player and say, 'Hey, let's establish good habits now.' That way, from the mental side, they might be able to stave off that slump or that two- or three-day stretch where you're not really thinking the right way. 'Let's talk about some of the things we can to do to make sure you have a good routine and succeed.'"

Success Beyond Baseball

It's easy to forget that baseball players are also human beings. When the games are over and the fans leave the ballpark, so do the guys in the uniforms who were just out there working to win a game. They go home to friends, spouses, kids. They worry about finances, homeowners insurance, grocery shopping and getting their toddler to school on time. Life on the other side of the game is filled with the same challenges that any ordinary person has to deal with.

Knowing this, the Yankees are eager to help their players prepare for everything that life throws their way. "We're really looking at the whole player," Passarella said. "We feel like we're empowering them with knowledge that might not be directly related to hitting that inside fastball or throwing that swing-and-miss curveball. You're dealing with very receptive and very competitive people that just want to get smarter, and they want to get better at what they're doing."

Passarella and the rest of the mental conditioning staff want the players, themselves, to understand this, to say, "'Look, I can be in control of myself as a young man. This is the first time I'm really away from home, and I'm able to function at a high level and be responsible.'

"If they can do that," Passarella said, "that's going to bleed into other areas of their life. That's a vital thing because once you start treating players like they're robots, you lose the human element."

Of everything the Yankees offer their players, these tools are arguably the most important. And the prospects are grateful to know that the organization is in their corner.

"Baseball is not going to last forever," Holder said. "Hopefully we all play for a time where we don't necessarily have to work after baseball, but if that's not the case, I think all these tools are going to help you in everyday life, also. How to deal with people, how to be a better person in certain situations, how to overcome obstacles in life, all those things everyone has to deal with. The Yankees not only train you for baseball, they're helping you to go out in the workforce when baseball is over."

To achieve that goal, the Yankees employ an education staff that works at every level to prepare players for life. This is especially important for the foreign-born players, who are facing not just increased competition, but oftentimes new languages and cultures, as well. In the Dominican Republic, as well as in Tampa, the Yankees employ full-time teachers who offer classes in English, as well as cultural and life-skills classes.

The education continues as the players climb up the system. Each Minor League club has teachers -- most often from a local college or university -- who come to the stadium during every homestand to offer classes for players to improve English skills or to learn best practices and strategies for success.

Last season, catcher Gary Sanchez spent the first half of the year in Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, where he worked on the field to become a better athlete. But just as valuable was his time off the field with the education staff, doing mock interviews and learning communication skills so that he would be able to effectively manage the pitching staff. His results when he reached the Bronx spoke volumes.

"For him to be able to go up and have the success that he did last year," Denbo said, "the education program, I think, played a large part in him being successful up there, and feeling comfortable and like he's confident and can communicate better with his teammates."

Success stories like Sanchez's make Denbo proud. Not only did the Yankees help him achieve success from a baseball standpoint, but they also feel that he is prepared for whatever is thrown his way in the future.

"I think developing and mentoring the players in the organization is one of the most rewarding aspects of coaching," Denbo said. "We have an opportunity to do some things for these players beyond baseball that will impact the players for the rest of their lives. Not everybody has the opportunity to play at the Major League level, but when they leave the organization we certainly hope they have developed some leadership skills and learned how to work and work with others and compete."

The Ultimate Payoff?

When that 18-year-old hangs up the phone, his biggest goal to date has been accomplished. I've finally made it, he thinks. But really, it is just the beginning. What comes next will be the most formative years of his adult life, and will help define the success he has in the future. That future will be the final litmus test for Denbo and the entire staff who work tirelessly to prepare young men for life as a professional baseball player.

So far, the results have been great.

Along with Sanchez, products of the Yankees system have made it to the Big Leagues and impressed not only with their abilities on the field, but also with their poise off of it. Aaron Judge, Greg Bird and Luis Severino all graduated from the first Captain's Camp, and although their careers are just beginning, they've already garnered praise for leadership abilities and clubhouse contributions -- to say nothing of their on-field success.

Video: Quick Hits: Captain's Camp

"The payoff for all of this will be that this translates into winning championships," Denbo said. "But it's not just about the championships. You want them to be good baseball players, but you want them also to be responsible adults and people that know how to get along with others. Hopefully the skills that we teach them will help them go out and be successful after their playing careers. That's the biggest payoff right there."

For that young man, and the others like him in the Yankees organization, this is the new standard, the new ultimate goal, and everything he's about to start working toward.

Hilary Giorgi is the associate editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the 2017 New York Yankees Official Yearbook, an official Yankees publication. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

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