There are times to talk about process, and there are times to talk about outcomes, and the latter certainly rules the day when it comes to the postseason. But an unhappy ending doesn’t erase the positives. You can fill a book with the Yankees’ bright and shiny moments from last October, whether Gerrit Cole’s solid starts, Gio Urshela’s monumental performance on both sides of the scorecard, Kyle Higashioka’s strong play, or even just the sight of Deivi García on the mound.
Yet for all that, it’s almost beyond dispute that the most encouraging storyline from the Yankees’ 2020 postseason -- two games against Cleveland, then a back-and-forth five-game set against Tampa Bay that came down to the very last inning -- was Giancarlo Stanton’s offensive output, a six-homer spree in which every at-bat offered a chance to see a ball take aim at the International Space Station. He launched homers that scraped the heavens, and others that blasted off his bat so sharply that they could have mowed the outfield grass.
“He’s a guy that, if you mess up, he’s going to be jogging pretty slowly around the bases,” says outfielder Clint Frazier.
The Yankees didn’t win, though, so the glow faded. And maybe, in the process, Stanton was denied his rightful moment, the chance to show his true self. No one expects a “Hallelujah Chorus” or ticker-tape parade over a couple of extraordinary performances, but then, seeing as Stanton’s 6-foot-6, 245-pound body has so often worn the marks from arrows and barbs fired his way over three years in pinstripes, maybe he was due his share of glory.
When Stanton has been on the field, he has been exceptional, but he has also been a target. His successes feel expected; Stanton arrived in New York after a 59-homer MVP season in Miami, where he was a four-time All-Star in eight seasons. Yet his strikeouts are greeted as character flaws. The Yankees have endured loads of injuries since Stanton came to town in 2018, and to be sure, he was one of the few players who stayed healthy throughout his debut season. But a look down a social media rabbit hole shows that the IL trips stick to him a bit more than they do to others.
You won’t hear Stanton complain about what can, at times, seem like a double standard. In fact, under normal circumstances, you won’t hear him say much at all. “He may be quiet around certain people,” says Aaron Judge, “but he’s a guy that’s a leader in his own ways.” So while normal still feels a million miles away from us at present, Stanton has become a surprising leader among a new class of Black stars demanding to be heard.
You might assume that each zero in a player’s contract simultaneously magnifies every strikeout and minimizes all of life’s struggles. If so ... maybe move on to the next story. If, instead, you recognize that your favorite team’s roster is really a collection of human beings who have concerns beyond the ballfield, then it’s time to listen to the words of a newly vocal ambassador.
“We’re fighting every day out on the field,” Stanton says. “But we’re fighting a different fight off of it.”
Playing in New York can be like walking a tightrope, and Stanton isn’t the first high-profile acquisition who has had to work a bit harder to earn the love he deserves. But it can also be jarring to note just how much the reality of his performance in pinstripes has differed from the perception. It was just this spring, after all, following a season in which Stanton’s on-field successes and failures played out in empty stadiums, that a reporter asked manager Aaron Boone whether the return of the oft-demanding fans in 2021 might pose a problem for Stanton.
New York is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately kind of town. To those watching Stanton’s assimilation to the Bronx, that was more than obvious on June 20, 2018, when the DH -- who remains the Marlins’ franchise leader in home runs, RBIs and extra-base hits -- hit his first walk-off homer as a Yankee. Judging by the media reports, you would have thought it was his first hit for the team. “Signature moment!” YES Network play-by-play man Michael Kay screamed as the ball cleared the wall. It was, to rely on a wholly New York cliché, the moment Stanton earned his pinstripes.
Except ... Stanton homered twice in his Yankees debut. The walk-off against Seattle, while dramatic as any game-ending home run always will be, was his 18th of the season, as his bat was one of few constants in a lineup that struggled to stay healthy.
“Yeah, it is interesting,” Boone says, considering the juxtaposition. “And it’s something that bugs me a little bit because you get that narrative. Sometimes what we’d hear before this last postseason was, ‘You know, he doesn’t really hit good pitching,’ which is nonsense. Sometimes we associate a guy that strikes out a lot with not hitting good pitching. They aren’t one and the same. They don’t necessarily go together.
“In his first season with us, he was able to be healthy and play a full season. We had a lot of guys down, and he was as consistent a performer as we had.”
Stanton didn’t hit much that October, in what was his first postseason experience. He reached base just six times in 22 plate appearances, with one homer accounting for his sole extra-base hit. Over the past two Octobers, though, he has become the fearsome slugger for whom general manager Brian Cashman traded. Seven more home runs, off elite pitchers such as Zack Greinke, Carlos Carrasco and Tyler Glasnow. The latter surrendered two longballs to Stanton in Game 2 of the 2020 ALDS, as different as two home runs could be. One went opposite field, a laser with the lowest launch angle that Statcast has ever recorded on a postseason homer. The other left his bat at 118.3 mph and traveled a supposed 458 feet, but appeared to the naked eye to have traversed the globe at least a couple of times.
“Not just home runs, they were light-tower home runs,” says Luke Voit, who claimed the 2020 home run title. “The only problem is that I hit behind him, and when he hits those balls so far, I’m like, ‘All right, I gotta do the same thing.’ I end up striking out.”
You don’t need to squint to see the power Stanton brings to every plate appearance. In the Statcast era, with everything measurable, the Yankees’ slugger is the offensive version of a younger Aroldis Chapman, whose fastball essentially broke all metrics. There is simply nobody who hits the ball harder or longer. Since 2015, Stanton has hit seven homers more than 475 feet. No other player — not even Judge, who clanked a 446-foot moonshot off the glass above Monument Park in his first career plate appearance in 2016 — has more than two.
Judge and Stanton share a similar profile at the plate. They’re both huge, with power to all fields, including any recreational diamonds within walking distance of the stadiums. They both strike out a fair share; that’s what power hitters do in today’s game. They both make pitchers work extremely hard and waste a lot of bullets, making life easier for the guys farther down the Yankees’ lineup. “You’ve got to throw five or six pitches to us, and every single pitch you’ve got to be 100% on,” Judge says. “That wears on you as the game goes on, you know, fourth, fifth inning as it gets later on. Now that’s when they start making mistakes because they’re gassed.”
Stanton, himself, notes the similarities in the two titans’ styles, which benefit from their high baseball IQs. Even though their swings look different -- Judge’s arms extend a bit more, whereas Stanton’s elbows sometimes seem latched to his torso -- they approach at-bats the same way, and they present a similar target for pitchers. But “they can’t pitch us the exact same,” Stanton says, “because we’re learning from watching each other’s at-bats. So, they have a very interesting way that they have to approach us.”
Yet Judge, who is nobody’s idea of a look-at-me glory hog, does seem to relish the show he can put on for fans. His batting practice displays are legendary, as highly anticipated by fans returning to ballparks in 2021 as the games themselves. Stanton, on the other hand, comes off as more reticent. He does much of his hitting inside, out of view. His teammates all note the work that he puts into his game, whether in the weight room, the video room or the batting cage. They all say that he is a student of baseball swings, ready with small tips or observations.
“G works harder than almost anyone that I’ve ever played with,” says Derek Dietrich, who played with Stanton in Miami from 2013 to ’17 and who came to Yankees camp this year trying to earn a spot on the roster. “He’s always taking extra reps in the cages, and he’s doing his extra conditioning and anything on the field.” Adds Frazier, “There’s a reason why he won the MVP. There’s a reason why he has the career that he has, and it’s a lot of hard work.”
And yet, over 2019 and 2020, there were just 31 out of a possible 222 games in which Judge and Stanton were both in the starting lineup. It’s laughable to even consider guys such as Stanton or Judge soft, or to think that their injured-list stints in any way reflect a lack of determination to be on the field. Neither, though, is asking for any leeway when it comes to judging their baseball performance. What Stanton is asking for right now, louder than ever before, is something much bigger.
Growing up around Los Angeles, Stanton was just about 14 months old when Rodney King was beaten by police officers in a brutal incident captured on video. But every day, when Stanton would return to his mother’s house from school, he would pass right by the spot where the beating took place.
That legacy stays with you.
And so, as MLB started its 2020 season during a time of increased focus on social justice following the May 25 death of George Floyd in police custody, one of a number of incidents between law enforcement officers and the Black community, Stanton stood before his teammates and began a conversation that has continued all these months later. Prior to the second game of last season -- after all the Yankees and Nationals players honored the movement for equality and justice during a joint pregame ceremony on Opening Day -- Stanton and Aaron Hicks both knelt during the national anthem.
After that July 25 game, Stanton was unequivocal about his decision, speaking with a depth that went far beyond anything he would ever offer about his on-field performance. He knew that his stance would make him a hero in some corners and a pariah in others. But buoyed by the support of his teammates, he was firm about his choice. “It’s your right to have a problem with it,” he said. “It’s my right to kneel.”
A month later, just days after Jacob Blake was shot by a police officer in Kenosha, Wisc., Stanton and hitting coach Marcus Thames spoke candidly and emotionally during a press conference before the leaguewide recognition of Jackie Robinson Day. Less defiant, the pain beneath Stanton’s words was unmistakable.
“You wonder, when is it going to stop?” Stanton said that night. “When are people finally going to listen? When are you going to understand that you can help no matter what color you are, and that it’s not political? It’s not for anything but reality. I mean, this is the life we live in. This is a life that a lot of people in America struggle to bring up. And though we’re in the big leagues, and everyone thinks that we’re robots and all is fine and dandy, we know the road that it took to get here.
“It’s not a time to just shut up and swing, or shut up and dribble. This isn’t that time. This is time to take reality for what it is and start helping to make a damn change. Because this is unacceptable, what’s been going on. And it hurts, man. I mean, the conversations with my mom, with my grandma, hearing their stories, hearing what they had to go through and then seeing the similarities of what’s going on now, it just hurts. It’s unacceptable, and it needs to be changed.”
Suddenly, and noticeably, the conversations in the Yankees’ clubhouse were deeper. There was still plenty of talk about swings and pitchers’ tells and all other manner of baseball strategy, but there was also discussion about the real-life issues that existed outside the room. Stanton, never the most comfortable addressing a group, made clear that he would facilitate any conversations his teammates wanted to have, that he welcomed his peers’ questions, and that he wanted to help them really understand his answers.
The key was to make sure that the conversations endured. Gestures of support were important and nice, but that wasn’t the goal. The hope was that each man in the clubhouse could understand his teammates’ lives as well as their baseball routines. Stanton wanted his fellow Yankees not just to understand the experiences that he and his Black teammates had lived, but he also wanted each of his brothers in the room to understand all the things that they, themselves, had never even been forced to consider. “Try to understand what it’s like when, what, 30, 40 years of being on the planet, you’ve never had one experience of what this guy’s got to go through every single day,” he said.
“There are people in that room that have never experienced anything like others have,” says Frazier. “And when he was speaking out and he was talking about things that he had experienced, and others were talking about it, it really pulled at your heartstrings, and it made you realize the way that these guys compartmentalize some of the things that happen in their everyday lives versus what’s happening at the field.”
Clubhouses are filled with people from all corners of the globe. In 2020, the Yankees assembled a melting pot of Canadians, Colombians and Cubans, guys from homes as far afield as Japan and as local as Brooklyn. Maybe in the past the ideal was to create a room in which any divisions were unspoken, where the players left their real lives in the team garage. That wouldn’t work in 2020 and beyond. “They’re happening a lot more right now,” Yankees bench coach Carlos Mendoza says of the conversations that Stanton helped start. “And it’s great to see that people are talking about it, people are willing to listen, willing to get education.”
As Yankees manager, Boone led his players through all the hurdles of an unprecedented baseball season. Fanless and often faceless, he helped forge a path out from the avalanche of a pandemic. He was proud of the leadership that Stanton showed, if unsurprised.
“G’s a great person,” Boone says. “And I feel like his voice has grown more and more, even though he’s not a big rah-rah or loud or certainly flamboyant kind of guy. When he speaks, people listen to him. And that certainly (was the case) last year, when he took kind of a leading role on all that was going on in our country and with social issues.”
But baseball is results-based, and Boone’s plenty excited about that side of the page, as well. He insists that Stanton is a better hitter today than he was when he won the MVP in Miami, and that all he needs to do is stay on the field. “I think he’s just in such a good mental space,” Boone says. “And I just think he has a really good process. I think he really has a keen understanding of what he needs to do and how to focus.” In particular, the manager points to the ways that Stanton has grown to understand the league, to figure out the way pitchers are attacking him. Boone watches Stanton win pitch after pitch in four or five grinds a night, and he sees a hitter who tips the scales in his own favor as he sees a pitcher more, an advantage that can go a long way. “I really feel that as long as he’s healthy, we’re going to see a special season.”
It’s easy to share Boone’s optimism. During this past offseason, Stanton focused a bit more on yoga, aiming to keep his workouts dynamic, maintaining his strength without the strain of nonstop weight training. Hopefully it can help keep his big body in the lineup. “Obviously his numbers speak for themselves,” says DJ LeMahieu. “There’s no doubt that if he stays on the field, he’s one of the best players in the game.”
For his part, Stanton is impressed by the way that the league continues to focus on educating players and fans about the world they, themselves, might never have known. Far from being shunned for a willingness to bring -- nay, an insistence on bringing -- the outside world into the clubhouse in 2020, Stanton was named the Yankees’ nominee for the prestigious Roberto Clemente Award, which recognizes the players that best combine on- and off-field excellence. He reveres the part of his life that gets to lift up those around him, even as the pandemic makes it harder to give facetime to the causes about which he is passionate. But Stanton is uninterested in diagnosing his own impact among his peers. “I don’t think I need to answer that question for people around me,” he says, firmly but not abrasively. “I’m not worried about that answer, either. It’s about helping everyone become better in general.”
It’s easy to think back to the question from the spring training presser. Fans are going to boo; it’s part of the weight of playing baseball, and if you’re not ready to handle it, then professional sports might not be for you. But it’s hard to hear Stanton’s words, and the truth that he insists on sharing, and think that it could be any kind of problem moving forward. There’s no question — we’ve all seen it with our eyes — that a healthy Stanton can be a force unlike any other in the game. If he’s on the field and making contact, he’ll do things that no one else can.
So, miss him with any concerns about being able to handle the negativity, or being somehow unfit for the Bronx. He’s excited to have people back in the ballparks, to never again have to hear simulated crowd noise through a speaker system. He wants to hear it all, cheers and jeers. Just like all the Black players since Jackie Robinson who have continued paving the way for those who will follow, Stanton knows what real pressure is.
“You think we have a weight on us by the city we play for, by being in the big leagues, or trying to stay here or whatever?” he says. “Think about the weight [Black players] have to go through when they walk outside, being judged before they even speak. Being profiled, people avoiding them, going to the other side of the street when they’re going out for some fresh air.
“This is some people’s reality. And for others that haven’t lived it and don’t seem to want to acknowledge it, this is the time.”