Aroldis Chapman couldn’t help but smile. Moments earlier, the Yankees’ fire-breathing, dagger-staring, glowering closer had been in a tight jam, one mostly of his own creation. He had begun the ninth inning of a 1-1 ballgame against the first-place White Sox on May 21 by giving up a leadoff walk and misplaying a sacrifice bunt attempt, putting runners on first and second with no one out.
Chappy was not happy. But in the blink of an eye, the left-hander was flashing a seldom-seen ear-to-ear grin and high-fiving third baseman Gio Urshela, who had helped extinguish the threat.
On a 1-1 count, Chicago rookie Andrew Vaughn ripped a two-hopper toward third with an exit velocity greater than 100 mph; the ball traveled so fast that Urshela already had it in his glove by the time the TV frame shifted to the field view. The Yankees’ third sacker knew full well that one of the fastest base runners in Major League Baseball, Billy Hamilton, was racing from second, and that he didn’t have a nanosecond to spare. Urshela quickly took about four steps to his right, stepped on the bag, then fired a missile to second. Rougned Odor handled the perfect throw flawlessly, leaping over a sliding Leury García as he turned and whipped the ball toward first base.
With the home crowd quickly rising to its feet behind him, a wide-eyed Urshela side-skipped down the third-base line as he tracked the ball around the horn. When it finally landed in Luke Voit’s mitt and first base umpire Todd Tichenor signaled that Vaughn was out, Urshela leaped into the air, pumped his fist and let out a celebratory yell that was drowned out by the exuberant 14,011 fans at Yankee Stadium. They had just witnessed the Yankees’ first triple play in more than seven years.
“Gio, being as instinctive as he is, obviously did the right thing: quickly stepped on the bag, threw a strike to Rougie, who really turned it over well to finish off a special play and get us out of trouble there,” said Yankees manager Aaron Boone.
“He got me out of that hole,” Chapman said of his third baseman.
Boone called the play “an energy-giver,” and to his point, Aaron Judge, Urshela and Gleyber Torres immediately led off the bottom of the ninth with three consecutive singles, sending fans home happy as the Yankees won, 2-1. And while it wasn’t the flashiest or most dazzling play that Urshela has ever made at third, it certainly was “instinctive,” a quality that describes Urshela’s defensive ability about as well as any other word in the English language.
To put it simply, Gio’s a natural with the glove. When this season ends, he’ll toss his gamer -- a light tan Rawlings that he has been using since the start of 2017 -- in a closet and won’t touch it again until Spring Training. Boone memorably likened Urshela’s play at third to “slipping into a warm bath,” and there isn’t a manager who would dispute that watching Urshela handle scorching line drives and make impossible plays look easy is a comforting and soothing experience.
If not for that kind of rare talent, Urshela might have been denied the chance to develop his offensive game to a point that few could have predicted. A career .225 hitter with eight home runs in 167 games when he joined the Yankees, Urshela now regularly finds himself batting in the heart of Boone’s lineup and delivering big hits in the clutch. But with no All-Star appearances as of yet, and a mantel without any Gold Glove Awards (he was a finalist in 2020), “He must be the most underrated player in baseball,” said Yankees radio announcer John Sterling.
Overlooked and undervalued for years, Urshela is making the most of his current opportunity, proving to be one of the best all-around third basemen in the game. With apologies to soul legend Sam Cooke, it’s been a long time coming.
Urshela had just turned 6 years old when shortstop Edgar Rentería lifted the Florida Marlins to the 1997 World Series championship. Rentería’s walk-off single in the bottom of the 11th inning of Game 7 reverberated throughout Latin America, and he returned home to Colombia that offseason a national hero.
“He inspired a lot of players from Colombia, especially me,” Urshela said. “Watching him get that base hit to win that World Series, that was exciting for him -- for all Colombians -- and he inspired me to play baseball.”
A decade later, a 16-year-old Urshela had developed into one of Colombia’s most promising prospects, a power-hitting shortstop with the potential to follow in the footsteps of Rentería and Orlando Cabrera, who won a Gold Glove Award at shortstop in both the National League and American League. The Yankees and Indians showed interest in Urshela, and he ultimately signed with Cleveland for $300,000 on July 2, 2008.
But Urshela was stockier and less speedy than the typical shortstops of that era, built more like a sturdy corner infielder. Indians scout Jose Quintero told Urshela that the team’s offer came with a caveat: “If you sign with us, we’re going to move you to third base.”
“I said, ‘OK, good. I can do that,’” Urshela said.
That winter, the Indians sent him to the Liga Paralela de Béisbol (Parallel Baseball League), the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League’s version of the Minor Leagues. There, Urshela took his first awkward steps toward becoming the third baseman Yankees fans marvel at today.
“My first year I went to play in the Paralela league in Venezuela, that was a little tough, trying to learn to play third,” he said. “I made like 30-something errors my first year. I just tried to learn, watching a lot of videos because I didn’t know how to play, especially with learning who’s hitting, who’s running, all the positioning. That was a little bit hard at the beginning, but I learned quickly, and I’m still here.”
After further seasoning during extended spring training at the Indians’ newly opened complex in Goodyear, Arizona, followed by a short stint in the Dominican Summer League during the first half of 2009, Urshela returned to Arizona in July and joined the Indians’ Rookie League team. His manager there was Ted Kubiak, a utility infielder on Oakland’s early-1970s championship teams who had spent the previous five years as the Indians’ Minor League defensive coordinator developing a 300-page infield manual. Kubiak was a big believer in conditioning, stressing the importance of strong legs, especially for third basemen. Some players wilted in the desert heat, but Urshela -- whose uncanny ability to field the ball was evident from the get-go -- thrived.
“There was very little I had to tell him or teach him because he just had the natural knack to catch the ball,” said Kubiak, now 79 and the author of a recent book, “Old School: The Evolution of America’s Pastime.” “And in all my 25 years of coaching, I think I could count on one hand the number of players who had come into the game that I could do that with.
“There was no doubt that Gio was going to be a big leaguer.”
After spending 2010 at Low-A Mahoning Valley playing for former Tigers third baseman and shortstop Travis Fryman, Urshela began his first year of full-season Minor League ball in 2011 at Class A Lake County, once again under Kubiak, whom Urshela credits for developing his range going to his right.
“Kubiak, he loved to work really, really hard,” Urshela said. “He used to hit me a lot of ground balls, especially to the foul side, foul territory. He wanted me to take those ground balls really far. Every day, like 50-60 ground balls a day. In that moment, I felt like that was a lot, but right now I feel like that helped me a lot, and I really appreciate that, all the work he gave me.”
With 22 errors in 126 games that season, Urshela posted a .934 fielding percentage that hardly portended the .992 mark -- top among all Major League third basemen -- he would put up as a Yankee in 2020. He fell off Baseball America’s top 30 prospects list for the Indians despite being credited with having the organization’s best infield arm. But Urshela was making strides, learning things about the position and about himself that would pay dividends down the road.
“It was part of the learning process,” he said. “I made a lot of throwing errors because every time I took a ground ball, I tried to throw it to first as hard as I can, and that’s when I’d throw the ball into the stands. I learned that you have to throw really, really hard, every throw, but you have to know who’s running. It’s getting better; right now, I don’t have the arm that I used to have those years, but it’s more consistent.”
The Indians promoted Urshela to High-A in 2012, where he showed marked improvement as a member of the Carolina Mudcats. Playing for former Yankees Minor League infielder Edwin Rodríguez -- who had suddenly resigned from his post as Marlins manager a year earlier -- Urshela made just 10 errors in 113 games at third. He picked it up with the bat, too: A torrid stretch of multi-hit games in mid-August earned him Carolina League Player of the Week honors.
The Indians promoted Urshela to Double-A Akron to start the 2013 season, and he came out firing on all cylinders, earning Indians Minor League Player of the Week honors in mid-April. A 19-year-old shortstop named Francisco Lindor -- with whom Urshela became close friends during instructional league after the 2011 season -- and 20-year-old second baseman José Ramírez also suited up for the Aeros in ’13.
“People were talking about Francisco and José,” Urshela said. “They were big prospects for the Indians at that moment. They were really, really talented players.”
Urshela and Lindor advanced at nearly the exact same rate, with Urshela getting promoted and Lindor usually following shortly thereafter. They began the 2014 season together at Akron, but after batting .300 with five homers and 19 RBIs over the first month of the season, Urshela was bumped up to Triple-A Columbus. Lindor joined him in July, and the pair helped lead the Clippers to a first-place finish in the International League’s West Division.
“The left side of the Columbus infield might one day be the left side of the Indians’ infield if Urshela and shortstop Francisco Lindor reach their ceilings,” proclaimed Baseball America.
Urshela was given the Lou Boudreau Award, which goes to the top position player in the Indians organization, and after a monster offseason -- he batted .398 with 22 RBIs in 27 games for Aguilas del Zulia of the Venezuelan Winter League -- both he and Lindor were knocking on the door to the bigs.
“It’s funny because at that time, we used to live together in every league we played in,” Urshela said. “One day, we were in the car talking like, ‘Oh, imagine if we get called up the same day, and we’re going to be traveling to Cleveland in the same car, all happy.’”
It nearly happened that way. Cleveland summoned Urshela from Triple-A on June 9, 2015. After going 0-for-3 in his first game and entering as an eighth-inning defensive substitution in his second, he collected his first two hits -- an RBI single off Seattle’s Tom Wilhelmsen and a home run off Vidal Nuño III -- in his third game. Three days later, Lindor got the call.
“That was exciting for me and him,” Urshela said. “Playing a lot in the Minor Leagues together and then heading to the big leagues, that was pretty exciting.”
They settled in as Cleveland’s everyday infielders on the left side for the rest of the ’15 season, and both played great. On Aug. 4 at Anaheim, Urshela capped off his first career three-hit game with a two-run homer in the 12th inning, just the second time in Indians history that an extra-innings home run broke a 0-0 tie. Meanwhile, Lindor finished second in the 2015 AL Rookie of the Year voting after batting .313.
Unfortunately for Urshela, that’s where their parallel trajectories diverged.
In addition to the big hits and slick fielding, there’s another part of Urshela’s game that has endeared him to Yankees fans. If attitude were a tool, he’d be an 80. Whether he’s scuffling or raking, whether the Yanks have won 10 in a row or are fighting through a cold snap, Urshela remains “the most happy fella” on the team.
Like his defense, it was not something he had to be taught in the minors.
“He was just a happy-go-lucky kid, easygoing,” Kubiak recalled. “Nothing seemed to faze him. Most ballplayers are anxious, nervous, on edge all the time; you don’t know what the [heck] is going on. Good or bad, whatever kind of game he had, whatever kind of day he had, Gio was the same guy.”
That ability to stay upbeat and even-keeled would be tested in 2016. Although Urshela shined at third base in 2015, the Indians felt they could upgrade their offense at the position by signing 37-year-old Juan Uribe and sending the 24-year-old Urshela back to Triple-A. But even when Uribe was released in early August -- and with Urshela tearing it up in Columbus -- the team opted to move Ramírez to third and keep Urshela in the Minors as it chased down its first AL pennant since losing to Rentería and the Marlins in 1997.
“I think I was the only guy on the 40-man who didn’t get called up that year, so I didn’t get the American League [championship] ring,” Urshela said. “So, that’s a sad moment for me.”
With a strong support system back home in Colombia and an unwavering positive outlook, Urshela continued to push forward by further honing his craft. He spent countless hours in the weight room working on leg strength and doing agility drills to improve his lateral speed at third. He had another strong winter ball campaign with Zulia after 2016, but with Lindor and Ramírez developing into All-Stars at shortstop and third base, respectively, it appeared Cleveland had no immediate plans to make room for Urshela on its 25-man roster.
“If somebody is in his way, we need to make sure his development doesn’t stall,” Cleveland manager Terry Francona said during Spring Training 2017, shortly before sending Urshela down to Triple-A to start the season. “We have talked to him about that. It’s something we need to prevent because he’s got too much of a chance to be an everyday Major League third baseman.”
It wasn’t until an injury to second baseman Jason Kipnis in July that Urshela finally got another chance to prove himself at the big league level. Ramírez shifted to second, and Urshela became a valuable commodity at third (and wherever else the team needed him) throughout the second half of 2017.
Despite the versatility that Urshela provided, he once again began the next season in the Minors. He was batting .324 for Columbus when, on May 9, nearly 10 years after being signed by the Indians, he was traded to Toronto for future considerations.
The fresh start in a new locale didn’t work out much better -- at least not at first. Urshela appeared in just 19 games for the Blue Jays in 2018 before being sent down to Triple-A Buffalo.
Reflecting on those last few years before being acquired by the Yankees in August 2018, Urshela said, “I think those moments made me the player that I am right now. Those years made me work even harder, and that’s why I’m here, because I never give up, I never put my head down. I stay working really hard to get better every day.”
That work is on display every time Urshela puts on a Yankees uniform, but it was never more evident than last September in Cleveland. The Indians, after getting thumped, 12-3, in the first game of the best-of-three AL Wild Card Series, jumped out to an early 4-1 lead against Masahiro Tanaka in Game 2, but the Yanks loaded the bases with no one out in the fourth inning. Francona brought in right-hander James Karinchak to face Urshela, and with the count full, Urshela blasted a fastball over the wall in deep left-center -- the first postseason grand slam by a third baseman in Yankees history.
As if the Indians needed further reminding of what they had given up on, Urshela came up big again in the eighth, this time with his trusty glove. Cleveland had pulled ahead in the inning, 9-8, and had runners on first and second when Urshela hauled in a Carlos Santana smash and, from the seat of his pants, began a 5-4-3 inning-ending double play. In the top of the ninth, Urshela scored the go-ahead run as the Yankees won, 10-9, and swept the series.
A different type of player might have gloated after such a performance against a former team, but Urshela just smiled afterward, politely admitting, “That was one of the best games I ever played in my life.” The 29-year-old remains content to continue working toward becoming the best third baseman he can be, which is to say, one of the best in the game. Whether he’s coming up huge in the postseason or pushing through the dog days of summer to help the Yankees get back to October, there’s one thing that never changes with Urshela.
“It doesn’t matter what happened, we always have to smile, and I keep that forever,” he said. “Whether playing or off the field, I always try to be happy and stay with a lot of good energy, you know?”
It took a little longer than expected, but now everyone knows exactly what Urshela is all about.
Nathan Maciborski is the executive editor of Yankees Magazine. This story appears in the July 2021 edition. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at www.yankees.com/publications.