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Yankees Magazine: A New York State of Mind

Adam Ottavino grew up in Brooklyn dreaming of pitching in the Bronx. Now he gets his shot
May 8, 2019

The offseason was still in its infancy when a family’s dream suddenly had a chance of coming true. Eve, a teacher at Public School 39 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, for the past 25 years, had just gotten out of her final class of the day when her son rang one

The offseason was still in its infancy when a family’s dream suddenly had a chance of coming true.

Eve, a teacher at Public School 39 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, for the past 25 years, had just gotten out of her final class of the day when her son rang one December afternoon. It wasn’t all that long ago that she was a substitute for his first-grade class at PS 39. Now, here he was calling with potential career-altering news. Nothing was close to finalized, but just the possibility of what could transpire was worth a phone call.

“This is top-secret, Mom,” Eve Ottavino’s only child insisted. “Don’t tell anybody, but Brian Cashman called my agent. But you can’t tell anybody! I don’t want anything to jinx it!”

“Oh … OK,” she replied, her voice half surprised, half intrigued.

And so, Eve and her husband, John, kept quiet. Weeks passed without any major updates. At one point, a cone of silence formed; perhaps the dream was more of a fantasy. Then, in late January, came another call. It was late, and the phone was in a different room of the couple’s Brooklyn residence, but Eve had a strong suspicion. She urged John to answer, and so he did. To call the news waiting on the other end of the line good would be an understatement.

Their son was coming home.

***

Adam Ottavino had always pictured himself in Yankees pinstripes, playing for the team he grew up rooting for. Turning that into a reality, however, was a journey more than two decades in the making.

Ottavino’s childhood home in Park Slope was conveniently located next to Prospect Park, the perfect breeding ground for a young ballplayer. From the time he was 6, Ottavino often could be found on one of the park’s seven diamonds.

Together, he and John would venture across the street after dinner on a near-nightly basis. If there was an open field, they took it. If games for older kids occupied all the fields, the father and son waited until an 8 p.m. curfew halted the contests. Either way, Ottavino and his dad would stay until dark.

“That was a big deal for me because I was always playing in the playground there and going there to watch older kids play baseball, practicing with my dad like every night,” says Ottavino, staring out at Yankee Stadium from the first-base dugout just a few days after his March 28 Yankees debut. “It all started from that one little area. Coincidentally, being next to a park probably played a bigger role than I might realize.”

Being in the same city as Yankee Stadium didn’t hurt, either. The Ottavinos would often attend Family Night in the Bronx, scooping up $9 tickets in the alcohol-free section. There, Ottavino found himself learning from older fans as they kept score. He would lock in on the likes of Bernie Williams and David Cone, taking mental notes as the Yankees forged a dynasty throughout his childhood.

“He’s one of those people who, when he’s really interested in something, he learns everything about it,” says Eve, a Mets fan growing up who switched allegiances once Adam made his own clear.

Ottavino and his mom attending a Yankees game. New York Yankees

John, however, wasn’t exactly a baseball expert when his young son fell in love with the game. He had played as a kid, but not at a competitive level. However, John’s career as an actor -- he has appeared in Law & Order and NYPD Blue, performed on Broadway, and has been cast in several notable movies -- gave him ample time to learn the game and effectively coach Adam and the other neighborhood kids until their teens.

There were other teams and coaches along the way, of course. When Ottavino was 8, the coach of a travel team had tried to bring him aboard. Ottavino, preferring to play recreationally with his friends, declined more than once. Finally, that Fourth of July, the 78th Precinct White Sox convinced him to play in a tournament at Our Lady of Grace Field in Brooklyn. Upon arriving, Ottavino was handed a button-down jersey. Gone was the pile of dirt in the middle of the field; instead, he would get to throw from a proper mound. With bright lights illuminating the action and more than 100 people cheering from the stands, Ottavino immediately found himself enamored with this higher level of baseball. Prepared, though, he was not.

Ottavino balked in the losing run. It was the first time he ever had to hold runners on.

In the end, the final score didn’t matter. Ottavino entered a new dimension after that game -- one there was no coming back from.

His father knows the feeling.

“Actors are addicts,” John says, relating that time in his son’s life to his own experiences. “At one point, we got on a stage and did something, and the audience gasped. The aesthetic moment happened. Once you create that moment as an actor, you’re in real trouble because you’re going to want it again. … Adam found that when he was young, and I found that when I was young.”

***

Ottavino and his father. New York Yankees

Eve and John didn’t care if their son played baseball. All they asked was that he give it his all with whatever he chose to do. With that commitment understood, neither parent ever deterred or doubted Ottavino’s big-league aspirations.

To do so would have been unfair, hypocritical even. Eve, for one, spent part of Ottavino’s youth acquiring two master’s degrees at night while teaching during the day. John, meanwhile, pursued his acting dreams only after choosing to walk away from the family business, the A. Ottavino Corporation, which was founded by Adamo Ottavino, Adam’s great-grandfather, in 1913. The stone and granite company has worked on several New York landmarks, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the base of the Statue of Liberty and the monument at Babe Ruth’s gravesite in Hawthorne.

“My parents were never the type of people to say that what I wanted to do wasn’t possible,” Ottavino says. “From a young age, I said I was going to play in the Major Leagues, and they supported that right away and said, ‘Yeah, you are. With hard work, we’ll come up with a plan and you can make that happen.’”

That plan often included philosophical tidbits from his father. John, a judoka long before he started acting, made up for his initial lack of baseball knowledge with lessons he learned in the dojo. One of those lessons was repetitive training. Another was to confront problems with a combination of force and brains.

“In judo, one of my theories is that every attack wants to be thrown a certain place, a certain way. If you can join in this foolish attacker’s attempt, then throwing him becomes far easier,” John explains. “I also believe that every pitch wants to be hit a certain place. You don’t want to pull an outside pitch for power. The same thing when you’re facing a hitter. You know a hitter’s tendencies. You can read his swing, so you can see what he’s good at, and you can see what he’s not going to be good at. Give him what he’s not good at. Don’t give him what he’s good at.”

Or, as the son says succinctly, “We try to attack things smart, not just hard.”

It was this intellectual approach that helped Ottavino choose college over his first shot at the pros. That was in 2003, when the Devil Rays used a 30th-round draft pick on the 17-year-old right-hander fresh out of the private Berkeley Carroll School in Park Slope. Tampa Bay wanted Ottavino to go to a junior college, but Northeastern offered him the opportunity to pitch right away. So he went to Boston with goals of being a higher pick and securing an education -- just in case a fallback was needed.

A history major, Ottavino sharpened his game while pitching for the Huskies. He offered a glimpse into his future, setting school records for strikeouts in a season and a career (the single-season mark has since been broken). After three years at Northeastern, he became the university’s second-highest draft pick ever when the Cardinals used the 30th overall selection on him in 2006. The moment was the culmination of years of dedication and passion, but there was still work to be done.

“It’s great to get drafted,” Eve says. “It’s great to get signed. But it’s really hard to make it through the Minors.” And even then, climbing that ladder and making the Majors doesn’t call for complacency. “It’s so exciting when your kid gets drafted, but you have no idea the road ahead of you.”

A young Ottavino with Yankees All-Star outfielder Paul O'Neill. New York Yankees

***

Ottavino’s love for baseball never wavered, but there were a few adolescent years when he found joy in other things, as well. He would skateboard, bike and rollerblade around the city, much to his mother’s distress. For him, it was something to try and be better at just for the sake of it.

“I liked the counterculture of it all,” Ottavino says. “Doing it because you love it and improving at it because you want to -- not because of some pressure of making a team or having a real competition, more just pushing yourself out of your own love for something -- I feel like that type of stuff translates into my pitching. For a long time, I was trying to do stuff for the wrong reasons; please other people, get to other levels. Eventually, I just realized how much I love the craft of it all. Now I try to think about it in that way: _How can I get better at something that I love to do just because I love it?_”

That mindset has kept Ottavino going despite more than a few bumps in the road. A starter initially, he wasn’t the crown jewel of the Cardinals’ farm system despite his first-round pedigree. He struggled at Double-A Springfield and in the Arizona Fall League in 2008 and then at Triple-A in 2009. Still, he managed to reach the bigs in 2010. Another dream achieved.

But Ottavino’s welcome to The Show was a rude one. He made five appearances and three starts for the Cardinals as a rookie, yielding 21 earned runs in 22 1/3 innings. He spent the following season back at Triple-A, finishing the 2011 campaign with a 4.85 ERA in the Pacific Coast League.

Then, on April 3, 2012, Ottavino was claimed by the Rockies. They moved him to the bullpen and had him back in the big leagues by May 6. After May 20, Ottavino didn’t spend another day in the Minors that season. He pitched in 53 games for the Rockies in 2012, but his 4.56 ERA left plenty of room for improvement.

The next two seasons were a different story. He combined for a 3.08 ERA and 9.3 K/9 in 126 games out of the Colorado bullpen. He was pitching effectively and regularly. It was his first lengthy bit of success at baseball’s highest level. When closer LaTroy Hawkins opened the 2015 season on a sour note, Ottavino was handed the reins to the ninth inning.

But after 10 1/3 impeccable shutout innings, his season was over. Tommy John surgery came calling for him. Set to begin the 2016 season on the disabled list, Ottavino took the Rockies up on a team-friendly three-year deal. He then returned before the 2016 season was over, recording a sub-3.00 ERA in 34 games.

Then 2017 hit like a freight train. Battling shoulder inflammation, Ottavino had an abysmal season, recording a 5.06 ERA in 63 games and walking more than six batters per nine innings. When he threw strikes, they were hit hard. He was so unreliable that the Rockies left him off their National League Wild Card roster.

“Baseball is really hard,” Ottavino says. “I’ve learned that if you don’t evolve, you’re going to get left behind. I’ve had a lot of trying times because I didn’t get better while the league was getting better around me.”

Ottavino knew he had to reinvent himself if he was going to return to dominance. And so, he built what is now a well-known pitching lab in Harlem, a small space between a Dollar Tree and a Chuck E. Cheese’s on St. Nicholas Avenue. There, he installed tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of high-speed cameras and flight-tracking technology. He dove headfirst into analytics. He tinkered and tweaked relentlessly that offseason. Ottavino worked hard and smart.

“He has a very analytical brain,” Eve says. “It has become very evident in baseball. He has kind of been a little ahead of the curve studying all the analytics. He loves that stuff.”

The result? Ottavino enjoyed the best season of his career in 2018, the final year of his contract with the Rockies. He pitched to the tune of a 2.43 ERA and 13.0 K/9 rate. It wasn’t only the numbers that dazzled, though. Ottavino became a highlight hurler, someone whose Bugs Bunny sliders turned into must-see GIFs on social media. He wasn’t just back to being effective. He was better than ever.

His parents, after watching him falter the year before, were not just proud of his performance, but of how he achieved it. He set a plan in motion with the lab -- and executed it.

“That was enormous for me,” John says. “That’s the one that told me, ‘When I’m dead and in the box, my boy will be able to feed himself.’ He knows how to take care of himself.”

***

It would be easy for Ottavino to be overly confident these days. The 33-year-old was nothing short of outstanding in 2018, then proceeded to sign a three-year, $27 million contract with the Yankees. His pitches continue to dance as if controlled by some sort of sorcery. His opponents, meanwhile, are often left helpless, if not confused. The next batter that looks forward to facing Ottavino will be the first in a long time -- and perhaps in need of a brain scan.

“I don’t even want to think about that,” DJ LeMahieu, Ottavino’s teammate with the Rockies and Yankees, says when asked what would happen if he had to face the reliever. “I’m just glad we’re on the same team again.”

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that several other Yankees offered nearly identical quotes.

Ottavino, though, knows what it’s like to fail, to get knocked down and be forced to make adjustments. He understands that success is not permanent, that he has to keep working at his technique if he wants to continue to be a feared force on the mound. No different from the day he was drafted, there’s still work to be done.

“The mentality that I have now is not to count any chickens,” Ottavino explains. “I’ve struggled so much in this game at different points that I know it’s not going to come easy.”

That’s another approach that John, who kept pursuing his acting career despite plenty of rejections, instilled in his son. Sure, it was a dream come true to be in the stands for Ottavino’s Yankees debut, a 1 1/3-inning, three-strikeout performance on Opening Day this season. But the journey is far from over.

“I still don’t know if he’ll ever make it,” the father says. “I’m serious. I know that sounds like a joke. He’s doing OK. I think it may work out. But there’s more we’ve got to find out. To me, it’s, ‘What are you doing today? Who are you facing right now?’ You can’t get too far ahead, and you can’t get too far behind.”

And so, Ottavino continues to improve. Continues to focus. Continues to work hard and smart, just like dad taught him. He’s a New Yorker, armed with life lessons, curiosity and one of baseball’s filthiest arsenals, and he’s now pitching in the perfect place. Once a small Brooklyn boy who couldn’t stand to take a day off from Prospect Park, Ottavino has everything he needs to succeed on the mound.

The difference now is that he’s pitching in the Bronx. Just like he always dreamed he would.

Gary Phillips is the associate editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the May 2019 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.