Anthony Volpe was on top of the world. In one whirlwind week at the beginning of June, everything he had worked his entire life for came to fruition. He and his best friends had delivered on their promise to each other and won a state championship in baseball as seniors. He had graduated from the Delbarton School in Morristown, New Jersey. And the New York Yankees -- the team his entire family has been devoted to since long before he was born -- had selected him with their first-round pick.
But now, sitting in the restaurant of the Pulaski, Virginia, hotel that serves as his current home, the 18-year-old is dealing with a new reality. It can be a hard transition, going from the familiarity of high school and your hometown to the world of professional baseball. And the first few games of Volpe’s career haven’t leapt out of the box score.
Yet, there is no wiping the smile off Volpe’s face. The quaint hotel in this little town in southwest Virginia, where the freight train rolls through every morning, piercing the predawn stillness with its earth-rattling horn, is a dream come true.
“Since I was a baby I’ve always wanted to be a New York Yankee, and that’s why being away from home and being away from my family, all that stuff, those are sacrifices I’m willing to make to achieve my goal,” Volpe says. “I don’t even look at it as a sacrifice; I wouldn’t rather be doing anything else than this. I know there’s so many kids out there that would love to be in my shoes. If I wasn’t working as hard as I possibly could, I’d be doing a disservice to my family back home and everyone that’s helped me get here.”
Volpe first appeared on the Yankees’ radar in 2017 when he was invited to play for the team’s Area Code Underclass Games team. In five games at the Open Youth Academy in Compton, California, the 5-foot-11 shortstop impressed Yankees scouts with his natural athleticism, his ability to slow the game down, and his knack for making things happen on both sides of the ball. Whether it was hitting a walk-off inside-the-park home run or turning an unfathomable double play, he just always seemed to come up big and be part of the action.
Matt Hyde has been patrolling the Northeast as a Yankees scout since the fall of 2005. He has seen some impressive baseball players over that time, but after examining Volpe closely over the last two years, “I put all my chips on the table,” Hyde says. “This is one of the best guys I’ve ever been around.
“I’ve never been more comfortable signing a player than I was about signing Anthony Volpe. I’ve never been so confident.”
Volpe’s first game as a pro seemed indicative of why the Yankees held such a strong belief in him. After spending a week in Tampa, Florida, taking simulated at-bats and getting his timing down, Volpe, along with fellow 2019 draft picks Spencer Henson (ninth round) and Chad Bell (19th round), flew to Charlotte, North Carolina, then made the two-hour drive to Pulaski. As Volpe prepared to face the Princeton Rays in West Virginia on June 25, he felt “a nervous excitement” when he stepped onto the field. Yankees infield coordinator Miguel Cairo, whom Volpe has known for years, was on hand for his debut. “He just took me aside and said, ‘Dude, this is baseball. You’re here for a reason. Just play the game you’ve always played, and you’ll be fine,’” Volpe recounts. “Having someone like him there that has seen me play since I was 15, and then him saying that, gave me the confidence to just play my game and not try to do anything that I haven’t done in the past.”
Batting second, Volpe drew a 14-pitch walk off Taj Bradley in his first professional plate appearance. Two innings later, Volpe smacked Bradley’s first offering to right for his first career hit. He then took second on a wild pitch and scored on a single by Ryder Green. Most importantly, he helped the Yankees to a 6-1 victory.
“That’s him,” Hyde says. “He’s the ultimate winner, the ultimate baseball player, and the personality matches the baseball ability.”
It’s July 3, and the Pulaski Yanks are expecting a packed house at Motor Mile Field at Calfee Park. Four hours before game time, the ever-present threat of an afternoon thundershower looms, but the atmosphere around the park is upbeat. A diverse mix of up-tempo music blares through the public-address system as the players go through their early work on the field.
Laughter emanates from the batter’s box as Pulaski manager Luis Dorante throws batting practice. The 50-year-old Venezuela native is in his second tour of duty as the P-Yanks’ skipper and his eighth season in the Yankees organization. He’s keenly adept at balancing levity and sternness, joking one minute that he doesn’t have to worry about his players getting into trouble at night -- there’s precious little to do after sundown -- while putting them through enough drills and instruction that they’d be too tired for much of anything anyway.
“They spend more time here at the ballpark than they do anywhere else, so it’s all about making them feel as comfortable as possible so that they enjoy it and can be the best players they can be,” Dorante says. “We want guys to perform, grow, get better and move on to Staten Island or Charleston.”
Infield coach Ryan Hunt hits fungoes across the diamond, shouting reminders about footwork and arm angles, and encouraging his players after making the proper adjustments. Hunt started with Pulaski the same day as Volpe, leaving the University of Charleston along with the Division II school’s head coach, Andrew Wright -- now the Yankees’ manager of staff development -- to join the organization. It didn’t take long for him to see why the Yankees think so highly of their first-rounder.
“His attitude has been positive throughout the entire course of his playing career up to this point,” Hunt says. “He’s real eager to learn. He takes constructive criticism really well and wants to be really good at the small details with everything he’s doing. You couldn’t ask for much more from an 18-year-old kid that just made his pro debut.
“The sky’s the limit for the kid.”
The sun is still shining, but before Volpe can grab a bat and take BP with the next group, the Calfee Park grounds crew springs into action and pulls the tarp onto the field. Volpe jogs with his teammates briskly toward the clubhouse.
“This happens pretty much every day,” he says with a smile and a shoulder shrug. “I haven’t hit outside in like a week.”
Instead, he’ll work with hitting coach Scott Seabol in the indoor batting cage. He’ll grab a bite to eat in the cafeteria, under the careful watch of the team’s nutritionist. He’ll prepare as best he can and then go out and try to win a game.
“You never know what to expect maturity-wise, but the way he has handled everything as a high school guy playing pro ball is really impressive,” says second baseman Oliver Dunn, an 11th-round pick this year out of the University of Utah who is also Volpe’s roommate at the Jackson Park Inn. “If I went out of high school, I would have been so lost. You can tell his parents helped prepare him really well. He’s a special player. He really is. The way he moves and carries himself, he’s got a really good mindset for the game, and then the tools are pretty obvious when you watch him play. He’s a stud.”
Sure enough, the rains come, soaking the free T-shirts that the Pulaski staff has draped over the ballpark’s seats, but hardly putting a damper on the atmosphere. The storm quickly passes through, giving way to a beautiful Virginia evening that would end with a Calfee Park–record 4,869 fans enjoying a postgame fireworks show.
Wearing No. 12 on his back and a cross on a gold chain around his neck, Volpe leads his team onto the field, sprinting to his position at shortstop. His only other accoutrements are the sweatbands on his wrists. The clean, classic pinstriped uniform that fits him so perfectly will soon be covered in dirt from hustling around the diamond. He plays his position with a grace and an intensity that will surely look familiar to Yankees fans. Factor in that he’s the son of not one but two doctors, and that he’s super tight with his younger sister, Olivia, and the comparisons to a certain No. 2 are inevitable.
“When we took him, the area scout from the Red Sox said, ‘In 10 years he could be the captain of the Yankees,’” Hyde says. “I couldn’t imagine him playing for any other team. If any guy is a Yankee, it’s Anthony Volpe.”
All the praise, the accolades, the first-round pedigree -- none of it has changed who Volpe is. Wherever he has gone, his teams have won in large part because of him, but his mentality has always been “team first.”
“He’s a joy to play with,” says Bell, the Yankees’ 19th-round pick out of the University of Louisiana at Monroe. “Guys that are of a high skill set sometimes think they’re better than other players, but that’s not Anthony at all. He’s always learning, always has a smile on his face. If you make a good play, he’s there to pick you up. He’s not that hot-head, ‘I’m better than you,’ type. He’s one of your friends.”
And so, Volpe will continue learning how to be a pro. He’s still adjusting to the Appalachian League -- he was batting .125 (7-for-56) with five errors through his first 16 games -- but plenty of baseball’s all-time greats started slow. (There’s a guy likely going into the Hall of Fame next year who batted .202 as an 18-year-old in Rookie ball.) He doesn’t know where his journey will lead next, but he’s grateful to be where he is now.
“The Yankees told me they’d give me every opportunity to develop and be the best player I possibly can be, and I don’t want any more guarantees than that,” Volpe says. “I just want to play baseball every day. This has been my dream, and I’m going to put everything that I possibly can into achieving it. The Yankees have given me that opportunity, and, I mean, it’s the New York Yankees, so, I couldn’t be more thankful and happy and just motivated to take advantage of it.”