Austin Romine is as engaging and kind as any player on the Yankees roster. He’s a team player in every sense of the term, and he’s always polite. Whether he’s dealing with one of the most important people in the game or someone with much less influence, treating them with the same level of respect comes naturally for the catcher.
But, he doesn’t like talking about himself.
“I hate it,” Romine says as he sits down for a lengthy interview about himself. “It’s not that I don’t want to do it or that I think I’m better than having to do it, I just don’t want to come off sounding full of myself or like I’m the only person who has ever overcome anything.”
At the urging of his wife, Alexzandria, Romine has agreed to leave his comfort zone for this conversation. He admits that he needed to think about it for a few days before actually setting aside ample time following a Spring Training workout in Tampa, Florida.
To truly understand Romine, now 30 years old, and to appreciate what he has accomplished over the last few seasons, learning about his roller-coaster ride through the Minor Leagues is a must.
After the Yankees selected the catcher in the second round of the 2007 draft out of El Toro High School in Lake Forest, California, the 18-year-old quickly began to matriculate through the organization’s Minor League system. By his fourth year in the pros, he was in Double-A, batting .268 in 115 games for the Trenton Thunder. A season later, at the ripe old age of 22, he made the climb from Double-A to the Majors, making his Bronx debut in September of 2011.
“I was doing what I was supposed to do,” says Romine, who earned Yankees Minor League player of the year honors in 2009 and 2011. “I was progressing the way I was supposed to. I was having good years at every level, and it was going the way I wanted it to. I was becoming a better catcher because I got to catch better pitching.
“I went to (Low-A) Charleston (in 2008), and I competed against guys who were drafted out of college, and I did well there,” he continues. “I went to (High-A) Tampa (in 2009) and won a championship in what was my best season to that point. When I got to Double-A, I struggled for the first time, but I was able to make the adjustments I needed to make in order to still have a good season.”
Then, just as fast as Romine was moving upward, his progression stopped. The culprit, as is so often the case, was health, and in particular, two bulging discs in his back.
“When you go through something like that, it certainly derails your career to some extent,” Romine says. “It took me off track for a little while, and I knew that it was going to be challenging to get back to where I was.”
The 2012 season could only be described as a setback. Romine played in just 31 Minor League games, splitting time between Rookie ball, Single-A and Triple-A.
The following spring, Romine showed up at Spring Training focused on making it back to the Majors, this time for good. But taking that step proved to be much more difficult than Romine had imagined. The Yankees went with veterans Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart -- and not Romine -- out of Spring Training.
He would get a chance a few weeks later, when Cervelli suffered a broken hand. Promoted from Triple-A, Romine remained with the big club until early September. During that time, he batted .207 with one home run and 10 RBI. He wasn’t making a strong case for his future in pinstripes, even before he suffered a season-ending concussion.
From that point forward, Romine’s career declined before moving upward. He was again beat out for a big league roster spot coming out of Spring Training in 2014, and although he made a few trips from Scranton to the Bronx to fill in for injured players that season, he only played in seven big league games. And, with a .242 batting average in the 81 games he played at Triple-A, he wasn’t exactly forcing the Yankees’ hand.
At the start of the 2015 season, Romine’s career hit rock bottom when the Yankees designated him for assignment. The once highly touted prospect had been waived, and in the 10-day period in which other teams could have claimed him, he was not picked up. Ultimately, the Yankees sent Romine back to Scranton, where he played in 92 games.
“I wouldn’t say that my struggles were related to anything physical,” Romine says. “I was letting the mental side creep in about wanting to be somewhere and not being there. I focused too much on everything that I couldn’t control. I was angry a lot of the time. I was thinking about everything outside of what I was actually doing on the baseball field. I had already spent a few more years than I wanted to in the Minors, and I was still not performing that well. It was no one’s fault but my own. I was putting myself in a bad spot.”
Romine had now spent almost a decade in the organization, and in those nine seasons, he had played in just 77 games with the big club. More importantly, without a dramatic improvement, there was no reason to believe that 2016 would be a breakthrough year.
But it was that offseason -- between 2015 and 2016 -- when Romine and his wife had a series of conversations that were much more important than the one about his reluctance to do lengthy interviews about himself. These conversations fell somewhere between career-salvaging and life-changing.
“I’m fortunate enough to have married a wonderful woman,” Romine says. “She’s been through the entire Minor League system with me, all the ups and downs, all the way from Low-A to the big leagues. She’s always been the person I could go to when I needed to talk. In the conversations we had, she helped put it in perspective. She made me realize that I had an opportunity with the Yankees. It wasn’t anything that was too aggressive, but it was more about her really encouraging me to get this thing going.”
Alexzandria’s words sunk in with the then-26-year-old catcher.
“People can give you the tools,” Romine says. “But whether you choose to use them to better yourself is completely up to you as a man.”
For Romine, the most important tool in what he hoped would be a resurgence had nothing to do with anything between the lines. He needed to change the way he thought about his career.
“Once I stepped back and put life in perspective a little bit -- where I was, the opportunities that I had -- I pushed everything aside and focused on baseball,” he says. “I tried to simplify it as much as I could and only control what I could control and not worry about everything else. I really needed to grow up and mature at that point.”
As Romine prepared for the 2016 season, he became more reflective than ever. He thought about all the time that he had spent away from his wife and their young family because of the job. “I realized that I owed them the satisfaction that I was busting my butt to get back,” he says. “I owed it to a lot of people who had been supporting me for a long time. I knew that I had to do everything I could to be as good as possible.” More than that, though, he thought about what it would look like to his children if he had given up on baseball before reaching the top of the mountain. “If my sons have the passion for baseball that I have, I want the chance to talk to them about my career. I want to express to them that there are things that you have to play through, and there are times when you have to grind it out. It doesn’t matter what people are saying or how you feel. You have to keep going. I knew that if I was ever going to say that to them, this was the time I had to do it myself.”
Romine’s parents were also at the forefront of his thoughts. His dad, Kevin, who was an outfielder for the Boston Red Sox from 1985–91 but played more games at Triple-A Pawtucket during that time, helped educate him on the struggles of establishing yourself in the big leagues. Romine felt like he needed to pay that forward.
“He was a big part in laying the foundation,” Romine says. “He gave me all the tools I needed to get through the Minor Leagues. He told me what kind of work ethic you need and what to expect in terms of the long bus rides and difficult schedules. As far as hitting and catching, he did the best that he could to put me in a position to succeed. He was always there for me, and it was great to have someone who had gone through it to bounce ideas off of and to just talk about the game with.”
Although the elder Romine was out of the game before Austin was old enough to remember him playing, he made an even bigger impact at home.
Following his career with the Red Sox, Kevin Romine and his young family moved to California, where he first owned a garage and then embarked on a career in law enforcement, ultimately rising to the ranks of detective with the Los Angeles Police Department.
But regardless of the rigors of his job, Kevin was always there for his sons, Andrew -- a nine-year Major League veteran with the Angels, Tigers and Mariners who was hitting over .300 for the Phillies’ Triple-A affiliate through the first part of this season -- and the younger Austin.
“My dad never turned down a catch,” Romine says. “I didn’t realize until I was older how much he sacrificed and how much he was there. He would wake up at 4 in the morning, get home at 5 p.m. and practice with my brother and me. He never missed a game, and I was lucky to have a father who busted his butt to be at everything.”
Without ever playing an inning of baseball, it was Romine’s mother, June, whose example and words perhaps resonated with him the most.
“I thought about a conversation I had with her one day,” Romine begins. “She was really sick, with a 100-and-something fever. But she was cleaning the house. I was sitting on the couch and being lazy like most 15-year-olds can be, and I said, ‘Mom, you’re sick. Why are you doing all of this cleaning?’ And she said, ‘Because it needs to be done.’ When I thought back on that, it clicked for me. It really doesn’t matter what’s going on or what you’re up against. It’s about how you approach it mentally. You have to believe that whatever it is, it isn’t going to beat you that day.”
With a new mindset, Romine arrived in Tampa for Spring Training in 2016 determined to win the backup job to veteran Brian McCann, a former All-Star. Romine outplayed rising star Gary Sánchez that spring, hitting .289 with four doubles, while continuing to impress the coaching staff with his handling of the team’s pitchers.
“I remember thinking that playing baseball was a lot easier than it had been,” Romine says. “I was focused on what I needed to be focused on, and the game started to become easier to prepare for.”
There was still a long way to go, but Romine was moving in the right direction. For the first time in his career, he had made the Yankees’ big league roster out of Spring Training.
That season, Romine batted a then-career-high .242 with four home runs and 26 RBI in 62 games. Despite the fact that Sanchez eventually came up, and in the last two months of the season emerged as one of the best offensive catchers in the game, Romine’s value to the Yankees was too important for the team to send him back to Scranton.
“I had established great relationships with the pitchers,” Romine says. “You always want to be there for them. You’re out there calling a game for another human being, and you are responsible for a lot of what goes on. So, you want to make sure that you’re ready, that you have done your homework, and most importantly, that the pitcher knows that the guy behind the plate has knowledge of the hitters on the opposing team.”
In addition to his work with the team’s pitchers, Romine also lent his support to Sanchez, a teammate whom he has always viewed as a friend -- and not someone he was competing with for playing time.
“Gary’s a wonderful guy,” Romine says. “He’s a gentle bear. He’s always positive, and he’s fun to spend time with. We have a really good relationship. We bounce a lot of ideas off of each other, and we learn from each other.”
Sanchez’s emergence at the plate and Romine’s solid and consistent performance on offense and defense convinced Yankees brass that they were the future. The club traded McCann to Houston prior to the 2017 season, and Sanchez and Romine took the baton and ran with it.
While Sanchez earned most of the headlines in 2017, hitting 33 home runs in an All-Star campaign, Romine further cemented his place on the team, catching nearly half of the team’s regular season games.
“It was fun,” says Romine, who batted .218 that season. “Anytime you’re a backup player, all you want to do is feel like you’re important to the team, and I felt like I was a big part of the group. My motto has always been, ‘Whatever the job calls for, that’s what I’m trying to contribute.’ I took that to the plate when I was hitting. I took it behind the plate when I was catching.”
If he hadn’t already earned the respect of every one of his teammates, Romine did so in a late August game against the Tigers at Comerica Park.
Three weeks after things got heated between the two teams at Yankee Stadium, and an inning after Sanchez was hit by a pitch in Detroit, Yankees reliever Tommy Kahnle threw a pitch that ran in on Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera. Following Kahnle’s immediate ejection, Cabrera began jawing at Romine. Romine walked up to Cabrera and began to speak his mind. Within seconds, Romine took off his catcher’s mask, and Cabrera shoved him. The two then exchanged punches, leading to an all-out brawl involving both teams.
“You’re not going to mess with the Yankees,” Romine says. “That’s how we felt. What happened that day was an unfortunate event, but it brought our team even closer together. When you play baseball with 25 guys for 162 games, they’re like your brothers. Everybody on that team had each other’s back.”
Following the 2017 Yankees’ postseason run, Aaron Boone began his tenure as the team’s manager. In the first week of Spring Training, the new skipper brought Romine into his office for a conversation. The February meeting set the tone for the 2018 season.
“He basically told me that he knew I had the ability to hit, and that he and the coaches wanted me to get after it,” Romine says. “He said that he knew what I was capable of and that he expected good things from me. That instilled a lot of confidence in me, the type of confidence I had never had with the Yankees. I never really had a set spot. I was always fighting for a job, so to get that vote of confidence from the manager at the very beginning of Spring Training allowed me to relax, more so than at any other time in my professional career.”
Romine didn’t disappoint in 2018. With Sanchez missing significant time at various points throughout the year, Romine gave the team stability behind the plate and a spark with his bat. Through the first two months of the season, Romine was batting .375, and he finished the season with a .244 average, 10 home runs and 42 RBI, all career highs.
“Before last season, I put pressure on myself to be more than I was, instead of figuring out who I was and sticking to that,” Romine says. “Last year, even in Spring Training, I found a swing that worked in the cage, and (hitting coach) Marcus Thames helped me to iron it out. If I could describe last year in one word, it would be consistency. For me, I achieved a level of consistency that I wanted.”
Romine approached the 2019 season with the same goal he has had going into each of the last few years.
“We want to win a World Series,” he says. “We owe it to the fans and to all of the people behind the scenes with this team. For me, there’s always the next level of consistency. I can always be more consistent. I’m trying to be better than I was last year.”
Through the first two months of the 2019 season, Romine not only continued to be the consistent player he has been over the previous two seasons, but he also added a career highlight. The catcher collected his first walk-off hit, pushing the Yankees past Kansas City on April 21 with an RBI single in the bottom of the 10th. Two innings prior to that, Romine had tied the game with a base hit.
Who knows where Austin Romine would be had he not refocused his thoughts and taken his wife’s words to heart a few years back. Chances are, he wouldn’t be enjoying the success he has earned with the Yankees, and his story would likely have had a much different ending.
“I’ve gotten on track, and my career is going the right way,” he says. “The last three years have been the most fun I’ve ever had in baseball. The teammates I’ve had and the teams I’ve been part of, and just being able to be on the field and play professional baseball has been incredible. Sometimes I’ll look around Yankee Stadium, and I have to pinch myself. Sometimes I can’t believe I get to play baseball for a living. I took that for granted early in my career, but I don’t take it for granted anymore. I absolutely love playing this game, and I love being a Yankee.”