Gary Sanchez's 2017 season has barely begun, and he's already approaching the next game as if it counts as something more than just an exhibition and a few tune-ups at the plate.
It's late February in Tampa, Fla., and on this balmy evening, the Yankees catcher -- who broke onto the scene last year more dramatically than almost anyone who came before him -- is having dinner with his wife, Sahaira.
As the Sanchezes, who have a 3-year-old daughter, and Yankees bilingual media relations coordinator Marlon Abreu make their way from the restaurant's foyer -- resembling a medieval times establishment with matching throne-like chairs sitting below giant mirrors -- to their table, they are greeted by a waiter. The gentleman asks the group if after dinner they would be interested in a tour of the restaurant's wine cellar, which holds the second-largest collection of wine in the world, or in making a reservation for the famous dessert room upstairs.
"I would love to," Sanchez said, his words translated by Abreu. "But so far this spring, I haven't gotten a hit yet in six at-bats, so I need to get to bed as early as possible."
As the group settles in for a three-course meal, the 6-foot-2, muscle-bound catcher discusses his preparation for what will be his sophomore season.
"My workout routine is similar to previous seasons," said Sanchez, who spends the offseason in his native Dominican Republic. "The biggest change was that I focused more on agility and physical strength. Also, making sure that my weight was where I wanted it to be was something that I paid more attention to. Just like in this restaurant, there is a lot of good food in the Dominican Republic, so you really have to watch what you eat."
With that, while others in the group dig in to a dish of crab cakes, Sanchez waits for the salad course.
"I got to Spring Training in good shape," Sanchez said. "Now I want to stay where I'm at."
Sanchez, now 24, was called up to the Majors for two games in September 2015 and for one game in May 2016, before he joined the big club for good last Aug. 3. Almost immediately after getting to the Bronx the third time around, he not only became a mainstay in the lineup, pushing veteran Brian McCann out of the full-time catching job, but he also became one of the best players in baseball for the final two months of the season. By the end of August, Sanchez had tallied 10 home runs in his first 22 career games, becoming only the third player in Major League history to accomplish that feat.
"When I was told that I was coming to the big team, within myself I always knew that I could do the job," Sanchez said. "I had confidence that I could go up there, do my job and help the team. But I had no idea that I would hit all of those home runs at the rate I did. I had never hit home runs at that rate at any time in the Minors. To be that hot while being in the Big Leagues was very exciting. It was a surreal experience."
When he wasn't hitting the ball over the fence during the late-summer months, Sanchez was getting on base regularly. The catcher collected 31 hits in his first 22 games, a statistic that had only been bested by one player in Yankees history: Joe DiMaggio.
As the main course arrives to the table, including the 21-ounce porterhouse steak Sanchez ordered, he is reminded of the link to The Yankee Clipper.
"All I can say about that is it's really humbling," Sanchez said. "Anytime your name is mentioned in the same breath as Joe DiMaggio, it makes you feel special. But when I think about someone like DiMaggio, my thoughts center on how great he was over his entire career. Thinking about it like that motivates me to work harder than I ever have."
Last September brought more heroics for Sanchez. He reached 19 home runs in fewer at-bats than any other player in history, and when the regular season came to a close, he had 20 homers and a .299 batting average. Those gaudy statistics nearly earned him American League Rookie of the Year honors -- he finished second in the voting behind Detroit Tigers pitcher Michael Fulmer.
For those who witnessed what Sanchez was able to accomplish in just 53 contests and 201 at-bats last year, it looked as if the game was coming easy for the catcher. Most players would never admit as much, but the candid Sanchez has no problem discussing what it felt like to conquer the sport without an adjustment period.
"It was a special time for me," he said. "I felt like if I closed my eyes and swung the bat, I would get a single. I have no idea why it was like that, but it was a nice feeling for a few months."
But before he takes his next bite of steak, Sanchez quickly -- and cautiously -- amends his previous comment.
"I certainly don't think the game is easy," he said. "I would never say those words. You have to work hard, and I really did do that last season. The strategy I had was the same as I had in the Minors. I stayed with the same routine. I was hitting in the cage before every game, warming up on the field and then giving it everything I had in the games. It just happened that I was able to have this amazing experience, but throughout that time, I was focused on not changing any aspect of my routine."
With each passing game last season, Sanchez's popularity grew at a meteoric pace. After spending six-and-a-half seasons in the Yankees' Minor League system, Sanchez was suddenly the player that everyone wanted to watch in New York.
"I was aware of what was going on," he said. "It was exciting, but at the same time, it brings a lot of responsibility to you as a player. You realize that more people are counting on you than ever before. That's a sign that you need to keep working hard and that you need to stay focused. If you don't do those things, you won't perform."
In addition to staying regimented, Sanchez points to the ways that a more relaxed state of mind contributed to his success.
"When I came up in 2015, I only had two at-bats, and one of the at-bats was in the ninth inning of the last regular-season game," Sanchez said. "It was great to be part of the team, but I didn't really have much of an opportunity to show what I could do. When the Yankees called me up the last time, I didn't get a hit in my first two at-bats. After the second at-bat, [Manager] Joe Girardi told me that I was going to play every day and he told me to take it easy. That allowed me to relax, and in the following at-bat, I got my first base hit. It's just one of those things that once I knew that, I could concentrate and help the team. It made a big difference in how I felt when I was out there on the field."
Not only did Sanchez soar when given the chance to play every day, but the overall play of the team also improved.
When Sanchez arrived in the Bronx, the Yankees had a 53-53 record, and hopes for a return to the postseason were dwindling. But behind solid play from young standouts such as Christopher Austin, Luis Severino and Aaron Judge -- and, of course, Sanchez -- the team won 23 out of its next 35 games, stirring up dreams of a postseason run and re-energizing the fan base.
Although the Yankees fell short of securing a spot in the postseason, the energy that the team showed down the stretch was especially noteworthy to Sanchez, who says that the vibe carried over to Spring Training this season.
"We had so many young guys who came up and brought a new energy to the team," Sanchez said. "You also have to give veteran guys like Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro a lot of credit because they really started hitting at that same time. It seemed as if everyone was doing their part, and the team became one. The more energy we had, the more games we won."
Ironically, a player whose departure from the team coincided with Sanchez's rise has been a key advisor to the young catcher.
After struggling in his 22nd Big League season, Alexander Rodriguez played his final game on Aug. 12. Since then, A-Rod has served as an advisor and part-time Spring Training instructor with the team, and during a brief stint in Tampa in late February, Rodriguez took a small group of young Yankees out to dinner, spending quite a bit of time with Sanchez during the meal. Among the topics of conversation between the past and present pinstriped stars that night was the importance of working toward bigger and more long-term achievements.
"We had a nice conversation," Sanchez said. "He told me basically not to lose focus just because I had a lot of success in my first season. He talked to me about the importance of having long-term goals for my career and working toward them every day. He also told me that if I keep doing the things I have been doing and playing the game the way I have been, he believes things will work out well in the long run."
Besides getting some valuable advice from one of the game's most accomplished hitters, Sanchez was also aware of the similarities between the start of A-Rod's Major League career and his own.
Like Sanchez, when Rodriguez came up for good in 1996 with the Seattle Mariners, he lit the world on fire. That season, Rodriguez swatted 36 home runs while leading the American League with 141 runs, 54 doubles, 379 total bases and a .358 batting average. Coming back to camp the next season hungry -- and not just resting on laurels -- was a big part of the conversation with the young catcher. Sanchez says that particular advice resonated with him the most.
"When he invited me out to dinner, I was excited," Sanchez said. "Knowing how his career started and then kept going for so many years, I went to the restaurant with my ears wide open for any advice that he had for me. There are a lot of people who would love to sit down and talk with Alex the way I did, so to have that opportunity was great."
Unlike Rodriguez, who spent very little time in the Minors before becoming a Big League star at 20 years old, Sanchez has had a long -- and sometimes difficult -- journey to the Big Leagues.
After signing with the Yankees at 18 years old, Sanchez began his professional career in 2010 with the Gulf Coast Yankees, where he batted .353 in 31 games. With his career seemingly on a fast track from the Short-Season Single-A Staten Island Yankees -- where he played the final 16 games of his first professional season -- to the big club in the Bronx, Sanchez hit a bump in the road. With the Charleston RiverDogs in the Single-A South Atlantic League in 2011, Sanchez's batting average dropped considerably. He finished the season with a .256 average in 82 games.
"I struggled really badly," he said. "It was frustrating because it was the first time that I was going through a situation where I had a lot of pressure on me, and I was not producing or playing to up to my ability. Up to that point in my life, I had never known what it was like to not play good baseball. Before I signed, I always succeeded, and I had a great season the year before that."
Yet despite the struggles, Sanchez now looks back at that season as a valuable experience.
"That's where I figured out how to be calm when things aren't going well," he said. "I was young, and I had to go through that. I had to learn how to behave when you fail and when you are encountering so many different obstacles in your career."
Sanchez also credits a few members of the organization with getting him over the hump, including former Charleston hitting coach Greg Colbrunn and former vice president of baseball operations Mark Newman.
"Colbrunn worked with me night and day, to work on the problems that I had in my swing," Sanchez said. "Also, Mark Newman used to come down there and give me advice on how to face a challenge and how to proceed and how to get better."
Sanchez showed enough improvement to get promoted from Charleston to high-A Tampa in 2012, and he advanced to Double-A Trenton in 2013. He then played the entire 2014 season and part of the 2015 campaign with the Thunder, at times excelling and at other junctures not playing well.
"It was a process," Sanchez said. "I was happy when I got promoted to [Triple-A] Scranton in 2015, and I really felt like I was ready to play in the Big Leagues at that time, but I only came up for two games."
When Sanchez came to Spring Training at the beginning of 2016, he had his best chance yet to earn a roster spot with the big club. But in an open competition for the backup catching job, Sanchez lost out to Austin Romine.
"I didn't make the team because I didn't do my job," Sanchez said. "Austin Romine had a much better spring, and he deserved to win that spot. But looking back at that experience, it actually turned out to be the best thing for me because I would not have gotten that much playing time in New York to start the season. I was sent down to Triple-A, and I played really good baseball. Then when I came back up, they gave me the opportunity to play every day. In a way, I came back to be the regular catcher."
As the conversation comes to a close, Sanchez finishes his steak. And as proof that he has learned from past experiences -- and that starting Spring Training on an 0-for-6 stretch is not a reason for panic -- Sanchez reconsiders his decision not to visit the dessert room.
"You have to be relaxed and enjoy your life," Sanchez said moments later as the group sits down in the dimly lit room. "If there's one food I really like, it's ice cream." With that, Sanchez orders a hot fudge sundae, savoring each spoonful more than the last.
The next day, the relaxed Sanchez collects a first-inning single and launches a two-run home run in the third inning of the Yankees' 9-5 win over the Detroit Tigers. Just like that, everything is right with the world, and the Yankees' marquee player is once again on his way.