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With comrades sidelined, it's Gary's time to shine

@MikeLupica
May 18, 2019

Before Aaron Judge hit 52 home runs in 2017, there was a kid catcher named Gary Sanchez who was the first Baby Bomber. Sanchez came out of the Minors in 2016 and hit 21 home runs in his first 51 games in the big leagues, and made everybody have to

Before Aaron Judge hit 52 home runs in 2017, there was a kid catcher named Gary Sanchez who was the first Baby Bomber. Sanchez came out of the Minors in 2016 and hit 21 home runs in his first 51 games in the big leagues, and made everybody have to search all the way back to Wally Berger of the Boston Braves in 1930 to find somebody who had ever hit 20 homers in the big leagues as quickly as Sanchez had.

Sanchez not only hit home runs but he threw out baserunners all over the place and late that summer at Yankee Stadium, he was the kid who looked like the most exciting home grown home run hitter for the Yankees since Mickey Mantle. Then Judge happened the way he did the very next season, and he was the home run kid everybody was talking about, and not just in New York City. Then the Yankees traded for Giancarlo Stanton, who had hit 59 homers for the Marlins. Then injuries happened to Sanchez and being a catcher wasn’t as easy, throwing or keeping the ball in front of him, as it had been when he’d first shown up at the Stadium.

It wasn’t that people forgot Gary Sanchez, because when he was on the field he could still hit balls out of sight. But after the spotlight had been on him the way it was in August and September of 2016, now it seemed he was in the shadows of others.

“He was great, in an all-of-a-sudden way,” Reggie Jackson, who knows a little something about hitting home runs in the big city, said on Friday. “Now he’s learning how to sustain greatness. He’s learning how to be what we expect him to be in the organization, what his manager expects him to be, what his teammates expect to be. And he still has that greatness in him, and all that exit velocity.”

This is the way Reggie describes the way Sanchez, who has 12 home runs already this season, swings a bat:

“I don’t think of him as a home run hitter. I look at him as a great young hitter who happens to hit home runs.”

Sanchez had to reboot this season when he became another Yankee on the Injured List, in April, with a calf strain. But now he has hit the home runs he’s hit: Twelve home runs in 26 games and 107 at-bats going into the Yankees’ weekend series against the Rays, and did not hit one out on Friday night as the Yankees were coming from behind again and moving into first place past the Rays. There are no surprises here. He has that kind of talent. But what Sanchez continues to do is as historic as he was when it all started for him in the big leagues, and in the big city.

Gary Sanchez has hit 83 home runs in his first 292 games in the big leagues. According to my pal John Labombarda of the Elias Sports Bureau (they know everything!), the only player who has ever hit more in his first 292 games is Ryan Howard, who hit 86 for the Phillies. Bob Horner also hit 83 in his first 292. Aaron Judge hit 82. A slugger out of the past, Chuck Klein, hit 81. This is what Sanchez is doing, as a catcher, even it turns out that he won’t be the second coming of Johnny Bench behind the plate. Before long, if he is blessed with good health this season, Sanchez will be one of the fastest ever to 100 home runs, the way he was as fast as anybody had ever been to 20.

Judge is hurt (oblique) and now says he might not be fully healthy all year. Stanton is hurt. There have been unlikely stars to step forward for the Yankees, like Gio Urshela, who won them another game Friday night. The Yankees still need Sanchez at cleanup, hitting bombs.

“We have a lot of talented young players,” Reggie Jackson said, “but you have to remember sometimes that we ask them to deal with a lot.”

Reggie meant playing for the Yankees and the stage and the city and all the rest of it. Reggie had been on Oakland teams that won three World Series before he ever got to New York City. He said that at the time that he’d bring his star with him to the big city, and did, and that they’d name a candy bar after him. Which they did. And still there was a period of adjustment for him that first season with the Yankees, until he ended that season as theatrically as any Yankee ever had, all the way back to Babe Ruth, hitting three home runs in Game 6 of the World Series against the Dodgers, on the only three swings he took that night at the old Stadium.

“Sometime this game is easy until it gets hard,” Reggie said.

Sanchez made it look easy, and still does when the ball explodes off his bat again. But it is worth remembering sometimes that he is a kid from La Victoria in the Dominican Republic who became a husband at a young age and a father and then became an all-of-a-sudden star for the New York Yankees in New York City; worth remembering with so many of the talented kids all across baseball that there are ways to understand them beyond exit velocity and analytics.

Sanchez came up hitting a lot of home runs. He is going to hit a lot more if he stays healthy, even as catcher. Yankee fans have talk a lot about Baby Bombers the past couple of years. Sanchez came first.

Mike Lupica is a columnist for MLB.com.