On a snowy December weekend in the Big Apple, hours before the slate of NFL games kicked off, the city turned its focus from football to baseball. The Yankees were a couple months removed from narrowly missing a chance to get back to the World Series, having lost the 2017 American League Championship Series in seven games to the Houston Astros. Aaron Judge had clubbed 52 home runs on the way to capturing AL Rookie of the Year honors, and now it appeared that the Yankees had completed a trade to bring aboard another slugger with just as much power as their right fielder.
After vetoing deals that would have sent him to the St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants, Giancarlo Stanton -- the reigning National League MVP who swatted 59 homers and drove in 132 runs with the Miami Marlins -- had agreed to join the Yankees. General manager Brian Cashman, like so many times before, had orchestrated a most improbable deal, this time reeling in one of the game’s most potent home run hitters without giving away a bevy of top prospects and mortgaging his team’s future.
Yankees brass and players were ecstatic, as was the team’s fan base. The number of home runs that Stanton, Judge, Gary Sánchez and all of the team’s other muscle-bound players could hit in upcoming seasons made for tantalizing conversation on sports talk radio in New York City, and, for at least a few days, in just about every other metropolis in the United States.
Stanton and Judge sat down with Yankees Magazine a few months later and emphasized the importance of winning games over hitting home runs, but struggled to hide their excitement -- or smiles -- when their combined 2017 production was compared with immortal home run–hitting tandems such as Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, or Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris.
“If you go off of our statistics from last season, you get a sense of what each of us can do,” Stanton said on one of his first days in a Yankees uniform. “When you put us together, hopefully that makes us even better. But I don’t want our performance to be based on how many home runs we each hit. Hitting baseballs over the wall is the icing on the cake, but we can help lift this team in many other ways. We’re not going to worry about who has the most home runs. Our focus and our goals are about much more than that. Helping this team win a championship will give us a place in Yankees history.”
Of course, the ball wasn’t going to automatically fly off of Stanton’s bat and into the Yankee Stadium seats. There would be challenges ahead, starting with the cold weather in New York for part of the season and the added pressure that comes with playing for a perennial contender. Stanton would now be surrounded by a media corps that would scrutinize his play and his demeanor in ways he had never experienced during the first eight big-league seasons of his career with the Marlins. Stanton’s value to his new team -- considering the Yankees took on the majority of the outfielder’s 13-year contract worth more than $300 million -- would be questioned every time he went hitless or struck out in a big situation.
“The newness of my surroundings was the most challenging thing for me,” Stanton said this past February from his locker inside the Yankees clubhouse at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Florida. “Even things as simple as getting to the ballpark and getting around the city took time to get comfortable with. You try to minimize the time you spend concentrating on all of the things away from baseball, to be your best on the field. But everything was brand new.”
Despite those circumstances, Stanton fought back from a slow start to the 2018 campaign to finish the regular season with a .266 average, 100 RBI, a team-leading 38 home runs and a career-high 34 doubles. Although Stanton’s home run total paled in comparison to the epic number he blasted the season prior, it was very much in line with every other one of his most productive seasons in South Florida. In addition to his 2017 MVP campaign, the four-time National League All-Star hit 34 home runs once and 37 in two other seasons prior to coming to the Yankees. By the end of the 2018 regular season, the 28-year-old had 305 career home runs to his name.
“There were a lot of positives in terms of what I was able to do in 2018,” Stanton said. “It was a good learning curve in the game of baseball, as most seasons are. It was a challenge for me, but I enjoyed it.”
Stanton’s first October with the Yankees -- which also marked the first postseason experience of his career -- didn’t go the way he or his team had hoped. After hitting a solo home run in the Yankees’ Wild Card Game win over Oakland, Stanton struggled in a losing effort against the archrival Red Sox. A career .268 hitter, Stanton collected just four singles in 18 at-bats while striking out six times in the four-game ALDS.
“There’s a big difference in wanting to get a chance to play in October as opposed to having finally experienced it,” Stanton said. “I would have liked things to have gone better in that series, but it’s good to have gotten a few of those games under my belt. I know how my nerves are going to be in those moments. Even though we didn’t accomplish what we wanted to, now I feel like I know what it takes to reach that ultimate goal.”
The hype leading up to Stanton’s first Opening Day in pinstripes, his overall performance during the 2018 regular season and his struggles that October were very similar to the experiences of another superstar who joined the Yankees in the prime of his career.
More than a decade before Cashman completed the Stanton deal, the Yankees convinced Alex Rodriguez to move from shortstop to third base and from Texas to New York. A-Rod, who had nearly joined the Red Sox two months earlier, was instead fitted for pinstripes in February 2004. Like Stanton, Rodriguez was 28 years old and coming off his first MVP season when he was traded to the Yankees. In the three seasons prior to his arrival in the Bronx, A-Rod had averaged 52 home runs.
A-Rod hit 36 home runs in his first season with the Yankees, great numbers for any player but short of expectations for a guy who had just eclipsed 50 longballs twice and nearly reached that plateau in an MVP campaign. In his first huge postseason test in New York, Rodriguez struggled when it counted most, going 1-for-12 with no extra-base hits over the final three games of the 2004 ALCS as the Red Sox completed a historic comeback.
What followed for A-Rod after his first season in pinstripes was far from perfect. The third baseman’s off-field decisions and subsequent controversy marred his pinstriped tenure. But for the sake of comparing him to Stanton on the field, Rodriguez bounced back from the 2004 postseason to reach tremendous heights, including two more AL MVP Awards and an incredible 2009 postseason performance that culminated with him hoisting the World Series trophy.
A few hours before Stanton made his postseason debut with the Yankees in 2018, A-Rod spoke about the outfielder’s first season in New York.
“I don’t think you can compare what he did with Miami in his MVP season to how he played this year,” Rodriguez said. “When you take into consideration all that goes along with playing here, for him to come here and hit almost 40 home runs and to contribute to a 100-win team the way he did, that’s as impressive as hitting 59 home runs. I know that everyone just kind of expected him to hit 50 home runs, just like they did with me in 2004, but that’s not realistic. He had a great season, and now he’s got to just build off of that.”
A-Rod was able to hit the ground running after his first season, mashing 48 home runs in 2005 and capturing the AL MVP Award. Stanton wasn’t as lucky. Having adjusted to the Big Apple, the designated hitter and outfielder hoped that 2019 would be an even better season than the previous year, but that would not be the case.
Stanton’s troubles began on April 1, when he landed on the injured list with a left biceps strain. That injury led to shoulder issues that required a cortisone shot, and while he was on a Minor League rehab assignment, Stanton was hit by a pitch on his right knee. Anxious to get back to the Bronx after the frustrating string of injuries, Stanton pushed his injured knee too hard, causing a subsequent calf strain. When the slugger finally returned to the Bronx for good on Sept. 18, he had played in just nine big-league games, the last coming on June 25.
“Last season was terrible,” Stanton said. “But those were the cards I was dealt. You can’t feel sorry for yourself; you just have to work hard to get out of situations like that. Watching my teammates playing so well and working so hard was good to see. The way they battled all year motivated me to get back on the field.”
From the time he rejoined the team in mid-September, Stanton used the remainder of the regular season as a tune-up for October play. He hit a home run in the Yankees’ convincing 7-0 victory in Game 1 of the ALCS against Houston, but the injury bug would again bite him. In that same game, he strained his right quad, limiting him to just three more at-bats over the remainder of the postseason.
“I had mixed emotions that night,” Stanton said. “I knew that I was probably done for the postseason, and it was very unfortunate that I couldn’t be on the field for that whole series. But it was really important to me to finally be able to contribute in that game. I had watched a lot of playoff games over the years, and that’s what I had dreamed of doing. That gave me a little satisfaction after working hard to come back all season.”
Stanton showed up in Tampa for Spring Training this year with a renewed sense of optimism. He had dealt with other injuries during his time in Miami, and he had successfully come back from them. That’s what he is expecting this season.
“My mindset and preparation when I’m coming back from an injury are relatively the same as when everything is going well on the field,” he said. “You need to prepare the same way and come to the ballpark with the goal of getting better every day. I’m still trying to be the best player I can be.”
Stanton dealt with an early setback this February, straining his right calf, but he returned to health soon after Spring Training was suspended across the sport. Whenever the 2020 season resumes, don’t expect Stanton to dwell on the calf or any of the issues he dealt with in 2019.
“I think I exhausted the subject of injuries last year,” he said. “Regardless of what happens, I’m focused on taking it one day at a time. I believe that I can be productive, and that’s what I’m thinking about.”
Stanton’s confidence extends to his teammates, and he feels that there are no limits to what the Yankees can accomplish once baseball returns.
“I think we got it,” he said. “We have enough experience and enough drive after losing in the postseason the last few years. We’re tired of that result. I think everyone is ready to get over that hump.”
As Stanton said during one of his first days with the Yankees two years ago, he understands the value of winning it all in New York City. But he doesn’t only yearn to be on a championship team; he also wants to make significant contributions to bringing a title back to the Bronx.
“Winning the World Series, that’s what it’s about for me at this point,” Stanton said. “I want to help put the team in the best situation to get there. If I have a great season personally, that will help put our team in the best position to win a championship. So, all of the personal accolades are important, but only because they will help us win. Being part of a championship team would mean everything. It would make the grueling days from last year, the offseason training and all of the ups and downs I’ve dealt with were worth it. It would be something to cherish and remember forever.
“This is my 10th season, and when you play baseball every day, you don’t know which things are going to stick with you your whole life, but winning a championship would certainly be a forever moment.”
Although winning a World Series is at the top of the list, Stanton’s desire to rebuild the baseball legacy that was a decade in the making is also very important to him. He wants to be the Giancarlo Stanton that the Yankees acquired on that snowy weekend in 2017.
“I want to be the player that, when I’m in a road city, fans make sure that they bring their kids to the ballpark to watch me play,” he said. “When I come up to the plate, I want fans to stay in their seats. That’s how it was for the guys I grew up watching. From a young age, that’s the type of player I wanted to be, and that’s the type of player I want to be again.”