At 6 p.m. on the nose, Gleyber Torres and his wife, Elizabeth, took their seats next to each other in a booth at Charley’s Steak House in Tampa, Florida. Torres, wearing a light blue untucked dress shirt and a pair of jeans, quickly put his arm around Elizabeth. As they do often, the young couple from Venezuela smiled at each other. Torres, 22, who has been described as an “old soul” by those closest to him, seemed to embody that spirit before he even took a glance at the oversized menu.
“Sometimes my teammates ask me how I can eat dinner so early,” the second baseman said, assisted by Yankees bilingual media relations coordinator Marlon Abreu. “Especially the other young guys; they are always teasing me about that. But from the time I get to Tampa and begin preparing for the season, every day is important. I need to show up at the ballpark tomorrow focused and ready.”
While he was mindful of his self-assigned curfew, Torres was in no rush to get through dinner.
“We’ve never been here,” he said, his eyes darting around the space. “We’ve heard about it, though. When you walk through the front door and see all of the wine racks and the steaks on display in the refrigerators, you want to take your time and enjoy the atmosphere and the experience.”
For Torres, that approach mirrored the way he felt last spring, when he was called up to the big leagues for the first time on April 22. In Torres’ opinion, that promotion probably would have come sooner had he not suffered an elbow injury that required season-ending Tommy John surgery in June 2017.
“Injuries are never part of the plan,” he said. “But when you look back on what you go through to overcome them, the good things are more rewarding.”
After starting the 2018 season in Triple-A, Torres was hopeful that his opportunity to make the trip from Pennsylvania to the Bronx wasn’t too far away.
And, when he least expected it, there it was.
“My last game in Scranton wasn’t going well,” Torres said. “I was 0-for-3, and I was stressed out. The manager wasn’t supposed to let me know that I was getting called up until after the game, but he noticed that I looked angry. In the middle of the game, he came up to me in the dugout and told me that I was going to the big leagues. I was in shock. I didn’t know if I should laugh, smile or jump around.”
Torres counted down the outs, each one bringing him closer to the two phone calls he had wanted to make for years.
“The rest of the game seemed to last forever,” he said. “When it was finally over, I called my wife and my parents and told them that I was going to the big leagues.”
From there, Torres and his wife worked quickly to pack up their apartment and get to the New York City hotel room that was awaiting them. Sometime after they arrived late that night, Torres realized that getting a good night’s sleep before his big day -- which was important to him then and now -- would be more challenging than he ever imagined.
“I tried to go to sleep,” Torres said as both he and Elizabeth began to laugh. “But it was hard for me to fall asleep because I was too anxious. My wife kept telling me that I had to try to sleep because we were playing a day game the next afternoon. I remember looking at the clock at 2 a.m. as I was still talking to her about the day, and about how excited I was for the next day.”
Before he knew it, the sun was up, and the next day was upon him.
Still feeling the nerves of the moment, Torres arrived at Yankee Stadium that morning and got dressed, eventually stepping onto the field for batting practice. Even though he was only facing a coach -- as opposed to a Major League pitcher -- each time he lined a ball into the outfield or launched one into the seats, he became more relaxed. He realized that whether he was in a small Minor League ballpark or the mecca that is Yankee Stadium, baseball was still baseball, and Torres was prepared to compete on the highest level.
“When the game started, I was honestly not nervous at all,” he said. “I felt a mixed range of emotions. I was happy, and a little bit emotional, thinking about how much it took to get there. I was emotional when I thought about my family, and my parents in particular. Knowing that my family was going to enjoy the accomplishment of me making it to the big leagues made me happy. I was smiling a lot during the game. I really enjoyed looking up into the stands and just taking it all in.”
With a wine list that seemed to have as many pages as War and Peace sitting in front of him, Torres ordered a glass of water. Moments later, a waitress brought to the table a display board holding each of the cuts of beef on the menu. Avoiding the temptation to order a 28-ounce porterhouse or even an 18-ounce New York strip -- both of which he spoke about wanting earlier -- Torres instead chose a salad and an 8-ounce filet.
“It’s all about being at your best this time of year,” Torres said as the waitress walked away. “You have to make good decisions about what you eat.”
Torres’ words sounded like those of a seasoned veteran; he’s anything but.
The infielder’s path to the Bronx began at 16 years old, when he signed his first professional contract with the Chicago Cubs as a non-drafted free agent in 2013. From the minute he signed and relocated to the United States, the expectations on Torres were sky-high. He was ranked the No. 2 prospect in the 2013 international free-agent class, according to Baseball America.
A year later, Torres saw his first action as a pro, batting .393 in 28 at-bats with Low-A Boise and .279 in 43 games with the Cubs’ Arizona League rookie team. With his initial success, Torres’ stock rose. Baseball America recognized him as the No. 8 prospect in Chicago’s organization.
The 2014 season may have been Torres’ first splash, but it was in 2015 that he took a bigger plunge toward future greatness. In 119 games with the Single-A South Bend Cubs, Torres batted .293 with 24 doubles and 62 RBI, proving for the first time that he could be productive on an everyday basis. Baseball America had now elevated him to the top of the list of Cubs prospects and ranked him the 41st-best prospect in baseball.
As the hype grew, Torres remained grounded.
“My parents consistently told me that humility was going to be the key to the whole thing,” he said. “It was going to be the vehicle that was going to allow me to travel up all of the steps and through all of the roads, in order for me to make it to the big leagues. It felt good to be noticed and to be ranked so highly when I was that young, but my parents didn’t want me to be someone who wasn’t humble, someone who got a reputation for not being humble.”
Torres began the 2016 season with the Cubs’ High-A team in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. One step away from Double-A, the highly touted prospect was admittedly thinking about what it would be like to play at the big league level and at historic Wrigley Field.
“Those thoughts definitely started to seep into my mind quite often,” Torres said. “I knew there was a long way to go, but that’s when the idea of playing in Chicago began to at least feel real.”
As the waitress took away what was left of the group’s salads and placed a few sizzling steaks down, Torres spoke about the trade deadline deal that changed the trajectory of his career. In the blink of an eye, he was no longer destined for the ivy of Wrigley Field, but was instead on a path to the grandeur of Yankee Stadium. Although Chicago all but vowed never to part with Torres, the belief within the organization in 2016 was that the Cubs were an elite closer away from capturing their first championship since 1908. The Yankees -- determined to reload their roster with young talent that could make an impact at the big league level within a few years -- had that pitcher in Aroldis Chapman.
“The curious thing about the day that the trade happened is that I had a teammate in the Minors who was a good friend of Aroldis’s,” Torres said. “Of course, a trade like that is not going to be completed without a few things happening first. Before it was made official, I asked my friend to call Aroldis, and we FaceTimed him. He told me that the trade was going to go down, so that’s when I really knew I was coming to the Yankees.”
Torres immediately felt mixed emotions about the trade.
“It was strange because the word was that the Cubs would never trade me,” Torres said. “But when the opportunity to get Aroldis Chapman came along, the trade certainly did happen. At first, I was sad about the trade because I was leaving behind a group of teammates and friends that I had played with for awhile. Knowing that I was not going to be around those guys any longer made me sad. But I got over that, and I quickly began to realize that a great opportunity was in front of me. Going to an organization with such a great legacy and history was exciting. When I began to realize that I had a chance to wear the pinstripes, the sadness turned to happiness and anxiousness to get going.”
Torres’ first stop in his new organization was Tampa. After batting .254 in the Florida State League, Torres really got going in the fall of 2016. In 18 Arizona Fall League games with the Scottsdale Scorpions, Torres batted .403 with three home runs and won league MVP honors. At 19 years old, he became the youngest recipient of the award and was named the No. 5 prospect in the game by Baseball America.
Right around that same time, the Yankees signed the free-agent Chapman -- who had succeeded in helping the Cubs win the 2016 World Series -- to a long-term contract.
Torres was invited to the Yankees’ big league camp in 2017, and with each passing day, it appeared he was moving closer to earning a spot on the team’s Major League roster. He was named the team’s outstanding rookie after batting .448 that spring, then began the regular season in Double-A Trenton and, after only 32 games, was promoted to Triple-A.
“I remember playing with a lot of young prospects in Single-A and Double-A,” Torres said after finishing the main course. “In Double-A, I saw the best young players. All of the pitchers threw hard, but I was ready for it. When I made the jump to Triple-A, the first pitch I saw was a slider, not a fastball. That’s just what guys were throwing at that level. Pitchers were much more unpredictable, and they were mixing their pitches much better.”
But it didn’t take Torres long to make the necessary adjustments.
“I believe I was playing the best baseball of my life,” Torres said. “Everything seemed to be coming together quickly.”
Then, with one headfirst dive into home plate on June 17, his momentum stopped. Torres suffered a torn UCL tendon in his non-throwing elbow. It was the first major injury in his career, and for a young player on a meteoric rise, it was devastating.
“Once the doctor confirmed the injury, I cried for an hour straight,” he said. “It was a tough moment for me because I had done well in Double-A, and I was in
Triple-A, where I had gotten over the hump of facing really unpredictable pitchers. I saw an opportunity to get to the big leagues that year. I really felt like I had a chance.”
Within a few hours, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman called Torres and encouraged him to move forward with Tommy John surgery. The team viewed it as a better long-term option than trying to rehab and strengthen the arm, with much less of a guarantee that it would completely mend.
“Although it was hard to deal with that news, I knew that’s what I needed to do,” Torres said. “Once I got the surgery done, I felt disappointed about where I was. I had worked so hard, and I felt like I was losing the chance to make my dream come true. I came to Tampa to rehab, and at first, I was sad and disappointed. You’re doing the same things over and over again, and sometimes it seems like you’re never going to get there.”
Eventually, Torres was able to regain the positive mindset that had propelled him through the Minors.
“The first two weeks were the hardest,” he said. “But I talked to my wife and my family a lot, and I got some really good advice from some friends. Finally, I felt like it was time to pick my head up and get going. It was time to look past where I was at and look forward to the things I had coming up in the next year. After those first two weeks, it was time to turn the page, and I felt that my mind got stronger as a result of what I had gone through.”
Torres couldn’t have been more accurate about his future if he had been looking into a crystal ball. He showed up at Spring Training in 2018 excited to be back on the diamond, and although the time away from the field caused some rust at first, good things soon began to happen.
“I felt like I was a kid playing baseball for the first time,” he said. “I had joy and confirmation that I was doing what I wanted to be doing. But my timing was off during that camp, and the Yankees sent me to the Minors to start the season. I felt like I had a chance to make the team, but it wasn’t meant to be at that time. Looking back, it was the best thing for me. It allowed me to relax and breathe and just enjoy playing the game. Playing the game away from the bright lights gave me the opportunity to get back to where I was before I got injured, in a much more relaxed atmosphere. I needed to be back in Scranton for a few weeks.”
Torres finally reached his destination on April 22, 2018, and on that same day, he embarked on another journey. He went 0-for-4 that afternoon in the Yankees’ 5-1 victory over Toronto. Then, in his second game -- another win for the Yankees -- Torres collected his first hit.
And things just kept rolling from there. The Yankees won 16 out of the first 17 games with Torres on the club, and before that hot streak came to an end, Torres left no doubt that he would be in the Bronx for good. He compiled 19 hits during that stretch, including two that he won’t
“I’ve always enjoyed the competition and winning ballgames,” said Torres as he leaned back in the booth, savoring what remained of the night. “It was nice coming to the ballpark every day, and winning all of those games complemented the experience for me. We were winning when I was doing well, and when I had a bad day at the plate, we were still winning. That allowed me to enjoy what was going on around me and to stay relaxed.”
In a 7-6 win against Cleveland at Yankee Stadium on May 4, Torres launched his first career home run, a three-run blast in the fourth inning.
“I had already gotten a few hits,” Torres said. “I had made some good plays in the field defensively, and I was feeling great. But in the back of my mind, I was hoping to get that first home run out of the way. I wasn’t looking for it or trying to hit a home run, but I was thinking about it. When I finally did it, I felt a sense of relief and happiness.”
Two days later, with the Yankees in position to sweep the team they had knocked out of the postseason in 2017, the stakes got even higher for Torres. Having already struck out twice, the second baseman stood in the on-deck circle with the game tied in the bottom of the ninth and watched as Indians reliever Dan Otero intentionally walked Giancarlo Stanton to get to him.
“When I was walking to the plate, I was thinking that I needed to take this as a challenge,” Torres said. “I need to not only show myself but also the fans and my teammates that I’m not just a rookie who can only contribute in low-leverage moments. I felt like I needed to get a hit and bring in the winning run. And thinking like that helped me in that situation.”
Torres worked the count full, then proved that he was a star in the making, hitting a walk-off home run to straightaway center field.
Torres continued to contribute like a veteran. Beginning with the Yankees’ May 19 contest, Torres hit six home runs in six games and ultimately took home American League Rookie of the Month honors.
That award was meaningful to Torres, but being named to the AL All-Star team was beyond what he could have imagined for his rookie season.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “My wife kept telling me that it could happen, but I didn’t think I was a guy like Aaron Judge or Mike Trout, who would make it as a rookie. Getting that news is something you never forget.”
Unfortunately for Torres, a hip flexor injury that shelved him for three weeks in July also kept him off the field for the All-Star Game. More importantly, he needed to come back from the injury, and the Yankees needed him to make contributions down the stretch.
“The combination of my timing being off and the adjustments that the pitchers had made were beating me at first,” Torres said. “But I started watching more video, and I got a better understanding of what pitchers were doing to get me out.”
After seeing his average dip more than 30 points in his first week back -- dropping below .260 for the first time since April -- Torres regained his first-half form, finishing the regular season with a .271 average. His 24 home runs marked the third-highest single-season total for a Yankees player under the age of 22, behind only Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle.
Torres and Miguel Andújar also became the first Yankees rookie teammates to both eclipse the 20–home run plateau, finishing third and second, respectively, in the AL Rookie of the Year voting.
Torres played well during the Yankees’ postseason run, collecting four hits in the Yankees’ four-game AL Division Series loss to the Red Sox. While disappointed with the outcome, Torres realized that getting the chance to play in those games will only help him in what he hopes will be many October battles in the future.
“Being in the playoffs was unique,” he said. “Every game was do-or-die. Understanding the consequences of the outcome of every game made it a different experience from the regular season, and you really wouldn’t be able to understand that unless you went through it. The atmosphere in Yankee Stadium and in Fenway Park was incredible.”
Before heading out the door for the night, Torres grabbed a fork and took a bite of his wife’s slice of key lime pie. It may only have been a taste, but by the way the second baseman’s eyes lit up, Elizabeth assumed that they’d be back at the restaurant ordering the same dessert before long.
If Torres’ approach to the 2019 season is indicative of where he’s headed, then what he did last season will likely only be the beginning of a long and successful career.
“Knowing that I’ve been in the big leagues and that I’ve been able to play the game at this level gives me a sense of confidence,” he said. “Going through the daily grind of a season gave me the understanding that I could do it, and that I have the will to do it. That makes me feel completely different from where I was at a year ago at this time.”