Clint Frazier believes that the whole perception of him would be different if his hair were dark brown instead of fire red. Smiling while discussing the list of things in his short career that have rubbed people the wrong way, he says, answering an admittedly leading question, “If I had a different color hair, it would not be that polarizing. It’s not even long anymore! I’m not trying to have Hairgate 2.0. I like where I am right now.”
Forget for one second the ways that very hair had been at the center of controversies since his trade from Cleveland in 2016, from concerns about length to style to anything else. These days, he’s wearing the sides buzzed down to skin, with medium-length, wavy curls on the top and back. It’s well within the Yankees’ legal limits, but it still stands out. Because it’s red. And because he’s Clint Frazier. And because, for better or worse, he’s a Rorschach Test in corporeal form. Nobody has ever been able to take their eyes -- or the judgmental part of their brains -- off the young outfielder.
So, let’s play a little game:
Player says that he wants to win the starting left field job. Good!
Player says that he wants to win the starting left field job that is currently occupied by a beloved veteran, the recently re-signed, longest-tenured player on the team. Bad!
Player is confident. Good!
Player hasn’t done enough, at least according to the mores of a Major League clubhouse, to have earned the right to express that confidence. Bad!
Player is coming back from a devastating injury, one that scared him and frustrated him and managed to spill some of his overflowing keg of confidence, meanwhile robbing the Yankees of much-needed outfield depth at a time when players kept getting injured, and what was to be a huge developmental year for the then-23-year-old -- whose prolonged absence at one point led to an unfortunate back and forth after a team broadcaster seemed to question his desire to return -- got stolen, and now he feels 100 percent healthy and as motivated as ever to help the team chase World Series title No. 28. Good!
Player is Clint Frazier. Well … your mileage may vary.
It’s never easy with Frazier, with seemingly the entire baseball media, to say nothing of teammates and opponents, constantly riding the redhead -- sometimes with a smile and a laugh, sometimes with an exasperated glare. He reported to Tampa this spring with big goals, and he made no secret about them. And because this is life in Yankees-land, and because he’s Clint Frazier, it became a big story for a couple of days that he was somehow coming after Brett Gardner's job. How dare he want to contribute.
“I pulled [Gardner] aside and said, ‘Look, I’m trying to make sure that I’m respectful with everything I say. I don’t really know what to say. I’m just answering it,’” Frazier says. “And I told him, ‘You deserve the respect from me to come over here and tell you that.’ Because he’s been great to me. He’s literally been better to me than he probably should have been. I don’t deserve to be treated that way because I haven’t done anything.”
The saga eventually played itself out as these do, the drama soon abating. Frazier insisted that he meant no harm by the comments, and Gardner assured reporters that he didn’t begrudge the young, hyped prospect’s desire to win the job (much as Gardner, himself, had sought to do 11 years earlier). The world turned to more important matters, such as the correct spelling of Zack Britton’s first name.
The message was clear, though. Clint Frazier needs to shape up, learn his place, shut his mouth and … wait a minute, what did he even do wrong?
Maybe it’s simple. Maybe Clint Frazier just can’t catch a break.
As he steps into the cage for batting practice, Frazier’s bat never stops moving. His stance is wide, his stare fierce. He cocks his bat constantly, with less menacing intent than, say, Gary Sheffield, but not by much. It’s fitting; keeping still doesn’t really work for Frazier.
The kid’s bat speed is epic; the hyper-manic bat motions are actually his way of slowing down his swing, helping him stay back on the ball. He can run like crazy, in the outfield and on the bases. Constant motion is just a part of Frazier’s life. So it didn’t look so noteworthy in February 2018 when he tracked a ball over his head during a Spring Training game at the Pirates’ facility in Bradenton, Florida, then jumped and caught it on the warning track before falling and smacking his head on the fence. On TV, watching it over and over again, it looks like a garden-variety collision; Frazier stayed in the game for a few more innings, and even singled and tried to steal a base. But on the bus ride back to Tampa, the headaches started. And for months after that, Frazier never felt right.
It was supposed to be just a few days, a minor concussion. Frazier tried to get on the exercise bike. He followed some advice from NFL star/Spring Training teammate Russell Wilson and drank outrageous amounts of water. As the symptoms lingered, and as he was instructed to stop turning to sources such as WebMD for information, he gave himself over to doctors, coaches, teammates, anyone who could help him understand what he was feeling. Nothing made sense.
“A bad day felt like I was running on a couple hours of sleep, like I went out and had an all-night bender,” he says. “It was just like a hangover that wouldn’t go away. It affected my vision, it affected my overall lifestyle. It wasn’t just on the field. It was my everyday life. My vision, I was having headaches, my mood was changing. I didn’t feel like I was myself for a couple months, and that’s a hard path to go down.”
But that’s how things go with brain injuries. Everyone reacts differently. Frazier kept fighting, kept pushing to show that he was ready to play, and he even got promoted to the big leagues for a short stint. But then an innocent-looking collision with Orioles third baseman Jace Peterson caused the symptoms to escalate, essentially ending his season.
Eventually, Frazier met Dr. Michael “Micky” Collins, an expert in sports-related concussions, who convinced him to lean in to his symptoms. Fight the instinct to go into a shell when the headaches hit, he told the outfielder. Instead, Frazier sought out opportunities to be around people, to be in loud environments, to keep preparing to be a part of a Major League Baseball team. “Part of my training was, I would sit there and he would have me shake my head, shake the system up,” Frazier says. “Because when you’re driving, you look over your shoulder. When I’m running, I turn over my shoulder. When I’m hitting, my head moves. It was crazy. … If I would have told the guy I wanted to go to Disney World every day, he would have said, ‘Go get on every one of those roller coasters.’ It was a unique experience.”
After the second injury closed the door on Frazier’s 2018, he set his increasingly clear sights on 2019. It pained him to watch the postseason from afar, but as he continued to improve physically, he believed the best thing he could do for the Yankees and his teammates would be to approach this year with as much determination and confidence as possible. In other words, he would try to be himself, no small thing for a guy who had endured a yearlong out-of-body existence.
But what can you do when “being yourself” keeps getting you into hot water?
The rules of the baseball clubhouse, like so much of the game, are relics from a different time. And to the Yankees’ credit, the players currently wearing pinstripes have embraced the youthful energy that has spurred consecutive playoff appearances. Walk into the room today, and there’s music playing, the guys are joking around, and the tone is being set as much by the 25-and-under crowd as by veterans such as CC Sabathia or Gardner.
Greg Bird knows better than most what Frazier went through when he lost essentially a full season, living through the frustration of an injury that just wouldn’t heal. So Bird reached out to Frazier over the season that wasn’t, letting him know that he wasn’t being left behind. “The biggest thing for me having gone through it is just having people who support you,” Bird says. “Just to talk to. So, you don’t feel like you’re on an island by yourself. Because I think it’s easy to get that feeling, that you’re all alone, and no one really cares.”
Bird is nearly two years older than Frazier, and has been around for more of the generational shifting in the Yankees’ clubhouse. He hedges in his assessment of his teammate’s style, acknowledging the ways that Frazier might be victim of a sport in which tradition and evolution can clash.
“I think there’s certain things that rub people the wrong way in baseball because ‘that’s not baseball,’” Bird says. “But I don’t think that’s right.”
So what’s Frazier to do? He’s flashy, and he smiles, and he talks at full volume, and he walks with a full collection of cocky verve. These aren’t crimes. He got a nose ring in the offseason, and he’s active and occasionally emotionally vulnerable on social media. There are 24-year-olds doing worse.
But somehow it gets out that he requested that the Yankees take Mickey Mantle’s number out of retirement so he could wear it (never happened, he insists). He cuts his hair, just like he’s supposed to, and then people gripe that he shouldn’t have needed to be told. He spends every day for a year working his way back from an injury to his brain, then hears on the radio that he’s letting his team down by not being out there. “It’s just comments that didn’t come from me that I feel like still linger over my head,” Frazier says. “In the end, I’ve never done anything bad. I’m a 24-year-old kid that’s having fun, with a little bit of personality. And if you’re going to talk the talk, you’ve got to be ready for everything that comes with it. I am.”
Frazier employs his own standard style when he answers questions. He is polite and funny and interesting, but he also seems almost overly insistent on granting the premise of any criticism, accepting the right anyone around him has to chafe at his style. He says that he hasn’t done anything wrong, then adds that he has to be willing to accept the barbs coming his way, almost as an apologetic defense mechanism. And despite an impressive ability to discuss the inner workings of his brain and where his injury fell on the spectrum of concussions, he’s also the guy who, a few days after the initial diagnosis, joked that, “There’s not a whole lot going on up in my head, so I’m not too worried about losing anything.”
But why does someone who seems to understand the pageant that he’s being asked to perform in seem so boxed-in by his role? “I think people just need to get to know him a little bit more,” says Tyler Wade, who has spent a lot of time with Frazier between the Minors and short stints with the big club. “That’s just who he is. He wants to be himself, and you’ve just got to accept it.” On cue, Frazier walks by to look at the day’s workout schedule posted on a TV screen a few feet away. As he reads the daily plan, Frazier flexes his muscles to no one in particular, and Wade can’t help but laugh. “There you go, perfect example,” he says, almost doubling over. Frazier just shrugs.
Bird tries to let Clint be Clint, while also trying to help him thrive. He almost sounds like a parent of young kids awake too early on a Saturday morning. “With Clint sometimes, I say, ‘You’re at a 15 out of 10 -- I just need you to be a 10,’” Bird says. “He says, ‘I’m being myself!’ I say, ‘Yeah, just don’t do it at a 15. Let’s be a 10.’ And he always laughs.”
And Frazier does get it, he insists. He is who he is, and he wants to be that way, but he wants to find a way to make sure that the most authentic side of him meshes with the guys around him. “What matters to me is what these people in this locker room think,” Frazier says. “Because we’re all going for the same goal. It’s fine, man. It’s fine. I think if I was able to be myself 100 percent on that field, I would be a better player. And that’s ultimately what I’m doing out there -- just trying to be myself while trying to be respectful of everyone around me.”
Despite the injuries, despite the time away, and, yes, despite the overdose of swag, everyone on the team understands the talent that the always visible redhead possesses. Assistant hitting coach P.J. Pilittere calls him a “ball of muscle,” and Aaron Judge, whose batting practice shows are legendary, thrills at the chance to watch his teammate hit.
“I see a lot of good things in his swing, man,” Judge says. “He’s made a couple changes, and his barrel just gets into the zone so early. That’s what I look for. The barrel flattens out, gets into the zone early, and it stays through it for a long time. When you’ve got somebody who can do that, that’s just going to equal hits, and when you have someone with his strength, those hits turn into home runs and doubles.”
That’s the goal, at least. Lots of home runs, lots of doubles. In the meantime, there’s the question of whether he’s allowed to pimp his style before some unknown, independent arbiter says he has earned it. During Spring Training, Nick Swisher was around for a short time as an instructor. Nobody in recent Yankees history carried himself quite like Swisher, a constant energy source whose voice and laugh could be heard from one side of the Bronx to the other. “His personality plays at 30 home runs a year,” Swisher says. “But it’s just like any athlete. You have to have success to do what you want to. Don’t get your recognition because of how you look. Get your recognition because of what you do on the field. And I think that’s where he’s on his way to.
“I love his personality, I love his energy. I think we just need to be able to try and find a way to harness that in the right direction.”
Maybe it’s strange to hear a guy with Swisher’s reputation telling you to rein it in. Or, who knows, maybe it’s just what Frazier needs to hear. Maybe he’ll say what he usually does, that Swisher is an All-Star who has earned the right to say what he wants, that he, himself, hasn’t done anything yet, and that all he wants to do is learn from a guy like that so he can perform like he did. Swisher doesn’t give examples of what Frazier has done wrong, he just seems to indicate that it’s obvious, that he doesn’t act the way young players are supposed to. “I maybe [upset] a lot of people just because of the way I was early in my career,” Swisher says. “But that was the way I knew how to do it. And I think I learned a lot from that, moving up, and I think as Clint grows up, he’s going to learn a lot. And what’s great about it -- we’re all here to support him, and we want to do the best we can to help him out in any way because we want to see him in the big leagues.”
So Frazier sails on, rowing upstream against baseball’s current. Maybe it’s still not exactly clear what he really did wrong, but there’s no time for that. He’s not going to change who he is -- he showed up to Tampa this year with a new Mercedes G-Class wagon, a perfectly flashy car that he plans to upgrade with ostentatious tires and lifts. But he’ll do what he has to do, whether in the Bronx or in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. He wants to be a Major Leaguer; it suits his personality, that’s for sure. And it’s also exactly the goal that every player should have.
“This is the best opportunity I think I’ve had playing in a long time,” he says. “I already accomplished one goal, and that was playing in the big leagues, and now the next one is to stay. And whether I win the job or whether I make Opening Day, or whether I end up in the Minor Leagues and have to grind my way back up, it’s a situation that I’ve been in before, and I’m going to do whatever I can because I want to be a Yankee, and I will do whatever I have to do.
“Everyone wants to win. And at the end of the day, none of us knows how many at-bats we’re all going to get. But we’re all trying to accomplish the same goal. I want a World Series ring. I don’t care how I get it. If I contribute one at-bat that gets us there, that’s all. I’m just trying to be on the field. That’s all I want.”
That seems like a fair plan. No doubt someone will take it the wrong way. That’s just how things go for Clint Frazier.