Yankees Magazine: Good Vibes
Kyle Higashioka has seen plenty in his decade and a half with the Yankees. In this excerpt from the New York Yankees Official Podcast, the catcher breaks it all down
It’s hard to believe, when you look over the Yankees' roster, just how long Kyle Higashioka has been part of the family. Drafted in 2008, at a time when the mailing address for Yankee Stadium directed you to an entirely different building, the 33-year-old has been with the organization for nearly half his life. Yet Higashioka, who made his big league debut in 2017, has ties to this roster that go back even further than the day he was picked in the seventh round out of Edison High School in Huntington Beach, Calif.
Back when he was a stud amateur player, Higgy played with and against eventual Yankees teammates Gerrit Cole and Aaron Hicks during high school games and showcases. Higgy recalls thinking how it would be cool if any of them made the Majors. Fast forward a decade and a half, and it’s pretty remarkable to see how it all ended up.
Earlier this year, Higashioka sat down with Yankees Magazine deputy editor Jon Schwartz for a segment that will air on the New York Yankees Official Podcast. The interview, reprinted below, touches on the catcher’s tenure in New York, his incredibly California demeanor and the lessons and memories he took from representing the red, white and blue during this year’s World Baseball Classic.
To listen to the interview, subscribe to the New York Yankees Official Podcast at the podcast platform of your choice.
Yankees Magazine: When you were drafted in 2008, the team still played across the street. How meaningful has it been for you to be a part of this organization for almost half your life?
Kyle Higashioka: When I sit and look back at it, it’s been a pretty special ride, especially for the relationships I’ve built here in this organization and all the teammates I’ve had over the years. Actually, a lot of the teammates I had in the Minors are now coaches in the organization. It’s pretty funny, but yeah, it’s pretty crazy. But I feel like I’ve still got a lot left in me. So, I’m trying to keep it going.
YM: That’s the hope, for sure. If you could talk to 2008 Kyle Higashioka, get to teach him one thing, what do you tell him?
KH: Maybe I’d tell him to try to grow up a little quicker. I think when you’re 18, you’re pretty much not an adult yet, mentally at least. And it’s that responsibility and that self-sufficiency that’s yet to develop. I mean, it took me a little while, and luckily I was able to keep being given opportunities while I was developing that. But yeah, that took probably longer than I would have liked.
YM: I love the fact that your baseball career has two crazy, who-can-believe-it life highlights that are so different. You have a three-home run game on this one side. And you caught a no-hitter on this other side. How do those two experiences compare?
KH: Both were just pretty crazy. I mean, to be able to catch a no-hitter is something that every catcher dreams of. And looking back at when I was a kid, it was so rare and so special every single time someone threw one. I remember reading in the paper when Hideo Nomo threw a no-hitter, and my dad telling me how crazy and rare that was. So as a catcher just to be able to be back there for one, it was really special.
YM: Looking back at your comments afterward, you said you were more stressed out than Corey Kluber was in the late innings. But in reality, you have to keep him calm in some ways. How are you managing yourself in those moments?
KH: In those moments, you rely on instincts and let your preparation take over. Because up in my head, I was really nervous. You have almost no control over what happens once the ball leaves the bat. No-hitters or perfect games take as much luck as they do skill. At any moment, a guy could hit a blooper or a swinging bunt single, and you can’t do anything about it. You just let your preparation take over, and it kind of just falls into place because we’ve done the same thing a million times before, you know? It’s no different just because he hasn’t given up a hit yet.
YM: Speaking of awesome baseball moments, I have to think that representing Team USA at this spring’s World Baseball Classic has to rate pretty high. Was the experience like what you had been led to believe it was going to be out there?
KH: Yeah, it was awesome. Just the opportunity to learn from all those guys and the coaches there, and to be a part of something that was so meaningful in Spring Training, it was a really cool opportunity.
YM: What’s it like to be that excited in March, and not watching basketball?
KH: I’ve never really been in that spot before. So, it was pretty unique. Although I also didn’t appreciate feeling that disappointment in March, as well. Overall, it was awesome.
YM: You had a lot of work to do -- you’re getting ready for the season, everything like that. How were you able to balance that, both what your role was there and what your role is here?
KH: I definitely got a ton of catching in. So, defensively, I was able to stay very sharp. But on offense, honestly, I thought it was pretty beneficial to take a step back and just absorb some knowledge from some of the game’s best hitters, guys that I’ve never had a chance to talk to before. Because we’ve got some of the game’s best hitters here, but learning a new perspective is always beneficial. Sometimes somebody can say something that clicks with you that you’ve never heard before.
YM: Obviously, when you lose a postseason series, beyond all the sadness and disappointment, you also have to wait so long to compete again. Was it nice, after the experience of a disappointing championship game against Japan, to be able to start up again less than two weeks later? Like, “Hey, Opening Day! Let’s go!”
KH: Yeah, it was like, “Now the real stuff starts." ... Honestly, it was good to get in that frame of mind, the competitive frame of mind, early. Because to us, those games mattered. So, it was nice to already be in that frame of mind.
YM: You have such a cool persona. You’re self-deprecating, easygoing. You always seem, for lack of a better term, very California. Is that totally natural? Or is that just something that you try to put up as the way you present yourself? Because in my head I know you have a fire, I know you have a killer instinct in you.
KH: That’s kind of just who I am. I mean, showcasing your killer instinct on a day-to-day basis is not very conducive to building relationships and interacting with people. The killer instinct part, or whatever you want to call it, everybody has that when you get out onto the field, especially at this level. It takes more work for me than just relaxing and living my normal everyday life. I’ve learned how to get into that headspace every single time I go out there.
YM: Do you put some of that aggression that you have, that you don’t put into everyday conversation, into your guitar playing? Because you like the hard stuff.
KH: Yeah, I like heavy metal. I like the musical genres that evoke some sort of emotion. Music can be powerful, and I prefer guitar-driven work. So heavy metal, that kind of hard rock, all that stuff.
YM: Are there other guitar guys on the team? Anyone you can play with?
KH: Gerrit plays a little bit. And last year, [Andrew] Benintendi played. Tim [Lentych], our trainer, he’s learning too. So, we’ve got a few guitars floating around the clubhouse.
YM: Do you remember the first song you really mastered? The moment that it stopped being like, “OK, where’s the C? Where’s the G?” And instead it became, “OK, I got this.”
KH: Yeah, that was “Wanted Dead or Alive” by Bon Jovi.
YM: How old were you?
KH: I really started to learn when I was in pro ball. It was probably 2011 or so that I started to really get it down, and then also get the solo down. That was the big thing for me; it took me forever to start to learn guitar solos. That was the first one that I nailed down completely.
YM: I hope I’m not stretching a metaphor too much here, but the idea of a guitar solo is to make it sound seamless, and to know exactly what’s going to happen when you put your finger here and you pluck here. But obviously, you need to spend a lot of time learning the fretboard and which note is which. It’s not that different from the way professional athletes can make something like this look easy.
KH: Those guys are so good. I feel like, to them, a guitar solo is like me throwing the ball back to the pitcher, you know? It’s so natural and easy for them, just second nature. But yeah, it’s there. I think there are some parallels.
YM: Have you played with Bernie Williams? I always find it fascinating, the idea of trying to reach the top of a second profession. There’s a lot of interesting ambition there.
KH: We’ve talked about it all the time. I don’t know if as a professional athlete you really ever can turn off that drive to master something. I’m sure that he just took that mental mindset that he had playing and just transferred it straight over to music. And I mean, he’s a phenomenal player. Beautiful.
YM: Going to a totally different subject here, I love how far back you go with Gerrit. You guys played against each other a lot in high school, and together in some showcases. You guys were together when you were just doing it for fun, and now you share a clubhouse for the most successful baseball franchise on the planet.
KH: Yeah, it’s pretty crazy to think about. It’s actually me, Gerrit and Aaron Hicks. I’ve known Hicksy for even longer than Gerrit. And just to think that we were playing in high school together, and I’m sure all three of us, when we were 15 years old, probably thought, “Oh, I’ll be lucky to get drafted one day,” or like, “Maybe I’ll be good enough to get a college scholarship.” And at this point, we’re all playing for the Yankees together.
YM: Last year, you’re watching Gerrit as he’s pursuing Yankees history. And somehow, just because of what Aaron Judge was doing, it became like a side note. Meanwhile, he’s chasing down a really beloved Yankee's strikeout record. What was that like for you to watch, both as a catcher, but also as a guy who has known him for a long time?
KH: In my mind, it was just a matter of time. He’s so talented, and his stuff is so nasty, that I couldn’t imagine him not making a run at it eventually. And I will say it did get a little overshadowed by Judge making history, but it was still really, really cool. And we had a celebration in the clubhouse for him, as well. So, amongst us, we were in full acknowledgment of it.
YM: When you’re catching a guy with great stuff, which could be anyone on this staff, what do you bring to the equation?
KH: Part of it’s just not getting in the way. Jose Trevino and I do a lot of work in terms of studying hitters and also studying our own pitchers, and we try to match up those two things and try to create the most optimal mix to call the right pitches when we can. There’s a lot of guys that kind of call their own game, too, from the mound, but we do our best to try and know the hitters as much as we can and know the pitchers’ strengths and weaknesses. And we see how those match up and try to get the best out of our guys.
YM: Are there ever times when you’re catching back there, and you just say to yourself, “Oh man, that was an amazing pitch.”
KH: It happened more often when I first got called up and I wasn’t used to some of the guys. The first breaking ball I caught from Dellin Betances, I almost completely whiffed on it. I think I just batted it out of the air. I looked over, and (then-manager) Joe Girardi asked me if I was OK. I was like, “I’ve just never seen a breaking ball move like that before.”
YM: How much do you enjoy that back and forth with the pitchers, trying to use the limited time you have back there to figure out the perfect pitch each moment?
KH: I love it because that’s the cat-and-mouse part of the game. It’s an intricacy of catching and pitching and hitting. You get to do it as a hitter. But I get to do it on both sides of the ball. My mind’s always going. I can never kind of space out.
YM: Monument Park is absolutely filthy with some of the greatest pitchers in baseball history, and they just happen to wear the same uniform you do. If you could catch any pitcher in Yankees history, who would be your dream batterymate?
KH: Mariano Rivera. In my first few years here, when he was still playing, I caught him in a (Spring Training) game once and a few bullpens. And he just had pinpoint command. Never had to move my glove in the game. The movement was insane. It was late cut. I would like to have worked with him during the season because that would be pretty fun. He’s undoubtedly the best relief pitcher of all time.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Subscribe to the New York Yankees Official Podcast here, or at the podcast app of your choice.