Things were looking up for Austin Romine when he reported to Tampa for spring training in February 2015. He was healthy. The Yankees had traded catcher Francisco Cervelli to Pittsburgh in the offseason. And there was a clear path for Romine to reclaim the job that he had held in 2013 when he backed up Chris Stewart for most of the season.
The top three catchers in camp were Brian McCann, Romine and John Ryan Murphy, New York's second-round pick in the 2009 Draft. To that point in their careers, Romine had appeared in 76 big league games compared to Murphy's 48, and it was Romine -- not Murphy -- who was once thought to be the club's catcher of the future. A lower-back strain derailed the bulk of Romine's 2012 season, but that was in the past.
Then Romine hit .171 in 19 Grapefruit League contests while battling Murphy until the very last game for the second catcher's spot on the roster. The Yankees made Romine the last cut before the regular season started and, with the 26-year-old out of minor league options, designated him for assignment. That meant if the Yankees wanted him to start the season at Triple-A, he would have to clear waivers, giving the other 29 teams a chance to claim him and add him to their big league roster.
Not one did.
"It sucked, plain and simple," Romine says. "When they tell you you're not good enough, and they promote someone over you, and then they put you out there for anybody to have and no one wants you, it sucks."
His life was at a crossroads. It was time to decide if he wanted to double down, work twice as hard and force the Yankees to promote him, or if it was time to call it a career and try something new.
"Is this something that I want to pursue? Is this something that I love? Is this something that I want to do every day?" he says, remembering all the hard questions he asked himself. "All the answers were yes."
So Romine returned to the Triple-A affiliate in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre for the fifth consecutive season and went to work. He found a deeper level of focus and eliminated as many negative forces from his life as he could. The result was a selection to the International League Mid-Season All-Star Team after a first half in which he hit .270 with 35 RBI.
Romine says he gets asked often what he did to rebound from the low point he hit after not making the team out of spring training in 2015. "I don't really ever have an answer for it," he says. "I just decided to not fail anymore."
"He has grown up so much," says Yankees first base coach and catching instructor Tony Peña. "I think that helped him to grow up, to understand the things that he needed to do, and he never gave up. He said, 'OK, it's mine. I'm not going to let it slip away.'"
Romine decided, "This isn't going to be it. I'm not going to fail. I'm not going to be done in a year. I want to keep going. I want to play. Just get it done." And he did. In 2016, he broke camp with the Yankees and spent a full season in the majors for the first time in his career.
Romine loves baseball. Whether it's the look of disbelief on his face after Starlin Castro throws out Martin Maldonado from the seat of his pants, or the smile and fist bump he exchanges with Peña after an RBI double, his fondness for the game is easy to see.
Like he ever had a choice.
Baseball has been the Romine family business since before Austin was born. His father, Kevin, played parts of seven big league seasons as an outfielder for the Boston Red Sox, and his older brother, Andrew, is an infielder for the Detroit Tigers.
The stars even aligned when Austin made his major league debut on Sept. 11, 2011, at Angel Stadium of Anaheim -- less than 20 miles from where he went to high school. Andrew came up with the Angels, and at the time was in his second stint with the big league club. Austin arrived for the 12:30 p.m. game just before the first pitch and, with dozens of family and friends in attendance, entered as a defensive replacement in the seventh inning.
"Growing up and my parents basically breeding me to play the game -- they put me in a good position," says Romine, who was drafted by the Yankees in the second round in 2007. "I thank them every day for it. I owe everything I have to them."
"As a kid that grew up on the field, he knows how the game is supposed to be played and he knows what he should do, how to prepare himself to play the game," says Peña, whose own big league bloodlines include his brother, Ramon, and sons Francisco and Tony. "Coming from a baseball family, he has an idea about everything."
Which is a good thing, because from the way Romine and Peña each describe it, more preparation is necessary to play once or twice a week than is needed to play every day. Before each game, Romine meets with pitching coach Larry Rothschild, fellow catcher Gary Sanchez and the pitching staff to go over opposing hitters. But on any given day, his pregame routine could also include early batting practice, long toss, extra running, hitting in the batting cage or taking ground balls at first base. Any combination of these exercises could be added or subtracted to his schedule depending on if, and where, he is playing that night.
"You have to stay ready because you never know when they're going to call you," Romine says. "When they do, that may be your only chance to show them something. You almost have to do more when you're not playing to keep up with the guys that are playing."
While a backup catcher's most important job is being able to give the starter a rest once or twice a week, occasionally the job description will expand to include serving as the personal catcher for a particular starting pitcher. One of the notable examples of such an arrangement in Yankees history is when Jim Leyritz caught the majority of Andy Pettitte's starts in 1995 and '96.
For an example even closer to home, Romine need only look at Peña. At the end of Peña's 18-year career, he backed up Sandy Alomar Jr. in Cleveland and became Dennis Martinez's personal catcher. From 1994 to '96, Peña's three years with the Tribe, "El Presidente" posted a 3.13 ERA with Peña behind the plate, as opposed to a 4.61 mark when Alomar caught him. Peña, who is in his 10th season as New York's catching instructor, says there is no science behind why certain pitchers and catchers work better together than others.
"It's just about communication; it's about feeling comfortable with one guy," he says. "I think there are people that work together well, and that's the best way I can put it."
In 2017, Romine has established that kind of relationship with Jordan Montgomery. The rookie left-hander had a 3.65 ERA and a 4.67 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 13 games with Romine catching him before Montgomery was sent to Triple-A on Aug. 6, compared to a 4.81 ERA and a 2.05 K/BB rate in seven games with either Gary Sanchez or Kyle Higashioka behind the dish.
"I just think [Romine] has a good idea of how my stuff moves and how the hitters are seeing it," Montgomery says. "We've just been on the same page as far as what I want to throw, and usually it's the same thing he calls."
"He really wants to be good; he really wants to be the best he can be every day," Romine says of his frequent batterymate. "He gets in a zone. It's weird. He has this look in his eyes sometimes when I'm catching him, it's like it could be just me and him."
In addition to his success with Montgomery, Romine helped Masahiro Tanaka remedy his early-season stumbles. After Tanaka struggled through the season's first two months, Romine was deployed to catch three of Tanaka's next four starts as the calendar turned from May to June. The stretch coincided with a resurgence for Tanaka, who seems comfortable with Romine -- the right-hander had a 3.57 ERA in his first nine games when pitching to Romine this year, well below his 5.47 overall mark in the first half.
"I think [Romine] brings out the best in the pitcher that's throwing on the mound," Tanaka says, assisted by interpreter Shingo Horie. "The body language that you have, the way he leads the game, I think just looking at those things, he really does bring out the best in the pitcher in that given game."
"I love going to work with that guy because you know you're getting everything out of him," Romine says, repaying Tanaka's compliment. "He's a bulldog on the mound. He loves to go after guys; he loves that moment."
The fact that Tanaka found success with Sanchez last season -- posting an ERA below 2.00 in seven starts together -- further supports Peña's theory that you don't question what works. For now, Romine is the beneficiary, which just means more time on the field for the catcher.
In 2011, MLB.com ranked Romine as one the Yankees' 10 best prospects, but he still rated behind Jesus Montero -- who was later traded to Seattle for Michael Pineda -- and Sanchez. Of Romine, the website said: "While he doesn't have the offensive ceiling of Montero, there are more who believe he's the one who could be an everyday catcher in the big leagues."
It's a belief Romine still shares. For now though, he's behind Sanchez. But he doesn't begrudge the Yankees' depth chart. "It's not his fault," Romine says. "Have you seen him play?"
Given Sanchez's record-breaking 2016 debut and All-Star-worthy first half this season, Romine makes a fair point. But the Yankees rank in the bottom five of the league in production from their first basemen through Aug. 9, so Romine has filled in some there when not behind the dish, logging 11 appearances there in that span. His bat, while not as lethal as Sanchez's, is no longer a liability. When Sanchez hit the disabled list in April, Romine played nearly every day and held his own; he even posted a five-RBI game against the Orioles on April 29.
"The older I get, the more information I'm getting, the more ways I can interpret stuff and put it onto the field, and I'm having success with it," Romine says. "It's incredible for me to see how far I've come from being an out to putting up a solid AB."
The relationship between the Yankees' two backstops is professional and collaborative -- and that's the way that Peña wants it. He says when the pair are working on catching drills he leaves them alone, allowing them to coach and correct each other.
"If Austin sees something that he can tell me, help me improve, he's going to come and tell me," Sanchez says, assisted by bilingual media relations coordinator Marlon Abreu. "And if I see something that I can mention to him and maybe help him improve in something, I'm going to go and tell him. That's the kind of relationship we have -- open communication back and forth."
"Our goal is to win a ring," Romine says. "We work together, we talk together, we bounce ideas off each other. I'll ask him about hitting, he'll ask me about catching, vice versa."
A little more than two years removed from being passed over by 29 major league teams, Romine is entrenched in the Yankees' clubhouse. He is comfortable tutoring Sanchez and young pitchers, continuing to grow as a hitter and even playing the occasional game at first base. It's a decent consolation prize -- and it has validated his 2015 decision to stick with the game he loves.
"I would love to start, but right now my path in life is to be here. And I love being here," Romine says. "Being a New York Yankee is the best thing in the world."