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Yankees Magazine: Where Legends Live

How Monument Park became the heart and soul of Yankee Stadium
Yankees Magazine

From the moment a monument honoring late Yankees manager Miller Huggins was dedicated on May 30, 1932, the location -- deep center field in Yankee Stadium, approximately 460 feet from home plate -- turned into a distinct and cherished space. Shrines to Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth, both greats of the game, were added alongside Huggins' marker in the 1940s. A gallery of plaques commemorating former Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert, former executive Ed Barrow, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle lined the center-field wall. But it wasn't Monument Park, the heart and soul of Yankee Stadium, where aura and mystique lie in wait. That would come later.

The transformation wasn't simple. As with any change involving a cultural institution like Yankee Stadium, the process took time and effort. Yankee Stadium was crumbling in the early 1970s, with concrete hunks falling from the rafters. A new home for the team was inevitable. Around that time, the New York Giants football team had announced that it was leaving Yankee Stadium for a facility in the Meadowlands Sports Complex in New Jersey. New York City Mayor John Lindsay pledged not to lose another franchise.

From the moment a monument honoring late Yankees manager Miller Huggins was dedicated on May 30, 1932, the location -- deep center field in Yankee Stadium, approximately 460 feet from home plate -- turned into a distinct and cherished space. Shrines to Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth, both greats of the game, were added alongside Huggins' marker in the 1940s. A gallery of plaques commemorating former Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert, former executive Ed Barrow, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle lined the center-field wall. But it wasn't Monument Park, the heart and soul of Yankee Stadium, where aura and mystique lie in wait. That would come later.

The transformation wasn't simple. As with any change involving a cultural institution like Yankee Stadium, the process took time and effort. Yankee Stadium was crumbling in the early 1970s, with concrete hunks falling from the rafters. A new home for the team was inevitable. Around that time, the New York Giants football team had announced that it was leaving Yankee Stadium for a facility in the Meadowlands Sports Complex in New Jersey. New York City Mayor John Lindsay pledged not to lose another franchise.

The financials, however, told another story, as the city lingered on the brink of bankruptcy. A solution flailed in the distance like a desert mirage. But then in 1972, the city forced Rice University, which had owned Yankee Stadium since 1962, to sell it to the city via eminent domain for $2.5 million. Later that year, the Board of Estimate approved $24 million to renovate Yankee Stadium.

 

With new ownership led by George M. Steinbrenner, Yankee Stadium closed for repairs on Sept. 30, 1973. When it reopened in time for the 1976 season, The House That Ruth Built had undergone a significant makeover. Among the changes: a new roof, a middle tier including a press box and luxury suites, and a large video screen -- then referred to as a "telescreen" -- constructed behind the bleachers. The playing field had also been altered. "Death Valley," the vast area in left-center field that had vexed right-handed power hitters for decades, shrunk by more than 25 feet to make room for an area dedicated to the monuments and plaques that had once resided on the field. That area was called Monument Park.

Like the team residing in Yankee Stadium itself, Monument Park has evolved into something greater over the years. Now comprising more than three dozen plaques, the 21 retired numbers of 22 Yankees greats and seven monuments, Monument Park remains the ultimate destination for anyone who has worn the pinstripes. "Having a plaque in Monument Park and having No. 20 retired is an honor and a dream come true," Jorge Posada said during his dedication ceremony in August 2015.

A bustling tourist attraction, Monument Park is a highlight for sightseers looking for a brush with history -- not only Yankees history or sports history, but history. "This is the Holy Grail," says Tony Morante, Yankees director of Stadium tours. "A lot of teams respect their great ballplayers, the way they do in Boston and in Baltimore with statues, but this is the way we do it. This is a representation of the greatest history in baseball, maybe in sports. There's nowhere like it in any other ballpark. It can't be copied."

***

The Yankees were not the first organization to honor former greats in center field. In 1921, the New York Giants dedicated a monument to Eddie Grant, a light-hitting infielder for the Cleveland Naps, Philadelphia Phillies, Cincinnati Reds and New York Giants from 1905 to 1915. A Harvard man, Grant enlisted in the U.S. Army once the United States intervened in World War I, eventually becoming captain of the 307th Infantry, 77th Division. He was killed in action on the battlefield in France on Oct. 5, 1918. A 5-foot-high stone monument was then mounted on the center-field wall of the Polo Grounds, and a wreath-laying ceremony was held annually, usually between games of the Memorial Day doubleheader, until the Giants decamped for San Francisco after the 1957 season.

The first Yankees great to be memorialized in similar fashion was Huggins, who led the Yankees to their first three World Series titles. As a law student at the University of Cincinnati, he was passionate about baseball. One of his professors, William Howard Taft, allegedly told Huggins, "You can become a pleader or a player, not both. Try baseball. You seem to like it better." Huggins listened to Professor Taft, who, of course, later became president of the United States.

In 13 seasons with the Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals, Huggins, a 5-foot-6 slick-fielding second baseman nicknamed "Mighty Mite," collected 1,474 hits. But it was as a manager with the Yankees from 1918 to 1929 that he would make his mark, winning six pennants and sporting a .597 winning percentage. More than his phenomenal record, Huggins' stint with the Yankees was defined by his volatile relationship with Babe Ruth, who often resisted his manager's disciplinary tactics and took to belittling him for his small stature. Huggins finally confronted Ruth, suspending his star player in August 1925 for off-the-field issues. Ruth returned to the team shortly after the incident, but in teaching the Babe a lesson, Huggins had earned his respect. "He was the only man who knew how to keep me in line," Ruth said.

Video: Yankees Retired Number: No. 3, Babe Ruth

 With Ruth on the field and Huggins in the dugout, the Yankees won back-to-back World Series in 1927 and 1928. But tragedy struck when Huggins fell ill with a high fever toward the end of the next season. He died on Sept. 25, 1929, at the age of 51 from pyaemia, a type of sepsis. A favorite with the press since the Ruth dust-up, members of the media lobbied for Ruppert to honor Huggins in some fashion. And on May 30, 1932, the Yankees unveiled a monument in his memory.

Huggins was joined in deep center field in 1941 by Gehrig and then by his old antagonist, Ruth, in 1949. The three monuments, approximately 10 feet in front of the center-field wall, combined with a nearby flagpole to create hazards for center fielders in the rare occurrence when a ball was hit that far. "It was scary -- very scary, oh yeah. It was a good way to eliminate yourself," Dom DiMaggio, center fielder for the Boston Red Sox, once said. "[The monuments] were pretty deep out there in left-center, almost dead center. Heck, [Charlie] Keller, one day, hit two of them out there. Not one, two. God, he hit 'em a ton. I keep running and running. At one point on the first one, I said, 'Well, gee, I've got to peek to see where it is.' And I did, I peeked. And finally I caught up with it. And fortunately, I was right in line with the monuments. And I kind of shook a little bit, but got the job done. I was glad to be able to talk about it."

Fans felt a strong connection to the monuments during that time. Back then, crowds could exit Yankee Stadium after the final out by traversing the playing field, and oftentimes, fans would descend upon the monuments of Huggins, Ruth and Gehrig to pay their respect. The 1974-75 renovation, though, ended that tradition.

But something grander was on the horizon. The monuments and plaques were moved behind the wall, clearing the field of play, and, when Yankee Stadium reopened on Opening Day 1976, there was Monument Park, out beyond the left-center field wall.

***

Tony Morante gave his first tour of Yankee Stadium on Veterans Day 1979 at the behest of Bronx Borough President Stanley Simon. On that cold, rainy afternoon, Morante directed two groups of 60 through the Yankee Stadium field and dugout before concluding the expedition in the press box. With assistance from The Bronx County Historical Society, Morante then designed the Stadium tour.

If anyone could be trusted to pass along the Yankees' folklore and tradition, it's Morante. Like many kids growing up in the Bronx in the 1950s, he worshipped Mickey Mantle. Morante had another connection to the Yankees: His father was an usher at Yankee Stadium. And so, Morante followed in his father's footsteps, coming aboard in 1958 when he was just a teenager. He began his career as an usher in the upper deck. Years later, he once waited on Jackie Robinson. But his career took a turn with the creation of Monument Park. VIP tours started on that day in 1979. And in 1985, when the center-field fence was brought in once more, the area became accessible to the general public.

The Stadium tour business grew as the Yankees' winning tradition returned in the mid-1990s. Morante says that in 2008, the final year of the original Yankee Stadium, more than 150,000 fans toured Monument Park. You can always tell someone's age by where they start their tour. Baby boomers immediately gravitate toward Mantle's monument. For a kid who grew up in the 1990s, the plaques and retired numbers of the Core Four -- Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada -- are their prized destination.

Video: HOU@NYY: Jeter discusses induction into Monument Park

Morante enjoys seeing their reactions upon entering Monument Park. Younger fans are typically more inquisitive, armed with the kind of smart, pointed questions kids aren't afraid to ask. Older fans, for the most part, are more contemplative, the response more internal. "I saw how the older guys would get teary-eyed because it brought back fond memories," Morante says. "What Monument Park represents is a lot of joy for people." Even baseball's new heroes appreciate what Monument Park represents. Over the years, Morante has given tours to Mariano Rivera, Don Mattingly and even Houston Astros Hall of Fame second baseman Craig Biggio.

***

The construction of the current Yankee Stadium offered new opportunities for Monument Park. Designers wanted the park to be visible from the stands, and prioritized creating more space for fans to navigate. Four renderings were presented, Morante says, with the most popular submission winning. Next came the hard part: The monuments would have to be transported from across the street.

In November 2008, construction workers began disassembling Monument Park, first taking down the retired numbers and corresponding placards before moving on to the plaques and monuments. The treasures were kept in a nearby storage facility. The Babe's monument was first to arrive at the new Yankee Stadium. A crane rig then picked up the monuments - which, with the exception of the 7,100-pound monument to Huggins, each weighs in at 5,500 pounds - and lowered them into their new home. The new Monument Park, which opened along with Yankee Stadium in 2009, is made from 125 tons of blue pearl granite imported from the northern tip of Finland.

Plaques commemorating services given by Pope Paul VI in 1965 and Pope John Paul II in 1979 first greet fans walking down into Monument Park. From there, the Yankees top hat logo, the one former owner Larry MacPhail commissioned to a graphic artist named Henry Alonzo Keller just after World War II, is visible. Up a soft ramp and alongside the wall closest to the playing field stand the latest batch of retired numbers -- Pettitte, Posada, Bernie Williams and Jeter. On the back wall lie the plaques all leading into the monuments. The centerpiece is a monument dedicated to George M. Steinbrenner. The most recognizable logo in sports -- the Yankees "NY" insignia -- is embedded in the ground below.

There are two circles on the ground, each on opposite ends of Monument Park. Morante believes they are there for a reason: They are placeholders for future monuments to Yankees legends. After all, Monument Park is a work in progress, constantly evolving to reflect new chapters in history. "It is a living museum, absolutely," Morante says. "This is where history lives: at Monument Park."

Thomas Golianopoulos is the associate editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the Commemorative Monument Park Edition of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

New York Yankees

Yankees Magazine: A Place for Heroes

There is more to Monument Park than the legends of Yankees lore
Yankees Magazine

Directly in the center of Monument Park stand the monuments dedicated to some of the most famous names in baseball: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Miller Huggins. Behind those are two more greats, Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio. These are men who defined the sport for generations -- heroes of the game, to be sure.

Through their contributions to baseball and the Yankees over many years, each man earned the right to be remembered -- to have fans of the game presented with his greatness in the form of a monument. But the space out past center field isn't reserved solely for those who represented the interlocking "NY." Not all heroes wear pinstripes.

Directly in the center of Monument Park stand the monuments dedicated to some of the most famous names in baseball: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Miller Huggins. Behind those are two more greats, Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio. These are men who defined the sport for generations -- heroes of the game, to be sure.

Through their contributions to baseball and the Yankees over many years, each man earned the right to be remembered -- to have fans of the game presented with his greatness in the form of a monument. But the space out past center field isn't reserved solely for those who represented the interlocking "NY." Not all heroes wear pinstripes.

New York City has been the site of innumerable events, celebrations, triumphs and tragedies. And Yankee Stadium has provided a stage befitting its city for many of them. Between all the baseball and football, soccer and boxing, the Stadium has opened its gates to popes, world leaders and citizens of a grieving nation. Just like the hundreds of museums and galleries throughout the five boroughs where history, art and culture converge, there is a spot at Yankee Stadium to reflect on the major moments that transcended baseball.

 

***

Down the path from a wall adorned with plaques commemorating each of the three papal visits to the Stadium sits one of the largest monuments in Monument Park. Standing alone, the solemn monument is dedicated to the men and women who lost their lives during the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, as well as to all those brave souls who sacrificed so much in the aftermath of the attacks.

And just off to the left of that monument, on the wall next to a plaque honoring Jackie Robinson, hangs a large plaque dedicated to Nelson Mandela, a selfless and devoted world leader who visited Yankee Stadium in 1990 to deliver his message of peace.

It's interesting, the juxtaposition. And it's worth noting the similarities of the tributes. Mandela endured horrific treatment, suffered immense hardship. The 9/11 attacks were tragic on a scale the world was unaccustomed to and ill-prepared for. But Mandela rose from his circumstances to inspire. And in the ashes of death and destruction, regular Americans found inspiration to show the compassion and resilience of a nation. These are people who defined human decency for generations -- heroes of the world. And, both because of and despite their connections to the Yankees, they both transcend and epitomize the spirit of Monument Park.

"The Yankees organization, and Yankee Stadium, especially, symbolizes so much more than just a baseball organization," says Brian Richards, the senior museum curator at Yankee Stadium and a baseball historian. "It's so much more than just 27 championships. This is a symbol of excellence, of success, of what America is capable of. [The Mandela plaque and 9/11 Monument] I think show the significance of Yankee Stadium on a national stage and on a world stage. It shows that this is far more than just a venue for athletic competition. This place is a symbol of New York City, and this is a symbol of what the Yankees represent for the entire country."

***

Yankee Stadium -- and by extension Monument Park -- has been given any number of nicknames. From The House That Ruth Built to the Cathedral of Baseball, no matter the moniker someone uses to describe the Stadium, the ballfield always comes to mind. But, to Richards' point, the home of the Yankees has come to symbolize so much more than just America's pastime.

From the first papal Mass in 1965 to Mandela's visit in 1990 to the interfaith ceremony following the events of Sept. 11, Yankee Stadium has played host to grand and historical proceedings that have absolutely nothing to do with baseball. And the choice of venue was no coincidence.

"I think it's significant that Mandela did speak at Yankee Stadium," Richards says. "Could he have spoken at Cleveland Municipal Stadium? I'm sure he could have. It had a bigger seating capacity. Could he have spoken in Kansas City or Atlanta or Seattle? Sure, he could have spoken at any of those places. But the fact that he spoke in New York, and at Yankee Stadium, at this universally recognized cathedral of excellence, I think there is significance there."

Mandela wasn't the first to recognize the significance of Yankee Stadium, and he certainly wasn't the last.

In the days after Sept. 11, Rudolph Giuliani, then the mayor of New York City, reached out to Yankees principal owner George Steinbrenner and asked if he would be willing to open Yankee Stadium to the people of New York -- and to the eyes of the world -- to host an interfaith ceremony billed as "A Prayer for America." Steinbrenner agreed, and it became a moment in which the city and nation began to heal.

"The prayers are for the people missing, the people who have died, and for America and for everyone that survived," Giuliani said at the time.

"I'm not trying to bash Shea Stadium or any of the other facilities like Giants Stadium or Madison Square Garden or anything like that, but [Giuliani] chose to have it at Yankee Stadium, and that says something," Richards says. "That shows the Stadium's significance to the city as -- in that case, ironically -- a neutral ground and a place for New Yorkers to come together and heal and begin recovering from unspeakable tragedy. I think that's really important."

In Lower Manhattan, a ticket stub from "A Prayer for America" remains on display at the 9/11 Memorial Museum, which also displays a rain-checked ticket stub from that fateful day, as well as a time-loved Yankees cap frequently worn by Steven Morello, who worked as a facilities manager in the north tower of the World Trade Center and died during the attacks. Michael Frazier, the executive vice president and deputy director of external affairs for the museum, sees the connection between the Yankees and the tragedy of that day in 2001. He completely understands and applauds how the Yankees memorialized what happened and all those affected.

"It's important, I think, for the New York Yankees to have that story as part of their Stadium because of what happened to the city after 9/11," Frazier says. "What brought the city back together was sports, and I think baseball was a way for us to come together and actually say that it's okay to cheer again. I think that is something that's exhibited through Monument Park and in the Yankees organization."

And just as those who visit the site of the World Trade Center and see those artifacts might feel a connection to the Yankees, those who visit Monument Park are sure to be drawn into quiet contemplation when they reach the monument to Sept. 11. It's similar to how they might feel inspired by Mandela's plaque, or furrow their brow and say, "Wow, three different popes came here?"

That's by design. Because, yes, Monument Park is a testament to the Yankees, but Yankee Stadium is a testament to New York and the world as a whole.

"Yankee Stadium is part of the landscape of New York City," Frazier says. "It's a cultural mecca. There are people from all over who live here, and there are things that happen in this city that are historic. Being a part of New York City, the Yankees are naturally a part of the things that happen here. So I think it's perfectly fine for them to memorialize those things because they are part of New York. People who come to see the games, people who live here or people who travel to New York to follow the Yankees, they're getting a piece of what's happened in our city, and it's perfectly appropriate that which happens in this Stadium."

***

Commemorating the Yankees and the greatness that surrounds the organization falls to a small group of people who work at Yankee Stadium, and they view preserving Yankees history and tradition as sacred. But just as important as showing fans why Lou Gehrig was the Iron Horse, the folks responsible for Monument Park found it equally imperative to shine a light on the Stadium and its connection to history. To commemorate the people involved in historic events both inside the Stadium and outside its walls was a no-brainer because Yankee Stadium is such a draw for baseball fans and tourists alike. Presented with the unique opportunity to show off the Stadium's relationship to the world outside of baseball, the organization made the obvious call.

"Monument Park is a place that everyone wants to see," Richards says. "It's a place people know, and it's a place people want to see whether it's to pay homage to a hero, or whether it's curiosity about a place they've seen or heard about.

"I call it baseball's most exclusive fraternity because the vast majority of those guys are there for baseball, but it's fine to have Mandela or Sept. 11 or the papal Masses commemorated because that shows Yankee Stadium going far beyond the Yankees. That puts it on a far more national and worldwide scale."

Baseball is important for a lot of reasons. But in the grand scheme of the world, there are so many more important issues than just which team won or who hit a home run. Even so, there's something about the game that merits attention.

The name Babe Ruth will always mean something -- even to the most cursory of fans. So it's right that the team he played for remembers him in a significant way.

But the name Nelson Mandela will always mean something, too. And Sept. 11, no matter the year, will forever be a day that yields reflection and remembrance. At first blush, there doesn't seem to be a natural place for them in the world of a baseball field. Yankee Stadium, though, is no ordinary ballpark. It's a living museum in a city that many look at as the center of the world. So it's only natural that the organization honors the events that have taken place there in a significant way. After all, baseball draws from the world at large; it always has. And Yankee Stadium has played a large part in that.

"It's the beauty of bringing people together," Richards says. "Whether that's in a time of war, whether that's after a terrorist attack, if that's commemorating a man who fought against apartheid and was imprisoned for years, it's a place where people are brought together, where they focus on their common, shared values, and that's beautiful, being able to do that."

Hilary Giorgi is the associate editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the Commemorative Monument Park Edition of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

New York Yankees

Yankees Magazine: The Final 42

Mariano Rivera was the last player to wear baseball's most iconic number. Jackie Robinson's daughter, Sharon, reflects on a worthy steward of her father's legacy
Yankees Magazine

When you're on Mariano Rivera's level, you get to choose your own legacy. Widely regarded as the greatest reliever in baseball history, a surefire Hall of Famer and a franchise icon, Rivera could dine out on any of his achievements -- the 652 saves, the countless successes on the October tightrope, the single unhittable pitch he built a career around -- for the rest of his life. But Rivera serves a higher purpose.

The Panamanian legend lives by the adage that "A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives," as Jackie Robinson famously said. So Rivera -- who was issued No. 42 in 1995, two years before Bud Selig, then baseball's acting commissioner, retired it league-wide -- has dedicated his life to charitable causes.

When you're on Mariano Rivera's level, you get to choose your own legacy. Widely regarded as the greatest reliever in baseball history, a surefire Hall of Famer and a franchise icon, Rivera could dine out on any of his achievements -- the 652 saves, the countless successes on the October tightrope, the single unhittable pitch he built a career around -- for the rest of his life. But Rivera serves a higher purpose.

The Panamanian legend lives by the adage that "A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives," as Jackie Robinson famously said. So Rivera -- who was issued No. 42 in 1995, two years before Bud Selig, then baseball's acting commissioner, retired it league-wide -- has dedicated his life to charitable causes.

As his career neared its end, and in the years since, Rivera and his charitable foundation have donated millions to support children in Panama, also helping to build churches in Panama, Mexico and Puerto Rico. His passion project was the renovation of a long-vacant church in New Rochelle, New York, that was more than 100 years old. His wife, Clara, is now the senior pastor at the restored house of worship.

 

"I carried the legacy of Mr. Jackie for all these years, and I tried to do my best to wear No. 42 and do it with class and honor," Rivera said during a 2013 press conference when he announced that he would retire following that season. "Being the last player for us to wear No. 42 is a privilege."

Now, the No. 42 comes out only on April 15, Jackie Robinson Day, when all players and coaches throughout the league wear the number in Robinson's honor. And despite a rivalry between the Yankees and Dodgers that came to a head during Robinson's time in Brooklyn, the pioneer has a rightful spot in Monument Park. Yankees fans can effectively merge Rivera's and Robinson's places in the game and the world, and Jackie's daughter, Sharon, appreciates that convergence. She spoke with Yankees Magazine about the legendary Yankees reliever, her father's legacy and how the two intersect.

What does the No. 42 mean to you?

It means Jackie Robinson; it means baseball; it means sharing an important milestone in American history with future generations of younger kids.

Is there a more resonant, iconic image in the game than that number? Even MLB's silhouetted batter logo -- does the No. 42 stand above it in some ways?

It didn't always, but it has grown to mean that, and a great deal of that is due to Commissioner Selig, and also, since he began his tenure, to Commissioner [Rob] Manfred. We used to love the fact that there were players wearing his number in tribute, and to see it get retired and then to see it come out with all on-field personnel during Jackie Robinson Day, and having Mariano being the last person to wear it -- you know, it couldn't have been a better person. [My family has] such admiration for him as a person, as well as an athlete.

Do you ever miss the days when players could honor your father's legacy by choosing to wear his number all season long?

No, because of Jackie Robinson Day. It is wonderful to see them all wearing it, so I think that brings it back onto the field in a special way and it keeps it memorialized in a unique way. So I think if it wasn't worn at all, I might feel that it would get lost out there on the field and maybe kids wouldn't recognize that it's different than the other numbers. But I think by attaching it to Jackie Robinson Day, we bring it right back out every year.

Now that players can't wear No. 42 year-round, what are some of the ways that you find different players offering tributes to your father?

Some of them have [established] scholarships with the Jackie Robinson Foundation. A number of them have done events with the Breaking Barriers in Sports, in Life program that we do with Major League Baseball and Scholastic; that's also tied to Jackie Robinson. They don't get to come to many of our Jackie Robinson Foundation events because those usually happen during the season, so we tend to get more retired players than current players. But they come up and they acknowledge us and talk about how happy they are to see us still very much a part of the game. I think the movie 42 enhanced that relationship, too, because there were players and coaches that said, "I thought I understood it," but having it depicted, having it being so visual through a movie, they just understood it better than they had in the past. I think what's also been good is seeing how the Latino players have embraced their connection to the breaking of the color barrier because they understand that the color barrier kept them out of Major League Baseball, as well.

Video: Sharon Robinson talks about Breaking Barriers contest

What's it like for you every April 15 when you see 42s all across the diamond?

It is surreal, you know! I love it. I have a couple of images in my home, where I have Mom on the field and in the background all of the players in uniforms that say 42. So, it's pretty amazing to me. It doesn't get old; it always brings a deep emotion, and it's quite powerful. It gets a little funny when they start announcing 42 this, 42 that, so we have a good time with it.

But among the Yankees, the number has two meanings. Why is Mariano Rivera such a great steward for your father's legacy?

I'm proud that he wore it. He was such a dignified person with such a commitment to community, so I felt like he represented Jackie Robinson, as well as himself, in a positive light.

Your family was invited to Dodger Stadium to throw out the first pitch prior to Game 1 of the 2017 World Series -- which was nearly a Yankees-Dodgers matchup. What would that have meant, given your father's history against the Yankees?

We were hoping for it, are you kidding? I mean, it all turned out fine. I'm sorry the Dodgers lost, but they played a great series. My brother, [David], happened to be in from Tanzania, and we had a bet of who was going to throw the worst pitch -- and you know I threw the better pitch so he still owes me $5! But it was really a special moment.

What does it mean to have your father recognized among the titans of Yankees history -- as well as other historical figures, such as Nelson Mandela and the popes who have celebrated Mass at Yankee Stadium -- in Monument Park?

It means that these people, whether they're ballplayers or leaders of countries and leaders of movements, all helped change America for the better, and of course we're thrilled with this. We're New Yorkers, so to be honored both at Yankee Stadium and at Citi Field is really a testament to our deep connection to not just Brooklyn, but all of New York.

What have been the most memorable moments for you over the last two decades, since the ceremony at Shea Stadium with President Bill Clinton to retire the No. 42 league-wide?

A couple things: It would have to be when President [Barack] Obama hosted a showing of 42 at the White House, and certainly the Shea Stadium ceremony. Those two moments were the biggest and had the greatest impact.

Are you ever conflicted about whether to think of your father as a baseball player or a civil rights era icon?

No. I write books for kids, so I'm always helping them to understand that period. And part of what I love about my dad was how he mostly moved, once he retired from baseball, into the civil rights movement. He brought that into the family, and he made it part of the family legacy. I grew up more with him as a civil rights activist and a fundraiser for the movement, so now I get to understand the baseball years better because I'm having to write about it and interpret it for kids, then put it together with the father I knew. And I just love the consistency of the man, how his life wasn't long in terms of today's standards but it was so powerful, and he made use of every moment and opportunity and was always very committed to the advancement of equality and justice in America. I like the whole person now, probably better than I liked it as a kid, because as a kid you would like to have him be a father and that be the most important thing that he does. But truthfully, I very much respect the total person.

Video: STL@NYY: Jackie Robinson Day celebrated in New York

How strong was your mother, Rachel, through all of this, and is there a Jackie without a Rachel?

She is incredibly strong. I just look in the last two years how she's battled health things, and she rebounds like she's a young woman and she comes back fighting. You know, he is an individual, he's a great athlete and all of that. Does he grow to where he's grown today? Absolutely not. Did he need her partnership in order to excel in baseball under such pressure? Absolutely. Did he need her love and devotion at all times? My father was very dependent on her, absolutely. So, yeah, I guess it's hard to say there wouldn't be one person without the other, but they were a true partnership and they both grew from it. It reinforced each of their strengths.

A lot of the ways that your father experienced racism would seem totally foreign to today's kids, but there are other ways that they might encounter adversity in their lives. How do you connect the old stories with today's world?

Well it actually becomes bullying for the present, therefore kids can relate to it. How do you respond to the bully, you know? So it gives you a very direct connection to Jackie Robinson and what's happening with today's kids.

The racism part is very complex now; it used to be a black and white issue in America. Now it's so complex so I really teach that there are people who believe they are better than others, and we have to prove that we are equal and therefore have a society that's diverse and supports people of different faiths and different religions and different races. So it just becomes a more global perspective on it, I guess you'd have to say.

Are you optimistic?

Despite everything, yeah. Right now, it's painful. I am optimistic for the future. I feel like some of the current backlash will help support a stronger future because people will see it all better now and say, "Oh, I don't want to go back to that." Or yes, we do have segregated schools again and we don't want that to be the world we're raising our grandchildren in because we saw it as kids. So, I am optimistic and I think kids are forced to reckon with so much more and deal with reality, and they've got to be asking themselves or their parents how they fit into this. And so many more kids are reaching out and raising money or sending supplies. All of that is activism, and much more so than my generation had as children. My generation got very active in the civil rights movement and many of them were children, but now kids are being active globally and I think that's very exciting.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Jon Schwartz is the deputy editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the Commemorative Monument Park Edition of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

New York Yankees

Yankees Magazine: 1977 Revisited - Reggie Jackson

Who better to cap off our season-long Q&A series than Mr. October himself? Reggie Jackson recounts his unforgettable first season in pinstripes.
MLB.com

There haven't been too many players whose flair for the dramatic could rival that of Reggie Jackson's.

After winning three World Series titles with the Oakland A's and spending one season in Baltimore, the perennial All-Star and two-time American League home run champion signed a five-year contract with the Yankees prior to the 1977 season.

There haven't been too many players whose flair for the dramatic could rival that of Reggie Jackson's.

After winning three World Series titles with the Oakland A's and spending one season in Baltimore, the perennial All-Star and two-time American League home run champion signed a five-year contract with the Yankees prior to the 1977 season.

Almost immediately, Jackson made news in New York, whether it was with his play or his outspoken nature. But he backed up his words, hitting 32 home runs and driving in 110 in the 1977 regular season. That fall, Jackson became "Mr. October" when he hit five home runs in the team's Fall Classic triumph over the Los Angeles Dodgers, including three longballs in the deciding Game 6 at Yankee Stadium.

Jackson, who tallied 563 career home runs and was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1993, spoke with Yankees Magazine editor-in-chief Alfred Santasiere III at Yankee Stadium in early September.

What excited you about joining the Yankees as a free agent in November of 1976?

It was the city, the fans and the owner. I've always been a baseball fan, and the Yankees and their winning tradition -- the great history from Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig to Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Elston Howard through Thurman Munson -- made me admire the pinstripes for a long period of time. I was courted pretty well and sought after by George Steinbrenner and a couple of his players. Thurman was really the guy who was an important part of me going to New York. The excitement of the city when I went for a visit was impressive.

When you signed with the Yankees, what did you want to accomplish during your time in New York?

I wanted to be the best player I could be. And I thought that could happen in New York or Los Angeles. I thought about playing for the Dodgers, but my first choice was to stay with Baltimore. Eddie Murray was a year or two away, and they always had good pitching there. My mother lived in Baltimore, and it was a good baseball town. I offered the Orioles a five-year, $1.8 million deal, but I couldn't convince them on that, so I became a free agent. The money was even between the Dodgers and the Yankees, but the Yankees had already made a commitment and the Dodgers came in too late. My agent and I thought that if I didn't stay in Baltimore, the challenge of playing in New York would be the best place for me in my prime.

What did you think of the group of guys on that team when you got to spring training?

It was different and socially awkward. It was a different time in those days. It's not really something that I would want to expand on for an article like this. But it was just clique-ish and awkward. I'll just leave it at that.

You never seemed fazed by the bright lights of New York City. Why do you think you were so well prepared to handle the pressure that comes with being a star on the Yankees?

There were close ties that I had throughout my life. My father was a hard worker. He demanded as close to perfection as you could get with hard work. His first focus was education, not sports. I went to Arizona State on a football scholarship and played for Frank Kush, who was a really tough, disciplinary, old-school coach. The baseball coach, Bobby Winkles, was the same way. Being a good person and developing character was more important to them than being a great athlete. That, plus the example that my father set, stayed with me throughout my life. Then, I played for a manager in the minor leagues by the name of John McNamara, who was a very kind soul. He developed a father-like relationship with me and kept me in touch with life. Playing in the South during the '60s was probably the most difficult thing I went through. I played in Birmingham and Montgomery, Alabama, and Macon, Georgia, and I wasn't welcomed in those towns. But the social support that I got from the men that were leading the team and my teammates was important in my development. So I think that the path God created for me was what I needed, and I believe that I was destined to go to New York. I've always needed support and needed people to like me or care about me, and when I was in New York, I had tremendous fan support. The first couple of months were tough, but once people got to know me, it worked out pretty well. The relationship that I developed with George Steinbrenner and his family has been extremely special. I consider myself very fortunate to be part of the Steinbrenner family.

Did you begin to enjoy your time in New York when things calmed down toward the end of the regular season?

I don't know if I ever really had an enjoyable day that season. The pressure to prove I was worth my contract, dealing with Billy Martin and having an article written about me by Robert Ward that got turned around was tough. That story [with its famous "straw that stirs the drink" quote] really drove a wedge between me and the team. To this day, I remember some of the writers who hated me. The social inequities and racism at the time were very difficult to deal with. It was 40 years ago and when you talk about all of that, you just remember a lot of the tough, awkward negativity that was there. I like to focus my thoughts on winning that championship and the home runs.

Well, that's understandable. Getting back to your play on the field, how important was it for you to have such a big month of September, when you hit 10 of your 32 regular season home runs?

It certainly was important. I always played pretty well in September and October. When the focus and the demand for excellence increased or the need was there, I was able to concentrate and get things done. It was helpful to get into a groove even before the postseason began.

You hit a big home run in Game 4 of the World Series in Los Angeles and another one in Game 5. How did you feel going into that epic Game 6?

I really couldn't have felt any better. I was comfortable, and I had hit a groove. I knew that my swing was there, so I really wasn't worried about anything. I had great batting practices in L.A., and I remember kidding around in the outfield with a couple of the players because they were talking about how well I was hitting the ball. That feeling carried over to Game 6.

What, if anything, sticks out to you about the morning of Game 6?

It was an ordinary day. I had a big breakfast over at Nectar Cafe on 79th Street and Madison Avenue, where I ate all the time. I had three eggs over easy with some potatoes, bacon, sausage, toast and a big glass of milk. Then, I went back there for some lunch, and I headed over to the ballpark at around 2 o'clock. I remember driving up through Harlem. I represented Puma shoes, and I used to hand out 20 or 30 pairs of those Pumas to the kids a couple of Saturdays each month on the way to Yankee Stadium. That's what I did that day. As far as how I felt when I was getting ready for the game, I knew what it felt like to play well down the stretch and be comfortable and calm when it mattered most because I had done well in the World Series games I played in with Oakland. I felt like I could really dominate that game, and that's how things worked out.

Looking back, how were you able to hit home runs off of Burt Hooton, Elias Sosa and Charlie Hough in the same game?

We had a really good scouting team, led by Gene "Stick" Michael. And they gave me such a great scouting report. I wanted to know how the Dodgers pitched to other similar hitters with different counts. The statistics that I wanted at the time were what they threw when the hitter had a free move - 2-0, 2-1 or 3-1. I also wanted to know how they pitched guys when they were on top of the count and behind in the count. I got some really good statistics and Gene Michael told me, "They're going to pitch you in." That tip really helped me. I was also pretty good, so we made out all right.

After hitting the first two home runs on the first pitch, did you have any thoughts of taking a pitch in the third at-bat?

No. Those are statistics that people keep but the athlete has no thought of. If you see a good pitch, you let the barrel hunt. You let the dog eat. You won't see any hitter that has impact -- or, as I say, with dynamite in the barrel of his bat -- walk to home plate and purposely take the first pitch. Big hitters don't get a lot of good pitches to hit, so when you leave the on-deck circle, you swing. You swing at the first thing that's hittable.

How soon after hitting the third home run did you realize the historical significance of what you had done?

I knew it was special, but I didn't know all of the history. I knew that Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig had hit four home runs in a World Series for the Yankees and that Gene Tenace and Duke Snider had also accomplished that feat. When I hit number five, I knew that I was the only guy to do that, but I didn't know that Ruth was the only other guy to hit three in one World Series game. Even before I hit the last home run, I really thought that we were going to win because Sparky Lyle was in the bullpen with a four-run lead. When he came into games that season, the rest of it was icing on the cake.

Video: 1977 WS Gm6: Reggie becomes Mr. October

What was the reaction from your teammates after you hit the third home run?

They showered me with praise. I remember our batboy, Ray Negron, trying to get me to go out and tip my cap to the fans. After the second home run, I wouldn't do it. After the third home run, he pushed me out of the dugout, and I went out and saluted and thanked the fans.

All these years later, what does it mean to you to have authored one of the single greatest performances not only in the history of the Yankees, but in the entire sport?

Being with the Yankees and winning world championships with them makes you part of a great fraternity. It's the greatest sports franchise in sports - no other team has 27 world championships. I'm honored to be mentioned as one of the Yankees greats, especially because I only played there five years. To be included in the group of guys with Ruth, DiMaggio, Mantle, Maris, Whitey, Yogi, Elston, Mattingly, Jeter and Bernie Williams is pretty cool.

What's the best part of winning in New York City?

It's really a bigger stage than anywhere else. The stage is so big. The town has so many people. The media is global. The Yankees brand is global. So when you do something there, you just get credit and recognition. I don't even know that we accomplished any more than the recent New England Patriots or Golden State Warriors teams, but when you do it as a Yankee, you go to different parts of the world and people say, "Oh, you're a Yankee. You're from America."

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Alfred Santasiere III is the editor-in-chief of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the October 2017 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

New York Yankees

Yankees Magazine: Flashback

Rickey Henderson recalls his run in pinstripes
Yankees Magazine

Sometimes, a player's legacy with a team has as much to do with the surrounding circumstances as it does with his own performance. Oftentimes, those situations -- such as the talent on the team or the way the ball bounces -- have nothing to do with individual players.

But in the end, history is much kinder to athletes who have won championships, especially in New York City. Great athletes who come to the Big Apple do so with the expectation of bringing home at least one championship. If a player helps bring the city a title, he's worshipped forever. As the old saying goes, he never has to buy a drink in New York again.

Sometimes, a player's legacy with a team has as much to do with the surrounding circumstances as it does with his own performance. Oftentimes, those situations -- such as the talent on the team or the way the ball bounces -- have nothing to do with individual players.

But in the end, history is much kinder to athletes who have won championships, especially in New York City. Great athletes who come to the Big Apple do so with the expectation of bringing home at least one championship. If a player helps bring the city a title, he's worshipped forever. As the old saying goes, he never has to buy a drink in New York again.

From Roger Maris to Reggie Jackson to guys such as Paul O'Neill and Tino Martinez, there have been plenty of players who came to the Yankees after establishing themselves elsewhere, played well, and then left again or retired. You may find their faces in Monument Park or maybe you won't, but either way, you can bet that they are widely remembered for what they did in pinstripes -- especially in October.

But what about the guys who showed up at the wrong time, who never got the chance to make Yankees history when it mattered most? It's easy for even the greatest contributors to lack the same level of hero worship.

In December 1984, the Yankees traded for a left fielder who ended up playing in the Bronx until June of 1989. In the four complete seasons he spent in pinstripes, he was selected to four All-Star Games.

But that's just the beginning for this electrifying leadoff man. He batted over .300 twice for the Yankees. He led the league in runs twice and in stolen bases three times. In less than five seasons, he amassed an astonishing 326 stolen bases, setting a new franchise record. His high- water mark for steals came in 1988, his last complete season with the Yankees, when he swiped 93 bags while getting caught just 13 times. To put that in perspective, the highest total that any Yankees player has had since then came when Brett Gardner stole 49 bases in 2011.

Like Gardner, who has combined speed with power, he also hit 78 home runs with the Yankees.

Rickey Nelson Henley Henderson is all but universally considered the greatest leadoff hitter in the game's history. He played in the majors for 25 seasons, collecting 3,055 hits. By the time he called it a career at age 44 in 2003, he had also amassed 1,406 stolen bases, 2,190 walks and 2,295 runs. Henderson established himself with his hometown team, playing six seasons with the A's, before the trade to the Yankees. He ultimately returned to Oakland in a trade from the Yankees in 1989. He won a championship that season -- he would win another with the Toronto Blue Jays in 1993 -- and returned to the Bay Area two more times. Fittingly, Henderson's Hall of Fame plaque features him wearing an A's cap, and the team recently named its playing field in his honor.

But the years in New York were some of his best.

***

Billy Martin was familiar with Henderson from having managed him in Oakland from 1980 through 1982 -- before the skipper came back to New York -- and he encouraged the Yankees to swing a blockbuster deal to get Henderson in '84.

"I felt great about coming to New York because Billy [recommended me]," Henderson said from a Yankee Stadium suite moments after the 2017 Old-Timers' Day festivities wrapped up. "He felt that I should be a Yankee. He liked the way I played the game. When he went back to the Yankees, he told George Steinbrenner that I was a young man who could fit in with the Yankees organization, and they were able to bring me over here."

At the time of the trade, the 25-year-old was approaching his prime. The only question surrounding Henderson was whether he could pick up where he left off, since he would now be playing under the bright lights of New York.

"A lot of people said that New York was going to ruin me," Henderson recalled. "The Yankees were a different organization, and New York was a different city. A lot of what was being written was that if I didn't play well right away, the pressure in New York would be too much for me. But I felt like my job was to come in here, have fun and play like I always had. It didn't take long for New York to embrace me."

Henderson gave the fans no choice. As the Yankees' new leadoff hitter, he batted .314 with 24 home runs and 80 stolen bases in 1985. He became the first player in major league history to reach the 20-home run plateau and steal 80 bases in the same season.

"I was proud of what I did that season because I didn't know what to expect when I first came to New York," he said. "To have that type of historic year, I felt like I was a Yankee. I think Billy was more proud than I was because he told George the type of player I was going to be for the Yankees."

Besides the awe-inspiring numbers, Henderson's rare combination of speed and power captured the imagination of Yankees fans. He was on base more frequently than just about any other leadoff man in the game, and he was always a threat to steal.

"It was a great thrill to get on base," Henderson said. "I always thought that all eyes were on me. I was trying to bait the pitcher to give the next hitter a better pitch to hit. My job was to create something on the basepaths."

For as well as Henderson and the Yankees did that season, winning 97 games, he and his teammates failed to make the postseason, falling two games short of the Blue Jays in the American League East. The second-place finish in 1985, along with the play of Henderson and first baseman Don Mattingly, who captured American League MVP honors, were reasons for optimism.

"We played so well that first season," Henderson said. "We had a great hitting club. Don was a great hitter. Having him hit behind me was incredible. He would let me steal bases, and when I would get into scoring position, it seemed like he would always drive me in. He came through time and time again. Dave Winfield was an outstanding ballplayer, as well. He was a great line-drive hitter, and he had a great arm in the outfield. We could score runs and play defense, but we didn't have nearly enough reliable pitchers."

Not much changed in Henderson's second season in pinstripes. Although his batting average dipped to .263 in '86, he again put up huge numbers in several other categories. He led the league with 87 stolen bases and 130 runs, while also hitting a career-high 28 home runs.

"I think that pitchers started to change their approach with me," Henderson said. "I was stealing so much, so no one wanted to walk me. That encouraged them to throw more pitches over the plate and come at me a lot more. If I could get a good pitch, I was strong enough to hit it out of the ballpark, especially as a left-handed hitter in Yankee Stadium. My job was getting on base, then letting the big guys drive me in, but if it so happened that I'd get a pitch that I could drive out of the ballpark, it was a plus for our team because it would allow us to score early."

The team again finished in second place in '86, winning an impressive 90 games. This time around, the Yankees were edged out by the archrival Boston Red Sox. Making the outcome of the season even more painful for the Yankees and their fan base, Boston advanced to the World Series and faced the New York Mets.

"We felt like if we could have gotten into the postseason, we could have made some things happen," Henderson said. "We felt like we were close, and it was disappointing to watch things unfold the way they did that October."

Video: CWS@NYY: Henderson sets leadoff home run record

The Yankees were again competitive in 1987, Henderson's third year with the team. New York won 89 games, but injuries sidelined Henderson for much of June and the entire month of August. Despite playing in just 95 games, he still collected 41 stolen bases and 17 home runs from the top of the order, numbers that most other leadoff men would be thrilled with.

Henderson's final full season in New York was perhaps his finest. He batted .305, marking the first time he finished a season above .300 since his first season with the Yankees. Additionally, his stolen base percentage was a vast improvement over his rate in Oakland. In his early 20s, Henderson stole more than 100 bases in three separate campaigns, but he got caught stealing an average of 29 times in each of those seasons.

"I got picked off a lot in Oakland, and that counted as getting caught stealing," Henderson said. "As I got more experience and kept learning, I was able to better time when I should take off and I was able to read pitchers. During the years I was with the Yankees, I became a lot more patient and selective about when I tried to steal. I always felt that if I could get a good jump on the pitcher, there were no catchers who could throw me out. But my biggest job was just reading the pitchers and figuring which of them I could steal on."

In Henderson's fifth season with the Yankees, the 30-year-old's numbers took a dip, as did his relationship with key people in the Yankees front office. The left fielder showed up to spring training late, which immediately irked newly appointed senior vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift.

Sixty-five games into the 1989 campaign, Henderson was batting .247, well below his lifetime .292 mark. He already had 25 stolen bases, but he had been caught eight times. Henderson, a free agent after the season, was unsure as to whether he would re-sign with the Yankees, who were intent on rebuilding their roster and specifically their pitching staff. So when Thrift approached the outfielder about waiving his no-trade clause, Henderson was open to being moved -- but only to Oakland.

On June 21, the Yankees traded Henderson back to his hometown A's in exchange for outfielder Luis Polonia and two much-needed pitchers, Eric Plunk and Greg Cadaret.

"I was really sad when I got traded," Henderson said. "I wanted to stay with the Yankees, but we were having a little bit of a controversy about the contract because I was about to become a free agent. I wanted to just sign here and get it over with, but it didn't work out that way.

"Even though I ended up going back home and going to a championship team, it was hard to leave New York," Henderson continued. "It was Billy's dream to bring me to New York, so in a way I felt like I had let him down. We didn't win a World Series, and that was disappointing because I came here to win."

Thrift and the struggling Yankees parted ways two months later for reasons that included Steinbrenner's unhappiness about the trade. Henderson proved that his decline was only temporary. He batted .294 in 85 regular season games with Oakland and captured his ninth American League stolen base crown in 10 seasons. That October, Henderson took home American League Championship Series MVP honors with a .400 average in his team's triumph over Toronto. He then batted .474 and helped the A's sweep the San Francisco Giants in the famous "Earthquake Series."

***

What Henderson did after his 31st birthday -- which was the same day that Billy Martin passed away in a car accident -- was almost as impressive as what he did before it. He batted .325 in 1990 en route to winning the American League MVP Award and played in two more All-Star Games and two more World Series. His A's lost to the Cincinnati Reds in 1990, but he won a second ring with Toronto in 1993.

When it was all said and done for Henderson, he had established himself as one of the best players ever to play the game, racking up more stolen bases, runs and walks than any other player in history. And although his efforts in pinstripes didn't yield a championship, his greatness during those prime seasons in his Hall of Fame career still hold a special place in his memory.

"I'm just proud of being a Yankee," Henderson said. "Being able to come over here and be successful is something that I will always think about." Another source of pride for Henderson is the fact that he set the franchise's career and single-season stolen base records.

"Those records mean a lot," he said. "When your name is in the Yankees record book, that's pretty special. I came over here and I just wanted to run, and they let me do that. Derek Jeter broke my record for career steals with the Yankees, but he never caught me for the single-season record."

Even though Henderson accomplished great feats in New York, his favorite part of the experience was being around two of the organization's cornerstones.

"I really, really enjoyed being teammates with Don Mattingly," Henderson said. "He's a great person, and there wasn't a better ballplayer than Don Mattingly. I was so sad when he got hurt because I believe that he deserved to be in the Hall of Fame. He was everything a Hall of Famer should be.

"And George was such a great owner because he believed in winning," Henderson continued. "He sometimes got us mad at what he was doing, but he did whatever it took to be a winner. He treated me like a true gentleman, and I respect that."

Now a regular in Cooperstown for the Hall of Fame induction ceremony each year, Henderson can also be found at Yankee Stadium on Old-Timers' Day. For him, the ovation he receives each summer in the Bronx -- and the connection he still has with the Yankees -- make baseball's stolen base king feel like Yankees royalty.

"I love coming back here," Henderson said. "There's only one club that has this fraternity. It's great to spend time with guys I played alongside and guys who played here after me. We reminisce about what we did on the baseball field and also about what has happened in our lives. The Yankees are not just about winning. This organization is about being a family, and there's a lot of joy that I have in being part of that family."

Alfred Santasiere III is the editor-in-chief of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the October 2017 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

New York Yankees

Yankees Magazine: The Showman

After a decade of his running the Yankees, you might think you know Joe Girardi. But why do his truest colors show up in the most ostensibly artificial setting?
Yankees Magazine

The roadways that wrap The Star in Frisco, Texas -- all with appropriate names such as Cowboys Way, Hall of Fame Lane, Gridiron Road and Avenue of Champions -- cover about a mile, and that's just one time around. We're hoping to keep this under two loops, but amid the sea of large buildings, new and glimmery, in this upscale suburb north of Dallas, you would understand if we're struggling to find our appropriate parking spot in this haystack of concrete. Everything's bigger in Texas, huh? You ain't lyin'.

At our route's northernmost spot, about 180 compass degrees from our prescribed resting point, Joe Girardi pops out from the front passenger seat of a bronze Chevy Impala. He's smiling, but sternly, as he approaches a security guard and calmly asks for directions.

The roadways that wrap The Star in Frisco, Texas -- all with appropriate names such as Cowboys Way, Hall of Fame Lane, Gridiron Road and Avenue of Champions -- cover about a mile, and that's just one time around. We're hoping to keep this under two loops, but amid the sea of large buildings, new and glimmery, in this upscale suburb north of Dallas, you would understand if we're struggling to find our appropriate parking spot in this haystack of concrete. Everything's bigger in Texas, huh? You ain't lyin'.

At our route's northernmost spot, about 180 compass degrees from our prescribed resting point, Joe Girardi pops out from the front passenger seat of a bronze Chevy Impala. He's smiling, but sternly, as he approaches a security guard and calmly asks for directions.

You don't have to know a whole lot about Girardi to know that this isn't good. It's right there in his military-tight haircut, in his bulging neck muscles from which veins scream out for help, in his precisely maintained weight and his daily devotional in the workout room. On the field, you can see it plainly on his back, No. 28, the digits he wears serving as a constant reminder of the team's ultimate goal.

This is a man who is supposed to arrive places on time.

Where are we? We're out of the box, you might say; off the reservation. This might be someone's comfort zone; it doesn't seem like it would be Joe Girardi's. But the Yankees manager returns to his car and directs the driver -- YES Network's Meredith Marakovits -- to finish the loop. Ever the manager, Girardi's got things under control.

"You could tell that he's a perfectionist," Marakovits says later that day. "There's no doubt about it, in whatever he's doing. And it seems like he's always been wired like that, even before he was a manager, even probably before he was a professional baseball player. He's just a guy who has always tried to do his best and strived to be at the top of his game in whatever it is." Perfection, in polite society, means getting the details just right. Departure from routine is OK, within reason. But get it together. "That's how I've always been," Girardi says later, his tone self-aware if somewhat sheepish. "I've been very pragmatic in everything I do. That's my personality. I'm very prepared. I'm very scheduled. Routine is very important to me. As long as those things don't get completely interrupted, I'm OK."

He's OK, and we're OK. One slight hiccup and turnaround later, we park and head inside. Problem solved.

Day to day, the real-life Joe Girardi show is a testament to precision, to accepting and meeting life's demands. And it has paid off. He has built a handsome life for himself and his family, centered professionally in his pressure-filled yet coveted Bronx office. You can't argue with a winning strategy.

But on The Joe Girardi Show that he films weekly throughout the season with Marakovits for the YES Network, another side peeks out. And it's hard not to notice that the TV version of the Yankees' skipper may actually be closer to the real thing than what fans have been used to seeing in the dugout for so many years now.

***

The Joe Girardi Show debuted on YES in 2008, when Girardi took over the manager's role, and for most of its run, the show's format couldn't have been more basic. Two cameras pointed at two chairs, with Girardi and a co-host bantering about all that was happening with the team. But very quickly, the evaporating nature of baseball's news cycle caught up to the show. Fans had access to Girardi's press conferences; to the Twitter feeds of writers who spent their entire days around the team and its manager; to increasing communications from the players themselves. By the time Girardi and Marakovits were filming after games on Friday nights or Saturday afternoons, it was almost impossible to cover any new ground.

"I'm here just about every day, asking him questions during pregame and postgame," says Marakovits, who is always tasked with the first inquiries in Girardi's press conferences. As a result, the televised banter for the YES Network show was inevitably redundant. "We both can feel it -- you know what's coming. I know what he's going to answer before he even answers it; he knows what I'm going to ask about. It's not brain surgery, it's baseball."

Marakovits, who relishes travel and sightseeing whenever she's away from the ballpark, had been nurturing her relationship with the manager since she joined YES in 2012. And along with producer Eric Roldan, she had been managing -- even under the tight constraints of the show's format -- to show Girardi in a light different from what fans were used to.

To be fair, Girardi's better angels are often there to see, just not in the most public ways. Grimly though he may walk to the mound in executing yet another emotionless pitching change, Girardi is also the man who begins every pregame press conference at home by devoting a few minutes to a charitable cause, wearing a shirt of some benevolent organization and giving the writers a quick breakdown of its history and mission. It's a small thing, and it attracts only spare attention. But imagine the impact it has. Or watch him pull kids from the stanchioned-off areas on the field during batting practice and bring them over near the cage, where he urges them to chat with the players. Girardi very clearly doesn't have to do this; he wants to.

Marakovits and Roldan had a notion: When Girardi is away from the real or imagined constraints of his job's public image, an entirely different person comes out. "We found out that Joe had a personality beyond what you see in the dugout," Roldan says. So they wanted to channel that into a better television program. It started small early this year -- one small "access segment" per show. Maybe it was Girardi giving a tour of his office, or a behind-the-scenes look at some part of the Stadium. But around those segments, the format remained static.

That changed when the team visited Chicago in early May. For the first time, the crew filmed the entire 23-minute show on location at Northwestern University, Girardi's alma mater. He gave Marakovits a tour of the campus -- including his old dorm room -- visited with the baseball team and met with a statistics professor. Barely a word about the 2017 Yankees crossed his lips during the entire broadcast. "That was a big turnaround for the show," Roldan says. "He looked like he had a good time."

Just like that, the wheels were in motion. In Kansas City, the duo hit up Fiorella's Jack Stack Barbecue, where they learned to flip briskets with the pitmaster. They got to peer behind the scenes at the Starbucks Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room in Seattle, cooked pizza with the crew at Frank Pepe's in Yonkers, New York, and toured the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

"It's just been a lot of fun for me," Marakovits says. "I really enjoy that. I love baseball, I love covering baseball, but when you go through a whole season, it gets repetitive. So for me to be able to do something a little bit outside the box and have a little fun has been enjoyable for me, and I like that aspect of it. "It's cool because we thought for a while, 'How can we make this show a little different?'"

***

This is certainly different. It's September, the playoff chase. The Red Sox are threatening to pull away, while the Yankees try to improve their own position. Tonight, the Yankees will play the Rangers after arriving in Texas late last night. So the obvious question: Are you ready for some football?

Ready or not, we're here at The Star, the Dallas Cowboys' year-old training facility. If Jerry Jones, the team's owner, could incorporate his legendary franchise into a city, it would look something like this. Outside, three flags fly -- the stars and stripes of the United States, the Lone Star banner of Texas, and the Cowboys' own single star. There are three practice fields, including an indoor one that doubles as a performing arts center, a hotel, office space and all the accoutrements of a professional sports team literally unable to spend all the money it rakes in (to say nothing of the retail spaces and branded locations that, of course, only add to the revenue flow). You want Super Bowl trophies? They're all here, five of them, underneath a massive art installation that lights up the space when the sun goes down. Championship rings? Right this way, sir.

Roldan prepared four segments that he hopes to shoot in about an hour, the coup de grâce being a planned conversation between Girardi and Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett. "I have a rundown in place, with a caveat -- subject to change," Roldan says. "You have to be prepared. You cannot waste Joe's time." For the 23-minute show, Roldan hopes to film about 35 to 40 minutes of footage, which he'll cut down later.

"These shoots a lot of times are flying by the seats of our pants, hoping that in a perfect world, this, this and this will work out," Marakovits says. "Well, maybe you'll only get A and B, you won't get C or D. You make the most of your environment."

So it's barely of notice to anyone when a change in plans brings a twinkle to the manager's eye. A detour into the weight room (where we are surprised to run into CC Sabathia and Sonny Gray taking a tour of their own) gets Girardi's wheels spinning, particularly when Cowboys assistant strength and conditioning coach Brett Bech volunteers to walk him around the mammoth room. We may be on a distant Star, but the weight room is home. Checking out the Keiser air resistance equipment and the technology all around the room -- to say nothing of the 175-pound dumbbells -- the real Joe Girardi emerges. Marakovits is there to enjoy the show; Girardi is the one interviewing Bech, asking all the questions.

It recalls the segment they filmed several weeks back with NYCFC head coach Patrick Vieira. The legendary French soccer player and Arsenal star was teaching Girardi some skills as the two chatted while passing a ball back and forth. Over in the corner, wearing her powder blue NYCFC jersey, Marakovits didn't have a whole lot to do.

"At the end of the day, it is The Joe Girardi Show," she says, laughing. "Did I want to play soccer? I don't know. I could have, if they asked me, but they didn't ask me. So I was just making sure that no one got injured there. They had a good thing going on there. There was no need for me to interrupt that rapport if it seems like it's working. Sometimes you know when to insert yourself and keep the conversation going, and other times, you take a step back and let Joe be the lead, and let Joe take control."

But Girardi pushes back - "I think Meredith is the star," he says. "Actually, Meredith and Lena."

***

Lena is Girardi's youngest child. She was front and center at Pizzeria Due in Chicago, sneaking bites of cheese and asking the tough questions of the pizza chefs demonstrating proper technique. Or there was the time she shot hoops with her old man for the Father's Day episode, then visited with Marakovits in the YES booth at the ballpark for a series of trivia questions about the manager. (Was Girardi a .300 hitter for his career? No, Lena recalled.)

"I think it's important they're involved," Girardi says of his family's participation. His motivation is simple, a function of his own upbringing. "My parents worked really hard in life to provide for five kids and give us a better opportunity to succeed and to get a great education. But I never remember a time of them not being there for us and doing things with us. I used to travel with my father -- he was a salesman. We'd listen to Cubs games on the radio.

"For me, I was always a part of their life, part of what they did, and they made us a priority."

That same ethos is ever-present up and down the Yankees' roster. Matt Holliday's kids spend more time around the clubhouse than some coaches do. Same with Sabathia, whose children are a regular sight. There's a refreshing belief among the players that baseball is important, but family is the top priority, and -- despite the stakes and the attention -- that is fostered by the man in charge.

"The first thing he told me was, 'If you've got any problems, focus on your family, and let the rest take care of itself,'" Sabathia says. "That makes it easier when you come into the clubhouse."

But Joe Girardi is Joe Girardi. Ever the doting father, he insists that he's doing more by incorporating Lena into the show than simply showing a lighter side. There are practical considerations, as well. "It may be something that Lena wants to do some day," he says, "so I think the experience for her is really good. To be involved in public speaking, not to get nervous, to be comfortable in front of the camera. You never know what may happen in life." Mind you, Lena is 11 years old.

Such is life in the Girardi clan, going back generations. Even just listening to the man talk about pizza -- "It's one of my loves in life," says the 52-year-old whose current weight is within five pounds of where it stood during his playing days -- it's evident that family is everything. Girardi's father, Jerry, used to make homemade pizza. It was always a treat, and Joe, determined as ever, installed a wood-fired pizza oven outside his house so that he could create similar memories for his own kids. It's an art, pizza, and Girardi seeks out help from the best. To hear him gush over the pepperoni at Frank Pepe's -- how the coal curls the pepperoni into little, perfectly burnt cups of meat -- is to understand the pursuit of transcendence.

***

You need watch only a few clips from The Joe Girardi Show to realize that there's nothing he respects more than expertise. Whether talking with Garrett, a successful NFL coach; or kicking a ball around with Vieira while discussing their respective successes as players; working with chefs at the top of their fields; or even examining artifacts from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Girardi's eyes light up when they focus on something truly worthy.

"I think you appreciate greatness," he says. "And I think it comes in all walks of life, whether you're a player, a coach, an educator -- whatever you do -- I appreciate greatness. And it's kind of what you look for in people. What makes them great?" At the Cowboys' facility, he walks along the Nike Star Walk, a hallway lined with quotes and stats celebrating legendary Dallas players, and he marvels at the accomplishments. "They're just revealing greatness. There's greatness here. There's an expectation to win a Super Bowl every year. And these are reminders." To Girardi, it felt familiar. "This is what the Yankees stand for. The Yankees stand for greatness."

Some people might struggle with that burden. And maybe, when you see Girardi managing -- and know that his ability to impact a ballgame was far greater during his catching career -- that stress causes the blank, stern stares or the fiery rage with which he defends his players in the faces of umpires. When he can study it, or when he used to be able to engage with it on the field, the responsibility lifted him up. Now, the man who trained to be an industrial engineer at one of the country's finest universities (while also working toward a career in the highest level of baseball) can only write a lineup card and try to work some mental gymnastics to get the most out of the guys on his roster. "I've always found it easier to be involved in the game, to play the game, than to watch it," he says. "And my job is long term, too, in a sense. It's not always one game. I've got to get the best out of them for the whole year."

You'd be forgiven, then, for wondering which is the performance. It seems easy enough to feign a detached distance while juggling relievers in and out of the game, often without concern for their own feelings. But to light up as Girardi does when he gets to discuss management strategies and leadership with the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys? To hear him gush over that pepperoni, the burnt edges, the tiny, beautiful pools of oil it holds? Nobody is good enough to fake that. Months back, Marakovits and Roldan suggested a trip to the top of Toronto's CN Tower. Girardi, no fan of heights, wasn't interested. He'd rather be at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, making an impassioned case for Dire Straits' induction.

During their chat in a conference room at The Star, Marakovits asks Girardi and Garrett how they feel about pressure. Girardi insists that the pressure comes from within, from a passion for winning. Then he nods approvingly as Garrett lays out what might as well be carved into the Girardi family seal. "We want to be the best," Garrett says. The Yankees' manager couldn't have said it any better.

So they'll finish their chat, they'll remove the microphones and converse a bit in private. Then Roldan will take the film down the road to the YES Network truck at Globe Life Park, where the Yankees and Rangers will play in a few hours. He'll upload some tape that they can use for promos, then fly back east, where he'll spend the next day editing the show down for broadcast after Sunday's game. Girardi will return to his day-to-day. He'll brief the media, he'll write the lineups, he'll use up as much of the expanded September roster as humanly possible, and he'll do it all again the next day -- workout and everything. The camera will catch him plenty during the games over the weekend, expressionless and determined. And no one would or could blame you for seeing only intensity, only fire, a professional driven only by baseball.

After that Sunday game, though, you can tune in to YES and watch a man giddily tour a weight room. And you can remember, as he stares longingly at a piece of machinery that simulates a 180-pound tire flip, that you simply can't fake that. Joe Girardi is driven by a disciplined yearning to be the best at everything he does, from fatherhood to body maintenance to pizza-making to baseball. And believe it or not, he's loving every minute of it.

Jon Schwartz is the deputy editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the October 2017 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

New York Yankees

Yankees Magazine: 1977 Revisited - Mickey Rivers

After getting swept in the '76 Fall Classic, Mickey Rivers vowed to win it all in '77
Yankees Magazine

From his humble roots in Miami, Mickey Rivers made it to the big leagues and ultimately played an important role in the Yankees' success of the late 1970s.

The Yankees acquired "Mick the Quick" and pitcher Ed Figueroa in a December 1975 trade with the California Angels that sent outfielder Bobby Bonds to the West Coast. After an All-Star season in 1976, Rivers batted .326 during the '77 regular season. The consummate tablesetter, Rivers consistently put the team in position to score, while striking out just 45 times that season.

From his humble roots in Miami, Mickey Rivers made it to the big leagues and ultimately played an important role in the Yankees' success of the late 1970s.

The Yankees acquired "Mick the Quick" and pitcher Ed Figueroa in a December 1975 trade with the California Angels that sent outfielder Bobby Bonds to the West Coast. After an All-Star season in 1976, Rivers batted .326 during the '77 regular season. The consummate tablesetter, Rivers consistently put the team in position to score, while striking out just 45 times that season.

The 5-foot-10 center fielder came up big in the 1977 American League Championship Series, particularly when his team's back was up against the wall. With the Yankees trailing the Kansas City Royals 2 games to 1 in the best-of-five series, Rivers' leadoff double began a four-hit performance in a huge 6-4 win. In the winner-take-all Game 5, Rivers drove in the tying run in the top of the ninth and later came around to score an insurance run in the Yankees' 5-3 victory.

Rivers kept it going in the Fall Classic, sparking the Yankees' offense in a Game 3 win over the Dodgers in Los Angeles with three hits, two of which were doubles.

Rivers sat down with Yankees Magazine editor-in-chief Alfred Santasiere III for lunch at The Todd English Food Hall at The Plaza Hotel and posed for photos in the hotel's iconic Oak Room.

What are your memories of coming to The Plaza -- and the famous Oak Room -- when you played for the Yankees?
We would come down here and enjoy ourselves. We would have dinner here and then go out after that. It was expensive, but they always took care of us because we were Yankees. There's a lot of history in the Oak Room, and there are definitely some ghosts in there.

Before you played for the Yankees, what did you think of the organization's great tradition?
My greatest thrill was meeting Yogi Berra when I was growing up. Back then, it was unheard of for black kids to get a chance to meet baseball heroes like Yogi. But when I was about 13 years old, Yogi came down to Florida to do a Yoo-hoo commercial. I got a chance to talk to him, and that was amazing. Later on, when I was at Miami-Dade College, I was lucky enough to meet Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Whitey Ford and even Joe DiMaggio. Those guys used to work out right by where I went to school, and a lot of times, I was out there on the field with them. They were great guys, especially Mickey and Roger, who would tell it like it is. They would tell me exactly what I was doing wrong, and that was cool. So I figured out what that Yankees history was about from people reacting to me telling them I had met those great players. Right there, I knew they were the best team.

What did you think about coming to New York in 1975?
I didn't like the idea at first. But once I got to know guys like Thurman Munson and Roy White, I started to feel good about being with the Yankees. When I first got here, my wife was still teaching in Cleveland, so I was living out of a hotel in midtown Manhattan. One day, Thurman asked me if I wanted to park my car in a spot that he had reserved. I didn't know why I needed to move my car from the lot I had it in. And he said, "Just wait until you get the bill." He was right; it was very expensive. But having guys like him look out for me made me feel better about being in New York. Gene "Stick" Michael also spent time with me. He asked me to go to a bunch of schools and hospitals to visit kids in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Harlem, and he also invited me to a bunch of other functions and dinners with him. He made me realize how important it was to spend time with kids in those areas and motivate them to do the right thing.

How did you like your team's chances to get back to the World Series in 1977 following the loss to the Cincinnati Reds in the 1976 Fall Classic?
I knew we were going to win. I told Mr. Steinbrenner that on the plane ride back to New York following the 1976 World Series. I promised him that we were not only going to go back to the World Series in '77, but that we were going to win it.

What made you so confident?
We had the team. Then, we added Reggie [Jackson]. He could hit the ball out of the park in any at-bat, and we didn't have a threat like him before that season. That was the one thing we were missing, but we already had so many great players. Everyone we played was scared to face Sparky Lyle, so if we were winning late in games, we knew it was all over.

What was that first spring training with Reggie Jackson on the team like in '77?
Well, we had a group of guys that always stuck together. No one was going to get in between the group of guys we had on that team. If you weren't in that clique, it didn't matter how good you were. When Reggie got there, he didn't bond with the guys. He was a superstar, so I guess he felt like he didn't have to do that. We all got on each other, but that made everyone better. We would rip each other because we loved each other. But we also had each other's backs. Reggie couldn't do that with the guys. We couldn't get on him if he had a bad at-bat. People took offense to how separate he was from the rest of us, especially when we all got together. I think Reggie tried to fit in after that.

How excited were you when the Yankees made the trade for your childhood friend, Bucky Dent, in April of '77?
It was great to see my home guy come to the team. We met each other when we were kids, and he and his family always meant a lot to me. They were great people. They would take me fishing when we were growing up. When Bucky started playing football, the schools in Hialeah, Fla., weren't even integrated yet, and I wasn't able to join the team because I was black. That's what I wanted to do because it was my dream to play for the Miami Dolphins. Bucky's family made sure that I could get onto the same baseball team as him. Bucky's family bought me the books I needed for college. They got me a job in the school, and they gave me some money when I needed it. We had a strong bond from the time we were young, and it carried over through the time we were on the Yankees together. We went through the good and the bad together, and he's still my homey.

What were your impressions of Billy Martin?
Billy was great to play for. All you had to do was go out there and play hard. If we did that, he was OK with whatever happened on the field, even if we lost. He was great at motivating the bad players, guys who had bad attitudes.

What was your role on that '77 team?
My job on that team was to get on base early in the game and manufacture the first run. If I got on base in the first inning, the guys who came up behind me could drive me in. With the type of starting pitchers we had, that one run could hold up until the fifth or sixth inning. The other teams didn't want me to get on base.

Like so many of your teammates, you played really well in the last two months of the regular season, hitting safely in 41 of your final 49 games. Why do you think it came together for you and your teammates at that time?
We were ready to win. If we were going to make something special out of that season, a lot of us needed to step up. I really wanted to step up because I didn't do anything good in the '76 World Series against Cincinnati. I felt like if I had played even a little better, they never would have swept us. I really wanted to get back to the World Series and redeem myself in '77.

How tough was the Kansas City Royals team that your team faced in the ALCS?
Kansas City had the best team at that time, but we knew we could beat them when we had to. If we played them in the regular season, they would kill us, but when it came down to it, we made sure we played hard enough to beat them.

Video: WS1977: Rivers throws out Garvey at the plate

That series came down to the last inning of the decisive Game 5. What do you remember as you got ready to step up to the plate for the at-bat in which you tied the game?
We knew we could come back in that situation. I just felt like it was our time to shine. Before I walked out of the dugout, I said, "I'll get you guys a hit. I'll get you a run."

What was your mindset going into the '77 World Series?
I had made my mind up that I was going to get it done in that World Series. My teammates depended on me to set the table. I told my teammates that I wasn't going to let them down. I had to get a cortisone shot because my leg was hurting before Game 4 in Los Angeles. I laid down on the training table before that game and didn't take batting practice. I just needed to relax, but I told Billy that I would be ready.

What do you remember from the night you won the World Series?
We hung out at the Sheraton off of Route 17 in New Jersey. Mr. Steinbrenner had a party for us, and we had a great time. We really enjoyed all that we had worked for that season.

Looking back, what does it mean to have won two championships with the Yankees?
From where I came from, I could never have dreamed of that. But I had good people who helped me along the way. The Yankees are the best family in baseball, and I'm so happy to be part of it. It really started for me when I got to meet those legends down in Florida. I felt like I became part of the family when a few of them took me out for a few beers, and I'm still part of the family today.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Alfred Santasiere III is the editor-in-chief of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the October 2017 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

New York Yankees

Yankees Magazine: All the Right Moves

Under the watchful eye of coach Joe Espada, the Yankees' infield defense has become a strength of the team
MLB.com

After the Yankees traded for Todd Frazier on July 19, Chase Headley, the team's starting third baseman since 2014 and a former Gold Glove Award winner, spoke to Manager Joe Girardi about his immediate future at the hot corner.

"I said, 'Hey, I have no idea what the plan is here, but I'm willing to do whatever you need me to do,'" Headley recounts. "I imagine that they had already made that decision by that point, but I thought it was important for me to express that I was willing to do whatever they felt was best."

After the Yankees traded for Todd Frazier on July 19, Chase Headley, the team's starting third baseman since 2014 and a former Gold Glove Award winner, spoke to Manager Joe Girardi about his immediate future at the hot corner.

"I said, 'Hey, I have no idea what the plan is here, but I'm willing to do whatever you need me to do,'" Headley recounts. "I imagine that they had already made that decision by that point, but I thought it was important for me to express that I was willing to do whatever they felt was best."

What the Yankees felt was best was for Frazier to man third and have Headley move across the diamond to first base. There was one problem: Headley had only played 14 career games at first. And so before the Yankees' July 20 game against the Mariners at Safeco Field, Headley received what Girardi later dubbed a "crash course" at the position. Frazier and Ronald Torreyes took grounders at third and short, respectively, and fired throws to Headley at first. Headley then fielded grounders and made throws to second base. But only so much can be absorbed in a single cram session. The 11-year veteran would have to learn on the fly.

Over the summer, Headley acquired both the basics and nuances of the position: how to hold runners on; how to handle pickoff throws; how to return to fielding position after holding runners on; and where to set up for cutoffs and relays -- all of which changes with the game situation.

"At third, I know exactly where I'm supposed to be," Headley says. "At first, I'm constantly reminding myself like, 'Hey, if this happens, this is where I've got to be.' A lot of times things are going pretty fast. If you don't know what to do, you're probably not going to be in the right spot."

First basemen must know when to venture to their right for a ball and when to charge toward a dribbler in that no man's land between first base and the pitcher's mound. A first baseman is also a receiver, similar to a catcher in some ways, who should be familiar with each infielder's throwing arm. He needs to make the throw to second on potential 3-6-3 double plays and scoop short hops in the dirt when a teammate makes an errant throw. Like all infield positions, footwork is paramount to mastering the role, but a first baseman must also arrive to the base on time, find the bag, and always remain in position to catch and throw. Fielding ground balls is easy; the rest is complicated.

"I always find it interesting talking to guys who move to first," says Greg Bird, the Yankees' starting first baseman when the team broke camp after spring training. "It's harder than people think."

It was up to Joe Espada, the Yankees' third base coach, to make sure Headley caught on fast.

***

The propagation of data and technology has revolutionized infield defense over the past decade. With detailed spray charts at their disposal, managers can place infielders in the best position to field. Extreme shifts with three defenders on one side of the infield are now common. But one thing hasn't changed: Infielders still have to catch the ball when it's hit in their direction.

Espada, who coaches the team's infielders, reinforced this principle when the team descended upon Tampa, Fla., in February, making it clear that the Yankees value run prevention as much as run creation. He also had singular goals for Spring Training such as improving the "familiarity" between shortstop Didi Gregorius and second baseman Starlin Castro when it came to turning double plays.

For Castro, a converted shortstop, turning two from the right side of the infield was a challenge at first. "The first time I moved to second base, I felt like it was backwards," he says. "The toughest thing was making the double play. When you are playing short, you have the runner in front of you, but at second he is behind you. I felt that was difficult for me to do at first, but now I feel like a natural."

Of course, not everything went according to plan, with injuries affecting the Yankees infield even before the team left Tampa. Gregorius missed the first 20 games of the regular season after straining a muscle in his throwing shoulder during the World Baseball Classic in March. The injury bug would later bite Bird, who missed a bulk of the season following ankle surgery, and Castro, who lost nearly two months to a nagging hamstring strain.

How did the Yankees hold it together? "We have a little guy who can do everything," Castro says. The versatile 5-foot-8-inch Torreyes filled in admirably for Gregorius and Castro, playing solid defense at both short and second. Through Sept. 18, he had also played 26 games at third base, which Torreyes says is his toughest position, citing the short reaction time. But the main reason the Yankees' infield defense has become an unexpected strength of this team is Gregorius.

A fluid mover with extensive range, Gregorius ranks among the league leaders at his position in both traditional and advanced fielding statistics. Gregorius's greatest attribute is his powerful arm, a cannon that allows him to take deep angles on grounders resulting in his ability to cover even more ground. No matter where he fields the ball, Gregorius typically has enough arm strength to make the play. Though he plays with élan, Gregorius has a firm grasp of the fundamentals. He moves his feet, keeps his glove down and can read hops, things that the average fan overlooks but which are not lost on teammates and coaches.

Video: CIN@NYY: Gregorius slides, fires laser for the out

"I'd put him up there with the best I've played with," Frazier says. "It's great playing with a guy like that where if I don't get to a ball in the hole, I know he's going to be right there."

"Pretty good," Castro jokes. "Pretty good."

"I depend a lot on Didi," Espada says. "He's the shortstop -- the quarterback. He makes sure that everything moves smoothly."

When asked about the Yankees' success on defense, Gregorius says it comes down to one key factor. "If you have good communication, everything is going to work out easy," he says. "I think that's what we've got, so that's why I think we are doing so well defensively."

***

On the afternoon after turning 42, Espada sits in the Yankees dugout explaining how a baseball game -- two, actually -- ruined his birthday. "It would have been nice if we won one of them," he says, referring to the Indians' Aug. 30 doubleheader sweep of the Yankees. "It was a tough day for sure." But Espada, a baseball lifer, knows not to dwell. It's a grind, this 162-game season, cruel yet forgiving, filled with chances for redemption.

Born Josue Espada in Santurce, Puerto Rico, baseball was Espada's golden ticket off the island. "I remember growing up, baseball was your way of getting out," Espada told MLB.com in 2009. "It was a way to a better life. It was a way to get you a scholarship and go to school."

After starring at the University of Mobile in Alabama, Espada was taken in the second round (45th overall) of the 1996 draft by the Athletics, one spot ahead of future National League MVP Jimmy Rollins and two spots ahead of Josh Paul, who now works with catchers throughout the Yankees' farm system. An undersized shortstop, Espada had good hands, an above-average arm and a quick first step.

"Looking back, I had some tools that allowed me to play shortstop," Espada says. "But I did my homework. I wanted to know more [in order] to have advantages on my opponents. I wasn't the most gifted guy on the field, so I needed to take advantage of the information out there." He took pride in his defense and was a big believer in the adage that you can impact a game with your glove. Yet the A's never called up Espada.

He led an itinerant life from 2001 to 2004, bouncing around the minor league systems of the Marlins, Rockies, Royals, Cardinals, Rangers and, finally, the Rays. And when it became clear that the call to the big leagues wasn't coming, Espada didn't go quietly. He played in the Puerto Rican Winter League and independent ball in the Central League before retiring in 2006.

Espada's natural curiosity as a player translated into a passion for coaching, and in 2006 he was named hitting coach of the Greensboro Grasshoppers, a Class-A team in the Marlins organization, eventually rising to the major league club's third base coaching job in 2013. Then, in 2014, he was hired as a special assistant to Yankees general manager Brian Cashman before becoming the Yankees' third base coach and infield coach the following year.

From his seat in the dugout, the upcoming four-game series with the Red Sox is helping Espada move on from the doubleheader sweep. Normally on the first day of a series, Espada will huddle with his infielders for a strategy session, but by this point in the season the Yankees are familiar with their archrivals from Beantown. "We know how we are going to play certain guys," Espada says. There will be "some reminders though, things like what they like to do when ahead in the count or behind in the count."

For instance, it's Espada's job to know where to position his infielders when Red Sox All-Star Mookie Betts has a 3-1 count against a right-handed pitcher and when Betts is ahead 3-1 on a left-hander. If he notices that Gregorius is shaded too close to third in that situation, Espada must move him into the correct location.

Espada has a few specific drills planned for infield practice today. He wants Torreyes to work at third since he's played primarily on the right side of the infield lately. Castro will then take some ground balls on the right-field grass and up the middle. "I'm going to play certain right-hand hitters up the middle tonight," Espada says.

Practice begins at around 3:30 p.m. and ends before batting practice an hour later. "I like to make sure it's more quality than quantity," Espada says. "We also don't have to worry about dodging line drives hit by Aaron Judge."

***

It just so happens that Judge is wrapping up an extra batting practice session as Torreyes emerges from the dugout for infield drills. The Yankees' utilityman warms up his throwing arm by playing catch with Espada, taking a step back every so often. Finally, he heads toward third.

Espada hits balls down the line to Torreyes's right and then in the hole between third and short. Just over Torreyes's shoulder, several members of the Red Sox are playing long toss in left field. A football is also being thrown around. Soon, they are running routes out there like Odell Beckham Jr. After fielding each grounder, Torreyes makes the long throw across the diamond to Yankees major league coaching assistant/baseball operations Brett Weber, who is covering first. Espada is making Torreyes work. It seems like each time Torreyes goes deep in the hole, Espada responds with a soft chopper for him to charge. Torreyes then moves to short and takes approximately 10 grounders before fist-bumping Espada and jogging back into the clubhouse.

The session deviates from Torreyes's sacrosanct routine. Typically when not in the lineup -- as was the case for the Aug. 31 game against Boston -- Torreyes will take grounders at his three infield positions. But if he's starting at, say, shortstop, he will only take infield at that position.

All infielders have their routines. Frazier, for instance, takes infield during batting practice. "I always have," he says. "It gets the blood going a little bit." During practice, he says, he likes to exaggerate seeing the ball into the glove. Sometimes, he'll do pick drills on his knees. Headley, meanwhile, prefers throwing every day.

When Headley arrives for practice, he immediately starts tossing the ball with Espada, working his way up to 120-foot long-tosses. He then hustles to third, where he fields grounders hit at all angles. "Get low with it," Espada barks after Headley misjudges a chopper. Headley then grabs a first baseman's mitt and trots to his new position to work on snagging bad throws -- short hops, long bounces, balls in the dirt and wild tosses that pull him off the bag.

Next it's Castro's turn, and true to his word, Espada positions him in short right field to take hard grounders, then up the middle, two locations where, according to Yankees scouting reports, Red Sox batters are more likely to hit the ball. Espada trusts the data. "I think we do a real good job of maximizing the potential of our guys, putting them in a position to have success," he says. "But it also depends on your personnel, the guys on the field, for that to work."

Video: TOR@NYY: Castro robs Saunders with a fine diving stop

With even Single-A teams now employing shifts, young players are accustomed to moving around the infield. But for veteran players, the changes have taken some getting used to. A second baseman must learn how to take grounders in short right field. A third baseman needs to feel comfortable on the right side of the infield. The game evolves.

"[Coaches] are a lot more hands-on with where they want you to play," Headley says. "I remember when I first came up [to the big leagues], our pitchers were like, 'I do not want to give up a double down the line.' So I played a little bit closer to the line. Now, they're like, a lot more balls go in between the 5- and 6-hole than right down the line, so guys want you to play off the line a little bit.

"As an infielder, the old-school side of you likes the instincts and being able to react to what you see, but times have changed."

***

Espada's practice drills pay dividends later that night against the Red Sox. In the top of the fourth inning of a 1-1 game, Red Sox catcher Christian Vazquez hits a shot over the pitcher's mound past CC Sabathia that appears destined to be a base hit. Castro, positioned perfectly, takes a few quick steps to his right, fields and fires to first. Castro later makes a spectacular play that couldn't be attributed to a spray chart.

With two runners on in the eighth inning, Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers hits a soft chopper into the no man's land between the pitcher's mound and first base. Castro charges, bare-hands the ball and tosses a strike to first to get the runner. "It's just the moment," Castro says when asked when he realized he had to bare-hand the ball. "You just attack the ball and whatever is gonna happen, happens."

Headley starts at designated hitter against the Red Sox; with Bird back from the disabled list, Girardi has settled on a platoon at first base. Still, Headley has progressed nicely at his new position. "He's doing well," Espada says. "One thing Headley does is he learns fast, and he has really good hands. He's going to catch the ball." In fact, according to UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating, a statistic that puts a run value to defense, helping determine the runs a player saves or allocates with his glove), Headley is a better first baseman than third baseman this season.

With the playoffs approaching, Espada is still preaching defense. "It's important," he says. "We all get caught up in the power numbers and runs scored, but you can prevent those runs from scoring if you put some guys in the right spot."

A skeptical voice then suggests that there isn't anything defense can do about a ball hit 450 feet. Espada -- ever prepared with the proper defensive measures -- fires back. "Sure, but not everyone can hit a ball 450 feet," he says. "When they don't, you better be in the right spot and you better catch it."

Thomas Golianopoulos is the associate editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the October 2017 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

New York Yankees

Yankees Magazine on Gary Sanchez: ...Ready for It?

What do you do when people expect the world of you? If you're Gary Sanchez, you get to work.
Yankees Magazine

Gary Sanchez is busy. Not "Frank Sinatra Has A Cold" busy -- rather, El Gary is preoccupied with trying to become the star major league catcher into which everyone just expects him to blossom. Over the last year, he has made strides in the right direction, but the climb hasn't always been easy.

In August of 2016, Sanchez found a spot on the Yankees' roster and, very authoritatively, made his presence known. In the waning months of the season, he was all anyone wanted to talk about in the Bronx. With the Yankees essentially out of the playoff picture, all eyes were on the rookie catcher who forced his way into the big club's starting lineup by crushing baseballs at a record pace. Brian McCann, a highly regarded 12-year veteran, was pushed out of his role by the young upstart, but that hardly stopped him from offering glowing praise. This kid was special.

Gary Sanchez is busy. Not "Frank Sinatra Has A Cold" busy -- rather, El Gary is preoccupied with trying to become the star major league catcher into which everyone just expects him to blossom. Over the last year, he has made strides in the right direction, but the climb hasn't always been easy.

In August of 2016, Sanchez found a spot on the Yankees' roster and, very authoritatively, made his presence known. In the waning months of the season, he was all anyone wanted to talk about in the Bronx. With the Yankees essentially out of the playoff picture, all eyes were on the rookie catcher who forced his way into the big club's starting lineup by crushing baseballs at a record pace. Brian McCann, a highly regarded 12-year veteran, was pushed out of his role by the young upstart, but that hardly stopped him from offering glowing praise. This kid was special.

"He's a future All-Star, year in and year out," said McCann, who was dealt to Houston in November. "There's not many guys walking around with his talent. It's gonna be nice to see him grow into that player. … I consider him one of the better, if not best, young catchers since I've been in the big leagues."

Sanchez finished 2016 with a .299 batting average, 20 home runs and 42 RBI. He was the runner up in American League Rookie of the Year Award voting, despite playing just 53 games. Projections for the catcher's future were incredibly high -- maybe a bit too high. When the sky is the limit, there's an awfully long way to fall.

So Sanchez went to work knowing that it would have been impossible to keep up his monster two-month pace throughout an entire 162-game season. More human numbers were to be expected. But nobody predicted that by 2017, the catcher would be playing second fiddle to anyone.

Nevertheless, in the course of a year Sanchez went from the talk of the town, to the greatest hope for the Yankees' future, to a second-banana All-Star, to a catcher with more questions than answers. There were reasons for the hardships. Injuries robbed him of some playing time, the rise of Aaron Judge made everyone else at the All-Star Game an afterthought, and there were other extenuating circumstances, as well. From the outside looking in, Sanchez had become just one small story, relegated to a spot below the fold. But Sanchez himself wasn't worried about being first banana, second fiddle or the #GOAT -- social media shorthand for "Greatest of All Time," which many of his 200,000-plus Instagram followers are quick to tag his photos with.

That's because inside the Yankees' bubble, Sanchez was busy. Between managing a pitching staff, working with coaches to improve his defensive skills and making adjustments at the plate to become a premier offensive threat, Sanchez was building up his reputation a bit more quietly than everyone had anticipated.

There were still questions -- why was he having trouble catching the ball? Could the otherworldly numbers he put up in his debut be for real? Through it all, Sanchez kept working behind the scenes to inch ever forward.

And now … well, he might be ready to take a bigger step back into the spotlight.

***

Catcher is the hardest position to play on a baseball field. And from his perch near the first-base bag, Greg Bird has a pretty good idea why.

"I always say you live a double life," he says. "You live the life of a pitcher and of a hitter. You have to be there working with the pitchers, and you have to be there working with the position players, too. I just don't think catchers get enough credit, ever, for the amount of work that goes into catching."

Forget about a career or even a season -- the grind of catching a single game in the majors is tremendous. Not only is the catcher responsible for coming up with a game plan for his starting pitcher, but he must also be ready to work with each of the relief pitchers that can come into the game at a moment's notice. So Sanchez must have every pitcher's repertoire memorized. And with the multitalented and ever-changing Yankees pitching staff, he needs a mammoth mental hard drive to store all that data.

"This isn't exactly the easiest pitching staff to catch," says Chad Green. "Out of the bullpen, we've got guys throwing 100 mph; starters throwing 100 mph with good breaking balls. I think for Gary it's just going to take some time, and it's tough, especially with all the guys coming up who he hadn't caught before in the minors. He's learning just like we are."

Suppose Sanchez finally masters his own roster's arms. A catcher is also responsible for knowing every hitter in the opposing lineup -- their strengths, their weaknesses and how they've performed in every possible baseball scenario.

"Up at this level, it's a mental game; it's like a chess game," says Austin Romine. "You're going up against eight or nine different minds that remember everything you just did to them the at-bat before, and you have to remember all of them, too."

Is that all? Hardly. The backstop also keeps an eye on the basepaths. And, oh by the way, he also has to contribute offensively, which, for Sanchez, means being a middle-of-the-order bat expected to drive in runs and pound balls over the fence.

Physically, it's draining. Mentally? Tired doesn't even begin to describe it.

"When you catch a game in the big leagues, after the game you feel tired because you're using your brain so much and it's mentally exhausting," says Tony Peña, who caught in the big leagues for 18 seasons and is now the Yankees' first base coach and catching instructor. "You have to be able to know every situation in the game. And that's one of the reasons why you see so many catchers that become managers after they retire, because we have so much responsibility. We have more than half of the team in our hands."

If there's one person who truly understands that and can communicate it to a young catcher starting out, it's Peña. The Dominican Republic native was selected to five All-Star Games, won four Gold Glove Awards, and he caught Roger Clemens during his third Cy Young campaign in 1991. Peña and Sanchez have spent a lot of time together this season busying themselves with the intricacies of the position. While to novice eyes it appears that the position is mastering Sanchez -- the young catcher had the most passed balls in the American League as of Sept. 11 -- Peña knows that it's the other way around, and he preaches patience.

"Everybody wants to see everything at once, but sometimes it takes time," Peña says. "You might not see it now, but that's because it's still just his first full year in the big leagues … I have been very surprised by how well he has handled his first full year. If you go through baseball, for every catcher his first full year is very tough. I remember when I started catching, everybody said I was good, but I became great after three or four years in the big leagues.

"What he's doing right now, wow, he's showing me a lot already, and I'm very, very proud. Obviously we want every player to be perfect, but you have to work to get to that, and it's a process."

Sanchez recognizes the difficulties he's facing, and pinpoints with ease the areas of his game he wants to improve. Then he works on them every single day.

"If you compare catching in the big leagues with catching in the minor leagues, the intensity is definitely not the same," Sanchez says, his words translated by Marlon Abreu, the Yankees' bilingual media relations coordinator. "When you catch up here in the big leagues, the intensity is so much higher. As you catch all the pitchers, you develop the experience and learn about how their pitches move. The one thing I can say is that when you have a pitcher who can throw the ball over 100 mph and he is a little wild that day or that night, it's definitely a little tougher to catch them because there's just less time to react, and that's a huge challenge.

"Like I've said before, I'm not perfect, and I'm going to make mistakes. But the thing about being a catcher is that if you work really hard at it, you can become really good. That's what I'm trying to do here."

***

For a 7 p.m. game, Sanchez gets to the park by 1:30 p.m. and starts his routine of stretching, defensive drills, video work, cage hitting and meeting with pitching coach Larry Rothschild and the day's starting pitcher to formulate a plan of attack. Then, it's game time, when anything can and does happen. Broadcast to the world, everything El Gary does behind the plate is put under a microscope, especially when things go wrong. Directly in the camera's eye on every pitch, millions of amateur scouts watching on their couches can parse any detail of his catching style. Were he and the pitcher crossed up, the catcher expecting something off-speed as the ball rockets in at 100 mph? Did he jab at the ball instead of putting his body in front of it? Only one thing is clear; Sanchez spent more time chasing balls to the backstop than anyone would have wanted.

And, of course, there were whispers. Questions about laziness arose -- an unfortunately all-too-common charge levied against slumping Latino ballplayers, especially those who struggle to defend themselves in English. Dealing with that noise is another aspect of the game Sanchez works on.

"I hear what people say and from time to time those conversations can seep in, but it's something that I don't really focus on," he says. "My focus is to go out there and play as hard as possible and be the best I can be.

"Catching is not easy. It's a position that demands a lot of you. A little mistake can turn out to be a huge mistake, so you have to be mentally prepared and aware of everything that's going on."

Those mistakes are certainly frustrating in a game, but away from the field, they occupy the catcher's every minute. He works every day to get better, but there is no remedy like game experience, for better or worse. 

So the strides Sanchez makes are incremental -- some impossible to see. But Peña and the rest of the guys in the clubhouse who are privy to Sanchez's work ethic are confident in the talent and ability he has behind the plate. The time he puts in to getting better does not go unnoticed.

"We're all confident in him, and I think that's every teammate to a man," says CC Sabathia. "You're always confident in your teammate that they can get the job done and also work on their strengths and improve on the weaknesses. He's been doing that, improving on some of the things in his game so that he can get better every day, and that's all you can ask for as a teammate."

Brett Gardner, meanwhile, rattles off a list of the ways that the young catcher's dedication and drive come through when the spotlight's off. "It's his routine that he falls into behind the scenes. It's how he works with Larry [Rothschild] and how he works with pitchers when preparing for a game, it's developing a game plan for the opposing lineup and really just doing a good job of controlling the pitching staff. We've obviously got a very talented pitching staff, but we've got some guys who have some really good breaking balls and some really live fastballs, and that makes his job back there a lot harder. We've got guys who throw a lot of split-fingers, so he's got to block a lot more balls. As an outfielder coming up, I didn't have to worry about that stuff, but as a catcher you obviously do and I appreciate the job those guys do back there."

"I think everyone knew that once you got to this level there would be a learning curve in how to handle a pitching staff," Green says. "I think he's making strides in the right direction. I think he has an idea of what each pitcher likes to do. … I don't think any of us have a doubt in Gary when the tying run is on third base. I think we all have enough confidence to bounce a breaking ball in there and trust he's going to block it."

***

Privately, Sanchez works tirelessly to keep the ball in his glove. Publicly, he's been pretty busy depositing pitches into the outfield seats.

Through Sept. 10, Sanchez was entrenched in the middle of the Yankees' lineup, batting .280 and trailing only Judge on the team with 30 home runs and 83 RBI. Those numbers become all the more impressive considering that Sanchez lost much of the first month of the 2017 season due to a biceps injury. But in some ways, the injury was a blessing in disguise. With expectations for the catcher into the outer stratosphere, the burning bright spotlight of New York was squarely on Sanchez when the season kicked off. In his first five games before the injury, the young catcher collected three hits and the Yankees won just one game. Questions about the team's struggles were bound to find the back of the guy who was supposed to be leading the so-called "Baby Bombers."

Instead, Sanchez went on the disabled list on April 8, and the Yankees went on an eight-game winning streak. By the time he returned to the lineup on May 5, the team had gone from 1-4 to 17-9. In his first 12 games back in the lineup, Sanchez batted .370 with three home runs and nine RBI. By the end of the month, the Yankees were leading the American League East by two games, and Sanchez was in the middle of a five-game hitting streak. His overall numbers were good, not great, but few people were talking to or about the catcher because the guy just a few lockers down from him in the clubhouse was in the midst of setting the baseball world on fire.

With a lot less fanfare than Judge, Sanchez earned his first All-Star selection. In the Home Run Derby, he eliminated No. 1 seed and 2016 champ Giancarlo Stanton in the first round. Through mid-September, he was leading all catchers in home runs, runs scored and RBI, despite playing fewer games than many of his peers in those categories.

"Offense isn't exactly easy either," Sanchez laughs. "It's definitely not easy to balance both hitting and catching because you want to be good at both. It's really tough to be at 100 percent at both aspects of the game at the same time. Usually you feel better hitting than on defense, or the other way around. You have to find a way to balance it and be more consistent all the time so both of them are equally good at the same time all the time. Putting them together to be at 100 percent all the time, it takes a balance, and it's all about putting in the consistent work."

After most of his pregame catching prep is done, Sanchez works in the cage under the watchful eyes of his hitting coaches. He'll often take early batting practice on the field prior to his regularly scheduled round just a few hours before game time. Sanchez can point to his stat line as evidence of the time he puts in, but when the inevitable slumps hit, queries about his prowess at the plate are as relentless as those about his defense.

Sanchez had another blistering August -- he batted .287, mashed 12 home runs, scored 19 runs and drove in 26 in 28 games -- but it came on the heels of a July in which he struggled. Reporters asked everyone -- Sanchez, his teammates and manager Joe Girardi -- what was going wrong with the catcher.

"There's obviously a lot of outside noise that can affect guys in a negative way, and I think that, as much as possible, we're kind of wired to block all of that out and just focus on what we need to focus on here in the clubhouse," Gardner says. "Once the game starts, once the lights turn on, we try to shift our focus to the field, carrying out our game plan and sticking to our approach. There's obviously a lot of different things pulling guys in a lot of different directions, especially as a young player, especially in the market we're in here in New York, but I think the young guys like Gary are doing a great job of trying to balance all of that so they can keep their focus on the field."

Clearly, Sanchez was able to right the ship offensively. But more importantly, he used his struggles to add to his growing canon of knowledge about how to succeed on the big-league stage.

"The important thing about being a good hitter is that when those bad times come around, you want to stay mentally strong and mentally focused on what you need to do," he says. "Those hard times are going to go by, and you're going to be able to get through it and you'll get out of it. It's important to keep your head high and just never lose trust in yourself."

The words are exceptionally mature, especially considering that Sanchez is still just 24 years old and finishing up his first full season in the major leagues. But to Peña, they represent that which is most impressive about Sanchez.

"It's been a pleasant surprise to see how fast he has grown," the coach says. "He's only 24! All I can say is that I'm happy he's on our side because he's going to be really good. A lot of young catchers, they come to the big leagues and they can't stay. You see so many catchers come up to the big leagues, and then they go back down. He came in with the goal to stay, and that's all you can ask. And we're still waiting for him to keep growing. He's going to keep growing into the game. He will find out what he needs to do to be successful. He will learn every single skill he needs with time. It takes time because you cannot learn the whole game overnight. It's a lot. But he will do it. There is not a question in my mind that he will be one of the best catchers in baseball."

***

"Best catcher in baseball" is a pretty loaded label. Those who wear it live in such rarefied air that it can be hard to breathe up there, what with all the expectations and demands. It's a long climb. But, man, is the view terrific.

Gary Sanchez isn't there yet -- he hasn't seen it. His ascent has just begun, and if we're being honest, he might never make it all the way to the top. But it won't be for lack of trying.

Every minute, every day, every game, the catcher is focused on getting better, taking small steps, adjusting to the new challenges of the higher elevation. Any good climber will tell you that sometimes you have to go backward before you can move forward -- and we've seen that in the last year through all of Sanchez's ups and downs.

He has limitless potential, and his talent and work ethic suggest that he could actually be the rare guy who lives up to those expectations. Just don't ask him about them.

"I like to focus day by day and not look too far ahead," he says. "That's what I like to do, and that's what keeps me going. The focus is to go out there and play hard, do the best I can and keep winning. That's what I like to do."

Gary Sanchez has no time to speculate about what he might become, or the heights he might reach. He's too busy doing the work to actually get there.

Hilary Giorgi is the associate editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the October 2017 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

New York Yankees, Gary Sanchez

Yankees Magazine: Gene "Stick" Michael

A baseball genius with a heart of gold, the Stick's imprint on the Yankees and on all who knew him will last forever
Yankees Magazine

Looking out at the congregation of teary-eyed friends and family gathered at Calvary Baptist Church in Clearwater, Fla., Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman couldn't help but think of George Bailey from It's a Wonderful Life. In the final scene, Bailey opens a book and sees an inscription. "Dear George: Remember no man is a failure who has friends."

By that measure, the man Cashman was eulogizing was the epitome of success.

Looking out at the congregation of teary-eyed friends and family gathered at Calvary Baptist Church in Clearwater, Fla., Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman couldn't help but think of George Bailey from It's a Wonderful Life. In the final scene, Bailey opens a book and sees an inscription. "Dear George: Remember no man is a failure who has friends."

By that measure, the man Cashman was eulogizing was the epitome of success.

When Cashman's mentor, Gene "Stick" Michael, died suddenly of a heart attack at age 79 on Sept. 7, the newspapers remembered Michael as the architect of the Yankees' most recent dynasty -- and rightly so. As general manager of the Yankees in the early 1990s, Michael orchestrated a complete rebuild of the team, a project that resulted in four world championships in five years.

But while that success will remain the most acclaimed aspect of Michael's legacy, his contributions to the organization extend much, much deeper. In the Yankees family tree, Stick was embedded in the trunk, touching every limb and connecting in some way to every last leaf. Members of the Yankees clan, young and old, loved Gene Michael -- and that love often had more to do with who he was than what he did.

"He saw the good in everybody," Cashman said upon returning from Michael's funeral. "For a guy who accomplished so much, he was very humble, very approachable. Some people don't have time in the day, or might be a little ornery to deal with especially as they get older in life, but Gene Michael was never that. He was a man of the people. It didn't matter if you were an 18-year-old intern or some famous baseball player, he would treat you the same -- with respect and kindness -- which should always be the case, but that's not the way the world seems to work."

***

It was 1968, and a brash young hotshot who thought he was the Yankees' next big thing rolled up to the minor league stadium in Binghamton, N.Y., and parked his orange Corvette right outside the ramshackle clubhouse. When he strutted inside, the hard-working 23-year-old head trainer of the Binghamton Triplets, Gene Monahan, introduced himself and said, "I heard you'd be joining us. I've heard wonderful things about you."

"Yeah, I'm Thurman Munson," the cocky 21-year-old said. "And I'm not going to be here very long."

Munson was right; he was in the big leagues just a year later. But he might never have become a humble, beloved Yankees legend if it weren't for Gene Michael.

Born in Kent, Ohio, in 1938, Michael graduated from Akron East High School in Akron, Ohio, in 1957 and then played one season at Kent State University. Nicknamed "Stick" for his slender build, Michael signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1958 and began his professional playing career the following year in North Dakota with the Class C Grand Forks Chiefs. He committed 56 errors at shortstop that first season, but Michael worked hard to improve, and after seven years in the minors, he came up to the bigs for 30 games with the Pirates in 1966 at age 28. He was traded to the Dodgers after that season for Maury Wills, and after batting .202 in 98 games for Los Angeles, Michael was dealt again. In exchange for $30,000, the Yankees, in desperate need of a shortstop, acquired the switch-hitter -- and "promptly heard jibes about having acquired a switch-no-hitter," The New York Times reported.

The 30-year-old Michael hit just .198 in 61 games for the 1968 Yankees, but bounced back with a career-best .272 mark in 1969. On Aug. 10 of that season, in Munson's second career game, the three M's -- Bobby Murcer, Munson and Michael -- began the sixth inning with consecutive home runs off A's pitcher Lew Krausse. The light-hitting Michael, who would knock just 15 home runs in his 10-year career, always loved that. "I made the papers that day," he'd say.

Ballplayers had roommates back then, and Michael was paired up with Munson, another Kent State product. It was the beginning of a very special friendship.

"Gene was Thurman's first and only roommate," Diana Munson recalled in a recent phone conversation. "Lots of the guys would go to bars at night, but they were big card players, so instead of going out, they would play cards in their room."

Michael, nine years older than his fellow Ohioan, put a figurative arm around Munson's shoulder and guided him toward a path that would lead eventually to Yankees immortality.

"Stick slowed him down," said Monahan, whose first "patient" after becoming the Yankees' trainer in 1973 was Michael after the shortstop fouled a ball off his leg. "Thurman became the Oreo cookies and glass of milk guy who would be in the trainer's room early with me on Sunday mornings for a day game because of Stick."

While he would end up batting just .229 for his career, Michael didn't last seven seasons with the Yankees only because of his mentoring abilities. He was "a vacuum cleaner" at short with a knack for coming up with clutch hits, such as his 13th-inning walk-off homer against Detroit in 1971.

Like all of Michael's former teammates, Roy White was saddened to his core to hear of Stick's passing. But he has vivid memories of the type of player Michael was. "Stick was a great athlete, really," said White, who patrolled the outfield for the Yankees from 1965 to 1979. "He was a great basketball player at Kent State, and we used to have our offseason basketball team back in the late '60s and '70s where a number of us would play at fundraisers and stuff. Stick could throw in 30 points like nothing, dribble behind his back, through the legs, shoot long jumpers -- he could do it all out there. On the baseball field, the only thing that he wasn't adept at was hitting. He probably wasn't the fastest guy, but all of his other skills -- his hands, his quickness, his reflexes -- were great."

White credits Michael as having been his "personal hitting coach," able to analyze White's swing and figure out what opposing pitchers were trying to do to him. That watchful eye would come in handy down the road, as would Michael's effervescent personality. Whether it was pulling off the hidden-ball trick so proficiently or ribbing guys in the clubhouse, Michael brightened his teammates' days constantly.

"What a real genuine good guy," said Goose Gossage, who signed with the Yankees in 1977 and had Michael as his manager in 1981 and '82. "He was a great guy, a great baseball man, always a pleasure to be around. I'll miss his joking around and his smile.

"And no one had greater loyalty to the Yankees organization than Stick."

***

From the time George Steinbrenner bought the Yankees in 1973 and told the press that he was going to stick to shipbuilding, The Boss always sought to surround himself with smart baseball men. Stick Michael was one of his guys.

Michael wasn't impervious to Steinbrenner's penchant for making changes, filling more roles than Robert Mitchum (Stick's favorite actor). But Michael earned Steinbrenner's trust, and when The Boss was forced to step aside in 1990, he tabbed Michael to run the team.

By his second stint as Yankees general manager -- Steinbrenner handed him the reins prior to the 1980 season, before naming him manager in 1981 -- Michael had learned to trust his gut. And with the autonomy to mold the Yankees as he saw fit, he did a 180 from the way things had been done, which had often meant spending big bucks on free agents and trading prospects for big-name players.

Perhaps Michael's greatest attribute from a baseball standpoint was his ability to see a player not for what he was, but for what he would become. "Gene had an inherent way of understanding the athletes in our game," Monahan said. "He had this intangible, deep-rooted feeling about players." Fans thought Michael was nuts for trading away Roberto Kelly for Paul O'Neill, but the Reds outfielder had the type of makeup -- and high on-base percentage -- that Michael coveted. He also saw massive potential in a young center fielder the Yankees already had; he felt the player just needed the room to grow without being disturbed by some of the negative influences in the clubhouse that Michael was working to remove.

"He literally cleaned house and gave the young players an opportunity to show what they could do," said Bernie Williams. "He knew his reputation and his future as a baseball person in the Yankees organization were in jeopardy if these moves didn't pan out. But he had enough confidence in his ability and in us that he just went ahead and did it. He probably saw in us things that we weren't able to see at that point in our careers. He gave us the confidence to perform and be part of the team and become the players we became. To have that opportunity is priceless."

Reflecting further on Michael's impact on him personally, Williams said that if it weren't for Michael's kindness and generosity with his time, he might never have reached the heights he did with the Yankees.

"He always had an encouraging word to say, even when I was struggling. He never really let me know what was happening behind the scenes. He didn't make me pressure myself into thinking that maybe other people didn't want me on the team, or that maybe I was going to be traded or whatever. He just kept saying, 'Keep doing what you're doing. Keep taking care of business on the field, and all of this peripheral stuff is going to dissipate.' To have that sort of guardian angel on my side, there's no other way that I could have been successful with the Yankees, to be honest."

Michael drafted a high school shortstop with the sixth overall pick in 1992. And when that 19-year-old kid made 56 errors at Single-A Greensboro, Michael said, "Leave him be. He'll be fine." Today, you can find Derek Jeter's No. 2 out in Monument Park not far from Williams' No. 51.

In August 1992, a 22-year-old right-hander who hadn't pitched above A-ball had an elbow problem that would require surgery. The young man didn't drive and barely spoke a word of English, but as he was chauffeured from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Vero Beach to see Dr. Frank Jobe, he could sense that the man behind the wheel was somebody he could trust.

"Forget about baseball -- baseball, he was amazing -- but as a person, Gene was someone special," said Mariano Rivera. "Gene meant a lot to me. He was a person that, if you asked him for any kind of help, he was there for you. He was always aware of what was going on with the players; that's what you appreciate about a person like that. He not only cares about you in baseball, but outside baseball, about you and your family, and that's great.

"We lost a big one."

Video: Yankees pay tribute to Gene 'Stick' Michael

Steinbrenner returned in 1993 and vowed not to interfere with Michael's master plan. But when other teams started dangling their stars in an effort to entice a trade for a Jeter or a Rivera, those urges to make a splash came rushing back. Stick would have none of it.

"George didn't have the patience when he first came in to baseball," Michael told Yankees Magazine in 2011. "I think we helped teach him that. He taught me business, and I helped him with patience. … With people that you have confidence in, you've got to have patience. Otherwise you're not going to find out if they can reach their max."

Michael held on to Jeter and Rivera and a 24th-round pick named Jorge Posada and a 22nd-round pick named Andy Pettitte, and he built the Yankees into a dynasty.

"There's a lot of people that can talk the lingo and can fake their way through a lot of stuff," Cashman said. "But Gene Michael, he was mostly right about everything he saw.

"Everything I am in terms of the baseball knowledge that I've attained, he was a big part of that because he took the time to share. That was the special gift that he had for everybody; it was open for all."

***

It's still hard for everyone to believe Stick is no longer here. When Monahan turns on his computer and sees the background image he put up this summer -- a photo of him and Michael from behind, standing side-by-side at Old-Timers' Day -- he thinks of his friend, and his eyes well up. It'll be strange not seeing a smiling Stick at George M. Steinbrenner Field during spring training, striding purposefully toward the Yankees clubhouse in his baseball cap and khakis, coffee in hand. Or not seeing the Lincoln Navigator that he so proudly pushed beyond 200,000 miles -- license plate "NYY STICK" -- in the Yankee Stadium parking deck anymore. But that doesn't mean his presence won't be felt in the Bronx.

Several people have already voiced support for Michael's inclusion among the team's pantheon of legends. "It would be great if he were immortalized in Monument Park because he was just as much a part of the success of the franchise during those years as we were," Williams said. "It will be a great tribute for him."

Even just looking at the roster and the product on the field, Stick's imprint remains. Every organization in baseball has its own ideology, and Gene Michael's beliefs will stay embedded in the Yankees' DNA.

"The one thing that I really learned about the game from him was, offensively, how to put a club together and what you're looking for in your offense, and that's really being able to use the entire field to hit and own the strike zone and working counts and working pitchers and getting a good pitch to hit," said bench coach Rob Thomson, who has been with the organization since 1990. "We kind of formed our hitting philosophy around that, and it's worked very well for a long time."

On the pitching side, Cashman points to Michael's emphasis on hurlers who get ground-ball outs and rack up strikeouts as being part of the organizational philosophy. But more important to the future of the franchise was Michael's unending enthusiasm for sharing his knowledge and grooming the next generation of front-office superstars -- guys such as Angels GM Billy Eppler, who came up through the Yankees organization and, upon hearing of Michael's death, not only held a moment of silence at Angel Stadium but later took a red-eye flight to Florida to attend Stick's funeral.

Matt Ferry is another one of those rising stars. Ferry, 28, joined the Yankees in 2012 and has already taken over as manager of baseball operations. For Ferry, talking baseball with Michael and seeing him demonstrate the things he was describing was like being a young ballplayer and having Joe DiMaggio pop by to offer hitting tips.

"His opinion in this organization and this department was huge to his last days," Ferry said. "He was very valued, and that really shaped me because I saw that [age] didn't matter. He was still out there grinding, loving life, learning more about the game and sharing that with the younger generation.

"I wish he was still here because he still had so much to take care of, and we had so much to learn."

***

It was June 25, 2017, Old-Timers' Day, and Diana Munson was sitting in the Yankees Steakhouse having lunch with her oldest daughter, Tracy, and her granddaughter, Madison. It had been nearly 38 years since her husband died, and Diana, as always, received a warm and sincere applause from Yankees fans when she was introduced during the festivities earlier in the day.

Michael was having lunch at another table, but when he noticed the Munson women across the room, he made his way over and sat down to join them. Having never met Madison, he introduced himself, then proceeded to regale the young girl with stories about her grandfather. They weren't tales about Thurman Munson the All-Star catcher or Thurman Munson the world champion. Michael told stories about Thurman Munson the human being: his quirkiness, the card games, the funny man who guys got on about eating burgers. "Yeah, I kept him out of the bars for your Gram here," Michael joked about his old roommate.

"It meant so much to me," Diana said, her voice cracking with emotion. "He related stories that I didn't even know that were just so heartfelt, that made Thurman less of a monument and more of a grandpa. And after Gene's passing I thought, 'Thank God that he took that special time and shared that with us.' Because it's something that I will have forever, and so will they."

Perhaps Stick is now looking down from heaven, and like George Bailey, he is being given a chance to see what the world is like without him. With so many friends and family paying tribute and keeping his memory alive, Michael can rest in peace knowing it was a wonderful life.

Nathan Maciborski is the executive editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the October 2017 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

New York Yankees

Yankees Magazine: More Than Just a Game

How Scranton/Wilkes-Barre turned the Triple-A Championship Game into a massive charitable event
Yankees Magazine

Karen Riviello doesn't particularly like baseball. So it is a little bit odd to find her at PNC Field in Moosic, Pa., watching the 2017 Gildan Triple-A National Championship Game -- the most important Minor League Baseball game of the year. But if you dig a little deeper and take a quick look around, the root cause of her presence becomes obvious.

Moosic is a small borough in Northeast Pennsylvania. Its population of less than 6,000 inhabits approximately 6.7 square miles. But what the town lacks in pure size it more than makes up for in solid heart.

Karen Riviello doesn't particularly like baseball. So it is a little bit odd to find her at PNC Field in Moosic, Pa., watching the 2017 Gildan Triple-A National Championship Game -- the most important Minor League Baseball game of the year. But if you dig a little deeper and take a quick look around, the root cause of her presence becomes obvious.

Moosic is a small borough in Northeast Pennsylvania. Its population of less than 6,000 inhabits approximately 6.7 square miles. But what the town lacks in pure size it more than makes up for in solid heart.

On Sept. 19, Moosic and its main attraction, PNC Field, home of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, hosted a charitable event the impacts of which would affect more than just the region. On that day, the Triple-A National Championship Game invaded the town with the Durham Bulls and Memphis Redbirds playing for the title.

It was a good game, sure. But it was also a day of goodwill. That's because when it was announced that the RailRiders would be hosting the National Championship Game, the club's co-managing owner, David Abrams, saw an opportunity. Having been recently diagnosed with cancer, Abrams felt compelled to turn the event into something so much bigger than just a baseball game.

"I needed something to help me cope with this," Abrams said. "Everybody deals with these things differently, and my view was that the best way for me to get better is to help other people. Period.

"This is a pretty big deal. It's not the Super Bowl, but this is our chance to showcase Northeast Pennsylvania and that civic pride that we're trying to tap into. At the same time, we're trying to do something good for people. I want to make this a memorable event that raises a lot of money and puts smiles on people's faces."

In July, Abrams and RailRiders staff linked up with Stand Up To Cancer -- a national nonprofit organization which benefits cancer research -- and various community partners to create a multifaceted event that Moosic would never forget. Abrams' goal was to reach people that the RailRiders normally do not, to raise money for an organization that has become personal to him, and to host a great baseball game. In the end, it was successful on all counts.

***

Prior to the game, a number of ambassadors dispersed throughout Scranton, Wilkes-Barre and Moosic to spread the hopeful message of the game to the communities.

Yankees hero Bucky Dent visited the Delta Medix Center for Comprehensive Cancer Care in Scranton, while Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson dropped in on patients at the Geisinger Community Medical Center cancer center.

"It's hard sometimes," said Denise Prislupski, who was being treated at Geisinger when Jackson stopped by. "You'll just be having a normal day like this with needles and treatment that you know is going to make you sick, and then someone like Reggie shows up and it's unbelievable how much it can brighten your day."

Former big leaguers Roy White, Jason Grimsley, Andy Ashby and Jeff Juden also made appearances throughout the community, and all of the ambassadors joined local heroes, basketball Hall of Famer Allen Iverson and three-time Stanley Cup champion Ken Daneyko at a pregame Fan Fest outside of PNC Field. Thousands invaded the parking lots for autograph signings, tailgating, food truck rallies and even a zip line, all while being given the opportunity to donate whatever they could to the cause.

Once fans got into the stadium for the game, they were given placards on which they could write the name of a person who was affected by cancer. After the fifth inning, during a nationally televised moment, everyone in the stadium -- players and coaches included -- stood and held up their placards in tribute. Throughout the night, fans were also encouraged to write hopeful messages on a Stand Up To Cancer banner on the concourse, learn more about cancer through video messages and informational videos on the center-field video board, and, of course, contribute financially.

"To play for a cause like Stand Up To Cancer and to be a part of this night is something special," said Patrick Wisdom, the Redbirds' designated hitter for the night who lost both of his grandmothers to cancer. "Everyone has people in their life they've lost to cancer, so to be able to play a game and help make this cause known and grow, that's something special."

***

At the end of the day, under fireworks and to the applause of the 9,383 fans in attendance, a Triple-A national champion was crowned. The Durham Bulls walked away with the title, but it was the RailRiders and the work they did that deserved most of the praise.

Kean Wong hit a go-ahead grand slam for Durham in the bottom of the fourth inning, which proved to be the difference in the Bulls' 5-3 victory. After the game, he took time to recognize the RailRiders for their charitable work.

"That was for my mom, who passed away to cancer," he told The Times-Tribune of Scranton. "I didn't know [about the RailRiders' efforts] until the day before. I just want to thank them for that, and tell my mom I love her."

"We're proud of what we've done," said Josh Olerud, the RailRiders' team president/chief operating officer. "Our goal was to raise $200,000, and we surpassed that before the game even started."

The proceeds that the RailRiders raised will be split between Stand Up To Cancer and among the community centers, hospitals and charities that the team works with in Northeast Pennsylvania, ensuring that the game will be remembered long after the night ended.

"The event itself was always going to be important because of the magnitude of the game and the fact that these two teams have played a long year, and now they're fighting for a national championship," said Dent, who lost his wife, Marianne, to brain cancer in October 2015. "But the RailRiders turned it into an even more special night. It's more than just about baseball. We were able to shine light on a greater cause. Cancer touches everybody's life in some way, so to be able to come and raise money and give back nationally as well as to this specific community is really what it's all about."

Karen Riviello didn't come to PNC Field to watch a baseball game. She came to support a family member who had recently undergone a double mastectomy and was battling a cancer that had spread to her brain. Karen Riviello came to PNC Field to stand up and fight back against a disease. She's not a baseball fan, but she now knows the power of what a baseball team can do, and she's thankful for it.

"When I read in the newspaper about the owner of the team and his fight with cancer, I said, 'Wow, that's really something for him to try and make this something special,'" she said. "It's wonderful that the team did this, and the things that they did throughout the game were great. Everything they did was impressive, and I think what was really impactful was when they put on the screen the number of people who die of cancer every day. It's unbelievable. It was particularly emotional to see everyone standing with their placards because you saw how cancer affects everyone."

So while she may not remember that Durham walked away the victors in this baseball game, she'll never forget that the RailRiders helped shine a light on and raise money for a good cause. And neither will anyone else.

Hilary Giorgi is the associate editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the October 2017 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

New York Yankees

Yankees Magazine on Gary Sanchez: ...Ready for It?

What do you do when people expect the world of you? If you're Gary Sanchez, you get to work.
Yankees Magazine

Gary Sanchez is busy. Not "Frank Sinatra Has A Cold" busy -- rather, El Gary is preoccupied with trying to become the star major league catcher into which everyone just expects him to blossom. Over the last year, he has made strides in the right direction, but the climb hasn't always been easy.

In August of 2016, Sanchez found a spot on the Yankees' roster and, very authoritatively, made his presence known. In the waning months of the season, he was all anyone wanted to talk about in the Bronx. With the Yankees essentially out of the playoff picture, all eyes were on the rookie catcher who forced his way into the big club's starting lineup by crushing baseballs at a record pace. Brian McCann, a highly regarded 12-year veteran, was pushed out of his role by the young upstart, but that hardly stopped him from offering glowing praise. This kid was special.

Gary Sanchez is busy. Not "Frank Sinatra Has A Cold" busy -- rather, El Gary is preoccupied with trying to become the star major league catcher into which everyone just expects him to blossom. Over the last year, he has made strides in the right direction, but the climb hasn't always been easy.

In August of 2016, Sanchez found a spot on the Yankees' roster and, very authoritatively, made his presence known. In the waning months of the season, he was all anyone wanted to talk about in the Bronx. With the Yankees essentially out of the playoff picture, all eyes were on the rookie catcher who forced his way into the big club's starting lineup by crushing baseballs at a record pace. Brian McCann, a highly regarded 12-year veteran, was pushed out of his role by the young upstart, but that hardly stopped him from offering glowing praise. This kid was special.

"He's a future All-Star, year in and year out," said McCann, who was dealt to Houston in November. "There's not many guys walking around with his talent. It's gonna be nice to see him grow into that player. … I consider him one of the better, if not best, young catchers since I've been in the big leagues."

Sanchez finished 2016 with a .299 batting average, 20 home runs and 42 RBI. He was the runner up in American League Rookie of the Year Award voting, despite playing just 53 games. Projections for the catcher's future were incredibly high -- maybe a bit too high. When the sky is the limit, there's an awfully long way to fall.

So Sanchez went to work knowing that it would have been impossible to keep up his monster two-month pace throughout an entire 162-game season. More human numbers were to be expected. But nobody predicted that by 2017, the catcher would be playing second fiddle to anyone.

TK

Nevertheless, in the course of a year Sanchez went from the talk of the town, to the greatest hope for the Yankees' future, to a second-banana All-Star, to a catcher with more questions than answers. There were reasons for the hardships. Injuries robbed him of some playing time, the rise of Aaron Judge made everyone else at the All-Star Game an afterthought, and there were other extenuating circumstances, as well. From the outside looking in, Sanchez had become just one small story, relegated to a spot below the fold. But Sanchez himself wasn't worried about being first banana, second fiddle or the #GOAT -- social media shorthand for "Greatest of All Time," which many of his 200,000-plus Instagram followers are quick to tag his photos with.

That's because inside the Yankees' bubble, Sanchez was busy. Between managing a pitching staff, working with coaches to improve his defensive skills and making adjustments at the plate to become a premier offensive threat, Sanchez was building up his reputation a bit more quietly than everyone had anticipated.

There were still questions -- why was he having trouble catching the ball? Could the otherworldly numbers he put up in his debut be for real? Through it all, Sanchez kept working behind the scenes to inch ever forward.

And now … well, he might be ready to take a bigger step back into the spotlight.

***

Catcher is the hardest position to play on a baseball field. And from his perch near the first-base bag, Greg Bird has a pretty good idea why.

"I always say you live a double life," he says. "You live the life of a pitcher and of a hitter. You have to be there working with the pitchers, and you have to be there working with the position players, too. I just don't think catchers get enough credit, ever, for the amount of work that goes into catching."

Forget about a career or even a season -- the grind of catching a single game in the majors is tremendous. Not only is the catcher responsible for coming up with a game plan for his starting pitcher, but he must also be ready to work with each of the relief pitchers that can come into the game at a moment's notice. So Sanchez must have every pitcher's repertoire memorized. And with the multitalented and ever-changing Yankees pitching staff, he needs a mammoth mental hard drive to store all that data.

"This isn't exactly the easiest pitching staff to catch," says Chad Green. "Out of the bullpen, we've got guys throwing 100 mph; starters throwing 100 mph with good breaking balls. I think for Gary it's just going to take some time, and it's tough, especially with all the guys coming up who he hadn't caught before in the minors. He's learning just like we are."

Suppose Sanchez finally masters his own roster's arms. A catcher is also responsible for knowing every hitter in the opposing lineup -- their strengths, their weaknesses and how they've performed in every possible baseball scenario.

"Up at this level, it's a mental game; it's like a chess game," says Austin Romine. "You're going up against eight or nine different minds that remember everything you just did to them the at-bat before, and you have to remember all of them, too."

Is that all? Hardly. The backstop also keeps an eye on the basepaths. And, oh by the way, he also has to contribute offensively, which, for Sanchez, means being a middle-of-the-order bat expected to drive in runs and pound balls over the fence.

Physically, it's draining. Mentally? Tired doesn't even begin to describe it.

"When you catch a game in the big leagues, after the game you feel tired because you're using your brain so much and it's mentally exhausting," says Tony Peña, who caught in the big leagues for 18 seasons and is now the Yankees' first base coach and catching instructor. "You have to be able to know every situation in the game. And that's one of the reasons why you see so many catchers that become managers after they retire, because we have so much responsibility. We have more than half of the team in our hands."

If there's one person who truly understands that and can communicate it to a young catcher starting out, it's Peña. The Dominican Republic native was selected to five All-Star Games, won four Gold Glove Awards, and he caught Roger Clemens during his third Cy Young campaign in 1991. Peña and Sanchez have spent a lot of time together this season busying themselves with the intricacies of the position. While to novice eyes it appears that the position is mastering Sanchez -- the young catcher had the most passed balls in the American League as of Sept. 11 -- Peña knows that it's the other way around, and he preaches patience.

"Everybody wants to see everything at once, but sometimes it takes time," Peña says. "You might not see it now, but that's because it's still just his first full year in the big leagues … I have been very surprised by how well he has handled his first full year. If you go through baseball, for every catcher his first full year is very tough. I remember when I started catching, everybody said I was good, but I became great after three or four years in the big leagues.

"What he's doing right now, wow, he's showing me a lot already, and I'm very, very proud. Obviously we want every player to be perfect, but you have to work to get to that, and it's a process."

Sanchez recognizes the difficulties he's facing, and pinpoints with ease the areas of his game he wants to improve. Then he works on them every single day.

"If you compare catching in the big leagues with catching in the minor leagues, the intensity is definitely not the same," Sanchez says, his words translated by Marlon Abreu, the Yankees' bilingual media relations coordinator. "When you catch up here in the big leagues, the intensity is so much higher. As you catch all the pitchers, you develop the experience and learn about how their pitches move. The one thing I can say is that when you have a pitcher who can throw the ball over 100 mph and he is a little wild that day or that night, it's definitely a little tougher to catch them because there's just less time to react, and that's a huge challenge.

"Like I've said before, I'm not perfect, and I'm going to make mistakes. But the thing about being a catcher is that if you work really hard at it, you can become really good. That's what I'm trying to do here."

***

For a 7 p.m. game, Sanchez gets to the park by 1:30 p.m. and starts his routine of stretching, defensive drills, video work, cage hitting and meeting with pitching coach Larry Rothschild and the day's starting pitcher to formulate a plan of attack. Then, it's game time, when anything can and does happen. Broadcast to the world, everything El Gary does behind the plate is put under a microscope, especially when things go wrong. Directly in the camera's eye on every pitch, millions of amateur scouts watching on their couches can parse any detail of his catching style. Were he and the pitcher crossed up, the catcher expecting something off-speed as the ball rockets in at 100 mph? Did he jab at the ball instead of putting his body in front of it? Only one thing is clear; Sanchez spent more time chasing balls to the backstop than anyone would have wanted.

And, of course, there were whispers. Questions about laziness arose -- an unfortunately all-too-common charge levied against slumping Latino ballplayers, especially those who struggle to defend themselves in English. Dealing with that noise is another aspect of the game Sanchez works on.

"I hear what people say and from time to time those conversations can seep in, but it's something that I don't really focus on," he says. "My focus is to go out there and play as hard as possible and be the best I can be.

"Catching is not easy. It's a position that demands a lot of you. A little mistake can turn out to be a huge mistake, so you have to be mentally prepared and aware of everything that's going on."

Those mistakes are certainly frustrating in a game, but away from the field, they occupy the catcher's every minute. He works every day to get better, but there is no remedy like game experience, for better or worse.

So the strides Sanchez makes are incremental -- some impossible to see. But Peña and the rest of the guys in the clubhouse who are privy to Sanchez's work ethic are confident in the talent and ability he has behind the plate. The time he puts in to getting better does not go unnoticed.

"We're all confident in him, and I think that's every teammate to a man," says CC Sabathia. "You're always confident in your teammate that they can get the job done and also work on their strengths and improve on the weaknesses. He's been doing that, improving on some of the things in his game so that he can get better every day, and that's all you can ask for as a teammate."

Brett Gardner, meanwhile, rattles off a list of the ways that the young catcher's dedication and drive come through when the spotlight's off. "It's his routine that he falls into behind the scenes. It's how he works with Larry [Rothschild] and how he works with pitchers when preparing for a game, it's developing a game plan for the opposing lineup and really just doing a good job of controlling the pitching staff. We've obviously got a very talented pitching staff, but we've got some guys who have some really good breaking balls and some really live fastballs, and that makes his job back there a lot harder. We've got guys who throw a lot of split-fingers, so he's got to block a lot more balls. As an outfielder coming up, I didn't have to worry about that stuff, but as a catcher you obviously do and I appreciate the job those guys do back there."

"I think everyone knew that once you got to this level there would be a learning curve in how to handle a pitching staff," Green says. "I think he's making strides in the right direction. I think he has an idea of what each pitcher likes to do. … I don't think any of us have a doubt in Gary when the tying run is on third base. I think we all have enough confidence to bounce a breaking ball in there and trust he's going to block it."

***

Privately, Sanchez works tirelessly to keep the ball in his glove. Publicly, he's been pretty busy depositing pitches into the outfield seats.

Through Sept. 10, Sanchez was entrenched in the middle of the Yankees' lineup, batting .280 and trailing only Judge on the team with 30 home runs and 83 RBI. Those numbers become all the more impressive considering that Sanchez lost much of the first month of the 2017 season due to a biceps injury. But in some ways, the injury was a blessing in disguise. With expectations for the catcher into the outer stratosphere, the burning bright spotlight of New York was squarely on Sanchez when the season kicked off. In his first five games before the injury, the young catcher collected three hits and the Yankees won just one game. Questions about the team's struggles were bound to find the back of the guy who was supposed to be leading the so-called "Baby Bombers."

Instead, Sanchez went on the disabled list on April 8, and the Yankees went on an eight-game winning streak. By the time he returned to the lineup on May 5, the team had gone from 1-4 to 17-9. In his first 12 games back in the lineup, Sanchez batted .370 with three home runs and nine RBI. By the end of the month, the Yankees were leading the American League East by two games, and Sanchez was in the middle of a five-game hitting streak. His overall numbers were good, not great, but few people were talking to or about the catcher because the guy just a few lockers down from him in the clubhouse was in the midst of setting the baseball world on fire.

With a lot less fanfare than Judge, Sanchez earned his first All-Star selection. In the Home Run Derby, he eliminated No. 1 seed and 2016 champ Giancarlo Stanton in the first round. Through mid-September, he was leading all catchers in home runs, runs scored and RBI, despite playing fewer games than many of his peers in those categories.

"Offense isn't exactly easy either," Sanchez laughs. "It's definitely not easy to balance both hitting and catching because you want to be good at both. It's really tough to be at 100 percent at both aspects of the game at the same time. Usually you feel better hitting than on defense, or the other way around. You have to find a way to balance it and be more consistent all the time so both of them are equally good at the same time all the time. Putting them together to be at 100 percent all the time, it takes a balance, and it's all about putting in the consistent work."

After most of his pregame catching prep is done, Sanchez works in the cage under the watchful eyes of his hitting coaches. He'll often take early batting practice on the field prior to his regularly scheduled round just a few hours before game time. Sanchez can point to his stat line as evidence of the time he puts in, but when the inevitable slumps hit, queries about his prowess at the plate are as relentless as those about his defense.

Sanchez had another blistering August -- he batted .287, mashed 12 home runs, scored 19 runs and drove in 26 in 28 games -- but it came on the heels of a July in which he struggled. Reporters asked everyone -- Sanchez, his teammates and manager Joe Girardi -- what was going wrong with the catcher.

"There's obviously a lot of outside noise that can affect guys in a negative way, and I think that, as much as possible, we're kind of wired to block all of that out and just focus on what we need to focus on here in the clubhouse," Gardner says. "Once the game starts, once the lights turn on, we try to shift our focus to the field, carrying out our game plan and sticking to our approach. There's obviously a lot of different things pulling guys in a lot of different directions, especially as a young player, especially in the market we're in here in New York, but I think the young guys like Gary are doing a great job of trying to balance all of that so they can keep their focus on the field."

Clearly, Sanchez was able to right the ship offensively. But more importantly, he used his struggles to add to his growing canon of knowledge about how to succeed on the big-league stage.

"The important thing about being a good hitter is that when those bad times come around, you want to stay mentally strong and mentally focused on what you need to do," he says. "Those hard times are going to go by, and you're going to be able to get through it and you'll get out of it. It's important to keep your head high and just never lose trust in yourself."

The words are exceptionally mature, especially considering that Sanchez is still just 24 years old and finishing up his first full season in the major leagues. But to Peña, they represent that which is most impressive about Sanchez.

"It's been a pleasant surprise to see how fast he has grown," the coach says. "He's only 24! All I can say is that I'm happy he's on our side because he's going to be really good. A lot of young catchers, they come to the big leagues and they can't stay. You see so many catchers come up to the big leagues, and then they go back down. He came in with the goal to stay, and that's all you can ask. And we're still waiting for him to keep growing. He's going to keep growing into the game. He will find out what he needs to do to be successful. He will learn every single skill he needs with time. It takes time because you cannot learn the whole game overnight. It's a lot. But he will do it. There is not a question in my mind that he will be one of the best catchers in baseball."

***

"Best catcher in baseball" is a pretty loaded label. Those who wear it live in such rarefied air that it can be hard to breathe up there, what with all the expectations and demands. It's a long climb. But, man, is the view terrific.

Gary Sanchez isn't there yet -- he hasn't seen it. His ascent has just begun, and if we're being honest, he might never make it all the way to the top. But it won't be for lack of trying.

Every minute, every day, every game, the catcher is focused on getting better, taking small steps, adjusting to the new challenges of the higher elevation. Any good climber will tell you that sometimes you have to go backward before you can move forward -- and we've seen that in the last year through all of Sanchez's ups and downs.

He has limitless potential, and his talent and work ethic suggest that he could actually be the rare guy who lives up to those expectations. Just don't ask him about them.

"I like to focus day by day and not look too far ahead," he says. "That's what I like to do, and that's what keeps me going. The focus is to go out there and play hard, do the best I can and keep winning. That's what I like to do."

Gary Sanchez has no time to speculate about what he might become, or the heights he might reach. He's too busy doing the work to actually get there.

Hilary Giorgi is the associate editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the October 2017 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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