The most sought-after piece of merchandise in the Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders clubhouse features the logo of the television show Homegrown: The Path to Pinstripes. It makes some sense when you consider how many different uniforms the RailRiders wear (on this weekend alone, they’ll dress in different jerseys for each of the three games). The one constant seems to be the coveted Homegrown swag.
The players, it seems, have no problems serving as walking billboards for the YES Network program, which wraps its third season this month. And that’s appropriate; after all, the show is essentially a long-running advertisement for the guys, themselves.
“I wanted to show the hard work,” says Blayke Scheer, who pitched the idea for a program documenting life in the high-Minors four years ago and has produced every episode in the show’s run. “No one sees what you guys are doing,” she told the players. “I want fans to get to know you. They don’t know that you’re here at 10 in the morning for a 7 o’clock game.”
So, Scheer is like Santa Claus with her bags of clothing. And when she’s not outfitting the guys in the room, Scheer -- along with her crew of two cameramen and an audio engineer -- is telling their stories. She’s a confidante, an adviser, even sometimes a friend. She’s there when they struggle and when they break through, when they finally get the call to the big leagues and when they maybe return a few days later. In the three years she has been producing the show, Scheer has seen guys such as Gleyber Torres and Gio Urshela leave the nest for good, but she has also seen the Scranton Shuttle in full effect; Clint Frazier was featured in the first-ever episode, and he’s still trying to get back to the Bronx permanently. Tyler Wade, Chance Adams, Mike Ford, Stephen Tarpley … the list of recurring regulars coming back to her “studio” is longer than any Minor Leaguer wants to consider.
If it creates a strange balance, then that’s life. The obvious comps for a show such as Homegrown are unavoidable -- think HBO’s Hard Knocks or Amazon’s All or Nothing -- or, on shoots when Scheer gets particularly lucky, any location of Real Housewives -- and they crop up constantly. “I watched the first episode of Hard Knocks last night; it reminded me of this,” RailRiders first baseman Ryan McBroom tells Scheer while the audio engineer, Reggie Gibson, mikes him up for an afternoon event with sponsors.
But the Hard Knocks formula, now 14 years strong, has at least one aspect that Scheer simply can’t match (to say nothing of the fact that the HBO program has something like 15 cameras to Scheer’s two): Every season, the star of the Hard Knocks is the rookie who makes the team in the season finale. That’s just not how life goes in Triple-A, where sticking around long enough to become a familiar face is hardly the goal. Stardom on Hard Knocks means success; on Homegrown it’s not so simple.
Into this paradox steps Deivi Garcia, the Yankees’ top pitching prospect, ready for his close-up. Called up to Triple-A in July after a dominant performance during the All-Star Futures Game in Cleveland, Garcia has the makings of a star. “There is something about him,” Scheer says, her producer brain considering the opportunity his presence late in the season can provide. “I’ve been wooed.” A few rooms over, RailRiders manager Jay Bell strums a similar chord. “On the field, there’s a lot to Deivi Garcia,” Bell says. “The mound presence that he displays, you can’t teach that. It’s just who he is.”
Telling stories and making stories; it’s funny how they can overlap.
Deivi Garcia is 20 years old, and 20-year-olds -- especially stylish, sharp-dressed 20-year-olds, a club to which Garcia certainly belongs -- like fresh sunglasses. That seems like a possible in for Scheer as she gets down to business this weekend.
She arrived at PNC Field with loads more ideas than plans. That’s usually how things go. “I never know until the last day,” she says, explaining how she outlines each episode. “And even sometimes until I get into the edit room.” So, Scheer tries to be in something like 10 places at once. On the field, where the pitchers are stretching. In the bullpen, where Garcia is chatting with pitching coach Tommy Phelps. In the front office, for general manager Josh Olerud’s staff meeting, or maybe in the car running an errand with clubhouse manager Mike Macciocco. Or, of course, in the dugout during the game, when a Homegrown regular will get life-changing news. She has the key to just about every locked door in the stadium, and that’s good, because there are stories everywhere. A few microphones on booms and lapels can help her hear, but her eyes are more or less limited to what director of photography Mark Doyle and camera B operator Matt Wermes are able to record. She’ll drown in footage at the end of the weekend as she works in an editing bay in Connecticut, writing scripts for Gregg Ledermann to read and cutting hours of tape, but she’ll still wonder what she missed.
Then there’s the reality that the cameras and microphones naturally change the stories. “We’re live!” infielder Wendell Rijo screams, running onto the field for batting practice after getting miked up. Wermes says that it’s always the players who don’t expect to be any good on camera that end up being the best, and Rijo is a natural. He starts off by telling the players he approaches that he’s dangerous, and they know what he means, but even when he tries to sneakily make small talk with a bunch of pitchers, they pick up on his scent quickly and send him scurrying off. He’s a star throughout the segment, doing his best to stealthily interview as many RailRiders teammates as possible, and listening on headphones, Scheer can’t stop laughing. “I’m going to put a reel together for him,” she says. “He’s going to be working for ESPN Deportes by the time I’m done.” But when she removes the microphone so he can hit, catcher Erik Kratz verbalizes what a lot of the players seemed to be thinking. “Thank you, Blayke,” Kratz says, “for giving me my friend back.”
Ever joyful -- notwithstanding his ejection for arguing balls and strikes on Saturday night -- Rijo seems exhilarated by the experience. “It’s amazing,” he says of the whole production. “They want to know everything about us, and that’s special for me and for everybody. The people can’t understand how tough the Minor League system is -- it’s just a grind. And this helps people get to know that.”
Rijo, a Dominican Republic native with bat speed as eye-catching as his wide smile, tries to encourage his Latin teammates to work on their English with the Homegrown crew, and Scheer goes out of her way to help the players along. In the confessional booth, she’ll try to get them to give her a sentence in English at a time, and she can help create seamless, paragraph-length thoughts in editing. When necessary, she relies on translated subtitles or overdubbing, whatever it takes to get the most players possible in front of the camera. “I don’t ever want this show to not feature someone because they don’t speak English,” she says.
For a confessional segment with Garcia, Scheer has Rijo translate a question in advance. Then they walk into the booth (actually the umpires’ dressing room) and record his answer. They’re in and out in about 30 seconds. “He’s lucky, he gets no follow-ups,” Scheer laughs. As for Garcia, the attention is no bother. “I’ve actually enjoyed it so far,” he says later, assisted by coach Julio Borbón. “I know the importance of it, and it’s something I’ve embraced.”
The confession booth is where a lot of Homegrown’s magic happens. Scheer hopes to get about eight or so individual interviews during each trip, anywhere from Garcia’s 30 seconds to a couple of minutes for a more complicated topic. Wermes sets up the camera and the backdrop, remembering where each of the umpires’ possessions had been so they can all be put back perfectly when the shoot is done (and heaven forbid the umpires show up when the crew is still in there, which has happened once or twice). Fortunately for the crew, there are still tape marks on the carpet from the first season’s camera positions, so resetting the room is easier than it would be otherwise. The room sits just outside the main locker area, off a hallway that leads to the video room, heavily trafficked by RailRiders players and coaches. “There’s always someone who will come in,” Wermes says as he sets the backdrop in place. “If you build it, they will come.”
As for the sunglasses-buying trip, Minor League life giveth and also taketh away. The plan was for Garcia and fellow pitcher Adonis Rosa to head out to the store with the crew, but when Rosa had to cancel due to his pitching schedule, Garcia didn’t feel comfortable going without someone who could help translate. “You want to get him,” Scheer says of building a program around Garcia, who fortunately is scheduled to pitch on Sunday, before she heads back to Stamford, Connecticut. “That’s the star. Our prospects change a little bit, so you want to make sure you get those stars. Everyone in this clubhouse is important. But you do want to feature the top prospect because as much as I love showing the Brady Lails and the Cale Coshows, the fans do want to see that next star. And that is how I sold this show.”
Garcia may be destined for stardom, but he has struggled since the promotion to Triple-A, with more experienced hitters, a tighter strike zone, and the new Major League ball that the International League uses. Yet, the total package he offers still shines bright.
“Another 20-year-old?” Phelps thinks while trying to find a pitcher with whom to compare Garcia. “Well, I haven’t had too many 20-year-olds here.” Kratz echoes that sentiment on the field, saying that the only thing about Garcia that makes the stud hurler seem like a 20-year-old is his driver’s license.
There’s a composure to Garcia -- in conversation, to be sure, but also in the way he stands on the rubber, ready to compete, raring to go. “It doesn’t matter what the situation is out there on the mound,” Bell says. “He is prepared for everything.” He talks like a veteran, thinks like a veteran. There’s never doubt in his voice, and translated from Spanish, the confidence still screams. He says he’s patient. He’s observant, detail-oriented. He doesn’t believe in bad outings; he learns something every time he’s on the mound. “I never really in my mind doubted that I would reach this level,” he says. “I just focused on being able to learn from everybody that I was around, despite the time that I was going to be able to spend around them. I focused on every outing.”
Bell looks at his 20-year-old pitcher and sees promise. It’s exciting, the way Garcia’s repertoire conjures memories of Bell’s former Pirates teammate Doug Drabek. Neither was going to flirt with a third digit on the radar gun, but Bell sees a familiar fastball philosophy, and a great shape to his breaking ball and change-up. Most people, certainly unfairly, go to a different pitcher from Bell’s generation, Pedro Martínez. Another slight Dominican pitcher, Garcia leans into the Pedro comps by wearing a No. 45 on his glove. Whatever his pinstriped jersey eventually reads, it’s going to take time for everything to come together.
But, oh, there are signs. People around the Yankees system talk about his fastball like oenophiles discuss wine: It’s all about the deceptive late notes. “He’s got some finish to his fastball,” Phelps says. Yes, his curveball is outstanding, his change-up better than advertised, and the slider he’s developing already looks razor-sharp. But forget about the numbers on his fastball. Just do what Kratz suggests, and watch the hitter. “They’re always going to let you know,” he says. “Their body language. As a catcher, you get to the point where a guy takes a pitch, and you can tell he’s still late. He’s not on that. He might have been taking the whole way, or he might have been trying to see a pitch. His timing’s not there.
“That’s the kind of fastball Deivi has. Even on nights when it’s only 90, it still gets on guys.”
Before the weekend started, Scheer explained that there would be a lot of waiting around. What she failed to mention was just how awkward some of the waiting could be. On Saturday night, J.P. Feyereisen’s parents were at the game, and in the eighth inning, the crew headed to the stands for an interview. Only, once Doyle had his camera in position and Gibson had his boom up and ready, Bell emerged from the dugout to summon from the bullpen, of all people, Feyereisen. Not wanting to step on the moment Feyereisen’s family came to see, the crew tried to make themselves and all of their equipment invisible until the inning ended.
After the win, which snapped a four-game skid, Feyereisen led his usual postgame celebration in the clubhouse, presenting the championship belt to that night’s star, pitcher Josh Maciejewski, as Eddie Murphy’s ludicrous 1985 hit single “Party All the Time” blasted and club lights flashed. In the seconds before Feyereisen made the presentation, he walked over to Scheer and asked how to pronounce Maciejewski’s name, as the pitcher had just been called up from Trenton that day. The producer life never stops.
Scheer, Doyle, Wermes and Gibson have handled almost every episode of the show since its launch together, and in that time, the crew has built a valuable trust with the guys in the clubhouse (and not just by doling out Homegrown swag). So, when new faces come to town, the other players help Scheer and her crew make inroads, and vice-versa. “They’ve seen how Blayke is,” says Lail, “how well their crew handles us. We’re a pain in the butt sometimes. Those guys that kept coming up through the system were able to accept that and see how those guys experienced it, and get right to it.” That trust helps the Homegrown crew tell the stories that wouldn’t otherwise break through.
Everyone in Triple-A has game, but it’s not as though the room is filled with 25 Gleyber Torreses, or even 25 Deivi Garcias. There’s no shame in being McBroom or Lail or Gosuke Katoh; quite the opposite. Homegrown is their story, arguably more so than the superstars. For the guys on the cusp, there are different stakes involved, real, swaying emotions. Last year, a dejected Mike Ford told Scheer that he expected he would be a financial adviser within a year. Instead, he was hitting home runs in Yankee Stadium this summer. Lail has been appearing on the show since it debuted, so when he got the surprise call to the bigs during Saturday’s game, it played like a major, late-season plot twist for a show’s third season. “It just gives fans an opportunity to see how people really are, aside from the way they play on the field,” McBroom says. “And I think it’s really cool to bring cameras around and see the time and effort we put in, and how our days go.”
As for Garcia? Scheer’s going to draw eyeballs to a few episodes of Homegrown on the young stud’s back. But she’s not sweating things like a sunglasses-buying trip blowing up. She would love to tell the definitive Garcia story, but the reality is that before too long, the young right-hander is going to get all the attention he could ever want. Sure enough, he takes a big step forward in his Sunday start, 41⁄3 solid innings with five strikeouts and two walks. Two punchouts stand out: one, of former Yankees catcher John Ryan Murphy, came on a curveball that Monet himself could have painted, buckling Murphy’s entire body. Another saw Andrés Blanco stare in disbelief at a fastball that just couldn’t have done what it actually did. Kratz knows of what he speaks.
At its best, Homegrown is telling the other side of the story. As the third season approached, Scheer feared that it was going to be something of a downer. The 2019 Yankees looked stacked, one through 25, and she was nervous that the Triple-A clubhouse would be filled with unhappy guys feeling trapped, left behind. Funny how things work out. And as a result, she’s gotten to see some new names emerge, guys never expected to be front and center this year. The stories write themselves. “I feel like, because I was a baseball fan growing up, that there was always a disconnect between the fan and the player,” Katoh says. “I always wanted to be right next to the players, to know what they were thinking, but it was always hard. Now everyone knows what the Minor League life is like.”