The long wait was finally over. The offseason months spent daydreaming about baseball, the practice sessions to get ready for this moment -- those were all in the past. Opening Day had arrived, and the excitement was undeniable. Young ballplayers in their fresh-pressed uniforms giddily admired each other’s shiny new cleats. They pounded their fists into their gloves, inspecting the leather webbing’s construction. At the start of the national anthem, the ballplayers removed unblemished caps that would never look as new as they did just then.
Every spring, from humble municipal fields to sparkling big league diamonds, some version of this scene plays out countless times across the United States. Opening Day is a special time, and for players of any age, being in full uniform during the ceremonies is a thrill. It doesn’t matter whether they play for the New York Yankees or Bloomfield Pest Control; those players understand that it’s a privilege to suit up for a baseball team, and that it’s important to look good -- especially at the start of a new season. The slate is clean, and so should be the pants. And if you think that the excitement of a crisp uniform and new equipment fades as the players grow older, think again.
As the Yankees embarked on their 2019 season, several members of the team revealed what new gear they’re most excited about, which pieces of equipment they carry over from previous seasons, whose bats have the most hits in them, and what it means to put on the most iconic uniform in sports.
“I am not really superstitious,” CC Sabathia insists. The veteran left-hander is standing in front of his locker, where underneath his No. 52 home jersey some very large Jordan Brand cleats are neatly aligned along a shelf. After announcing in February his plan to retire after this season, Sabathia missed out on Opening Day at Yankee Stadium, forced to watch it on TV while in Tampa, Florida. He was serving out a five-game suspension from last year’s run-in with the Rays and trying to slowly and carefully return to game speed after heart surgery in December, so when he became the first Yankees player to be pulled off the injured list, it was a true homecoming. Back in his familiar parcel of the Yankees clubhouse for the start of the team’s second homestand, the 39-year-old couldn’t contain his boyish grin when discussing the gear that he’ll be rocking during his 19th and final season.
When it comes to equipment, he doesn’t get too attached to things or put them through a Jobu-like spiritual cleansing before taking them into a game. Sabathia likes to start the season with all new stuff, even his glove, which he’ll break in along the way. “I just use it as it comes,” he says with a shrug.
His spikes -- now that’s a different story. For many athletes, having a strong shoe game is nearly as important as putting up numbers, and Sabathia has been doing both for a very long time. He loves his Air Jordans, often putting his own spin on them to create unique and -- in some cases -- top-secret designs.
“I don’t want to give it all away because it’s some good stuff,” Sabathia says of his 2019 cleat outlook. “I’ve definitely got my [Jordan] 13s, my 11s again. I’ll be wearing some 9s. But I got some good stuff for the end of the year, so I don’t want to give it away. It’ll be good -- something that I’ve never worn.”
The Yankees allow a lot more leeway than they used to when it comes to customizing cleats, which is good news for Clint Frazier. When asked about breaking in the flame-red Wilson A2000 glove sitting atop his locker stall, Frazier steers the conversation toward the colorful array of spikes near the floor. “This is the gear that I’m excited about,” he says.
The style-conscious 24-year-old adheres to the Yankees’ policy that only team colors (blue, white and gray) are allowed on his feet during games, but the ratio of those colors and the design of the shoe are up to the individual player. And so while Frazier would love to lace up something as eye-catching as the neon green Phillie Phanatic cleats that Bryce Harper wore in his first game at Citizens Bank Park this season, he takes full advantage of his podiatric autonomy, using a custom shoe company to add cleats to his collection of premium Jordan kicks.
“I dropped my contract with Adidas, by choice,” Frazier says. “I’m a free agent with everything. I had a full head-to-toe with Adidas, but I kind of just wanted the freedom to wear whatever I want because typically, whenever you sign with a company, they push certain models of shoes every year. For me, I wear the Jordan 1s every day, so putting them in a cleat feels good on my feet. And honestly, man, up here in New York, there’s a lot of opportunities for a lot of eyes to watch, the more creative that you are.”
As one of the game’s biggest stars, Aaron Judge has no shortage of gear in his locker that marketing executives pray he gets photographed wearing. Adidas reps must have taken notice of the Yogi Berra/Baseballism “Yo8i” T-shirt that Judge wore underneath his uniform every day in 2018; this year they supplied him with undershirts featuring the “AJ99” logo -- complete with inset gavel -- that they designed for him.
“They just come up with whatever they can,” he says, grateful for the company’s creativity, yet a bit bashful about having his own likeness stamped on his chest. For Judge, choosing gear is based more on performance than anything else. Scanning the contents of his locker stall a few hours before first pitch on Opening Day, he says that he might use a pair of sunglasses from last year that he likes, but everything else is new -- and is chosen with on-field success in mind. He wears basketball-style shoes, not just because they look cool, but because they’re easy to get in a bigger size and offer greater support.
“Everyone’s always coming out with new technology and better performing shoes or arm sleeves or whatever they got, so I always try to go with the latest and newest if I can,” Judge says.
With so many options, how does the All-Star outfielder choose which cleats to wear in the game that day?
“If they’re lucky, you roll with them,” he says, grinning. “If you’re not feeling them that day -- baseball players are superstitious, so, we just roll with what we’re feeling.”
DJ LeMahieu knows exactly what Judge means. “I try not to be too superstitious with that stuff,” the infielder says, not long after explaining that if he’s hitting well, he’ll stick with the same 34-inch, 32-ounce Marucci bat. If not, that bat goes back in the rack. “Same with the cleats. I’ll kind of roll with them as long as I’m playing well and the team’s playing well, but switch it up if we need to switch,” LeMahieu says. “I guess all of it ties to playing well.”
After coming over from the Rockies, the 30-year-old was outfitted for all new threads during Spring Training. Putting on a Yankees uniform for the first time was “pretty cool,” LeMahieu says. “It’s special to wear that logo.” There was one piece of gear, however, that had to make the trip from Colorado to the Bronx.
“I try to keep my glove as long as I can,” he says. “I think this will be my fourth year with it.” Using a tan Rawlings gamer that looks no different from one you might find at the local sporting goods store, LeMahieu won three of the last five National League Gold Glove Awards at second base, including the last two in a row.
“I can’t get rid of it.”
Glove colors run the gamut, at least among the non-pitchers. The teal outfielder’s glove that Judge is breaking in wouldn’t fly on the mound, where it could be considered a distraction to the hitter. Pitchers’ attire is a little more tightly regulated, so hurlers find subtle ways to personalize their gloves, often having inscriptions sewn into the leather. Sabathia has had “RIP N.B.” on his glove ever since his 25-year-old cousin, Nate Berhel, died in 2004. Luis Severino can find inspiration any time he needs it by looking down at his glove and seeing his daughter Abigail’s name on it. On the inside of Masahiro Tanaka’s glove, Japanese characters remind the pitcher that pouring his heart and soul into his craft is what has set him apart throughout a terrific career in Japan and the U.S.
Zack Britton has worn the same glove since he was in A-ball more than a decade ago, for no reason other than that it has stayed in good shape. But around the same time that he began using the black Wilson model, he started wearing something else that has remained a part of his game-day uniform ever since. In 2007, his close childhood friend, Sandi Stephens, was killed. They had grown up going to church together; their older brothers were friends with each other. And so after Stephens died, Britton had a T-shirt made up honoring her.
“We were really close; I still talk to her dad,” the reliever says. “I’ve worn that shirt my whole career to pitch in. It’s just a nice way to remember her.”
Luke Voit typically eschews any sort of undershirt, “Except for maybe today because it’s freezing,” he says before an early April game against Detroit. Most days, he’ll leave the top button of his jersey undone, giving his ample chest room to breathe and allowing his two chains -- one from his grandma and granddad, who passed away; the other a wedding gift he received from his wife, Tori, this past offseason -- to fly free.
Voit swings a 34-inch, 32-ounce Sam Bat, but only after he tapes it up perfectly with Lizard Skins; he’ll redo it if it doesn’t feel just right. The 28-year-old slugger has enjoyed a successful run since joining the Yankees last summer, but he’s hardly immune from the superstitious mindset that infects most hitters’ brains.
“If I have an older bat that might have some hits in it still, I’ll keep using it, but I don’t know, I get weird,” he says. “Like, if I have a bad game, then I’ll go to another bat; I’ll just kind of rotate them. I’ve got like three different cleats. If I do good, I keep wearing them. If I don’t, switch ’em out. Same with my socks and arm sleeves, too. We have the blue, and the dark blue colors, black or whatever, so I kind of rotate them. If I have a crap game, then, ‘Eh, that color didn’t work out too well.’”
Catchers wear so much gear that they can’t afford to get nuts about any of it. “It’s all about comfort,” Austin Romine says. Yet cylinders of lumber can take on mythological personas in the eyes of even the most down-to-earth backstop.
“I went through a phase last year where I was convinced that if my name was on my bat, I couldn’t get a hit,” says Romine, who used Miguel Andújar’s bat for a two- or three-week stretch in 2018. “I think I hit three or four homers, and he was like, ‘Here, take it.’ I guess I do kind of get superstitious about that.”
Even American League pitchers --- who get fitted for a helmet they almost never use and receive maybe four bats at the beginning of the season that get stuffed in a cubbyhole on top of their locker until it’s time for interleagueplay -- will shun a perfectly good Louisville Slugger if they don’t believe it has any hits in it.
“I very rarely ever use my own bat,” says Sabathia, a .300 (12-for-40) hitter with the Indians who is looking to raise his .067 (2-for-30) average as a Yank. “I always use hitters’ bats -- guys that are hitting. I like to use guys’ bats that get hits.”
Just like the Little Leaguers who emulate them, Major League ballplayers put a great deal of thought into the gear they use and wear on the field. There are a lot of choices to make, and players’ decisions can be influenced by many different factors. Troy Tulowitzki used to concern himself with whether his cleats looked cool. Now, after several foot surgeries, “It’s definitely just about comfort,” he says. “If it looks good, that’s icing on the cake.”
James Paxton, the amiable Canadian who tossed a no-hitter for Seattle last May, also seeks comfort over style on the field. If a shoe starts to feel a little loose or if his socks start to lose their elasticity, he’ll replace them. (Although, if he throws another no-no, how do you not stick with that gear?)
Through winning streaks and cold snaps, walk-off homers and rain delays, there is one part of the uniform that never changes. It is the one thing that no one -- not Brett Gardner in his New Balances or Frazier in his Jordans -- would want to customize or replace or mess with in any way, shape or form.
“It doesn’t get any better than this,” Gardner says. “It’s always special to put on this uniform.”
“Even our gray (road) uniforms are just so iconic and classic, any chance you get to put it on is cool,” Sabathia says. “It’s fun to be able to put that jersey on.”
“It’s pretty awesome,” Paxton says. “I’m really excited to be wearing the pinstripes. I feel really good about it. We’ve got a great team here, and I just kind of felt like it fit as soon as I got here.”
Nathan Maciborski is the executive editor of of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the May 2019 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.