Yankees Magazine: A new path forward

It has been a year to forget, but 2020 could offer Yankees fans reason to celebrate

July 23rd, 2020

If there’s one thing that we can all agree on -- a tall order these days -- it’s that 2020 has been the year that the metaphors died. Hyperbole became reality. Worst-case scenarios turned ordinary.

So when Yankees manager Aaron Boone said that one of the things he enjoyed most about the rare spring and early summer at home was watching the seasons change out the window, no one on the conference call betrayed even a slight chuckle. Literally watching leaves grow? It checks out.

Those who crave baseball do so with a full-bodied totality. The typical half-year absence forced Honus Wagner to stare out the window and wait for spring; when spring 2020 came and went without a single game, the Yankees’ manager manned that same vantage point.

“Watching, as simple as it is, the trees fill in, that’s been unique,” Boone said on July 1. “I’ve been keenly aware of where you are in the year, as far as the weather and trees around.”

As we write this, Boone is back where he belongs, along with his full squad of players ready to embark on a most extraordinary baseball campaign. It’s all ramping up again, at hyperspeed: Sixty games to watch Gerrit Cole and Aaron Judge and Gleyber Torres do what they do best, only in a surreal, suspended state of silence. On the one hand, if all goes right, and baseball returns? It will be baseball. It will look different and feel different and sound different and be different. But baseball.

On the other hand? What has gone right these past few months? Not all at once now …

Spring Training officially closed down in mid-March. Over the next three-plus months, as the pandemic circled the globe and settled over the United States like a dark storm, the members of the team passed time in their own ways. They all worked to stay in shape, sure; these are professional athletes. But what do a bunch of famous ballplayers accustomed to living a life of luxury as they jet set around the country do when conditions force them to stay at home?

Some killed time playing video games, with varying levels of intensity. Others rehabbed nagging injuries. Certain players joined their fellow citizens in protest, while others educated themselves to learn more about the fires raging around them. Everyone learned new routines, new motivational strategies, new mental and physical tics to replace spitting and licking fingers. No one said this would be easy. But we all pass the time in our own way, and it has gotten us to this point.

“We’re here,” Giancarlo Stanton said. “We’re going by the protocols we need, lining ourselves up to be successful for the year. As long as we can keep to that and nothing crazy happens, I think we’ll be all right.”

***

Between Brooklyn Nets content, NYCFC matches, New York Liberty games, and, of course, wall-to-wall Yankees coverage, YES Network executives rarely have to spend much time thinking about how to fill a programming schedule during the summer months. But as the sports world closed up shop in March, John Filippelli, the network’s president of production and programming, stared at a blank slate and tried to create a plan to make something out of literally nothing.

There was no contingency plan, no ideas kicked around over the network’s 19 years for what to do if a global pandemic made sports up and disappear.

“We are prepared for about anything that can happen to you,” Filippelli said. “But you know what? We weren’t prepared for this. No one was prepared for this.”

There were old Yankeeography episodes and collected CenterStage interviews that they could re-air (although accessing the archives was a challenge with the Stamford, Connecticut, offices closed at the outset). But Filippelli also leaned into new and timely content, creating daily interview programs and social media initiatives that came to be known as YES, We’re Here. Meredith Marakovits, instead of reporting from Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, hosted chats with Yankees players and other baseball figures from her apartment in Clearwater, Florida. And in one particularly relevant highlight, the network’s Jack Curry secured an interview with the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, a lifelong Yankees fan.

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“It’s one thing to hear a medical expert talking about the COVID-19 situation on CNN or in a White House briefing,” Filippelli said. “When you’re speaking to a Yankees audience, and you start with something about the Yankees, you have an immediate connection. Therefore your message resonates louder because of that connection.”

Baseball really is all about connections, and few things democratize the relationship between fans and players more than video games. Around the Yankees’ clubhouse, reliever Tommy Kahnle is the guy who plays all the popular games -- he says he’s best at Madden, but knows his way around the Call of Duty franchise, as well. Basically, if it’s a competitive multiplayer game, Kahnle is in.

So when he got a call from his agent about passing some of the time during quarantine playing video games, it was a pretty easy “yes.” Kahnle was the Yankees’ representative in “MLB The Show Players League,” a joint effort between MLB, the Players Association and Sony Interactive Entertainment. One player from each team competed to support Boys & Girls Clubs, and Kahnle stormed back from an 0-4 start to finish 18-11, missing the playoffs by a single game. All the while, fans followed the action on Twitch and other social platforms. (The Rays’ Blake Snell eventually took home the glory.)

The Yankees’ reliever had barely any experience with this version of the game before the tournament began, which contributed to the rough start.

“Those first four or five games, I was like, ‘Yikes, what is happening?’” he says. “I couldn’t figure out how to run the bases.”

But his Yankees brethren weren’t going to let him off the hook with any excuses.

“A lot of ‘You’re trash’ early on,” Kahnle says of his teammates’ reactions, laughing. “I think they all just watched the first games and were like, ‘He stinks, I’m over it.’ The rest of the way, no one really cared. I would tell Zack Britton how I was doing because he’s usually the guy I’m playing against at night.”

***

While hopes remain that there could eventually be some real, live human fans in the actual Bronx seats, the Yankees got their first taste of quarantineball on July 6 during an intrasquad game in an empty Yankee Stadium. Despite the YES Network’s live coverage, it resembled a baseball game in only the most general of terms. Often, there was just one outfielder, sometimes two. One inning, starting pitcher JA Happ stayed on the mound after recording the final out to do a couple of fielding drills. Radley Haddad, the bullpen catcher, was calling balls and strikes.

But it looked enough like baseball for those among us still crazy after all these months. Heralded prospect Clarke Schmidt -- who looked so promising in the before-time’s Spring Training -- worked magic straight out of a Pitching Ninja fever dream, his pitches dancing around the Yankees’ big bats.

“Clarke made me look silly,” said Luke Voit, “so he did a really good job.”

It was a surreal experience, Schmidt’s debut on the Yankee Stadium mound, yet a million miles from what he had dreamed of.

“For a lot of people, it was intrasquad, but it was a lot more to me,” Schmidt said. “This morning I looked at the lineup card, and I was so excited. Tonight, having the opportunity to face the starting lineup for the Yankees in Yankee Stadium, this is awesome. There’s no better opportunity for me.”

Meanwhile, Thairo Estrada homered. No one got hurt. Quite the opposite, in fact. Judge, Stanton and Aaron Hicks were just a few of the active Yankees who all but certainly wouldn’t have been ready for Opening Day had it been held as originally planned on March 26. Instead, Hicks seemed likely to come back from Tommy John surgery without missing a single game, while Judge used the time to heal up a fractured rib, and Stanton got to rest his balky calf. James Paxton, who underwent back surgery in the winter that would have shelved him until about May, was out there in those first workouts, ready to go.

“It felt good to get back on a dirt mound,” Paxton said after his first session. “I’ve been throwing on a turf mound in running shoes for the last little while. Facing some of our hitters, it was great. Felt good, felt healthy; it was a good first step for me.”

Making the most of an empty stadium isn’t just a job for big league players and organizations in 2020, though. It was June 30 when the news that had long been assumed around Minor League towns became official; there would be no season for the teams that fill in the parts of the country without access to the sport’s top echelon. From a development standpoint, it would be a lost year of progress; for players, fans and employees of the teams that dot the minor league landscape, it would further calcify the image of a world frozen in time.

“It’s been gut-wrenching, it’s been hard, it’s been very difficult,” said Charleston RiverDogs director of marketing Walter Nolan-Cohn, dictating a thesaurus of misery. Nolan-Cohn -- who, it should be said, is just 25 years old -- noted that it was the toughest time he had seen in his career working in professional sports, a statement that caused him to snicker a bit. But the sentiment was one commonly experienced around the country. Fans adore their big-league teams because of the history, of the tradition, of the pursuit of a flag that will fly until the end of time. Around the minors, though, it’s about latching onto something more intimate, to the community. You go to see the ground floor being constructed rather than to celebrate the topping-off ceremony.

Months before the RiverDogs -- a Low-A Yankees affiliate in the South Atlantic League -- learned for sure that the season would be washed out, Nolan-Cohn, like any good minor league hype man, tried to find a way to maintain that communal sense in an era without ballgames. He reached back to the memory bank of a visit in 2017 from representatives of the Korea Baseball Organization’s Samsung Lions, who, along with the rest of the KBO, returned to the field much sooner than anyone in the United States. If the RiverDogs couldn’t promote baseball at Joseph P. Riley, Jr. Park in 2020, they could at least try to build the same community with an adoption of sorts of their friends in Korea.

“When this all started, we thought, ‘How do we keep baseball going with us in Charleston?” Nolan-Cohn said. “And we kind of thought about that relationship that we had struck up back in ’17, and we reached out and gauged interest, and immediately there was a ton of interest on their side.”

So the RiverDogs and Lions created a joint promotional manifesto, with Charleston using its social media feeds to promote the Lions and educate American fans about a team -- and a culture -- on the other side of the planet. Buoyed by the fact that ESPN was filling its programming void with KBO games, the two teams still had to manage the time difference -- 13 hours from Daegu, South Korea, to Charleston, South Carolina -- that required most of the meetings and conference calls to take place during bizarre hours. Crazy schedules, though, are nothing new in minor league front offices; in fact, it might have been the most normal aspect of the whole 2020 season, looking around the world and trying to glom onto the most fun parts. Nolan-Cohn’s group would regularly post Lions game updates, while introducing some Korean specialties into the RiverDogs’ recurring social media posts about ballpark food in a ballpark-less year. Kimchi hot dogs and bulgogi burgers -- why not, right?

“You can find the baseball information anywhere,” Nolan-Cohn said. “We are diving in and trying to find what’s fun about the KBO that would interest and align with what’s fun in Minor League baseball.”

***

Even beyond the pandemic, the months baseball spent on hiatus were some of the hardest in the country’s history, as American cities were swept up in the firestorm that stemmed from the killing of George Floyd. Whether it was recently retired CC Sabathia, now a front office special advisor, or current members of the roster such as Judge, Hicks and Stanton, the members of the Yankees family were far from silent. A year after making a long-awaited demonstration of outreach to the LGBTQ community with the Yankees-Stonewall Scholars Initiative -- which, despite baseball’s absence, returned for a second year in June -- the team made a forceful and meaningful accounting that once again showed support for the movement and a determination to look inward at ways to better its own house.

“We have taken time to listen to many of our players, staff and employees, and we intend for this open-ended discourse to remain a constant as we move forward,” read a statement the Yankees released on June 8. “These conversations have been impactful, and at times uncomfortable. They have included the thoughts, fears and anger that the subject of racism elicits.

“Black lives matter. The New York Yankees condemn racism, prejudice and injustice in all forms.”

As the protests around the country grew, the Yankees players who spoke out did so with passion and unity. And the support from all corners of the organization was clear.

“I’m excited that they are expressing themselves,” said Boone. “I always want our guys to feel that freedom and feel like if they want to voice something, especially in the civil unrest and social situation that we’re in, I always encourage that. And our guys have been awesome in this. I feel like they’ve been guys that have stimulated and encouraged conversation.”

Hicks vowed specific changes that he planned to make in how he went about his life, whether during or after the shutdown.

“Trying to wear more Black clothing,” he said, “eat at more Black restaurants. Trying to be out there more in the community to help Black people out in general.”

The movement was impossible to ignore, which was the point. And the message wasn’t limited to the African American community, either; James Paxton’s social media feed became a profile in allyship, as he vowed to learn more and do more to help promote the causes that he saw rising up on the streets. Stanton welcomed the dialogue, and noted some of the things that fellow African American players had endured silently over the years. He’s ready to have the conversations now that all too often were kept quiet.

“I feel like the doors have been opened that should have been opened a long time ago,” Stanton said. “We’ve always talked about it amongst ourselves, the cities where we hear things we shouldn’t in the outfield. … Now’s the time to let it be known that this needs to stop, and we’ve got to be the outlet to get the information out there and lead the force.”

***

We’ve all known forever that the baseball season is long. That’s part of its charm. It turns out, though, the only thing longer than a baseball season is the lack of one. Nine months will have passed between the Yankees’ Game 6 loss in Houston and the scheduled July 23 restart. We’re not made to stare out the window that long.

On paper, the Yankees remain well built for October. It might be more to ask that the dominoes fall in such a way that there even is fall baseball. But the team is healthy, it’s hungry, and it now comes packing Gerrit Cole. It would seem all that remained was learning how to play a socially distant brand of the sport, and how to avoid spitting sunflower seeds while on the field.

“I think we’re a very deep, balanced, well-rounded club with a lot of potential,” Boone said on July 1, as the players -- with the exceptions of DJ LeMahieu and Luis Cessa, who had tested positive for COVID-19 before the intake process began -- were reporting to camp at Yankee Stadium. “I’ll take that in any scenario, whether we’re talking about 162 or a 60-game season. I’ll take our guys against anyone.”

Three days later, though, Boone was among the Yankees staff gathered around the mound when Masahiro Tanaka took a Stanton liner off the temple during live batting practice. A year after managing a road to October despite a catastrophically crowded injured list, it all seemed to begin anew in the very first official team workout.

Not so fast with the whole moving right along thing, huh?

But then Tanaka seemed to have dodged the worst of it, and he was seen joking with teammates the next day. A terrifying moment remained just that, and the dark mood lifted before the cloud could open up.

Nothing is going to be easy in 2020. Even when the Yankees -- along with Major League Baseball and the other 29 teams -- put in the work, things still might go wrong. You can’t just socially distance yourself out of the path of a blistering line drive, and you can’t bring in a reliever to pitch your way out of a pandemic. And it’s way too soon to understand exactly where July 23, 2020, will eventually fall in the timeline of this wave.

So we beat on. We all missed baseball. And while we’re forced away from the ballparks, and the games play out in front of empty seats, baseball will no doubt miss us. Nothing is normal yet.

But the players are on the field. They’re here, and they’re ready to go.

Might as well play ball.