This is the third feature in a series looking at the complexities inherent in the 2020 baseball season. If you missed Parts 1 and 2, please visit www.yankees.com/magazine.
The metaphor might at first seem strange, but stick with it. The best comp for the 2020 baseball season -- 60 games of chaotic, pseudo-familiar competition -- might just be a newborn child. Every day brought something different, uncertain, delightful and ominous. And certainly exhausting.
Errors proved catastrophic within a mathematical landscape in which one game equaled 2.7. Successes and failures felt at once more random and consequential. Every day was a lifetime; long in the best ways, short in the worst.
Yogi Berra has been gone five years, but you can’t say he didn’t warn us: It got late early in 2020.
You have to crawl before you walk, of course, only this year demanded an immediate march of progress. Teams stumbled about like toddlers, but were held to account like Olympic sprinters.
“It’s 2020, man,” said … just about every member of the Yankees at one point or another, as fake fans made fake sounds while watching actual, if often imperfect, baseball drama.
If 2017 and ’18 saw the rise of the Baby Bombers, and if 2019 brought us Next Man Up, then 2020 was when the two converged. This most irregular season was, to put it ever so mildly, a roller coaster, with jagged drops left unsmoothed by amassed time. High-numbered newcomers appeared in high-leverage spots. There were walk-off losses at home and leadoff sacrifice flies. It was as if the gods were making magnet poetry out of baseball terminology.
Every baby is perfect -- just ask its mother or father. It’s not that parents aren’t aware of the messes they’ll clean up, the heirlooms that will crash to the ground, the smells they’ll ignore or the sleepless nights ahead. When you wait for something, when you really crave it, you cherish even its imperfections.
Baseball kept us all waiting in 2020, then sprinted through an abbreviated, excruciating, amazing two months of action, propelling its lucky few to postseason berths and potential glory.
Kids. They grow up so fast.
There might be a million ways to tell the story of the Yankees’ 2020 season, but if you have to isolate one stretch, take the period from Aug. 21-30. First there was the three-game set at Citi Field that was postponed when the Mets were exposed to COVID-19. An off-day followed on Aug. 24, then an Aug. 25 contest in Atlanta was rained out, leaving the team with a seven-inning doubleheader on Aug. 26 (which Atlanta swept), then another off-day. That’s when things got really weird.
The schedule called for more doubleheaders on Friday and Sunday at Yankee Stadium, with a single game on Saturday. The Yankees would be the home team for the first games of both twin bills, then the road team for the second. Which led to the odd scenario in Friday’s second game, when the Mets’ Amed Rosario, wearing road grays, hit a most unique walk-off home run in the bottom of the seventh inning. The next day, the Yankees won in a walk-off of their own, the winning run scoring on a bottom-of-the-ninth wild pitch thrown by old friend Dellin Betances.
But Sunday, Aug. 30, brought out the real intrigue. In the first game, the Yankees scored five runs in their bottom-of-the-seventh last licks to tie the game, then won it in the eighth on a walk-off single by Gio Urshela. The second game? Just your average pinch-hit, extra-innings grand slam -- the first in franchise history -- by Gary Sánchez, wearing pinstripes in the top of the eighth inning.
“I think it’s the most games I’ve ever played in three days,” said Aaron Hicks, whose two-out, two-run homer on a 3-2 count tied the first game in the seventh.
The box scores did their best, but how do you find logic in the evolutions of an unprecedented year? On Sept. 4, the Yankees earned their 19th straight win over the Orioles when relief pitcher Jonathan Holder -- who would, in more ways than one, earn the victory in the first game of a doubleheader -- scored the go-ahead run in the top of the ninth inning, being forced into duty as the extra-inning-opening runner on second after the Yankees swapped out their designated hitter two innings before. And years from now, when we look back at the box score from Sept. 12, how will we explain Luke Voit leading off the bottom of the 10th inning with a walk-off sacrifice fly? (We’ll have to recall that DJ LeMahieu started the extra inning on second, advanced to third on a wild pitch, then scored on Voit’s shot to center field.)
“It’s 2020, man,” Voit said. “Things are weird. And you’ve got to take advantage of what opportunities you get.”
The doubleheaders, on top of the ever-fluid schedule, demanded a lot of Aaron Boone’s team. The seven-inning games called for different strategic measures, the pile-up of games testing the entire pitching staff. And all of it happened under the shadow of a season that ramped up quickly, then played out under most unusual circumstances.
“It’s survival of the fittest,” Clint Frazier said. “Whose body stays the most intact on the team, and who doesn’t get coronavirus. And whoever that is might be in the best position to end the year where they want.”
It’s not so surprising that 2020 saw the Yankees’ fortunes swing wildly from week to week. Streaks happen every year, they just get balanced by the overwhelming length of a big league season. With the wild Aug. 29 win over the Mets, the Yankees ended a brutal, sky-is-falling seven-game losing streak. The win brought the team’s record to 17-13 … the same mark the 103-win 2019 Yankees held after 30 games.
And yet, maybe it’s statistical noise of a too-small sample, or maybe there’s something to the fact that through 47 games this season, the Yankees’ team OPS was .177 lower in late, high-leverage situations at home than it was in road games. From 2009, when the current Yankee Stadium opened, through 2019, the team’s OPS was .136 higher at home in those same situations, when you might expect fan noise and energy to impact the game the most. Could it be that there was some part of the Yankees’ special sauce missing? Opposing players sure felt that way.
“Here, you’re used to someone saying, ‘You [stink],’ or something like that,” Tampa Bay’s Blake Snell said after beating the Yankees in the Bronx on Aug. 18. “So in the bullpen today, I made sure to say to myself, ‘You [stink], Snell!’ Just so it felt real authentic, like I was playing the Yankees. It’s weird playing with no fans. I think the reason everyone loves playing at Yankee Stadium is because of the fan base they have, how loyal they are to their team. It’s always fun to see. But playing with no fans, it definitely takes it away from them. That’s definitely an advantage they have being able to play at home.”
Boone said that he particularly felt the difference in games against Boston, and after earning a one-game suspension following a dust-up with the Rays, he found himself watching a game from a suite in an empty Yankee Stadium. After attempting for so long to drown out all that was different about pandemic baseball, he couldn’t ignore it when watching from above.
“It’s the first time you really notice that stuff when you’re not in the game,” Boone said.
As for the guys on the field? They noticed the same thing Snell did -- not necessarily a game-altering disparity, but an unusual vibe.
“It was different,” Hicks said after the Mets series. “Very different. You kind of start to love the fan atmosphere when we’re playing in these kinds of series. You have Mets fans and Yankees fans talking crap to each other every single day. It’s fun. It’s electric. It makes these series fun, to be out there on the field, to hear a whole bunch of different chants for whatever side they’re rooting for.”
The empty stands meant The Luke Voit Show could only be seen on TV. A guy whose arrival in the Bronx was mostly heralded as part of a deal for international bonus pool money continued to show what he could offer, not least during the team’s 20-6 win on Sept. 15, in which the burly first baseman cracked two home runs, vaulting him to the top of the big league leaderboard.
Voit said that it was too early to celebrate, and that he would enjoy the moment with his wife, then focus on the last 12 games as the team chased a postseason berth. He mostly chose to praise LeMahieu -- “The freaking best hitter I’ve ever played with.”
“Where would we be without him?” Boone asked. “He’s really becoming a great hitter in this league. And it’s consistent with what we’ve seen since we got him in ’18. He’s been an impact player. Period.”
On Sept. 3, Mike Ford halved his jersey number from 72 to 36, leaving behind a group that saw its membership swell quite a bit in 2020. Including Ford, 16 members of the team this year (not including coaches) played in regular-season games while wearing numbers higher than Voit’s No. 59, from Ben Heller’s No. 61 to Judge’s famed No. 99.
In fact, when Miguel Yajure debuted on Aug. 31 while wearing No. 89 on his back, he closed the last hole in the MLB uniform landscape; up until that day, 89 was the last remaining number from 0 through 99 that had never been worn in a big league game.
One of those high numbers graced the back of Deivi García’s jersey, who -- after wearing No. 42 during his Aug. 30 debut as part of the league-wide celebration of Jackie Robinson -- made No. 83 his own. Yet a close look at his glove and belt showed something different: An homage to teammate Gerrit Cole, perhaps?
Not quite. The diminutive Dominican pitcher with the remarkable arsenal had “45” on his belt and glove in tribute to former Yankees rival Pedro Martínez, a Hall of Famer García has long admired. And if his first four starts were any indication, the 21-year-old understood that the best way to honor his idol was to pitch just like him.
García flummoxed the Mets in a no-decision in his debut, then earned his first big league win two starts later, ironically while pitching on a Minor League mound in Buffalo (it’s 2020, man …). Through his first four games, he sported a 2-1 record and a 24:4 strikeout-to-walk split, displaying a strong arsenal on the mound and a veteran’s presence to go along with it.
“The command and the balance, the repeatability of his delivery,” Cole said, ticking off García’s attributes that so impressed him. “His idea of what he wants to do and what he’s looking for. I think he’s really advanced in all three of those categories. I really like what I see.”
And for Boone, who saw a postseason looming in which the lack of off-days would offer no chance to hide any pitchers from the biggest moments, there was no concern that the young right-hander would be overmatched by anything in front of him.
“He’s unflappable,” Boone noted. “He’s confident. It doesn’t mean he’s not going to have an outing where he struggles or whatever. But it won’t be because the moment’s too big for him. I’m confident in that.”
On the other side of the career ledger was 40-year-old catcher Erik Kratz, for whom a career in coaching surely beckons whenever he moves on from being a useful asset on the field and in the clubhouse. Kratz caught García’s first game, noting with glee that it was like playing catch with his son and sharing a warm embrace in the dugout after García’s night was done. A few days later, Kratz, who has helped season so many of the young Yankees as they marinated in the Minors, got emotional discussing the immense pride and joy he feels watching the next wave of Yankees debut.
“I’m a hugger; COVID’s kind of really killed that,” the proud pseudo-papa said, tearing up as he spoke in particular about the young Latino prospects making their marks on the team. “But ultimately for me, the things that I have found satisfaction and incredible gratification in is being able to make connections with players -- in the Minor Leagues, in the big leagues; pitchers, position players, whatever it is -- and hopefully go on to see them have success.
“Being older, being, you know, hopefully I can be somebody that can step in and help that relationship. … My Spanish isn’t that great, but it’s something that I try, and I want it to be good. And now I get to cry on Zooms because I’ve got kids, too, and I hope somebody would treat my kids that way.”
It was just a bizarre season, off the field as much as on. The guys in pinstripes were just trying to get through the sprint, then endure October as long as possible. If that meant relying on some lucky non-prescription glasses, as Torres seemed intent on exploring, so be it. For everyone else, it was about trying to figure out how to make 2020 as normal as possible; to do the same things that had made them successful up to this point. As Cole noted, he still tried to be a mentor, and he did everything possible to work with teammates in the ways he did pre-pandemic. Unfortunately, though …
“If you’re making a sarcastic joke with a mask on, it really doesn’t play very well,” he said.
Young or old, this lightning-fast regular season put so much into balance. For every debut by a García or Clarke Schmidt, there was another ho-hum masterpiece from Cole or Masahiro Tanaka. Frazier finally earned an everyday lineup spot by developing a remarkably mature all-around game, while LeMahieu continued his machine-like romp through American League pitching staffs (and even non-pitchers, as he showed when he took a 48 mph pitch from Blue Jays infielder Santiago Espinal deep on Sept. 15). Whether passing time in a hotel room during a canceled three-game series or managing three doubleheaders in a span of five days, Boone knew that as little patience as fans have for excuses in regular circumstances, this obviously isn’t the time for a baseball team to beg for understanding.
“It’s 2020,” the manager said. “It’s been a challenging year for everyone. We all know that. You’ve got to be able to continue to roll with the punches.”
And for all the myopia that a baseball schedule can foster, Boone and his players still recognized their place in a world that was and is suffering. From a cruel pandemic to extended social unrest to wildfires poisoning the air, the clubhouse couldn’t fully serve as a respite amid so much uneasiness.
“I think just the heaviness of it, every day,” Boone said. “There’s a lot going on with it. But it’s been like that for everyone. Not just in baseball and in our sport. You look around, it’s in our world, in our country, all that’s going on. You feel comfortable to be able to go out, have a job, and be able to play for something meaningful. You try, through the challenges of it all, to hang onto that perspective day in and day out.”
So from the manager’s chair to the last spot on the field at the alternate site, the Yankees -- no different from 29 other teams -- attacked 2020 as best they could. The losses didn’t sting any less because of the state of the world, but neither did the wins solve any real problems. It was about the little things, the big league debuts, the shocking grand slams, the how-will-we-ever-explain-this-moment walk-offs. The baby steps.
It takes about five months for a newborn to double its birth weight. That’s how fast life moves in its infancy; this truncated baseball season didn’t even last that long. Which meant that the sky would fall one day, then the team would scream out from the top of the world the next.
“A couple weeks ago, I don’t think teams were really scared of us,” Voit said on Sept. 15, during the franchise’s first-ever stretch of three games with six-plus homers. “Now we’re back to being the Bronx Bombers, and I don’t think teams want to play us in the playoffs.”
Which is all you can really ask for. No one thought that a few big home runs or strikeouts would make the turmoil of 2020 evaporate. The only normalcy the Yankees could provide was that constant for which the team is famous: The pursuit of excellence.
“We want to win a championship,” Boone said. “We’re going to do everything we can to put our best foot forward here down the stretch and put ourselves in a great position. We know it’s going to be a tough road if we’re able to get into the playoffs, but we look forward to that challenge, and hopefully we’ll have that.”