There was a time when Hollywood’s marquee names all fit a certain mold. To be a lead, one had to possess the looks and features that studio execs deemed most desirable to audiences; actors who hadn’t won the genetic lottery were relegated to supporting roles at best.
Times have changed. These days, the silver screen is dotted with a diverse array of talented men and women who needn’t look like Marlon Brando or Elizabeth Taylor to be a box-office smash. Representation matters, and for moviegoers young and old, seeing a reminder of themselves up on the movie screen can stir powerful emotions.
Next month, baseball’s biggest stars will gather in La-La Land when the All-Star Game is held at Dodger Stadium for the first time since 1980. Hollywood will roll out the red carpet for the sport’s titans, from (presumably) Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge to Angels superstar Shohei Ohtani. But baseball is not just a game for 6-foot-7 behemoths and otherworldly pitchers who melt radar guns. There’s also room for the more covert talents, the ones who take the physical abilities they have been given and wring every last drop of success they can get from them.
Generously listed at 5-foot-11, Yankees pitcher Nestor Cortes is among the latter group. The 27-year-old Cuba-born, Florida-raised southpaw gives new meaning to the term “crafty left-hander.” A 36th-round pick who has been cast off and cast aside more times than most, Cortes as recently as this past offseason wondered if he would even make a big-league roster this year. Now, like some Disney movie come to life, it’s fair to wonder if he might start the All-Star Game.
Nothing about Cortes’ career has been predictable. He seemingly came out of nowhere, and there have been more twists and turns than an Alfred Hitchcock film. Through it all, though, there has been a long-running plotline in which the hero of our story fights to stay true to himself and to what he believes in.
And the best part? There’s still a long way to go before the final credits roll.
Nestor Cortes always believed he could get hitters out. He also knew it wasn’t going to be by overpowering them. If he was going to do this, he was going to have to do it his way.
The competition in South Florida is fierce, so going back to his days at Hialeah High School, Cortes never felt like he was guaranteed anything. “You could easily get replaced at any point,” he says. “I played every game like it was my last.”
Cortes wasn’t as big as some of the other pitchers around, and he didn’t throw as hard as many of them, so he dedicated himself to the things he could control: command of his pitches, his hustle, his attitude. He went 8-0 with a 1.31 ERA as a junior, earning an offer to play college ball at Florida International University in Miami.
“My goal in high school was to go to college and not have my parents pay for my college degree,” he says. “Whether it was through academics or a baseball scholarship, that’s all I was aiming for at the time.”
He played summer ball with the Florida Legends, working to increase his velocity without sacrificing command as he entered his senior year. His head coach at Hialeah, Jonathan Hernandez, could immediately see the difference and raised the ceiling for Cortes even higher.
“If Nestor can put together another season like last year or even better,” he told The Miami Herald, “he has to be considered among the top three pitchers we’ve ever had at Hialeah,” a group that includes knuckleballer Charlie Hough and left-hander Gio González, who combined for 347 big-league wins. “[Cortes] knows the importance of throwing strikes as a pitcher. He’s tough, and he exemplifies Hialeah baseball.”
For Cortes, a successful senior season would mean one thing: a state title. His junior campaign ended with a nine-strikeout, 114-pitch masterpiece in the regional finals, a game in which a ninth-inning error led to a heartbreaking 1-0 loss. And so, he and his fellow pitchers grew Mohawks and dyed them blonde, carrying on a tradition he hoped would bring the Thoroughbreds good luck in 2013.
Although he fell short of leading Hialeah to its first state championship since winning back-to-back titles in 2001 and 2002, Cortes produced another outstanding season, earning first team all-county honors. Scouts came sniffing around, but they remained skeptical of Cortes’ physical stature and relatively low velocity. After taking Judge 32nd overall in the 2013 Draft, the Yankees watched more than 1,000 players go off the board before taking a flier on Cortes at No. 1,094.
The teenager was unsure of what to do. College had been his goal, but there was nothing he was more passionate about than playing baseball. The thought of going pro was enticing, but would it be the right choice? If this were a film set, there’d be a director to guide him. But this was real life.
A rainy start to Mother’s Day weekend 2022 has given way to glorious sunshine, and there’s a Monday matinee on tap at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees, sporting the American League’s best record at 19-8, are hosting the Texas Rangers, and they’ve got their best starting pitcher going. It isn’t last year’s runner-up in the AL Cy Young race, Gerrit Cole, or two-time All-Star Luis Severino, or even Jameson Taillon or Jordan Montgomery (though all four have been great through the first six weeks of the season). It’s Cortes, whose 2.68 ERA since making his 2021 season debut on May 30 is the lowest mark of any AL pitcher.
He has become a fan favorite in the Bronx, as entertaining on the field with his quirky deliveries and headfirst diving plays as he is off it. “Great guy. Good vibes,” Montgomery says. Today is no different than any other for Cortes, who has never been the type to put on headphones and tune out the world on days he starts. He comes out to the field during batting practice and jokes around with teammate Gleyber Torres, then nonchalantly munches on an apple in the dugout. “I like to keep it light,” he says.
A few minutes after 1 p.m., he tosses his warm-up pitches to catcher Jose Trevino, with whom he has never worked in a real game. No matter. As every eyeball in the ballpark hones in on Cortes, he is impervious to any pressure. Just being on the mound at Yankee Stadium is a blessing.
“You imagine the big leagues and pitching in the big leagues in one way, but it’s a thousand times better and a thousand times harder because there’s no comparison, honestly, to the feeling you have out there,” Cortes says. “Especially here, with 50,000 people rooting for you and rooting for the same goal -- which is to win the game -- it’s so fun to be out there and be successful. Because when you come out, and you get that ovation, you know you’ve done a good job. Or it could be vice versa, where you come out and you had a bad day, and they still clap for you just because they know that’s the game of baseball, so it works both ways.
“There are guys in college right now that throw harder than me, or probably are more dominant than me, and somehow, I have a job in the big leagues. Staying true to myself and being honest with myself has helped me go along the way and stay positive. As some people say, I’m ‘unique’ in some way, and I try and cherish that as much as possible. Everybody has their own craft and their own unique way of doing things, and I hope mine can stay like that and I can continue to have success.”
Seeking to reestablish command of his newest weapon, the cutter, Cortes attacks Rangers leadoff man Marcus Semien right away. After quickly getting ahead in the count, 1-2, the left-hander buries an 88 mph cutter in on the hands of the right-handed batter, inducing a swing and miss that leaves Semien shaking his head in frustration as he walks back to the visitors’ dugout.
“It looked like Semien had a bead on it, and it just disappeared under his barrel,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone would remark after the game, comparing Cortes’ cutter to a Steve Carlton slider. “Some of the swings that were taken against it, we knew he had his good one rolling.”
More than a month had passed since Cortes had been drafted, and he still wasn’t sure what to do. Neither were the Yankees.
July 12 was the cutoff date to sign, and so on that day, Cortes, at the Yankees’ behest, traveled to Tampa to pitch in a simulated game against Yankees Minor Leaguers. He arrived at the team’s training complex and was soon greeted by Minor League pitching instructor Jose Rosado. They began playing catch, and it wasn’t long before Rosado, who pitched in 125 games for the Royals from 1996 to 2000, started seeing flashes of himself as a younger man. “You know, Hispanic kid, lefty, short, not very high velo,” Cortes says. “He compared himself to me.”
Cortes was soon properly warmed up on that sweltering July afternoon, so he hopped on the mound eager to show what he could do. Everything he threw was in the upper 80s, maybe 90-91 mph tops, but the batters he faced were clearly uncomfortable. One by one, Cortes retired them: broken-bat pop-up on an inside fastball, weak grounder to short on a changeup.
What impressed Rosado most, though, wasn’t Cortes’ stuff, it was his heart. In conversation with the 18-year-old, Rosado could easily tell that he cared deeply about his craft, that he loved the game of baseball, that he had the right mentality to attack hitters, and that he would give 100 percent every time he went out to compete.
“I told him, ‘This is all I know how to do,’” Cortes says. “‘If I have to go to college, I have to go. But I don’t want to!’”
After the tryout, Rosado met with Yankees senior vice president of baseball operations Mark Newman, senior pitching instructor Greg Pavlick and numerous other members of the team’s player development staff. They wanted to know what was up with the short lefty.
“This guy is going to do it,” Rosado said unequivocally. “And I think this guy’s going to do more than what you guys think he’s going to do.”
The front-office staff trusted Rosado, but they remained hesitant about the soft-tossing Cortes.
“Well, he’s on you then, OK, Rosie?”
Rosado wasn’t sure whether they were serious or not, but he was willing to put his neck on the line for the Hialeah Kid.
The Yankees’ starting pitching staff has a tradition, begun by CC Sabathia in 2016, of watching the day’s starter go through his warm-ups in the bullpen and then walking together across the outfield grass and into the dugout as a unit. When the game begins, it’s common to see the other four leaning on the dugout railing, dialed in to what their co-star is doing on the mound. On the days Cortes pitches, they might as well have a bucket of popcorn ready.
“He’s just such a competitor; really goes after guys and controls the zone,” says Montgomery. “It shows in their swings, how uncomfortable the hitters are.”
“He brings his own moxie to the game,” says Cole. “He’s pretty calculated and analytical with how he goes about it, but he’s got some Cuban-American flair out there.”
Cortes hasn’t needed a whole lot of flair as he carves through the Rangers’ lineup on May 9. Working quickly as ever, he has mowed down nine of the first 10 batters he has faced and allowed just one walk as he begins the fourth inning.
It’s borderline comical to watch Cortes go after a big-league hitter with a 90 mph four-seam fastball right over the heart of the plate, which is what he does to Adolis García for a called Strike 1. Cortes lives on the corners, painting the black with an array of cutters, sliders and changeups. A fastball down the middle -- even one as slow as Cortes’ -- is so out of the ordinary that it becomes nearly untouchable. He backs it up with another four-seamer that García swings at and misses.
After whiffing García on a cutter that hugs the outside edge, Cortes starts off former World Series MVP Corey Seager the same way: two straight four-seam fastballs to quickly get ahead, 0-2. With his 45th pitch of the game, Cortes, for the first time all day, drops down and throws two straight sidearm pitches. The first one tails outside for Ball 1, but the second one, a 75 mph slider, induces a check swing from the left-handed hitting Seager -- Cortes’ fifth straight strikeout.
To the untrained eye, Cortes’ sidearm drop-down seems like some novelty pitch in his bag of tricks, to go along with the quick step, the mid-stride hesitation, and whatever else Cortes might conjure up to disrupt hitters’ timing and comfort at the plate. But there’s more to his deceptive deliveries than meets the eye.
Most starting pitchers, in their never-ending quest for consistency, spend their entire lives seeking repeatable mechanics. When that consistency begins to elude them, managers will summon a parade of relievers with disparate styles and repertoires so that opposing hitters don’t get used to seeing one look. But what if one pitcher could provide several different looks, all on his own? If it were that easy, more pitchers besides Cortes would do it.
“I’ve watched him pitch where I’ve been like, ‘Should I learn to sidearm?’” says Yankees in-house “pitching mechanic nerd” Taillon. “I don’t want my arm to snap or anything, but it does him so well! He’s throwing a fastball, and then he comes from behind you sidearm and dots it down and away; hitters just gotta tip their cap and move on.”
Taillon describes the athleticism involved in being able to do what Cortes does, pointing out that while his arm angle and release point may vary, “he actually stays in really consistent positions with his lower body and with his trunk. It looks funky, but when he drops down to sidearm, if you watch his back leg, he still stays in really strong, consistent positions. It seriously takes a hell of an athlete.”
Indeed, Cortes cites Cueto and “the great El Duque” -- former Yankees star Orlando Hernández -- along with Dontrelle Willis as inspirations for his unorthodox pitching intricacies, a style that might not be all his own for much longer.
On Little League fields and high school diamonds from Hialeah to Hawaii, impressionable young pitchers are taking notice of “Nasty Nestor” and copying some of his moves. (To say nothing of the dudes who will look back on their prom pictures from this spring and regret their “Nestor ’Stache.”) They’re realizing that they don’t need to be freakishly built like a Randy Johnson or Roger Clemens to get outs, just clever enough to keep batters off balance and fearless enough to trust their stuff.
“The message that I want to give across every time I pitch is that you don’t have to be the prototype ‘super prospect’ or anything like that,” Cortes says. “I was never a prospect coming up through the system. I’m 5-10; I’m average human size. But for baseball, I’m really short. I like to give off the energy where kids can see a normal-size human being still play a really competitive sport.”
Rosado saw firsthand what changing arm angles can do for a lefty who tops out around 90 mph. After a strong ’96 season in which he finished tied for fourth in AL Rookie of the Year voting behind winner Derek Jeter, he was pitching in a Winter league game in Puerto Rico when Blue Jays slugger Carlos Delgado clubbed one of his over-the-top fastballs about 500 feet. It landed foul, but Rosado realized he needed to change up his look or get eaten alive. On the next pitch, he dropped down and jammed Delgado with a sidearm fastball that resulted in a broken-bat ground ball to first.
It was a eureka moment for Rosie. The following summer, the 22-year-old found himself on the mound at Jacobs Field in Cleveland, pitching in the 1997 All-Star Game. After watching Montreal’s Pedro Martínez set down Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr. and Mark McGwire in order in the bottom of the sixth, AL manager Joe Torre called upon Rosado to try and protect the Junior Circuit’s 1-0 lead. And although he gave up a game-tying homer to Javy López to lead off the seventh, Rosado would earn the victory in the 68th Midsummer Classic thanks to Sandy Alomar’s two-run homer in the bottom of the frame.
Rosado parlayed his experience into a successful coaching career, spending 11 seasons in the Yankees organization molding young pitchers. He recalls playing catch with Cortes while he was in Rookie ball, encouraging the left-hander to try out different arm angles. He started dropping down sidearm and, immediately, throwing strikes. “He looked like he’d done it before,” Rosado says. “It was easy for him. He only needed one day. Nestor Cortes is a very versatile pitcher. He’s kind of like a pitching coach’s dream.”
Rosado watched Cortes rocket up four Minor League levels in 2016 and was his pitching coach at Double-A in 2017, when the left-hander went 5-0 with a 2.60 ERA. Rosie also remained a trusted confidant for Cortes when he struggled with the Orioles in his first taste of the majors in 2018 and with the Mariners during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.
Now the pitching coach for the Hanwha Eagles of the Korea Baseball Organization, Rosado still watches every pitch that Cortes throws for the Yankees, despite the 13-hour time difference. On May 9, he bursts with pride as his former pupil continues to baffle the Rangers.
Cortes has never carried a start into the eighth inning before, but on this sun-splashed day at Yankee Stadium, he has yet to allow a hit. He dispatches Charlie Culberson on three straight pitches -- the last one a sidearm fastball for his 11th strikeout of the game.
When No. 9 hitter Eli White finally tags Cortes’ 103rd pitch for a clean single to center, the left-hander exits to a well-deserved standing ovation. As he walks off the mound with his tidy 1.41 ERA, there’s no doubt in his mind that this is the type of performance he is capable of delivering on any given day.
“I feel like I belong,” Cortes says after Anthony Rizzo’s eighth-inning RBI double gives the Yankees a 1-0 win.
Not only does Cortes belong in the big leagues, he belongs on the biggest stages, whether it’s at Dodger Stadium for the 92nd All-Star Game or at Yankee Stadium when the weather turns cold.
“It won’t surprise me to see Nestor pitching in a World Series,” says Rosado. “I know he could do that. He goes where the challenge is. When the challenge gets bigger, he gets bigger, too, in a good and positive way.”
Reaching this level of success is something that no one could have predicted for Cortes -- no one, that is, except for himself. There was never a Plan B.
“I’ve always heard guys in the Minor Leagues, especially in the lower level, saying, ‘Well, if I don’t get moved up next year, I might hang it up,’” he says. “And I get it to a certain extent, where people have college degrees and jobs lined up that are probably better paying than what they would be in the Minor Leagues. But from our standpoint, especially the Hispanics that don’t have anything to fall back to, it’s hard to quit something you’ve done for your whole life, you know?
“This is the only thing I know how to do, and it’s something that I have a passion for. And I think my willingness to keep on striving to be better, and the fear of failure, has kept me going.”
So, grab your popcorn and settle into your seat for the next showing of Unique: The Nestor Cortes Story. This flick is just getting good.