If not quite Beatlemania, there’s a certain rolling rock star quality to any Yankees squad, this year’s most certainly included. Sporting the best record in baseball for much of the season and led by perhaps the biggest superstar in the game, the Bronx Bombers are a marquee attraction wherever they play. From city to city they go, met by star-struck fans’ shrieks and handmade signs, while the team’s security detail is tasked with managing crowd control at even the oddest of hours.
In places where the Yankees don’t often visit, or locations that offer additional exciting attractions, the pinstriped faithful show up en masse. The chance to catch a Yankees game while the team is in sunny Southern California or in Miami is one that thousands of folks take advantage of every time. To be fair, it doesn’t even have to be that exotic; you’ll rarely feel more at home as a Yankees fan than in the stands at Baltimore’s Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
“It’s definitely a cool part of it,” said right-hander Jameson Taillon. “The Evil Empire coming to town, you know?”
That scenario played out in early July as the Yankees’ tour bus pulled out of Cleveland, home to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and made its way to Pittsburgh for a two-game set with the Pirates. Pinstripe-clad fans poured into the Steel City, wolfing down Primanti Bros. sandwiches and throwing back Iron City beers as they bought up what seemed to be about half the seats at PNC Park.
For the Pirates, who are managed by former Yankees Minor League player and skipper Derek Shelton, it was a prime opportunity to measure up against one of baseball’s best. “When you have a young group of players, it’s really important for them to see what really good teams play like,” Shelton said. “It’s important for them to watch and to learn.”
But for Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon and Clay Holmes, whose professional journeys all began with the Pirates, the trip was more than just two games out of 162. Looking out at the yellow bridges and the downtown skyline beyond PNC’s outfield wall, seeing familiar faces and reminders of what they had accomplished in Pittsburgh -- and what they hadn’t -- it was clearly emotional, proving that wherever a player’s Major League journey takes him, whatever magnificent heights he reaches, he never forgets where he came from.
The last time the Yankees played in Pittsburgh, in April 2017, Cole was beginning his fifth season in black and gold. He had just made his first career Opening Day start -- a 5-3 loss at Fenway Park on April 3 -- and Taillon, who after making his big-league debut in 2016 had made his first Opening Day roster, started the Pirates’ second game of the season (a 3-0 loss in which he went seven scoreless). Cole didn’t get to face the Yankees at PNC that time around, but Taillon did, allowing four earned runs over 51⁄3 innings in an 11-5 loss on April 22. (The Pirates would win the three-game series, though.)
Things soon took a dramatic turn for Taillon. After his May 3 start in Cincinnati, he began feeling some discomfort in his groin. An examination revealed testicular cancer, and on May 8, the 25-year-old underwent surgery in Pittsburgh. Just five weeks later, Taillon returned to the mound at PNC, tossing five scoreless frames in a 3-1 victory over Colorado.
That sort of toughness has always been part of Taillon’s makeup, and it endeared him to the fans in Pittsburgh, where shrines to the “Steel Curtain” defenses of the 1970s Super Bowl–winning Steelers teams are everywhere. He finished that 2017 season without any further health issues, and in 2018, he made a career-high 32 starts. Taillon was Pittsburgh’s Opening Day starter in 2019, but elbow troubles soon sidelined him again. With eventual Tommy John surgery (his second) wiping out the remainder of that season and all of the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign, followed by his trade to the Yankees in January 2021, Taillon never got the proper chance to say goodbye.
With “New York” across his chest, Taillon strode to the mound at PNC Park this past July 5 for the first time in more than three years. Starting pitchers never get to choose walk-out music on the road, but Pittsburgh’s stadium crew played his signature song -- Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” -- as a show of respect. A highlight video was shown as the right-hander tossed his warm-up pitches, eliciting heartfelt cheers and prompting more than a few Pirates rooters to stand up and salute the man who had overcome so many obstacles and made such an impact during his time with the organization.
“A team and a franchise can mean so much to you, and then one phone call can just change all that,” Taillon said. “I went through a lot there, made lifelong friends, people I keep in touch with. I’ve been in some of their weddings. I’ve watched families grow. So, it was definitely cool to be back.
“Hopefully I can get a copy of the video they played. I would like to have that for the rest of my life.”
Holmes tells the story of his first day as a Pirate, when, as an 18-year-old ninth-round draft pick out of Slocomb High School in Alabama, he signed a contract at PNC Park and then flew down to Pirate City, the team’s training headquarters in Bradenton, Florida. The first player he met there was Cole, the top overall pick in that 2011 draft, and after introducing themselves, Cole suggested they immediately go out and get some work in. That first impression always stuck with Holmes.
“That’s just who he is, and he hasn’t changed; he is the same guy right now,” said the 29-year-old right-hander. “And I think that desire to keep learning, to keep getting better, to evolve, is what makes him so special and is something that is honestly the reason I am still here. There have been some times that haven’t been so great for me, but it’s something that I’ve taken upon myself, just to keep trying to get better and to keep learning from experience, whether it’s been good or bad. It’s pretty cool to see that maybe a little bit of that is starting to pay off now.”
Indeed, it was. The same Pirates beat reporters who reacted to Holmes’ July 2021 trade to the Yankees with little more than a shrug of the shoulders -- his ERA at the time was just under 5.00 -- crowded around him in the visitors’ dugout 11 months later wondering how in the world he had transformed himself into the best reliever in baseball. By the time the All-Star break rolled around, Holmes was 4-1 with 16 saves and a 1.31 ERA in 41 appearances and headed to Dodger Stadium for his first Midsummer Classic. To those who had seen Holmes grind his way through the Pirates’ Minor League system, missing the entire 2014 season and most of 2015 due to his own Tommy John surgery, his dominance with the Yankees had been surprising, to say the least.
“I think there were a lot of things going right, and I was starting to figure a lot of things out at the right time,” Holmes said. “Things were slowly starting to come together, figuring out how good my sinker could be and how to make it a little more consistent. I think the trade, just the change of scenery, added some confidence and maybe a little extra belief to some of the things we were doing. I started throwing a lot more strikes. I knew, even [in Pittsburgh], that if I cut down the walks, things would probably be a lot better. I think that started happening in New York, and just pounding the zone with the sinker and getting ahead has been the key to the success for me.”
Like Taillon, Holmes has fond memories of Pittsburgh, and he was excited to return. He got some funny looks from the clubhouse attendants who had rarely, if ever, seen him without a beard. (Anthony Rizzo tells him all the time that he looks better without it.) And he was quick to credit his former team with helping him get to where he is now.
“Spending so much time with the organization and being around so many people that poured into me, it was special,” Holmes said. “There are a lot of great people in Pittsburgh and some friendships that I will always have. You realize just how many people have been around you that help you along the way to get you to that point. This place will definitely be special to me for that, and the people over there will always mean something to me because of how much they helped me.”
All three ex-Pirates were eager to give their Yankees teammates a taste of Pittsburgh while they were in town. On Sunday, July 3, after arriving in the Steel City and with a scheduled off-day on July Fourth, Cole, Taillon and Holmes led a group to the Roberto Clemente Museum for a private tour with curator/vintner/photographer Duane Rieder. They learned all about the Pirates’ legendary right fielder, whose No. 21 is ubiquitous in Pittsburgh, and sampled the Engine House TwentyFive Wines that are produced in the same building. When Rieder arrived at PNC Park on July 5 to photograph the game, he brought with him a replica of Clemente’s bat, which Judge used to blast a ball into the hedges in straightaway center during batting practice.
“I think everyone came away impressed,” Taillon said. “It’s, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful ballparks in baseball. City-wise, it’s always a little tough when you’re on the Yankees because there were hundreds of people outside of our hotel. It’s a little different than when you play with a team like Pittsburgh and you travel; it’s easy to get out and explore cities. It can be a little suffocating for some of the guys to go outside. But I think everyone enjoyed it. I know the guys loved the Clemente Museum and loved the stadium and all that.”
Cole would have loved to pitch in Pittsburgh again, and up until about a week or so before the series, he was in line to start the first game. “I had it circled,” he admitted. But there was a silver lining to the rotation shuffle: Back in the place where his career began, the Yankees’ ace showed a side of himself that the New York media -- which spent the first two years of his tenure interacting with Cole almost entirely via Zoom -- has rarely gotten a chance to see. Relaxed, convivial and even wistful at times, Cole told one story after another about his days in Pittsburgh, starting with his memories of his first spring training. “Maz, Kent, Manny, all in their underwear on the little stools in Bradenton talking shop, Spanky passing out cigars, that’s how I broke in,” Cole said of Pittsburgh icons Bill Mazeroski, Kent Tekulve, Manny Sanguillén and Mike LaValliere. “I’m never going to forget those types of things.” He reminisced about the thrill of his big-league debut and the disappointment of not being able to deliver more for the Pittsburgh fans.
Back in 2011, there was some question as to whether the Pirates would even select Cole with the first overall pick. Part of a very deep and talented class -- each of the first 29 players selected went on to make the Majors -- Cole was coming off a solid junior season at UCLA that saw him go 6-8 with a 3.31 ERA. Some scouts viewed University of Virginia left-hander Danny Hultzen or Oklahoma high school pitcher Dylan Bundy as the wiser choice. Others suggested that Rice University third baseman Anthony Rendon should go first overall.
It didn’t take long for Cole to prove that Pirates scouting director Greg Smith had made the right decision. The hard-throwing righty rocketed up the system, needing just 38 Minor League starts before getting called to The Show in June of 2013. Just as Taillon and Holmes would in 2016 and 2018, respectively, Cole made his debut at PNC Park, and he still vividly recalls the details of that night, when he faced his future brother-in-law, Brandon Crawford, and the San Francisco Giants. The crowd was later to arrive than usual as a result of new security measures that had been put in place, causing an added layer of agitation to an already tense environment for Cole. But he was able to calm his nerves and twirl 61⁄3 innings of two-run ball to earn his first standing ovation and first career victory. He also helped his own cause by opening the scoring with a two-run single off Tim Lincecum in his first career plate appearance.
“It was the first night they did this wanding thing, and everyone was coming in late, a little hot and a little edgy,” Cole said. “We had the world champs in the house, my family was on edge, my brother-in-law was hunting for a base hit, and, wow, just a shot of adrenaline right after the first strikeout, another shot of adrenaline in the seventh coming off the mound. It was hard to control the emotions after getting my first hit. The place was rocking, and we had a great rest of the summer, culminating in the Wild Card Game, which I will never forget.”
It had been more than two decades since Pirates fans watched Sid Bream slide across home plate, claiming the 1992 National League pennant for the Braves and dashing Pittsburgh’s hopes of seeing Jim Leyland and Barry Bonds bring a World Series championship to the city for the first time since 1979. Suddenly, powered by emerging young hitters such as Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte and Pedro Álvarez, as well as a solid pitching rotation that included Cole, Francisco Liriano and 2009 World Series champion A.J. Burnett, the Pirates had a resurgence. After defeating Cincinnati in the 2013 NL Wild Card Game, they faced St. Louis in the NLDS, which came down to a deciding fifth game in which the Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright defeated Cole and the Bucs, 6-1.
That season was followed by NL Wild Card Game losses to the Giants and Cubs in 2014 and 2015, respectively, and the Pirates haven’t been back to the postseason since.
“I just wish we would have gotten out of the Wild Card Game one more time,” Cole said. “We just played so much good baseball in what was one of the tougher divisions, in my opinion, in the NL at that time.
“We really fought hard for the fan base here. We really embraced it and just did the best we could. We were tough, we played through a lot of injuries, we played through a lot of stuff, and we got a lot done. Ultimately, we came up short, but the elation we were able to share with the fans, the  Wild Card banner, and those three or four years pressing for the division … that window is just special for us.”
These days, Cole doesn’t have to worry about the window of opportunity closing. The Yankees have made five straight postseason appearances, and with a Major League–best 64-28 record at the All-Star break, they looked to be in prime position for a sixth straight bid. Neither Cole nor any of his Yankees teammates would trade their current situation for anything.
“There’s pros and cons to everything in every market,” Taillon said. “Obviously, the biggest pro is playing for a winner. I never got to say that in Pittsburgh.”
But as Cole played catch with his 2-year-old son, Caden, on the grass in front of the visitors’ dugout a couple hours before first pitch at PNC Park on July 5, it was impossible not to recognize what it meant for the onetime Pirates ace to be back in the Steel City. The 31-year-old All-Star, now in his 10th season, came to New York in December 2019 after two seasons with the Astros, which means he has pitched in each of the last four Octobers. He welcomes pressure -- believes that it’s a privilege, in fact -- and has every intention of bringing a championship to the Big Apple. He and his family absolutely love New York. But as he makes new memories with the Yankees, he’ll always hold a special place in his heart for the city where it all began, and the chance to return to Pittsburgh during this special season put things in perspective.
“I feel like I left here a kid,” he said, “and came back with a kid.”