Globe iconLogin iconRecap iconSearch iconTickets icon
The Official Site of the New York Yankees

news

Yankees Magazine

Yankees Magazine: Change Up

Ten years as a pro finally led to October baseball for Aaron Hicks. So what did he do differently to prepare for 2018? Nearly everything
Yankees Magazine

Aaron Hicks was in need of a comeback. A few miles from his home in Phoenix, the budding Yankees star -- and talented golfer -- took a break from his rigorous offseason conditioning program for a round of golf against his older brother.

Joe Hicks, who admittedly does not usually keep pace with the 28-year-old center fielder on the golf course, was actually leading his younger brother on this sunny mid-winter Arizona afternoon. On the first hole, the elder Hicks sunk a birdie putt, while Aaron followed with a bogey.

Aaron Hicks was in need of a comeback. A few miles from his home in Phoenix, the budding Yankees star -- and talented golfer -- took a break from his rigorous offseason conditioning program for a round of golf against his older brother.

Joe Hicks, who admittedly does not usually keep pace with the 28-year-old center fielder on the golf course, was actually leading his younger brother on this sunny mid-winter Arizona afternoon. On the first hole, the elder Hicks sunk a birdie putt, while Aaron followed with a bogey.

Things didn't get much better for Aaron on the second hole, where he was again outdone by Joe. This time, as Joe nailed a putt for par, the good-natured sibling rivalry began to take shape.

"You've got to bring the heat," Joe said. "I get it done when I have to."

While Joe's confidence was quickly increasing, Aaron honored his end of the bargain, dropping to the ground and doing 10 pushups for the second hole in a row.

As Joe walked to the third tee box at Wildfire Golf Club, a picturesque course ringed with mountains and filled with cacti and palm trees, he was suddenly reminded of the advantage he had over his brother.

"C'mon, Joe," yelled Abdul Sillah, a longtime trainer who Aaron recently hired to work with him throughout the offseason in an effort to help take his baseball game to the next level. "You're teeing off from the baby hole. You need to step up to the adult hole."

"Be quiet, Abdul," Joe responded through a laugh, as he got ready to unleash his fury on a golf ball from what was indeed a tee box for younger and more inexperienced golfers. "I'm going to crush this ball just like I did the last two."

Joe succeeded in hitting the ball a long way, but it didn't travel in the direction he wanted it to go and instead landed far to the right of the green. His next stroke sent the ball into a sand trap, while Aaron quickly got his second attempt onto the green.

With the tides turning in Aaron's favor, Joe provided the funniest moment of what was already a jovial afternoon. Aaron and Abdul stood in an area that seemed to be far enough from the green to ensure that they would be out of harm's way, but Joe shanked the ball, sending it screaming toward the two of them. As quickly as they dodged the ball, Aaron and Abdul began to laugh hysterically.

"There's the real Joe," Aaron said. "You finally showed up."

Although they only had time for a few more holes, Aaron, Joe and Abdul got about as much fun out of the hour they spent on the golf course as three guys could. The laughter never stopped. The good-natured jokes continued to roll, and the good and bad strokes also kept coming until the two brothers finished in a tie after nine holes.

"This was not my best day," Aaron said to his brother as the group walked to the parking lot. "And it was a career day for you."

"Whatever, Aaron," Joe responded. "Don't be a sore loser."

The two brothers are separated by 15 years in age but are rarely apart in the offseason or during the baseball season. The friendly round of golf -- a ritual that they take part in a few times a week -- was characteristic of the good times they've shared since Aaron was a child.

"When he was really young, I would come home to visit, and I was always shocked by how much better he got every few months," Joe said. "I would pitch to him when he was 10 or 12 years old, and he was already able to hit bombs off me. But as his older brother, it was always fun to strike him out."

In addition to having the support of his older brother, Aaron also benefited from the influence of his father, Joseph, who played in the Minors for seven seasons and also played professionally in Mexico for a year.

"My dad instilled a great work ethic in me, simply from watching him deal with the daily grind of baseball," Hicks said. "I feel like when I was in high school, I was approaching the game more like a professional athlete rather than just going out there and having fun. When I got drafted, nothing really changed for me."

Hicks' father, who resides in Southern California, also gave his son a directive that has had a lasting impact on his game.

"My dad didn't want me to play baseball," Hicks said. "I was winning a lot of golf tournaments when I was a kid, and he loved watching me play golf. But he told me that if I wanted to play baseball, I had to switch hit. He didn't think I would want to do that, but I did. Once I started to hit from the left side, I really caught on."

***

There's no doubt that the Hicks brothers had their share of fun this past offseason, but it was also a time when the Yankees center fielder buckled down and worked harder than at any other time since his professional debut.

Following the most productive season of Hicks' five-year Big League career, the 2008 first-round pick of the Minnesota Twins made the decision to hire a full-time trainer.

"After I came back from my second oblique injury last season, I realized that I needed a trainer in the offseason," Hicks said earlier that morning before a two-hour workout at a private Scottsdale gym. "I felt like I needed to be around someone who would really push me and guide me in the right direction. Essentially, it was all about getting the right person to train me the right way."

For all the excitement that 2017 and the Yankees' postseason run brought to Hicks, and for all that the outfielder meant to the Yankees during that time, the injuries that limited him to 88 regular season games were difficult to deal with -- especially considering all the other problems that he had dealt with in his career.

"I want to be able to be dependable," said Hicks, whose .266 batting average, 15 home runs and 52 RBI in 2017 were all career highs. "I don't want Aaron [Boone] to think that he needs to rest me in order to keep me healthy. I want to man center field."

The hiring process was far from a painstaking one for Hicks, who asked his brother to reach out to Sillah, an old friend. Hicks found out that Sillah -- who trained tennis icon Serena Williams for several years, and also 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens -- was interested in spending the offseason in Arizona and creating and instituting a diet and workout regimen for him to follow.

"I had met him plenty of times," Hicks said of the Northern California-based Sillah. "He's trained plenty of very successful athletes, like Serena and Sloane, during the prime of their careers. And he was friends with my brother, so I felt like he would fit in well with us."

The combination of Sillah's experience and Hicks' commitment made for a great partnership from the beginning.

"After speaking with Aaron, my goal for him was to get his first step faster and to get him stronger and leaner," Sillah said from the gym. "I believe the leaner he is, the more explosive he will be. His longevity for the season will be greatly improved.

"I had to figure out what type of program I should put him on to get him exactly where he needed to be," Sillah continued. "I felt that the nutritional program that I started many years ago for Serena, a shock meal program, would work best for Aaron. It basically shocks the system and teaches you how to put yourself on a feeding timeline, which most people don't have. We eat breakfast at 10 in the morning, and by 11:30, he has a snack. We have lunch at 1 o'clock, another snack at 2:30, dinner at 5 and another snack at 8. By eating this way, you're constantly maintaining rather than being at a deficit, and your energy level is always at its peak."

For Hicks, the timing of meals was easy to get used to in comparison to what was on the menu each day.

"When he wakes up, we have an apple for breakfast, three egg whites and a small bowl of plain steel-cut oatmeal, with four tomato slices on the side," Sillah said. "Then for a snack, we have half an apple and a teaspoon of plain yogurt. For lunch, he gets one baked chicken breast with Mrs. Dash seasoning on it, a half an apple and a serving of broccoli. For the mid-afternoon snack, he has the option between carrots or the other half of the apple. Then, for dinner, we repeat the same thing we had for lunch."

Sillah prefers to keep his athletes on the shock diet for up to two weeks, but he also understands the importance of tailoring the timetable for each individual.

"It was terrible when we were in the first part of the diet," Hicks said. "But it was literally life-changing. I feel a lot more energized from the minute I wake up in the morning. I feel better every day, and I don't have that fatigue I always had in the morning at all."

Even though Joe wasn't preparing for a Major League Baseball season, Sillah insisted that he partake in the diet along with his brother.

"I told him that if he's part of the team, he has to eat the same foods as Aaron and me," Sillah said. "I really have to watch him when he cooks for us, and I don't let him go to the store without me. You never know what kind of nonsense he's going to come home with."

"Abdul was like The Terminator when he got here," Joe said. "He came in and cleared out our refrigerator and everything in our pantry. There's no more soda, candy or chips in our house."

Due to the sacrifice that the diet entailed, Aaron lost 10 pounds during the "shock period."

"I took Aaron off of the shock diet after nine days," Sillah said. "He did really well, but it's too brutal to be on it for much longer than that. After we got through the shock period, I moderated his diet, and his body has slowly begun to accept what it needs.

"Now, we're able to actually get him to eat normal -- but not quite as normal as before. He's still shedding down weight and body fat while maintaining body mass at the same time."

***

Of course, in addition to the diet, Hicks' offseason workout regimen became more intense beginning with the November arrival of Sillah.

Hicks was at the gym six days a week prior to the start of Spring Training, and on the Wednesday morning prior to his half-round of golf, he began a long workout with three sets of curls, using 40-pound dumbbells.

Moments later, he took a seat on a bench-pressing station, and as quickly as he began to lift a few hundred pounds into the air, the intensity in the room heightened.

"This is when the real work begins," Hicks said in between three sets of five reps. "This is when we get after it."

From the bench press to a cable pull -- where Hicks worked to strengthen his triceps -- the morning workout moved along. After Hicks performed nearly an hour of exercises designed to strengthen his upper body, the center fielder walked to the opposite side of the gym, where there were no machines, just a large area of artificial grass and several medicine balls.

There, Hicks began a series of drills with the basketball-sized medicine ball. In one of the exercises, Hicks tossed the heavy ball against a concrete wall situated off to the side of him. He then changed direction and repeated the drill. This went on for several minutes before giving way to the next set of medicine ball exercises.

"I spend a lot of time strengthening my oblique muscles and improving my overall core strength," Hicks said. "I want to be a better player than I was last year, and to do that, I have to figure out how to stay healthy. I've been pushed a lot harder than I've ever been pushed in my life. I think this is something that I needed."

At the end of the grueling workout, Hicks grabbed a small snack while spending a few minutes with San Francisco 49ers tight end/long snapper Kyle Nelson, who also worked out at the gym last winter. From there, the trio of Aaron, Joe and Sillah took off for their next stop, Notre Dame Preparatory High School in nearby Scottsdale.

Within a few minutes of leaving the gym, the trio arrived at the sprawling and perfectly manicured campus where Hicks had been doing hitting and fielding work since he moved to Arizona from his native Southern California in January 2017.

"They have been great about letting me use the facilities here," said Hicks, who hit about six days a week in the offseason. "It's about as nice of a field as you could find."

As the group walked from a parking lot behind the outfield fence to the batting cages, it became obvious that Joe was already focused on the upcoming golf competition scheduled for later that afternoon.

"Hey, Aaron, today's going to be my day out there," Joe said. "You better be on your game today."

Unflinching, Hicks simply winked at Sillah and assured his brother that he would be ready.

"This is pretty much how I wanted the offseason to go," Hicks said. "I wanted it to be loose, but when we need to get work done, I wanted it to be intense. I wanted to enjoy the offseason while working my butt off."

When they got to an outdoor batting cage on the third-base side of the field, Hicks grabbed a bat from his bag and began to stretch. Joe got into the cage, emptied out a bucket of baseballs and took a seat on the bucket.

After taking a few dozen swings at soft-toss pitches, the real work began. Aaron got into the batter's box, and Joe fired pitch after pitch over the plate.

Aaron proceeded to drive just about every one of the pitches back toward his brother, and several ricocheted off of the protective screen set up to shield the pitcher.

Following the 40-minute hitting session, the group headed back to their home base in Phoenix.

***

Even before Aaron, Joe and Sillah arrived at the Hicks' house, the subject of lunch was discussed.

"I can run out to Chipotle and grab lunch," Joe said.

"No, you can't," Sillah responded. "Who knows what you'll come back with and what you'll eat while you're gone. I'll go with you."

And with that, Joe and Sillah headed for a local Chipotle, a spot they were at nearly every afternoon in the winter. When they got there, Sillah ordered three meals without hesitation. Three basic rice bowls, all with black beans, chicken and lettuce.

When Joe and Sillah got back to the house, the three men grabbed seats at the kitchen table along with their meals. Of course, just as they dug into their lunches, some more good-natured ribbing started up again.

"Joe and Abdul are so funny together," Hicks said. "I swear they could have their own TV show."

Soon, the conversation turned to the Yankees' 2017 season.

For Hicks, who spent five full seasons in the Minors before making his Big League debut in 2013 with the Twins and who Minnesota ultimately shipped to New York for reserve catcher John Ryan Murphy, finally having sustained success on the biggest stage was worth the wait.

"Being a part of what we were able to do last season -- especially in the American League Division Series -- was amazing," Hicks said. "Everything in those games felt magnified. Every pitch, every out and every game was important, and winning the one-game playoff against the Twins and then being in the same situation against Cleveland, where we had to win Game 5 in order to advance, made me a better player. It cemented the importance of winning in my mind. Regardless of what you do personally, winning is what matters most. Even though it was difficult to lose to Houston, that experience brought us closer together."

Although the 2017 season will always hold a special place for Hicks, his hope was that it will ultimately be the beginning of a long run of success.

"I hope 2018 is a big year for me and our team," Hicks said. "Beyond that, I want to make an impact on the game. I want to be a name that people can recognize and that people associate with playing the game the right way."

And when his baseball career comes to an end, Hicks has his sights set on playing another sport professionally.

"It would be a dream come true to be a pro golfer," Hicks said. "I know it will be a long road, but at the same time, it was a long road to make it to the Big Leagues and I did that."

Following his comments about his PGA aspirations, Sillah hit Aaron with a question he was not expecting.

"What about your brother," he asked. "Does he have a chance to make the PGA also?"

"My brother," Hicks responded through a laugh. "No."

"But if he wins today," Hicks said a few seconds later. "Then maybe I'll change my answer."

***

Video: Must C Combo: Hicks hits two home runs against Tigers

Following a successful spring, the injury bug came back to bite Hicks again in April. After playing in the Yankees' Opening Day win in Toronto, the center fielder was placed on the 10-day disabled list with strained intercostal muscles (located within the right side of his ribcage). Despite the setback, Hicks remained optimistic about the 2018 season.

"It was probably something that I could have played with," Hicks said from his locker at Yankee Stadium in mid-April. "But it was something that I wanted to take care of at the beginning of the season with rest and then put behind me. I feel great now, and I've got the whole season in front of me."

Hicks returned to the lineup on April 12 in Boston, going 0-for-4 in the designated hitter role. In just his second game back, Hicks was in center field and seemingly just as he had left off in 2017. In the Yankees' 8-6 win in Detroit, Hicks hit an inside-the-park home run and then, four innings later, hit one over the right-field wall. He became the first Yankees player to hit both an inside-the-park homer and an over-the-fence shot since Hank Bauer accomplished the feat in 1956.

"It felt great to help the team win that game," Hicks said. "It was awesome to do something that hadn't been done in the franchise for a long, long time. It was fun rounding third base and diving into home. I felt like I was back to where I wanted to be right away."

With a speedy return to health and a significant contribution under his belt, Hicks reaffirmed that he did not need to reassess his goals for the season.

"My goals have not changed a bit," he said. "Ultimately, I want to help this team win games throughout the entire season, and I want to get back to the postseason."

Alfred Santasiere III is the editor-in-chief of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the May 2018 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

New York Yankees, Aaron Hicks

Yankees Magazine: Won't Back Down

Amid countless setbacks and free falls, Tyler Austin never stopped running down his dreams
Yankees Magazine

On Aug. 13, 2016, Aaron Judge walked up to the plate for the first time as a Major Leaguer and promptly launched a ball deep over the center-field wall.

He was the first player to homer in his first career plate appearance since … one batter before, when Tyler Austin did the same exact thing.

On Aug. 13, 2016, Aaron Judge walked up to the plate for the first time as a Major Leaguer and promptly launched a ball deep over the center-field wall.

He was the first player to homer in his first career plate appearance since … one batter before, when Tyler Austin did the same exact thing.

It's kind of a fitting story for Austin, who has somehow never been the star of the show. He's a guy next to the guy, or batting for the guy, or being sent down to the Minors to make room for the guy. Everyone involved with the Yankees seems to love him, but few outside the room really know him.

Since that debut in 2016 through mid-April of this year, Austin only had 161 Big League at-bats to his name. It's not enough to get a read on a player, or on a person. And that's partly to do with circumstance, sure, to injuries that have slowed the 26-year-old at various points in his professional career. There's also a guy by the name of Greg Bird who regularly occupies the top of the Yankees' depth chart at first base.

But circumstances can change in an instant -- you've got to take what life gives you and run with it. Austin knows that. It's been a constant his entire life.

***

At times it can feel positively unfair, how little of life you can control. Just look at Austin's history since becoming a pro. You'll find a lineup of crises, enough to fill a season's worth of episodes on some Netflix medical drama.

After his senior year at Heritage High School in Conyers, Georgia, the Yankees drafted Austin in the 13th round of the 2010 MLB Draft. Soon thereafter, a series of unfortunate events unfolded that would have seemed unbelievable to Lemony Snicket.

In one of his very first at-bats as a pro, Austin got hit with a ball and fractured a bone in his hand, washing out the rest of his 2010 season. But when he came back in 2011, he tore up the Minors for a few months, raking in the Gulf Coast League before a quick promotion to Short-Season A-ball in Staten Island.

Then the injury bug took another bite.

Ten days after his promotion to Staten Island, Austin was placed on the disabled list. He came back and finished the year strong, but the next four seasons were filled with seven more trips to the DL or the temporarily inactive list. For every high, there was inevitably a low.

"He has always been a quality hitter," says Yankees general manager Brian Cashman. "He started immediately in his pro career putting himself on our radar with some elite performance. Unfortunately he has had a history with injuries, but when he's healthy, he has always produced and he has always battled. He's a pro in the way he goes about his business the right way. Health has always been the thing that stood in his way."

Austin was selected to play in the 2012 All-Star Futures Game but then suffered a concussion and had to withdraw. He made it back on the field that year, though, and produced enough to win the Yankees' Minor League Player of the Year Award and find his name on the top prospects list put out by Baseball America.

In 2014 he impressed at Double-A despite yet another injury, then was selected to take part in the Arizona Fall League, where he would compete alongside the top Minor League talent in the country. While chasing a foul ball during a game in the desert, Austin, who was playing right field, collided with a teammate and suffered a knee injury that ended his AFL season early. The teammate he collided with, Greg Bird, was fine.

"I went to the fall league three times and was hurt twice," Austin says, shaking his head. "It's just part of the game. I think my injuries, some of them are fluke injuries and it's just something that I've had to overcome, battle through and continue to get better every day from it."

By 2015 Austin had made it to Triple-A, but his production began to wane and the injuries were still stacking up. His poor showing led to a demotion. Eventually, in September of that year, when the Yankees needed to make room on the 40-man roster for some call-ups, he was designated for assignment.

"That was probably the most difficult time in my career," Austin admits. "I knew that on my ride home [after the season], I had a choice to make. I wasn't going to let that moment end my career. So I went back to the house and basically started over. I just worked as hard as I possibly could."

Austin had been low before, but this felt like rock bottom. If there was a silver lining, it was more practical than anything else; once you're down on the ground, there's nowhere to go but up.

"I don't think he was going to walk away at that point," says Brandon Thomas, Austin's longtime friend and offseason trainer. "But I think he was thinking, 'Is this ever going to happen? Am I ever going to get there?' He had been in the league for five or six years and kept getting injured and hurt, and he just can't crack that door down. So I think after that 2015 year, those thoughts were starting to creep in a little bit more. I told him, 'Let's just go to work because all you can do is go to work.'"

***

Austin and Thomas worked together for two hours nearly every day, with Thomas using a yoga-based regimen to help the first baseman improve his strength, flexibility and range of motion.

The Yankees retained the rejuvenated Austin and assigned him to Double-A Trenton to start 2016. By the beginning of June, he was back in Triple-A. When the calendar flipped to August and the Yankees needed a first baseman -- not to mention an infusion of some young blood -- Austin, who was batting .323 for the RailRiders, was called up to the Bronx for the first time. He would dress in the home clubhouse and take the Yankee Stadium field on Aug. 13, 2016.

And maybe it was some well-learned knowledge that his biggest moments had long been followed by some of the most frustrating, but Austin was determined to make his mark. Quickly. He walked up to the plate for the first time as a Major Leaguer and launched the sixth pitch he saw down the line and into the right-field seats.

By the end of the season, he had picked up 20 hits in 31 games and mashed five home runs -- including a blast on his birthday and a walk-off on Sept. 8. When Spring Training rolled around the following February, questions swirled as to whether Bird -- who had impressed with the Big League club in the second half of 2015 -- would be able to come back from a shoulder injury that had kept him sidelined the entire 2016 season. "Tyler Austin's going to have a lot to say about that, I'm sure," Cashman said at the time.

The Yankees prepared to open camp with first base up for grabs -- and there was also a job to be had in right field, where Austin also had considerable playing time. He had climbed out of his rock bottom to this new high -- a true make-or-break moment with the odds actually in Austin's favor. Were things finally turning around?

Pitchers and catchers reported to Tampa, Florida, on Feb. 14, 2017, with the rest of the roster due to officially arrive on Feb. 18. But Austin, like many players, reported early, hoping to get a jump on his breakout season.

And then, on Feb. 17, news broke that Austin had fouled off a ball in the cage and fractured his left foot.

What is the opposite of serendipity? Why did these things keep happening? And how does one build enough mental fortitude to stick through it long enough to see himself become the Opening Day first baseman just one year later?

***

You never know what you can endure. Your threshold for pain -- both physical and mental -- is, perhaps mercifully, indecipherable. But everyone has a limit. So you have to wonder how Austin isn't way past his by now.

The truth is, all that has happened to Austin as a pro … well that's just kid stuff, a secondary piece in his life's narrative.

The real story began in high school, when Austin seemingly had the world at his fingertips. He was a highly-scouted catcher at Heritage High with a chance to get drafted by a Big League club. His dreams were all there for the taking.

"I look back at high school, and you look at the way high school went -- we all knew that Tyler Austin was going to be somebody in baseball," says Thomas, who was a teammate of Austin's on the Heritage squad. "A lot of kids at that high school age can get arrogant with it and cocky. But he was never that way. He's always been a warrior and very humble, and he just works."

But something was wrong. Austin just knew it. He was feeling pain -- catchers always feel pain -- but this was different. After a visit to the doctor, he received a shocking diagnosis: testicular cancer. They would have to operate immediately.

"As soon as I found out, obviously I was scared," Austin says. "It was not something that I would wish upon anybody."

Any cancer diagnosis is terrifying and overwhelming. And for a 17-year-old, it can inevitably have a sort of life-defining quality. The way a person responds can color every decision for the rest of his or her life. Squint, and you can see everything refracting off that one turning point.

"I wasn't going to let it beat me, that's the big thing," he says. "I just kept telling myself over and over again that I was going to be all right and that I wasn't going to let this beat me."

Austin didn't have a choice in the moment. He would get healthy and then he would get back -- fast. There wasn't a Plan B, and there wasn't a pity party; he barely felt the need to tell people. He just wanted to beat it and get back to playing baseball as quickly as his doctors would allow.

And he did.

A week after surgery to remove the tumor, Austin was back on the field. He played in the 2009 Aflac All-American Baseball Classic at Petco Park in San Diego, despite the sutures having been removed just one day before.

Austin grimaces at the memory, saying it was one of the most painful experiences ever -- especially when he was moved from third base to catcher in the game. What got him through it? "Just the will to play, I think," he says. "I think that was the big thing, just being out on the field and getting the opportunity to play just gets you through it."

See, when you battle cancer, when you stare it in the face and beat it, everything that comes after is water off your back. You've already gotten some of the worst news a person can get, and yet somehow you're still here.

Austin has made a career of somehow finding a way to stick around.

Video: MIN@NYY: Austin belts a homer, makes a stellar catch

And it's not dumb luck -- if anything, it feels like Austin has walked under every ladder, opened a million umbrellas indoors and shattered every mirror he has ever seen.

"The best word for me to describe him would be a warrior," Thomas says. "I think that just embodies who he is. If you look at his career with the Yankees, I think it probably didn't go right off the bat the way he envisioned, just battling a lot of injuries and stuff like that. But he always keeps knocking at that door. He's always going to come back. You're never going to knock him out.

"I think he's had a vision and dream of himself playing Major League Baseball since he was 5 years old. That's just been in his mind, that's what he wants to happen, so he's going to make it happen."

Austin is a product of that will to play. He's pure resilience mixed with natural ability, hard work and an unwavering dedication to a dream. There has never been a Plan B for him. There has only ever been Plan A: play for the New York Yankees.

***

With Spring Training just about over this March, the Yankees still had one man too many on their roster. Austin was the odd man out. He was told he'd be starting the season in Triple-A.

Then, Bird went down and underwent surgery on March 27. He was officially placed on the DL two days later -- Opening Day -- and Austin was added to the 25-man roster. He had learned the day before that he was going to be batting ninth and playing first in the Yankees' 2018 opener.

"I was optioned in Spring Training, so I thought the chances of that happening were done for this year," says Austin, who grew up watching Yankees games with his grandmother. "You never want to see anybody go down like Greg did, but it was a special day for me to get the chance to be on that field on Opening Day for the New York Yankees.

"Getting the chance to put this uniform on every day is what I love most about it. This uniform is special and to know the people who have put it on before myself, to know the history that comes with it, I think that's what I love most about it."

The dream had come true. But the story couldn't just end there. Life keeps going. Circumstances change, so you have to adapt. For Austin, that means proving he has what it takes to be more than just the guy replacing the guy.

In his second game of the year, he mashed two home runs against the Blue Jays. As his at-bats became more consistent, he began contributing more and more.

But Austin brings more than just a bat with pop to the lineup. Many in the Yankees' clubhouse have been with Austin throughout his journey, and his passion for the game, his relentless pursuit of excellence, and his sheer force of will have left deep impressions.

"I have a lot of respect for Tyler," says Bird, praise that resonates considering their intertwined fates. "I didn't know him in high school, obviously, but I know the story there. Anyone who has gone through that, especially at that age, I have the utmost respect for. And in his professional baseball career, I've gotten to see that more firsthand, and he's had some challenging times. So I'm happy with where he's at, and I want to see him keep doing what he's doing and get a good chance because he's a Big Leaguer. He deserves it."

For Judge, who has enjoyed a smoother ride since the day of their joint debuts, Austin's evolution -- the good and the bad -- has been a sight to see. "It's pretty cool to see the struggles, the ups and downs in the Minor Leagues and then to finally get the call-up and do what he did in his debut. The way he contributes to the team is incredible. I love playing with him. He'll take the shirt off his back for you. He'll run through a wall for you, which he's done multiple times. It's just amazing to be around.

"He's a fighter, that's the biggest thing. He may get knocked down a couple times, but he's always getting right back up. He's not going to sit there and mope about past things that have hurt him, or a bad game or if he didn't make a play. Just seeing that positivity reflects on the whole team. When you see a guy like that run through walls and getting right back up saying let's make another play, that just fires you up as a teammate."

Maybe you're thinking, this guy might want to stop running through walls -- figurative or literal. But if Austin has learned anything in life, it's that opportunity is fleeting. So while he has the chance, he's committed to making an impact the only way he has ever known how.

"Just by going out and playing as hard as I can every day," he says of his new Plan A, which sounds a lot like his old Plan A. "I think that's the way I was brought up. Play hard, and play every play until the end of it. That's what I'm going to continue to do every day and whatever happens, happens.

"I just think [everything I went through] helps me to not take anything for granted and to continue to work hard every single day no matter the circumstances or the situation. To just enjoy this game and enjoy life."

Austin says and does all the right things. He knows anything can happen because anything and everything already has. But he's here now. He's playing this game that he loves so much now. After everything he has been through, what else could he possibly do?

Hilary Giorgi is the senior editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the May 2018 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

New York Yankees, Tyler Austin

Yankees Magazine: Last Point of Arrival

After years of Minor League success, top prospects Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar prepare to make their mark in the Bigs
Yankees Magazine

For a team with expectations as high as the 2018 New York Yankees', it's unusual when Spring Training arrives and 50 percent of the starting infield has yet to be determined. But that was the situation this past February after a series of offseason trades sent the Yankees' 2017 Opening Day starters at second base (Starlin Castro) and third (Chase Headley) to Miami and San Diego, respectively; the team also signaled that free agent Todd Frazier, who supplanted Headley at third following a July trade with the White Sox, was unlikely to be re-signed.

A good old-fashioned competition would take place in Spring Training with the winner earning a starting job on a World Series hopeful. The contenders arrived in Tampa, Florida, one by one: Danny Espinosa, Jace Peterson, Tyler Wade and Ronald Torreyes. But the spotlight was on the phenoms: Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres, two of the Yankees' top prospects, and, in the case of Torres, one of the top five prospects in baseball.

For a team with expectations as high as the 2018 New York Yankees', it's unusual when Spring Training arrives and 50 percent of the starting infield has yet to be determined. But that was the situation this past February after a series of offseason trades sent the Yankees' 2017 Opening Day starters at second base (Starlin Castro) and third (Chase Headley) to Miami and San Diego, respectively; the team also signaled that free agent Todd Frazier, who supplanted Headley at third following a July trade with the White Sox, was unlikely to be re-signed.

A good old-fashioned competition would take place in Spring Training with the winner earning a starting job on a World Series hopeful. The contenders arrived in Tampa, Florida, one by one: Danny Espinosa, Jace Peterson, Tyler Wade and Ronald Torreyes. But the spotlight was on the phenoms: Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres, two of the Yankees' top prospects, and, in the case of Torres, one of the top five prospects in baseball.

But there were late entries into the race, spoilers who would eventually snag both gigs. When the Yankees acquired Brandon Drury, a longtime target of the front office, in a three-way trade on Feb. 20, and then signed free agent Neil Walker, a veteran second baseman with pop, on March 12, it effectively ended the competition; the Yankees optioned Andujar and Torres to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, halting their Major League dreams just as they were within reach.

It's a funny thing, that last rung on the ladder. Once you've gotten that high, what's one more step? But the higher the climb, the more precarious the balance. It's understandable why many prospects find that last step to be the toughest. Triple-A has been conquered. Developmental time is over. With nothing left to prove, the wait can be maddening.

Torres and Andujar, who have accomplished so much, overcome so much, and reached such great heights already, have spent years learning baseball's most frustrating lesson: You can't control when your moment comes, but you'd better be ready to seize it when it does.

***

Torres has been earmarked for stardom since even before he signed with the Chicago Cubs for $1.7 million as a 16-year-old free agent in 2013. A sure-handed infielder who hits for power and average, he joined the Yankees organization in July 2016 as the centerpiece of a trade deadline deal that sent closer Aroldis Chapman to the Cubs, and he started his climb up the organizational ranks from the moment he was assigned to High-A Tampa.

A trip to the Arizona Fall League ended with Torres, the youngest prospect on the circuit, winning MVP honors. He was then invited to Big League Spring Training with the Yankees in 2017, where, once again, he was the youngest player in camp, and, once again, he dominated, hitting .448 (13-for-29) with nine extra-base hits. And when Didi Gregorius injured his shoulder while playing in the 2017 World Baseball Classic, Torres was the choice of then-Yankees manager Joe Girardi to replace the starting shortstop on Opening Day. But Yankees general manager Brian Cashman overruled that decision and optioned Torres to the Minors.

Playing at times alongside Andujar, the hard-hitting third base prospect who figured to join Torres in the Bronx infield before too long, the young Venezuelan shortstop clobbered Double-A and Triple-A pitching last spring and by mid-June appeared headed for the Majors until an awkward slide left him on Dr. David Altchek's operating table.

Torres was attempting to score from second on a scorcher into right field. Curving toward home, he schemed out a route past the catcher's tag. He attempted an unorthodox slide -- not truly headfirst, more like a hook slide with his left arm extending for the plate -- and was ruled out.

He writhed around on the dirt afterward, clutching his left arm before being helped into the RailRiders' dugout. The initial diagnosis was a hyperextended elbow. Two days later, he visited the Yankees' team doctor and received the bad news: a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his non-throwing elbow that would require season-ending Tommy John surgery.

"I felt like it almost took [away] my dream," Torres says, nearly 10 months later. "I cried for a couple of days."

He shunned baseball following the surgery, preferring to rest his mind along with his ailing body. He was then cleared to work out his legs in the weight room. Then he started running. Playing catch followed. The Yankees' postseason run dovetailed with his recovery, and Torres was soon watching October baseball while he rehabbed. Instead of fixating on hypotheticals -- the possibility that he might have tasted playoff baseball if not for his injury -- he focused on his health, and he was hitting off a tee before he knew it.

Now, he's finally healthy. But along with that license to play ball comes the hard part: reaching his potential. "I don't think anyone has higher expectations than he does," says Scranton/Wilkes-Barre skipper Bobby Mitchell, who nonetheless added a few words of caution for his shooting-star talent. "If he rushes, though, then those expectations can cause problems."

***

Spring Training arrived full of promise, as Torres was given the opportunity to win an everyday job this season. With the open competitions at both second and third base, a repeat of his 2017 performance might likely have been enough to propel the now-21-year-old into the Yankees' Opening Day starting lineup.

But the Feb. 28 matinee against the Detroit Tigers best illustrates Torres' spring, both the highs and the lows. In the top of the third inning, with runners on first and third and no outs, Torres made a diving stop of a line drive up the middle. He then glove-flipped the ball from his stomach, and the toss scuttled past Gregorius, who was covering second. The E4 turned costly when the next batter bashed a three-run home run, the margin of defeat in the Yankees' 9-6 loss.

"I remember that play," says Carlos Mendoza, the Yankees' infield coach. "As a coach, you go up to him and remind him. He knew. He saw me walking toward him, and he was like, 'I got it. I tried to be too quick.' What I liked about it was the way he responded afterward. And the way he responded was that he made two great plays the following inning."

There was little silver lining to be found in Torres' struggles at the plate, though, as he batted just .219 (7 for 32) in Grapefruit League play. Once Walker signed, the youngster's fate became clear. He was optioned to Triple-A the following day.

A month removed from his frustrating Spring Training, Torres offers a mature postmortem. "A little rust for sure," he says. "It's not that easy to come back after nine months and play baseball very well. I am human" (This is the point where we remind fans that Gary Sanchez was essentially gifted the backup catcher job prior to Spring Training in 2016, but hit just 2-for-22. Promoted for good in August, he hit 20 home runs in 52 games).

Video: MIN@NYY: Torres rips his first MLB double to left

Shortly after taking a mid-April round of batting practice, Torres sits in an area adjacent to the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre home locker room inside PNC Field where coaches are crunching game film. For the next 30 minutes, Torres tells his story, from academies and showcases in his hometown of Caracas to his rise through both the Cubs' and Yankees' organizations. Like many Venezuela-born players, he deflects questions about the political and humanitarian crisis engulfing his country.

He speaks without the aid of an interpreter, a remarkable feat for someone who first started taking English classes in April 2015. "The motivation is that I like to explain myself. I like to explain how I feel or why I feel it," he says. "My English right now is not perfect, for sure, but I am working on it."

Upon request, he rolls up his sleeve to reveal the scar from his Tommy John surgery. "Right on my tattoo," he says. Torres sports a sleeve of ink on his left arm. "Believe" is inscribed on the outside of his left hand. He demurs when asked to explain the significance of each marking. "Sorry, every tattoo is personal."

Torres flourished at Triple-A this season. In 14 games for Scranton/Wilkes- Barre, the phenom hit .347 (17 for 49) and was named International League Player of the Week on April 16. And with the Yankees needing a spark in the lineup, Torres was called up to the Big Leagues on April 22.

A few hours prior to his Major League debut, Torres stood in front of his locker in the Yankees clubhouse -- situated between Sanchez's and Aaron Judge's lockers -- and fielded questions from reporters for 15 minutes. He said that the promotion surprised him and admitted that a combination of nerves and excitement limited him to three hours of sleep the night before. But when asked if he was ready, Torres smiled and said, "Yeah, I'm here, for sure. I just try to do my job and help my team."

***

"He was always a kid that had a smile on his face," Mendoza says when asked about his first impressions upon seeing Andujar -- the Yankees' starting third baseman as of mid-April -- when both were in the Minors. But something else stood out about the Dominican slugger when he was just a teenager playing Rookie Ball. "The way he prepared and the way he went about his business for a 17, 18 year old was really, really impressive. His work ethic was off the charts."

He steadily rose through the organization due to his bat. Andujar has a hard, violent swing, a vicious thwack reminiscent, in a way, of Gary Sheffield's, and he utilizes it effectively. A midseason Big League promotion in June of 2017 led to a record-setting debut, as Andujar collected three hits and four RBI in a win over the Chicago White Sox. Even still, Andujar was sent back down to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre after the game, but he took the disappointment in stride. "An experience like last year makes you want to work harder," he says, assisted by Yankees bilingual media relations coordinator Marlon Abreu, "because there are always things you want to improve."

Video: MIA@NYY: Sterling calls Andujar's first career homer

Back in Scranton, he worked on his footwork at third base, particularly his leftward movements, and offered to take reps at first. Hitting was never a concern; Andujar batted above .300 and had 54 extra-base hits last season between Double-A and Triple-A. So after the Yankees decided not to retain their veteran third basemen this offseason, Andujar became a contender for the starting job at the hot corner -- not that he was gunning for it, or so he says.

"I never put that in mind. I never set that as a goal," Andujar says. "To me it was just a matter of working hard, continuing to do my job, continuing to perform, and that's what I like to focus on."

Unlike Torres, Andujar nearly captured the position this spring, clubbing four home runs including a walk-off, but Drury was named the starter. Andujar, in turn, was assigned to Triple-A. But he was called back to the majors before even playing a single 2018 game for the RailRiders, following a rash of injuries during the Yankees' opening series in Toronto. Eventually, as the still-falling dominoes sent Drury to the disabled list, Andujar became the Yankees' starting third baseman in April. And after a 3-for-28 start, Andujar strung together a 13-for-25 streak, lifting his batting average from .107 to .308, and smacked his first Big League home run.

"He is a special player, man," says Tyler Austin, another young Yankees player who stepped into a role vacated by an injured teammate this spring. "Watching him go about his business and play the way he does every day, he's going to be a really good player in the Big Leagues for a long time."

***

The Gleyber Torres Watch was officially on last month, with the New York tabloids and people on social media breathlessly following his exploits. When his name is absent from the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre lineup posted before the RailRiders' April 11 game against Lehigh Valley, Mitchell has to explain that his star infielder has a day off due to the brutally cold conditions. A former outfielder with the Dodgers and Twins, Mitchell has coached Minor Leaguers for more than 25 years, meaning he is not prone to hyperbole. He has seen top prospects both flourish and flame out. With that in mind, his scouting report on Torres comes across as particularly gushing.

"He can really hit," Mitchell begins. "He can play shortstop. He has really good hands. He can play second base and third base. I think the main thing is, for his age he is very mature in his preparation. He remembers pitchers really well. If he has faced them once, he can remember how they pitched him. He's very far advanced for his age in that area. He's unique in that way. He really is. It seems like he has been doing that for a long time. I don't think he writes anything down. He remembers it in his head, who he has faced and who he recognizes. It's going to be really beneficial when he gets to the Big League level."

Mitchell and Torres both know that a promotion is inevitable -- as long as he slides feet-first from now on. "He's very conscious of it," Mitchell says as he cracks a smile.

A few feet from Mitchell's office, Yankees special advisor Nick Swisher prepares to dive into more game film. This is his first time seeing Torres play competitively, and he is impressed. "He's 21 years old, and he's got game, bro," Swisher says. "The sky is the limit."

Swisher has unique perspective into what Torres, and Andujar to an extent, are experiencing at this stage of their careers. A first-round pick of the Oakland Athletics out of Ohio State, Swisher was one of the top prospects in baseball, landing at No. 24 in Baseball America's Top 100 prior to the 2005 season. And yet, he wasn't a household name to fans. "Back then, no one cared about prospects," he says. "Nowadays these prospects are on ESPN and Fox Sports, and sometimes you can get caught up in that hype."

Swisher finished sixth in the 2005 American League Rookie of the Year Award voting, but was traded to the White Sox following the 2007 season and then to the Yankees the following offseason. He departed the Bronx in 2012 as an All-Star and a World Series champion. He understands that a Big League promotion isn't the soft landing. It's the takeoff.

"Getting to the Big Leagues is not the ultimate goal -- getting to the Big Leagues and helping your team win a championship should be the ultimate goal," Swisher says. "Getting to the Big Leagues and sticking and making a name for yourself is the ultimate goal. It's not just getting there. Getting there? What? A lot of people just got there."

Miguel Andujar already got there. And Gleyber Torres has finally arrived, as well. But if they didn't know already, they will soon realize that just getting there is not enough.

Thomas Golianopoulos is the associate editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the May 2018 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

New York Yankees, Miguel Andujar, Gleyber Torres

Yankees Magazine: One Love, One Goal

Driven by his passion for baseball, Didi Gregorius is a man on a mission
Yankees Magazine

It began in the unlikeliest of places -- on Facebook. Derek Jeter, who guarded his privacy like a Rottweiler and was the last person in the Yankees clubhouse you might expect to reveal something on social media, took to the platform in February 2014 to announce that the upcoming season would be his last. While fans quivered at the thought of the Captain sailing off into the sunset, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman and his baseball operations staff were faced with an entirely different conundrum.

Who's going to replace him?

It began in the unlikeliest of places -- on Facebook. Derek Jeter, who guarded his privacy like a Rottweiler and was the last person in the Yankees clubhouse you might expect to reveal something on social media, took to the platform in February 2014 to announce that the upcoming season would be his last. While fans quivered at the thought of the Captain sailing off into the sunset, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman and his baseball operations staff were faced with an entirely different conundrum.

Who's going to replace him?

It was one of the biggest questions they had ever faced. And when they took a look at the shortstop options within the organization, they didn't like what they saw. This was going to require some deft maneuvering. If it didn't work out, things could really go sour in the Bronx.

And so, Cashman gave the order to his army of talented pro scouts: Go out and find a player who can handle the pressure of replacing a legend, who will excel at one of the most important positions on the ballfield, who can be a cornerstone of a championship team, and who can be obtained without having to mortgage our future.

Simple, right?

***

Every baseball player wants to get better. Even those who have accomplished great things in their careers and are regarded highly still see room for improvement. For Didi Gregorius, getting better is a daily pursuit.

The 28-year-old Curaçaoan arrived in Spring Training this season coming off the best season of his life. His batting average rose for a third straight year, to .287, in 2017. He smacked 25 home runs -- surpassing Jeter's single-season record for a Yankees shortstop -- had a career-best 17-game hitting streak and set career highs in RBI (87), runs (73) and OPS (.796). In the postseason, Gregorius clubbed three crucial home runs in elimination games, including two in Cleveland off eventual Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber during Game 5 of the American League Division Series.

But yesterdays don't mean a thing to Gregorius. "You can get four hits, but if you can get four, I mean, you could have got five," he says. "It's 'never satisfied,' let's put it that way. 'Never satisfied' is the way I play the game because there's always room for improvement and trying to get better."

That mindset is just one part of a total package that the Yankees identified in 2014, when they began scouring the Big Leagues for their next shortstop.

Tim Naehring, the former Red Sox infielder, joined the Yankees' scouting department in the fall of 2007. Based out of his hometown of Cincinnati, Naehring spent most of every baseball season on the road, evaluating Major Leaguers and reporting his findings to his superiors.

In 2014, he was among the many Yankees scouts tasked with finding Mr. November's heir apparent. "Obviously, it was a very difficult job to take over with Jeter being one of the best we've ever seen," Naehring says.

As an American League crosschecker, Naehring took a close look at shortstops such as J.J. Hardy and Elvis Andrus, but his main focus was on the National League, and he found himself watching Arizona quite a bit. He liked what he saw in Gregorius immediately.

Not only did the young shortstop show raw power, but he had quick hands and an ability to manipulate the bat barrel through the zone. Naehring saw "untapped potential" at the plate and, with Gregorius's arm strength and innate capabilities in the field, a very good defender.

But what sticks out in Naehring's mind four years later is the same thing that fans in the Bronx have come to appreciate. "The one thing that I always admired about Didi is that he doesn't have a lot of flash to his game," Naehring says, "but he has a lot of actions that tell me that he actually loves playing baseball, which stood out to me right away."

***

Gregorius can't single out any one reason why; he just knows that he adores the game of baseball. It suits his personality well. While he probably has enough natural athletic ability to excel in a solo sport like tennis or golf, the team aspect of baseball appeals to his attention-deflecting sensibilities.

"Everybody has to work together and play the game the right way because everyone wants to play to win," he says. "I think that's the thing for me. It's basically just everybody coming together and being a good team."

Case in point: His emoji-laden post- victory tweets in which he never mentions his own accomplishments, incredible as they may be. Through the first few weeks of this season, Gregorius was one of the hottest hitters in all of baseball. His eight RBI in the April 3 home opener set a franchise record for a Yankees shortstop. Aside from the aforementioned ALDS clincher against the Indians, Gregorius had posted just one multi-home run game in his career; he had two in the first 15 games of this season. Through April 17, he led the AL in extra-base hits and led the Majors with an .804 slugging percentage.

Gregorius has had hot streaks before, but his season-opening tear somehow seemed different. His whopping .464 on-base percentage was more than 150 points above his career average. With just four strikeouts through his first 16 games, his 12.8 at-bats per strikeout ranked third in the Majors behind Andrus (26.0) and Cleveland third baseman Jose Ramirez (13.8). And with 14 walks on the young season, he was well on his way to eclipsing his career high of 37, set in 2013 with Arizona.

"He's a guy that has just a smooth left-handed swing, he's very aggressive, and if you make a mistake or he gets a pitch in a spot he's looking for, he rarely misses it," says Yankees infielder Neil Walker, who first took notice of Gregorius when both played in the NL. "You knew that he was going to develop offensively, you just didn't know to what degree. … He has basically gone from a one, two guy or a six, seven, eight guy in an American League lineup to a mainstay in the middle of the order, which is not an easy thing to do -- in the American League East especially. I think his days of flying under the radar are probably behind him."

***

Before Naehring was willing to stick his neck out and stake his career on a .250 hitter who had yet to play a full season in the Bigs and who had already been traded once (from the Reds to the Diamondbacks as part of a three-team trade in 2012), he needed to do some more reconnaissance on Gregorius.

Naehring was far from the only scout in the Yankees organization who examined Gregorius closely and came away sold on his raw skills and potential for development. But there are a lot of boxes that a scout needs to check, especially when it's a player who is switching leagues and will be asked to take the place of an all-time great. There's a mental makeup aspect that, in this particular case, was extremely important. How would the player react to a slump? To getting booed at home? To being ridiculed in the media?

So Naehring set out to learn about Gregorius the human being, talking to anyone and everyone who might have crossed paths with him. What the scout discovered excited him just as much as any untapped power at the plate or Gold Glove potential in the field.

From his connections in Arizona, Naehring figured out what type of person Gregorius was, what type of work ethic he had, that he went to the ballpark early, took extra ground balls and batting practice. Naehring's people in Cincinnati spoke highly of Gregorius, as well, pointing to the fact that he was a very educated young man who spoke multiple languages.

"One thing you can never take away from Didi is that every single day you see a smile on his face between the lines, which I thought was outstanding and speaks volumes to who he is as a person," Naehring says. "We spoke to everybody we knew, and even the clubhouse guys were like, 'Didi's the best.' He comes in, he wants his uniform, and it's, 'Let's go get the job done.'"

Already plenty convinced by Gregorius's on-field projections, Naehring started to see something even greater -- a future leader of the Yankees.

***

Whether it's working out in Florida during Spring Training or hitting the cages in the Bronx, Gregorius approaches his job the same way he always has -- with a smile. "For me, it's always love," Gregorius says. "It's the love of the game because for me, it's a family thing."

Gregorius's father, mother and brother all played the game at a high level. In fact, his father - who also goes by the nickname Didi -- pitched until he was 52. "Yeah, I mean, he's a freak," his son says. "He still runs every day and does a lot of stuff."

Gregorius takes his cue from his father, who is now a coach.

"It's just something he loves doing: helping people get better," Gregorius says. "I think that's how you want it to be. You don't want everything to be about you; you want it to be about everybody around you because you want everybody to do good. That's basically how a team works."

That philosophy is on display both on the field and behind the scenes. In the dugout and in the clubhouse, Gregorius keeps his teammates loose, helping them put a tough performance in the rearview mirror. For the young players especially, they appreciate his affable nature, and they soak up as much as they can.

"I go to him for advice," says Tyler Wade. "He's really knowledgeable, he's got a lot of wisdom, and he's a good guy to talk to in this clubhouse. He leads by example."

Wade and the rest of the Yankees' infielders point to Gregorius's actions at shortstop as a prime example of his leadership. Not only does he inspire confidence in his teammates with his own abilities to make plays consistently, he communicates with them constantly in an effort to increase their own comfort level in the field.

"I'll give guys a heads-up that an off-speed pitch is coming or tell them to move to a certain position. Those are the types of little things that can change the game," Gregorius says. "Right now we have a really young infield, so we've got to talk to them a lot, you know, whistle or something to let them know what might happen, just trying to keep everybody on the same page. You're always going to try to stay ready and try to anticipate everything before it even happens. That's how your confidence level's going to stay up. Nobody's going to be perfect in the game, but you can always try to be your best when you go out there."

For manager Aaron Boone, a rookie of sorts in his own right, having a player with that sort of attitude is priceless. Boone points to the weather-delayed home opener as another example of how Gregorius sets the right tone.

"When we got word that we were starting in 35, 40 minutes, he was like, 'Game on!'" Boone says. "Just the tempo, the energy and everything that he plays with I think is special. Not that he's a big talker or anything like that -- I think he's more of a lead by example guy - but he is somebody that I look to as being one of the leaders in that room."

Video: Didi goes deep in four consecutive games for Yanks

***

By the end of 2014, Naehring had seen and heard enough. When he weighed all the factors -- Gregorius's potential, his makeup, what the Yankees would likely have to give up to get him, the fact that Arizona was dealing from a position of depth with Chris Owings and Nick Ahmed on its roster -- he felt comfortable going to Cashman and saying, "This is our guy."

There was just one problem. Arizona wouldn't make a deal.

The Yankees lobbed offer after offer at Diamondbacks GM Dave Stewart, who was open to moving Gregorius, but "we couldn't match up on anything," Cashman says. "He just didn't seem to like anything I was selling."

So Cashman got creative. He called up Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski and told him that he'd been trying in vain to acquire Gregorius. Cashman knew the Tigers had no need for another infielder, so he told Dombrowski that if he could somehow wrest Gregorius from the Diamondbacks, the Yankees would send Shane Greene - a young, controllable, affordable right-handed pitcher that the Yanks were high on - to Detroit.

A couple days passed, and when Dombrowski came back with good news, Cashman circled back one last time with Naehring, who again gave his full endorsement of Gregorius.

"I hung up the phone, and I said to my wife, 'I think our future with the Yankees is going to rest on one man's shoulders,'" Naehring recalls. "She goes, 'What do you mean?' I go, 'Well, I'm kind of putting all the chips in on this one, Babe.'"

On Dec. 5, 2014, in one of those rare three-team trades where no team feels like it got ripped off, the Yankees sent Greene -- now the Tigers' closer -- to Detroit, which sent starter Robbie Ray -- a 15-game winner and an All-Star in 2017 -- along with Minor League infielder Domingo Leyba to Arizona. Taking over at shortstop in New York, for the first time in a generation, would be someone other than Jeter. The Yankees had their man.

"Tim had him as a well above-average player, in terms of his ceiling," Cashman says. "And Didi has proved him correct."

***

When Giancarlo Stanton scuffled out of the gate this season, Gregorius could sympathize. He got off to a slow start in 2015 and heard his share of boos as fans pined for their retired captain. But Gregorius learned valuable lessons about the game he loves from the experience.

"You learn that it's a game of failure, and you can't get upset about it," he says. "That's one thing that actually helped me through my first year here. It didn't start really well, but I learned to play the game the right way because everything will turn at some point."

Those boos have turned to deafening cheers for Gregorius, whose vibrant personality and steadily improving play have made him a fan favorite in the Bronx. What's more, his care for his teammates and his enthusiasm for their development have led to him being viewed as something more than just a talented and popular player.

"To me, part of leadership is communicating with everybody and making sure everybody's at ease and comfortable in the clubhouse, and he's really good at doing that," says Miguel Andujar.

"I see him as a leader here and kind of like a captain."

Gregorius would prefer to take things one day at a time, of course. He isn't thinking about becoming a captain someday or even making the All-Star team for the first time -- although, he does admit that he would love to go at least once in his career. If someone wants to talk, he's always available. In the meantime, he's going to continue working toward his only goal: "Win a ring. That's the only goal I have."

As for Naehring, the scout who "pounded on the table," telling Cashman that Gregorius was the answer? You could say his conviction paid off in more ways than one. He is now the Yankees' vice president of baseball operations. And he still roots like heck for Gregorius.

"It all goes back to the one thing that I like more than anything: The guy loves playing baseball," Naehring says. "We've all been around very good players that really don't have that edge about them; they may not love their job like Didi does. So when you see a guy that's out there having fun and he's happy and he's got that looseness about him, those are the guys that you actually pull for.

"Didi Gregorius deserves all the credit in the world. The young man has worked his tail off, he's overcome some adversity, and if he's able to achieve an All-Star Game at some point, I'll be very happy for him and his family and everyone that he stands for."

Nathan Maciborski is the executive editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the May 2018 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

New York Yankees, Didi Gregorius

Yankees Magazine: The Odds Of Winning

Few are better equipped to teach young players how to embrace the uncertainty of baseball than Thunder manager Jay Bell
Yankees Magazine

Jay Bell actually got the news a few weeks before his son Brantley, and you can understand why that might have been a hair frustrating for the young Minor League prospect. The Cincinnati Reds were sending the then-22-year-old Brantley to represent the organization at the Arizona Fall League, where he would be a member of the Scottsdale Scorpions. That team -- a collection of prospects from the Reds, Angels, Giants, Mets and Yankees -- would be managed by the elder Bell, who was finishing up his first year at the helm of the Yankees' High-A Tampa squad. For a young prospect, getting sent to Arizona can be a huge reward, but Jay Bell didn't want to be the one to tell his son the news.

"I was like, 'Man, why didn't you tell me when you found out!?'" Brantley says, feigning irritation at his father in the Scottsdale dugout. "But he wanted to give my coaches an opportunity to tell the players because I think that's his favorite part about the job."

Jay Bell actually got the news a few weeks before his son Brantley, and you can understand why that might have been a hair frustrating for the young Minor League prospect. The Cincinnati Reds were sending the then-22-year-old Brantley to represent the organization at the Arizona Fall League, where he would be a member of the Scottsdale Scorpions. That team -- a collection of prospects from the Reds, Angels, Giants, Mets and Yankees -- would be managed by the elder Bell, who was finishing up his first year at the helm of the Yankees' High-A Tampa squad. For a young prospect, getting sent to Arizona can be a huge reward, but Jay Bell didn't want to be the one to tell his son the news.

"I was like, 'Man, why didn't you tell me when you found out!?'" Brantley says, feigning irritation at his father in the Scottsdale dugout. "But he wanted to give my coaches an opportunity to tell the players because I think that's his favorite part about the job."

There's little that anyone could tell Jay Bell about professional baseball that the 18-year veteran didn't learn himself. And perhaps there's an irony in the realization that years of toil and accumulated experience are no match for the capricious randomness of a life in baseball, where the odds are never in your favor. "Spend enough time in this game," he says, "and you're going to succeed in every situation, but you're also going to fail in every situation. It's figuring out how to deal with that and using it for your benefit."

After being named Florida State League Manager of the Year in 2017, his first season running a team, Bell will move up to the Yankees' Double-A Trenton Thunder squad this year, where he will lead players just two steps from the Big Leagues. With each rung he climbs up the organizational ladder, the odds that his charges will someday find success in The Show improve. But they're still longer than you might think for players who have already reached pro ball. Bell's players, whether in Tampa, Arizona or Trenton, are just beginning; their journeys are barely underway.

And perhaps that's why Bell wanted to make sure that Brantley's own coaches -- who so often bear witness as young prospects realize later than anyone else that their dreams are dead -- got to pass on some good news. Brantley Bell is no sure thing; the odds are against him because the odds are against everybody.

The best lesson, then, that the elder Bell can teach his players (and his son) is that they always need to be ready. Heartbreak and humiliation may be the default in this impossible life playing an impossible game, but magic can pop up from time to time, the perfect meeting of man and moment. And Jay Bell has plenty of stories to share.

***

"You know how it is," Bell jokes over dinner in Scottsdale, a few hours after his Scorpions team won, 6-5, over the Surprise Saguaros. "They put the best hitter in the ninth hole."

More than three decades later, Bell remembers nearly everything about Sept. 29, 1986, the day of his first Big League at-bat. A year after the Twins had traded him to the Indians as part of a package for Bert Blyleven, Bell would, ironically, face the future Hall of Famer for his first taste of the Majors. Bell recalls a piece of advice he got from Mike Hargrove, one of his coaches at the time, during the drive to the airport for the flight to the rest of his life. "Jay," Hargrove told him, "you need to make sure that you swing early, get ready to hit, because he's going to challenge you with a fastball. Don't sit there and wait for that curveball -- you can't hit it anyway; it's the best one in the game."

With two outs in the third, Bell stepped in to face Blyleven, who had yet to allow a base runner. "Sure enough, he threw me the first-pitch fastball," Bell recalls, "and I hit it for a home run."

It was a solid beginning to a Major League journey, the type familiar from dreams and corny novels. Bell would hit 194 more home runs in his career, the large majority of them coming between his age-29 season of 1995 and his last season as a full-time player in 2001. But he remains self- deprecating and deflective about his own impact on the game, insisting that he always figured he would someday manage, mainly because he thought he would wash out of the league pretty quickly. And you can see that in the joy he exhibits while coaching this Scorpions' roster of players from other Major League organizations. Whether hitting fungoes during batting practice or smiling from the third-base coaching box, the enthusiasm is apparent. At dinner, Bell offers scouting reports of the Yankees representatives in Arizona, and he just can't help himself.

What do you think about Albert Abreu?

"He's been a joy to be around this year, and I think he's only going to get better."

Andrew Schwaab?

"Andrew Schwaab is already my favorite pitcher. … He's just a quality human being."

What about Kyle Holder?

"Kyle's one of my favorites."

What impresses you most about Estevan Florial?

"If you want to add a sixth tool -- being a quality teammate and a quality person, someone that's going to do everything including build up his teammates to have great organizational success -- he's a terrific example of that."

Video: Fall League manager Bell discusses Estevan Florial

He could keep going, too. Bell has the chops to break down a player in sabermetric terms to go with his lifetime of baseball intellect, but it's just not where his mind goes right at the start. He is significantly older than his low-Minors players, and he admits that he can't quite let go of his perhaps-antiquated preference that some of them comport themselves on the field more like he chose to back in the day. But those aren't the battles that consume him as he guides players up the organizational ladder. It's an impossible quest under any circumstances, so Bell can be forgiven for relying on some parental instincts, and not just in the case of Brantley.

"The players are pretty much like his own kids in a certain way," Brantley Bell says. "It's been great to see how they've enjoyed him, as well, because they have nothing but good things to say about it."

***

It didn't take long for Bell to prove himself as a manager last year in Tampa, where his team won the division title in both halves of the season. Over four years as a Major League bench coach, spanning one stint in Arizona and another in Cincinnati, Bell learned how to watch the game from the dugout, playing along with his managers.

Being a bench coach "was different from the manager because nobody was looking at me to make the final decision," Bell says. "But I had to go through the process of getting information and developing my own style so that if my manager got thrown out of the game, I would run the game properly, and if he had a question for me or asked me for my suggestion during the course of the game, I would give it to him and have a reason."

As a first-time manager in Tampa, he was handed a bounty of talent. Among MLB.com's ranking of the Yankees' top 30 prospects, seven played under Bell for at least some of last season, and three more got the chance during Arizona Fall League play. But he focuses on the soft measures of success. "I'll give you my life philosophy: relationships matter," he says. "I want to make sure that I give them everything that's been given to me over the years. I get to impact every one of those guys. It's fun for me to delegate my authorities and let my coaches do their thing, but talk about the relational aspects and the mental aspects of the game when it comes to getting out there and competing and figuring out how to beat your opponent."

Don't let the smile and good cheer fool you. Bell lives to compete, to revel in achievement. Yankees fans still have nightmares of him scoring the winning run in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series on Luis Gonzalez's bloop single off Mariano Rivera. It was a joyful culmination, a realization of all the rewards that a life of hard work can offer, but there was more than a little twist of fortune involved in the outcome.

"I'm sitting there on the bench, looking at the lineup card to determine if I'm going to go into the game, and I'm thinking, 'Nope, nope, nope,'" Bell recalls, reflecting on a Diamondbacks postseason run in which he started just three games. "The one scenario I didn't think of was first or second with no outs."

At the time, Rivera was simply automatic; up until that night, in his first 51 postseason games, Rivera had allowed just seven total runs in 77 2⁄3 innings. He had blown exactly one save, way back in the 1997 American League Division Series against Cleveland. "We knew who we were facing, and we knew the last inning was daunting, but at the same time, we still felt pretty comfortable."

With David Dellucci on second base and Damian Miller on first, Bell knew exactly why Bob Brenly was calling his name. "I know what I'm doing; I'm bunting," he says. The ball hopped right to Rivera in front of the mound, and the pitcher fired it to third for an easy first out. "I'm thinking I screwed up the World Series because I was running down to first base." If Bell had succeeded in the sacrifice, or if Scott Brosius had doubled him off first after recording the putout at third, everything might have changed. Instead, the odd turn of fate had Bell in position to score the winning run three batters later, when Gonzalez's looper over shortstop ended the Series.

After he touched the plate, Bell's teammates mobbed him, then the cluster made a collective sprint toward Gonzalez. Eventually, Bell caught sight of his family members, and the emotions overtook him. It was more than one run, one series, one season that occupied Bell in the moment. It was everything that came before it, including when he found himself on the other side of the coin. When Atlanta's Sid Bream came racing home to end the 1992 NL Championship Series, Bell -- then a member of the Pirates -- was watching from shortstop, his fortunes having changed in what felt like an instant. Even now, he can't talk about 2001 without harking back to his emotions after Bream beat Barry Bonds' throw; the moments are totally connected. He exalts in the winning run he scored, while also recognizing how hard New York fans -- particularly in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks -- must have taken that night.

"I know in Pittsburgh, stories that I've heard about fans that were sitting there watching the game and all of a sudden, Sid Bream scores, and it's just sheer shock, turning off the TV and not knowing what to do."

Bell isn't apologizing, not for a second. But he understands. And maybe the pain of 1992 heightened the emotion of 2001. Or perhaps winning is winning and losing is losing, and neither brings any context to the party. It's just that each moment in the game is a gift. Nothing is guaranteed. And all he can do is remember the words of his mentors, and pass them along to the Minor Leaguers in his charge: Find joy. It's the only way to counter the game's precarious brutality.

***

It's just dumb luck, so much of it. A millimeter here or there and a championship stroke becomes a double-play ball. Jay Bell laid down a poor sacrifice bunt, and as a result of that, he was in position to score the winning run of the World Series. What can you do but laugh?

Or, if you're Gylene Hoyle, you can make a bit of money off the whole arrangement.

On July 11, 1999, KNIX, a Phoenix-area radio station, ran a promotion in which fans could call in to win tickets to see the Diamondbacks play. Hoyle had never been able to justify the expense of taking her kids to a game, so it was a pretty terrific prize. But then her name was drawn from all the winners, and she got a chance to win $1 million. All she had to do was pick a Diamondbacks player who would hit a grand slam in the game -- and the inning in which he would do it. It's a crazy contest, like Powerball on the baseball diamond. Standing on the dugout before the game, while the players warmed up on the field, Hoyle picked Bell and the sixth inning.

You can probably guess where this is going, but it sure didn't look that way in the fifth inning, when Bell made the first out and the Diamondbacks went down in order. "There's no chance that I'm going to hit in the sixth," he says. But the team rallied its next time up, and Bell found himself on deck with runners on second and third. Tony Womack walked on four pitches, and it was all in front of him. Hit a grand slam, change a woman's life. Bell worked the count full, "and all of a sudden I start shaking, my legs are shaking like crazy, so I call timeout and step out. I don't know the theology behind this, and don't know if God even cares, but I say, 'Lord, just help keep me calm in this situation. If I get the home run, great, I just want to be calm.'"

Bell laughs at the memory, of jumping around the field after breaking a 3-3 tie with a grand slam over the left-field wall, of returning to the dugout and hearing Steve Finley screaming, "You just won that lady a million dollars!" in a moment that was caught on camera. "It's the first time in my career that I showed any emotion at all running the bases," Bell recalls. He's absolutely insistent about one fact: It's his favorite baseball memory. A homer on his first pitch, a World Series-winning run, a lifetime in baseball; none of it compares to that at-bat when he made a family some money. It's a perfect moment.

The game is rarely that generous. The morning after Game 7 in 2001, Bell -- too hyped up and unable to sleep -- went to a local Krispy Kreme at around 5 a.m. to pick up doughnuts for the family. There was a TV reporter inside with a camera, and she asked Bell if he would agree to an interview. Of course, Bell agreed.

"The World Series last night, did you happen to attend the game?" Bell recalls her asking. "And I said, 'As a matter of fact, I did; it was one of the most wonderful games that I've ever seen. I had the best time watching it, and it's something I'll always remember.' So we finish the interview, and I go get my dozen doughnuts. I go get in the car, I start pulling away, and she comes sprinting out and gets on her hands and knees and begs me to stop because the guys behind the counter, they knew who I was, and so they told her after I left.

"This game will find a way to humble you, and that's why, for me, you need to make sure you remember where you came from and all that stuff. This game is fleeting no matter how long you get to play. It goes by so fast."

For Bell's Double-A players this year, the future is a total mystery. Maybe they'll lay down a picture-perfect sacrifice bunt and trot back to the dugout, or maybe they'll hit into a force out and end up scoring the winning run. There's so little they can control. They'll learn that, one way or another.

But there's magic out there. There truly is, and Jay Bell is proof of it. Stick around long enough and, eventually, you'll find a way to beat the odds.

Jon Schwartz is the deputy editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the April 2018 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

New York Yankees

Yankees Magazine: Making Magic Happen … Again

After two and a half seasons away, David Robertson returned to the Yankees in 2017 and showed his grit under pressure once more
Yankees Magazine

It was Oct. 3, 2017, and the fans that packed Yankee Stadium sat on the edges of their seats, holding their breath with every pitch that Chad Green threw. In his third inning of relief, the 26-year-old right-hander looked gassed. The scoreboard showed the Yankees were leading the Minnesota Twins, 4-3, in this win-or-go-home American League Wild Card Game. It was a hard-earned lead -- the result of a wild comeback that brought the Bronx faithful from despondent to delirious all in the first inning. But now it was on the cusp of disappearing. Green had loaded the bases with one out, and the Twins were threatening a comeback of their own.

Recognizing the heft of the situation, manager Joe Girardi had but one hope. He turned to his resident escape artist, Houdini.

It was Oct. 3, 2017, and the fans that packed Yankee Stadium sat on the edges of their seats, holding their breath with every pitch that Chad Green threw. In his third inning of relief, the 26-year-old right-hander looked gassed. The scoreboard showed the Yankees were leading the Minnesota Twins, 4-3, in this win-or-go-home American League Wild Card Game. It was a hard-earned lead -- the result of a wild comeback that brought the Bronx faithful from despondent to delirious all in the first inning. But now it was on the cusp of disappearing. Green had loaded the bases with one out, and the Twins were threatening a comeback of their own.

Recognizing the heft of the situation, manager Joe Girardi had but one hope. He turned to his resident escape artist, Houdini.

David Robertson had returned to the Yankees in a trade just a couple months earlier, having left the Bronx after the 2014 season to become the closer for the Chicago White Sox. He was a known commodity in New York and had earned his closer's salary after adeptly replacing Mariano Rivera when the legend retired. Robertson had seen big moments, finished games and won a championship. In high-leverage situations, there were few better options.

So in this most heart-pumping situation, with the Yankees' season hanging in the balance, you bring in a guy you know can escape a threat and finish off an opponent.

Even if it's only the third inning.

***

Being a closer is one of the most pressure-filled jobs in sports. Being a closer in a big market such as New York makes the challenge even harder. Being the closer in New York who succeeds Rivera? Well, that's just not fair.

To Robertson, though, it was just the job. He was in his seventh year in pinstripes and had risen steadily up the bullpen ranks. He had earned the nickname Houdini for his ability to escape tricky situations. The moments and pressure were never too much for him.

In 2014, the 29-year-old right-hander made 63 appearances for the Yankees, finishing 55 games and converting 39 saves. Robertson posted a second straight season with a WHIP under 1.10, prompting the White Sox to offer him a lucrative contract when he hit the free-agent market after the season. The Yankees didn't match what Chicago was offering, so D-Rob packed up his high socks and moved to the Windy City, where he spent the next two and a half years closing out games for the Pale Hose.

"Taking over for Mariano, it kind of seemed a bigger role to the fans and the media," Robertson said after signing with the White Sox. "You're replacing a legend. When he retired and I took over as the closer, I wasn't really worried about what was going to happen because I knew if I could stick to my guns and do the same thing I've done in the eighth inning in the ninth inning that we'd be all right and we'd win ballgames. So I never approached it as anything more than that. It's just a job."

There's a certain hierarchy in any Major League bullpen. You've got your set-up guy, your lefty specialists, the long man who can throw multiple innings if your starter runs into trouble. Every role is important in its own way, but only the closer gets the rock-star attention -- which seems fair since he often faces the most high-leverage situations.

With the hierarchy also comes an understanding of what your role is and when you'll be expected to pitch. In baseball, where a routine and consistent approach is essential for any player, that kind of regularity can be a major key to success. Robertson had that in spades in Chicago. So when he was dealt at the 2017 trade deadline to the Yankees along with fellow bullpen mate Tommy Kahnle and third baseman Todd Frazier, Robertson went from being a bullpen stalwart with a clearly defined role, to, well, no one was really sure.

Already entrenched in the Yankees' bullpen were closer Aroldis Chapman, four-time All-Star Dellin Betances, impressive youngsters Green and Chasen Shreve, and the ever-dependable Adam Warren. Everyone in the 'pen was younger and threw harder than Robertson. So where exactly would he fit, and how did he feel about the uncertainty?

Simply put, it didn't matter. He was just going to do the job.

"I wasn't worried at all about what my role on the Yankees was going to be," he says. "I knew that New York was really determined to win a World Series, and they wouldn't have traded for us if they weren't serious about that. So coming over, I knew my role would change and that I'd be pitching in different spots. But it's nothing that I haven't done before in my career, so I was accepting of any new role I was going to get and any chance it would give us to get back to the playoffs."

One thing was certain, though: Robertson was returning to a place where he was inherently comfortable. Having come up through the Yankees' farm system -- he was a 17th-round pick in 2006 out of the University of Alabama -- and flourishing on the Bronx stage over the first seven years of his career, Robertson was excited to rejoin a Yankees team that was trending younger and on the rise.

"My first reaction was kind of a relief when I heard it was the Yankees," he says. "For New York to kind of come out of left field and pick up all three of us was nice. I was coming back to a place I had been before, and I was familiar with a lot of the guys on the team and knew how the organization worked.

"Honestly, when I entered the clubhouse it felt like I had never left. The roster may have turned over, there may have been a lot more young guys there, but I've played for the Yankees longer than any of them had even been with the organization, so it wasn't too much of a worry for me."

Robertson slipped into his familiar No. 30 Yankees jersey and told his coaches to pitch him whenever they needed him. The communication, Robertson says, was good. Before a game, one of the coaches would tell him to be ready by the sixth or the seventh. Or if Chapman wasn't available, be prepared to come in and close.

At 32 years old, the 10-year vet knew he'd have to rely on his experience and confidence to defeat his opponents rather than overpowering them with lightning stuff. But no matter when his name was called, Robertson was ready to work.

"The only thing that changes in my routine is a few things I do pregame," he says. "But even that stuff is minor. I just get myself down to the bullpen earlier in the game and get myself prepared to pitch knowing that I could be pitching in the early innings as well as the later innings."

For Robertson, the titles and the roles had become secondary. The reliever won a championship with the Yankees in 2009, but in the years since, despite reaching personal milestones, he failed to achieve the same ultimate success. He was humbled by every losing season in Chicago and hungry to get back to October baseball.

"Pitching for the White Sox was completely different than pitching for New York," the reliever admits. "I just felt like the games were different, the atmosphere was different, the intent of the team [was different]. When you're in New York, your goal is to win a World Series. Not that the White Sox weren't really trying; it just didn't seem like they were interested in it. It's hard to explain. It ended up that after the first year I was there, in the second year they started rebuilding and the third year was the same thing. But that's the way it goes.

"When you're on a team that's always competing, it makes baseball more fun. I'm a competitive guy. I don't like to lose. I want to win. I don't care about anything else; I just want to win a ballgame. I want to get a chance to win another World Series ring. And coming to New York, you know that everyone on that team is committed to the same thing, down to the coaching staff. So you were well prepared and committed to every game that you came into."

Robertson settled into his new "role" as a jack-of-all-trades out of the bullpen and a veteran presence on a young team. His impact was felt in all corners of the clubhouse.

"I think the way he's been able to adjust throughout his career shows what really separates the guys who stay in the Big Leagues from the guys who get up there but don't really make a long career out of it," says reliever Ben Heller, who spent the better part of September just a few lockers away, soaking up knowledge from Robertson. "It's how you adjust when failure comes your way. Everybody is going to have bad games and tough stretches, but it's all about how you adjust and how you learn from it. Someone like D-Rob, who has been around for so long, guys like him have had to make so many adjustments throughout their careers, so I think there's definitely a lot to learn from that."

"It seems like from the first couple days when I was with the White Sox, he took me in as his [student] and wanted to make me better," Kahnle says. "So, it's been fun. He's a great person, and I've actually learned a lot on the field and off the field from him. He's been a great leader for me and for the entire bullpen and everyone who's been around him. He's a guy you watch, and everything he does is the Yankee Way. He's a great role model."

After returning to the Yankees, Robertson saw time in the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth innings, plus a few extra-inning games -- and he was masterful. In 35 total innings, the reliever went 5-0, allowing just four earned runs and striking out 51 while holding opposing batters to a .119 average. The Yankees went 23-7 in games in which he pitched, including a 5-1 win at Toronto on Sept. 23 that clinched a postseason berth.

After a five-year absence from October baseball, Robertson was finally headed back. But neither he, nor any of his teammates, could have anticipated what lay ahead in the Wild Card Game.

***

Over the course of three innings, the Yankees and their fans went from hopeful to downtrodden to enthralled to the brink of collapse. Naturally, in that situation you bring in Houdini to perform a little magic and settle things down.

"The 2017 postseason was fun, and I had a great time," he says. "It felt less intense to me in a weird way. I had been there before, and it just felt like it was always just another game. I was loose in every game I was playing in, even though the stakes were extremely high."

When Robertson trotted to the mound in that third inning with the bases loaded, the pressure could hardly have been greater, but the reliever was cool and calm. Just doing his job.

He induced a groundout on his third pitch, which allowed Minnesota to tie the game. That was the last run the Twins would score, though. Robertson squashed any threat of a comeback by striking out Jason Castro to end the third.

The Yankees retook the lead for good on a Greg Bird RBI single in the bottom of the frame, and Robertson came back out to pitch the fourth. Then the fifth. Then, finally, the sixth inning. In 31⁄3 innings of relief -- the longest outing of his career - Robertson threw 52 pitches, struck out five Twins and earned the win.

"That Wild Card Game was the most fun game I've ever played in in my life," he says. "It really was. It couldn't have gotten any lower after the first inning, but then the bullpen came out and held the lead when we got it, and we won."

Robertson and the Yankees rolled through more tough spots as they tried to inch their way toward the World Series -- vanquishing the defending AL-champion Indians before falling to eventual 2017 World Series winner Houston in seven games. The reliever pitched in eight of the Yankees' 13 postseason contests, with just one bad outing in Game 6 of the ALCS in Houston to blemish an otherwise spectacular October.

Video: Robertson on Yankees bullpen, expectations for 2018

For someone who had done so much in his career already, Robertson's attitude and effort in his return to pinstripes left the biggest impact on teammates.

"I've been with him the last two years and, basically, we only used him as our closer," Kahnle says. "He'd throw one inning, maybe 1 1⁄3 or 1 2⁄3, but seeing him toward the end of the season with the Yankees and into the postseason where he would give us three innings, that was the most impressive display.

"The bullpen hierarchy can affect guys who are used to only pitching late in games, but then the next thing you know they're in a fifth-inning situation. Or let's say you're up eight, and it's a whole different situation than some guys are used to. But for Robbie, it didn't seem to matter at all. It just seemed like he had a plan, and he stuck to that plan. Always."

Despite the success, Robertson still had a bitter taste lingering as Spring Training rolled around. The 2018 Yankees reported to Tampa with loftier expectations than in recent years. And one of the strengths of this young, hungry club appeared to be the bullpen. The Yankees' deck was stacked, but the order in which new manager Aaron Boone would play his reliever cards was still unknown.

To Robertson, it still didn't matter.

"To be honest, I'm just going to pitch whenever they tell me to and be an example on and off the field for all these young players," he says. "A lot of these guys don't have experience, they haven't been in the league very long, and so I just want to lead by example more than vocally. I don't really need to tell guys things. If they come and ask me, I'll give them the best advice I can, but other than that, I'm just going to show up and do the job the best I can every day, work hard and never give up."

In 2018, the doors of the Yankees' bullpen will swing open and David Robertson will jog onto the field. Maybe it'll be the fifth inning; maybe it'll be the ninth. Who knows, maybe it'll be the third. It wouldn't be the first time.

Whenever it happens, Robertson will come in with the same intensity and comfort he had when his role as closer in Chicago was defined. The magician has become a shape-shifter -- and Houdini still has plenty of tricks up his sleeve.

Hilary Giorgi is the senior editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the April 2018 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

New York Yankees, David Robertson

Yankees Magazine: Solace is Golden

When young Sonny Gray lost his father, he found peace -- and dizzying success -- on the playing field
Yankees Magazine

At the local Walmart, strangers come up to say thank you. At Cheddar's, a woman can't summon the nerve to interrupt his lunch, so she surreptitiously snaps a photo of him seated in the casual dining room. When he makes a surprise visit to the training room at Smyrna High School, weights clank to a halt as wide-eyed student-athletes approach to say, "Nice to meet you, sir."

Sonny Gray is a Legend around here, with a capital "L." A 2011 first-round pick of the Oakland A's out of Vanderbilt -- where he helped the Commodores reach their first College World Series -- Gray has shined on some of baseball's biggest stages. But his rock-star status has almost nothing to do with the national pastime. In this suburban Tennessee town 25 miles southeast of Nashville, Sonny Gray became a household name long before he threw a pitch in the Big Leagues, or even in college.

At the local Walmart, strangers come up to say thank you. At Cheddar's, a woman can't summon the nerve to interrupt his lunch, so she surreptitiously snaps a photo of him seated in the casual dining room. When he makes a surprise visit to the training room at Smyrna High School, weights clank to a halt as wide-eyed student-athletes approach to say, "Nice to meet you, sir."

Sonny Gray is a Legend around here, with a capital "L." A 2011 first-round pick of the Oakland A's out of Vanderbilt -- where he helped the Commodores reach their first College World Series -- Gray has shined on some of baseball's biggest stages. But his rock-star status has almost nothing to do with the national pastime. In this suburban Tennessee town 25 miles southeast of Nashville, Sonny Gray became a household name long before he threw a pitch in the Big Leagues, or even in college.

He may have earned his Yankees pinstripes against the Astros in the 2017 American League Championship Series, but it's Gray's purple-and-gold No. 2 Bulldogs jersey that hangs framed in more than one Smyrna restaurant. Around these parts, football reigns supreme. And what Gray accomplished under the Friday night lights at Smyrna High hasn't been done before or since.

It began with the worst day of Sonny Gray's life.

***

At 5-foot-10 and 192 pounds, with a boyish grin and close-cropped blond hair, Sonny Gray might sooner be mistaken for actor Matt Damon than a professional athlete. But not in this town, and certainly not on this field.

On a frigid Wednesday afternoon in January, Gray is all smiles as he looks out across the gridiron at Smyrna High. Two inches of snow on Monday shuttered the county's schools for the week -- snow removal is not really a thing in the South -- and it's clear from the donut tracks in the parking lot that the teenagers have been enjoying themselves. Gray looks up at the empty bleachers and recalls how packed they would get for football games, with additional spectators standing three or four deep around the chain-link fence that encircles the field.

As a high school quarterback, this is where Gray displayed everything he had been given, and everything he still carries with him. The tenacity, the competitiveness, the will to overcome long odds, the sportsmanship, the leadership -- it all came together here in remarkable fashion.

"Everyone knew what we went through," Gray says. "To be able to push through it the whole time and then go out and do something that this town and this area had never done before was a good feeling, not only for me and my family, but really the whole town."

Inside the school, several of Gray's former teachers and coaches have come in on their snow day to welcome back Smyrna's favorite son. Assistant principal Sherri Southerland has laid out an array of press clippings from Gray's time here. Next to them on the table is a stack of gift-wrapped shoeboxes containing purple-and-gold footwear earmarked for the school's Special Olympians -- a donation from New Balance coordinated by Sonny's wife, Jessica, also a Smyrna graduate.

Gray is all business on the mound, but here on his home turf, he's at ease, cracking jokes and showing off pictures of his 3-year-old son, Gunnar Carmack Gray. He walks the halls grinning widely, stopping to admire the trophy case that he helped fill. He reminisces with drama teacher Shannon Williams about his senior-year performance as Troy Bolton in High School Musical. When baseball coach David Looper asks Gray how he would have pitched to himself in high school, Gray quips, "Shoot, I couldn't get him out. That guy's a stud."

This is and always will be home for Gray. He and Jessica live not far from here, and he hopes to give Gunnar the opportunity to experience the type of childhood memories that mean so much to him.

"To come back to the same high school and the same weight room and see kids looking at you -- calling you 'sir' like they're kind of in shock -- is a really, really cool feeling," Gray says.

His father would have been extremely proud.

***

Jesse Carmack Gray only wanted the best for his kids. He and his wife, Cindy, had raised Sonny and his two sisters, Katie and Jessica, in Una, a Nashville neighborhood hard by the airport. Money was tight, so Jesse would work two jobs to make ends meet, but whatever spare time he had was spent with family.

He named his middle child Sonny to honor his own father, Donald "Sonny" Gray, and Jesse -- a talented football and baseball player in his youth who pitched one season at Austin Peay -- nurtured the boy's love of sports. On weekends, father and son would pile into Jesse's pickup truck and drive to a local ballfield to hit buckets of balls or toss a football around. It wasn't long before Sonny stood out from his peers.

"It was kind of annoying because he was good at everything," says Jeremy Holt, a close friend since childhood who Gray trains with during the offseason. "He was super humble, so it wasn't annoying in that sense. It was annoying in that we could never beat him."

Jesse coached Sonny in baseball and football, teaching him the fundamentals in both. But while he urged his son to go the extra mile, he also stressed the importance of having fun, making friends and being a good teammate. Holt says Jesse treated every kid on the team like his own, creating an environment that was enjoyable for everyone.

"People talk about finding your happy place, your comfort zone. That's what [sports have] been my whole life," Sonny says. "That's been where you need to go if there's something going on outside of baseball. You always can go there, and that's kind of what I've always done."

Longtime Rutherford County resident Stork Montgomery has combined his passion for football and communications by videotaping and broadcasting youth games, sometimes as many as eight a day. He'll never forget seeing the pint-sized Gray as a 10 year old, playing like he was an NFL quarterback. "He was the smallest guy on the field, but you could just tell by non-verbal action, the way he commanded the field, the way he helped his other teammates up," Montgomery says. "I knew it right away. I said, 'Right there is the best football player on the team.'"

Montgomery and Jesse Gray became close friends, and like Sonny -- who writes the word "Dad" underneath the brim of his baseball cap -- Montgomery keeps Jesse in his thoughts, telling stories about him often. Like how Jesse knew Sonny's future was in baseball, and that he wanted him to end up at Vanderbilt rather than University of Tennessee -- "too much partyin' going on there," the elder Gray would say of Knoxville.

Montgomery's favorite tale, however, might be of the time he and Jesse were at Blackman High School in Murfreesboro to watch Sonny play in a middle school jamboree. All the high school coaches in Middle Tennessee were on hand, and as Jesse was walking back from the restroom, Riverdale coach Gary Rankin -- "the Bear Bryant of Rutherford County" -- stopped him to chat about his talented son.

"I saw you talk to Gary Rankin; what did he say?" Montgomery eagerly asked his friend.

"Aw, he wants me to bring Sonny down to Riverdale, said we'd win a couple of state championships," Jesse replied. "I said, 'I think we'll just go to Smyrna and win two there.'"

Sonny smiles at the recollection of his father's outlandish prediction. Smyrna had never made it to the state title game. The school had never even beaten Riverdale in football -- not once. Telling Rankin -- now Tennessee's all-time winningest coach who led Riverdale to nine Class 5A title games and won four in his 16 years there -- that they'd win two at Smyrna was like telling Bill Belichick that you're going to win two Super Bowls with the Jets. But Jesse had a plan. He wanted his kids to go to a good school that wasn't far from Nashville, so one day he packed up his family's belongings and moved them into the Charleston Hall apartments near the bowling alley.

With sports becoming an increasingly important aspect of his life, Sonny settled in to his new surroundings. As an eighth grader, the 13-year-old Gray quarterbacked Smyrna Middle School to an undefeated season and a conference championship. "He's special," head coach Danny Williams said at the time. "He's a leader on offense and defense. I hate to repeat myself, but he has a lot of heart and is a very competitive person."

Although he was clearly talented, Gray was still a bit undersized as he entered high school. Not wanting to risk injury, the coaches at Smyrna High decided to put him on the freshman squad. Still, things were looking up. Then, on the morning of Aug. 26, 2004, Gray's life was changed forever.

***

Cindy Craig greets her guests warmly and speaks softly with a gentle twang, but underneath that Southern charm is one strong woman.

Sonny's mother is seated on her living room couch, across from the fish tank and next to a cage housing a noisy pet bird. Her home is a shrine to family -- not just to her famous son but her two daughters, her stepchildren and her grandkids, as well. Memory cards of loved ones lost adorn a wall, and while Sonny and his stepdad, Barry, sneak off to the attached garage for a cigar, Cindy tries to remember the details of that fateful day.

It was around 4 a.m. when she got the call. Jesse had been in an accident, and she needed to come to Vanderbilt University Medical Center immediately. Cindy would soon learn the tragic details, that Jesse, traveling up Murfreesboro Pike around 1:30 a.m. after working in the kitchen at her brother's restaurant, ran a red light. His Toyota pickup rammed into the driver's side of a Kia Sephia driven by 21-year-old Robert Garrett II, a basketball player at Nashville's Trevecca Nazarene University. No alcohol was involved, but neither driver was wearing a seat belt. Both were killed.

It's all still a blur, but Cindy will never forget what Sonny said to her as they sat in a waiting room after deciding to donate Jesse's organs. "He was like, 'Momma, I'm going to play football tonight. Daddy would've wanted me to play, and I've got to do it.'"

By that time, the family's inner circle had rushed to the hospital to lend whatever support they could. When Sonny told his coaches that he needed to get to school so that he would be eligible to play that night, they pleaded with him to reconsider, but there was no stopping Sonny Gray.

"That's just kind of the way that my mom and my dad had raised all of us," he says. "You can go through some tough times; how are you going to come out the other side? That moment right there, in a 10-minute period you're aging 10 years. But things [still] need to be done, and I felt like that was just something that he would've wanted me to do more than anything else."

Gray took the field for Smyrna that night and honored his father much the same way Brett Favre had done eight months earlier on Monday Night Football -- with a performance for the ages. His coach let him call the first play of the game, and he threw a 75-yard touchdown -- his first of four TD passes in a 28-6 win.

Thus began The Legend of Sonny Gray.

That spring, armed with a fastball in the low 90s, Gray started his varsity baseball career 6-0 with a 0.00 ERA. He was the only underclassman named to The Tennessean's 2005 All-Midstate Baseball team -- a list that included future Major Leaguers Bryan Morris, Mike Minor and Caleb Cotham. That fall, Gray and his fellow sophomore, wide receiver Rod Wilks, ushered in a new era of Smyrna football, leading the Bulldogs to a 7-5 record.

Gray carried on his father's legacy off the field, too. As a freshman, he visited Mitchell- Neilson primary school in Murfreesboro and read to second graders. As a sophomore, he spoke out in favor of drug testing high school athletes. "If students are doing drugs and are playing sports, you know they don't care about the team," he told The Tennessean.

Video: Quick Hits: Always Sonny

With Jesse's prediction echoing in his mind, Sonny began his junior year with lofty goals. He and Wilks helped the Bulldogs get off to a 6-1 start, and when they got set to face 6-1 Riverdale that October, it was the region's biggest regular season game in years. The thousands of fans that descended upon Smyrna's Robert L. Raikes Stadium anticipated seeing the Bulldogs break through against the Warriors for the first time in 17 tries.

"The Game of the Year" turned out to be a 49-0 butt-kicking by Riverdale -- its 34th straight win over a Rutherford County opponent. For Smyrna, a state title seemed about as close as Pluto.

But coach Philip Shadowens used the humiliation as motivation, and Gray bought in to the belief that the season was anything but over. The Bulldogs won their next four games, setting up a quarterfinals playoff matchup against their tormentors from Riverdale.

With 20 seconds remaining in the third quarter, Gray managed to fight off a furious Warriors pass rush and deliver a 60-yard touchdown strike to receiver Josh Crouch that put Smyrna ahead, 9-7. In the fourth, Riverdale marched deep into Bulldogs territory, but Jonah Hendricks -- another childhood friend with whom Gray remains close -- recovered a fumble at the 11. An interception thrown by Gray gave the Warriors another late chance to take the lead, but they missed a 34-yard field-goal attempt with 2:30 to play and Smyrna hung on for its first-ever victory over Riverdale.

The Warriors haven't won a title since.

"That was the game that broke Riverdale's back," Montgomery says.

On the full-color front page of the sports section the next day, there was Gray in his purple-and-gold uniform, leaping into Crouch's arms with his right index finger aloft under the headline, "Finally, a first for Smyrna." The picture on the bottom of the page was of a Riverdale player in tears.

Riding high from the historic two-point victory, Gray marched his team to a three-point win over undefeated Ooltewah in the semifinals, then avenged his team's only other regular season loss by routing defending Class 5A champion Ravenwood, 35-14, in the title game and delivering Smyrna its first football title in school history.

"Losing 49-0 and then about six weeks later, we were able to beat [Riverdale] in the playoffs; it was just an amazing win," says Billy Harris, a former coach who has been assistant principal and athletic director at SHS since 2006. "I've spoken to many teams over the years, and I use that game from 2006 to show that anything is possible. It's a very good motivation for our students."

Gray's prep career was far from over, though. On the diamond, he began his junior season 6-0, drawing interest from big-time college coaches and Major League scouts every time he took the mound. After striking out 18 batters one Monday afternoon, he came back on three days' rest and tossed a two-hit shutout to propel Smyrna to its first state baseball tournament. On the eve of that appearance, Gray announced his commitment to Vanderbilt.

It was another moment that Jesse would have been proud of. Sonny could have been emotionally crippled by his father's passing, or found less positive ways to cope. Instead, he continued to nurture the gifts he had been given -- an exercise made possible thanks to a foundation at home that remained rock solid.

"When you're 14 or 15 years old, it's hard for you as a kid and it's hard for a lot of people, but I couldn't even imagine what it was like for my mom," Gray says. "The older I get, it puts a lot more stuff into perspective, and looking back through the whole thing, I don't know if I ever even saw her physically shaken up. She was always making sure that I knew and my sisters knew that everything was going to be OK. It might not be the way that we thought our lives would go, but everything was going to be OK. Now, I kind of realize there was a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff that she did not let us see that was very difficult, and that just shows you how strong she was to me and my sisters. It was always going to be OK, and it always was."

***

After the Cinderella run the previous fall, Gray became the hunted as a senior, with huge expectations put upon Smyrna. Fulfilling Jesse's vision of two titles would be no small task.

Of course, Sonny was up to the challenge. He led the Bulldogs back to the Class 5A state title game and, with a 46-20 domination of Independence on Dec. 8, 2007, cemented The Legend of Sonny Gray.

Through it all, Sonny stayed true to himself and to the people around him. When he was invited to participate in a prestigious east-west All-Star Game for the state's top seniors after beating Indy, he politely declined. Celebrating the 2007 state title with his Bulldogs teammates was the perfect ending to his football career -- a memory he still cherishes. He never let the games or his increasing fame go to his head, maintaining his sunny disposition and not taking himself too seriously.

"He called me 'Dog,'" says Vanderbilt's Tim Corbin, the 2014 Collegiate Baseball National Coach of the Year who started scouting Gray when he was a freshman. "That was how he approached me; it was never 'Coach,' it was, 'What's up, Dog?' I don't know how anyone can use the word 'dog' to a coach and make it sound respectful, but he did. I was never offended by it. … Sonny just has that personality where he's just so common, you know, he's just so real; the fibers are so real."

Before heading off to Vandy and beginning his journey toward the Big Leagues, Gray graduated from Smyrna High with the Class of 2008. He was a popular honor roll student, named Best All Around by his peers. In his senior yearbook, Cindy submitted one of those congratulatory messages that parents often do. Above a photo of Sonny and Jesse in their Una baseball jerseys, posing with a trophy that's about as tall as the young boy, Cindy wrote:

We are so proud of you and love you very much. You have accomplished so much yet have managed to stay humble. You've grown into a wonderful young man. Your Dad would be so proud of the man you have become. We hope all of your dreams come true. The best is yet to come. -Mom, Jessica & Katie

As usual, Mom was right. Gray has been an All-Star Major Leaguer, has shined in the postseason, has made millions of dollars and, at 28, he still has many more good years ahead of him. He'll take the mound at Yankee Stadium this year with fire in his eyes, ice in his veins and the memory of his father etched in his heart. He'll compete the only way he knows how -- with unyielding intensity. What else would you expect from Jesse's kid, the pride of Smyrna, Tennessee? Sonny Gray is a Bulldog, with a capital "B."

Nathan Maciborski is the executive editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the April 2018 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

New York Yankees, Sonny Gray

Yankees Magazine: Method Man

In the hundreds of decisions Brian Cashman makes daily, none is arrived at lightly. That may be the key to his -- and the Yankees' -- success
Yankees Magazine

Spend an hour with Brian Cashman, and his phone will ring no fewer than five times. Email notifications will chime so frequently that you figure there is no chance he will ever reach "Inbox Zero." The choo choo of a train car -- a new text message, obviously -- blares every few minutes. Every alert at least briefly draws his attention to his cellphone, which is always within arm's reach. But not all are created equal. He'll answer some immediately, save some for later, scoff at others. Prioritization is a must.

Most of those messages, calls and emails are about the players that the Yankees' general manager has acquired through the years. They're filled with the latest insights into the names that Cashman -- along with a vociferous fan base -- hopes will bring the Yankees their 28th championship. The analytics department sends over the latest progress report on Prospect X. A rival team is inquiring about Player Y. Eventually, anything important enough reaches Cashman's desk, and he'll make a call based on one question: Will this move make the Yankees better?

Spend an hour with Brian Cashman, and his phone will ring no fewer than five times. Email notifications will chime so frequently that you figure there is no chance he will ever reach "Inbox Zero." The choo choo of a train car -- a new text message, obviously -- blares every few minutes. Every alert at least briefly draws his attention to his cellphone, which is always within arm's reach. But not all are created equal. He'll answer some immediately, save some for later, scoff at others. Prioritization is a must.

Most of those messages, calls and emails are about the players that the Yankees' general manager has acquired through the years. They're filled with the latest insights into the names that Cashman -- along with a vociferous fan base -- hopes will bring the Yankees their 28th championship. The analytics department sends over the latest progress report on Prospect X. A rival team is inquiring about Player Y. Eventually, anything important enough reaches Cashman's desk, and he'll make a call based on one question: Will this move make the Yankees better?

After the team fell just one win short of the 2017 World Series, Cashman went into the offseason with that one question constantly on his mind. Baseball America's 2017 MLB Executive of the Year led a methodical search for a new manager, added an MVP outfielder and opened up spots on the roster for which prospects could compete and, in doing so, prove that the process continues to work apace.

At some point, though, everything is out of Cashman's hands; the product is on the field. As Cashman's crew readied for the 2018 season, he sat down with Yankees Magazine senior editor Hilary Giorgi to discuss the wins, the losses, the times he found lightning in a bottle, and how excited he is to have a front-row seat for it all.

You've been doing this job for a long time now. What do you still love about it? How has it changed in two decades?

I like the action. I like the whole planning aspect of things -- trying to construct rosters that will lead to success, or various levels of success if, in the end, you're not the last team standing. Those challenges are what drive me. Working together with a group of people trying to find a way to win; it's a challenge but it's fun, and I still have a lot of passion for it.

It's changed a lot over the years. There's a whole new world order with the way that analytics have entered and dominated offices throughout the game. It's made us better at our decision-making; we're more efficient and effective with our decisions because we have better information that we can rely on. One of the things I'm proud about is being able to guide the Yankees into the new world order of analytics, performance science and mental skills - departments that didn't exist when I first started here.

This offseason you were recognized as the top executive in the game. What does an award like that mean to you?
Those awards are really organizational awards, and they're representational of a collective group effort from domestic and international amateur scouting, to pro scouting, to player development and our medical teams and performance science and analytics groups. They shine a spotlight on the general manager, but it's really a reflection of the amazing, talented front office, field staff and scouting staff that the Steinbrenners have allowed us to assemble. So it's a recognition of their collective good decision-making that has served this franchise well in the more recent years.

Is there a rivalry among GMs? You all are chasing the exact same goal. How does that fuel you, and how does it complicate the process of working together?

I want all the wins. I want all the American League East teams, especially, to lose and then, secondarily, I want the rest of the American League competition to lose. And when there's interleague play, I want the National League teams to win all the time.

Ultimately, the job is to win every game possible. The flip side of that is somebody's got to lose. So yeah, that's competition in its simplest form.

I appreciate when people have a game plan -- when they have the discipline to execute it and then results follow. I can appreciate that from afar; I've got great respect for that, whether it's in our sport or other sports. You can separate the competition in that way. I don't respect people who go about their business in a bad way, and I root against those people even further. But I don't have to root for somebody to appreciate and respect good work when I see it.

We talked before last season about how you had to become a seller in 2016 for one of the first times. Can you take me through the frustration of that but then almost immediately seeing the rewards your efforts allowed you to reap?

It's all about having a plan and a strategy, and connecting as many good decisions together as you can throughout a process. You're never going to be perfect, but if you can string along enough good decisions then the results will bear fruit over time. That small window of opportunity to sell was us assessing where we were and deciding what the best next decision would be. We felt very strongly that selling off certain assets at a certain price tag was vitally important to us. The healthiest franchises, I think, are the ones that are in complete alignment from ownership through their top executives and down. And that was an example of it. Despite having a lot of discussions about what we should or shouldn't be doing, Hal Steinbrenner gave us the green light and the sign of the cross to move forward, which showed we were, as a franchise, completely aligned in what was the best next step for us. I think that's when the magic can happen, when examples of alignment are 110 percent pure. They were in that case, and thankfully it served us well.

From the outside looking in, some people were surprised by how quickly you were able to turn the team around -- they were expecting a longer rebuilding process. What were your expectations?

I was surprised. We had a lot of things go well for us. You don't typically have everything hit all at once -- you have to be good, you have to be healthy, and you have to be lucky. Hopefully those things stay in our favor as we move forward, but yeah, it came about quicker than I would have predicted privately. And I'm happy for that, clearly, but I can't tell you in all honesty that after 2016 I would have said we would be in Game 7 of the ALCS in 2017.

Didi Gregorius was really the first guy from this group who turned the tide as a young player, producing at one of the most important positions on the field. What was the thought process when you acquired him, and did you foresee the highly productive fan favorite he would become?

Obviously and unfortunately we didn't have an internal candidate to take over when Derek Jeter retired. That was a self-created problem. It's not like we didn't want to have someone to plug and play, it's just sometimes things don't work out that way, so we were in a bad spot. We had targeted a number of players throughout the game we were interested in, and Didi was one of them. Our pro scouting department was pushing strongly for him and [vice president of baseball operations] Tim Naehring was absolutely in love with this player, believed in his ceiling and was pounding the desk saying that if this is a guy we can get, we must.

We wound up doing a three-way deal with the Diamondbacks and Tigers. I'm thankful that it worked, but it was not an easy decision. We did value Shane Greene a great deal, but it was one of the many pivotal decisions we had to make during this process. I was taught in years gone by about team-building and how vitally important it is to be strong up the middle from catcher to middle infield to center field. And we had a massive hole at the most important position on the field, absent the catcher. So I had to wrestle with 30 starts from Shane Greene or 150-plus starts from an everyday shortstop. And when you just boil it down to that in its simplicity, even though we're robbing Peter to pay Paul by losing a rotation piece, that's how we based our decision.

Has Didi exceeded your expectations?

Maybe mine. Not Tim Naehring's. I think he's living up to Tim Naehring's ceiling. We had a lot of people who were extremely high on him. Tim had him as a well-above-average player, in terms of his ceiling. And Didi has proved him correct.

How much does your gut play into situations like that or trades like that?

Never. To me, there is no room for gut decisions in any way, shape or form. You have to make smart decisions on behalf of ownership because these are assets that are very valuable and vitally important pieces in franchises throughout the country. There's no room for gut decisions in a situation like that. You have to make the most informed decision you can make, and then pray it works.

Speaking of high-value assets, you got a pretty big one this year in Giancarlo Stanton. What was the process of putting that deal together? Do you even sleep when you're working on deals of that magnitude?

It is constant but, yes, I do sleep. I started the process down at the GM meetings when he was made available. Our first priority, though, was Shohei Ohtani, from Japan because he wanted to be a two-way player. He would have fit nicely in our rotation, and we had a vacancy at the DH spot. So as I was preparing and recruiting the Ohtani avenue, as a fallback position -- and I hate to call it that, but it was a fallback -- I said, "Let me do some recon on Stanton because if we don't get Ohtani, Stanton would fit."

So you're watching the media reports, and they're talking about the Giants and the Cardinals and the recognition that the Marlins were going to offset some of the money that he's got on his contract. All these things were vital information pieces for me. There was no guarantee Ohtani was going to pick us, so I said, "Just in case, let me do some recon, have some conversations." And I followed whatever the media reports were. I thought, "Hey, there might be some opportunity here."

When Ohtani declared that he wasn't going to any team east of the Mississippi and no Major League team that has Spring Training in Florida, then I did a full-court press with the Marlins.

The key piece here is that Stanton had a full no-trade clause, so he could direct the time, effort and interest levels of where he ultimately would decide to go -- if he would go anywhere at all. To use a surfing analogy, you have to have some waves break a certain way, and we had some waves break favorably for us to allow him to land here in New York. I think once the Marlins realized that he wasn't going to the Giants, and he wasn't going to the Cardinals, and they were forced to deal with a small group of teams, they cut the best deal they could and they got what they needed, which was salary relief and some high-end prospects with huge ceilings from us. And we got a huge bat to add to this dynamic offense that's really exciting for us.

Video: Cashman on staying under luxury tax, making deals

Did the Yankees actually need Stanton? Surely you can understand why to some people it seems like just an embarrassment of riches.

Well, in terms of team-building I would say we did need Giancarlo Stanton. My job is always to help our strengths remain our strengths and to attack areas of weakness. The 2017 team, which was one of the strongest offensive teams in the game last year, did still have some areas of weakness: third base, DH and first base. We did not have the production out of the DH position that we hoped for. So the Stanton acquisition solidifies that -- whether he's in the outfield and Aaron Judge is DHing at times or if Judge is in the outfield and he's DHing -- and it gives us a massive weapon of success. So I feel we significantly attacked an area of weakness in our lineup with an exponentially impactful player.

So I would disagree that we didn't need Stanton. We just didn't expect to go top shelf when we went to market. But that opportunity existed and we reached high and, with ownership's blessing, we were able to get a significant and hopefully impactful player.

When you pick up a player such as Stanton you hear the usual refrain of haters saying, "That's just the Yankees being the Yankees and doing it because they can." How do you respond to those criticisms?

I don't care. Nobody said that when David Price went to the Red Sox. Nobody said that when Jason Heyward or Jon Lester went to the Cubs. No one said that when Justin Verlander was traded to the Astros last summer. You're only allowed 25 spots on a roster, so it's not like the Yankees have hoarded all the great talent throughout the game. But what we have done recently is we have cultivated some of the game's great young talent, which allows every now and then for some splurge shopping via trade or free agency. Because we have young, high-end, cheap-salaried players, that has allowed us to import someone as significant as Stanton with the contract exposure he has. So we're lucky, but we have not been those big-spending, grabbing Yankees those types of comments would lead you to believe.

What can you say about the way Aaron Judge became a household name last year? Drafting him in the first round in 2013, you knew he was going to hit some home runs, but could you ever have predicted this?

I don't think anybody saw that coming. When [vice president of domestic amateur scouting] Damon Oppenheimer and his domestic amateur scouting program made the decision to select Aaron Judge, it was a high-risk, high-reward type of decision. You knew you had an extremely powerful athlete that was capable of a lot of things, but despite the ceiling that he had, no one ever expected what he just did in his first full season in the Big Leagues.

Gary Sanchez has been huge for the team, but he has endured some struggles and criticisms throughout the years. What was it like to see him grow into the player he has become? And with a player of his caliber, how much is it about just having patience?

He's a dynamic player with skills on both sides of the ball -- one of the best catchers in the entire game at 24 years of age. He's a big difference-maker for us, and we're lucky to have him. To watch the trials and tribulations of his development program and our scouting department saying that, "Yes, this player is a must-keep and any trade offers, you've got to swat away," I appreciate the impact of that personnel. Our analytics side saying, "No, no, do not trade this guy, he's going to be an above-average player for a long time." It gives us all great pride to see where he's at in his career and the star he has become.

It must be somewhat challenging to ask people to trust you in that situation, to ask ownership and the fans to believe you when you say, "No, this guy is worth holding on to," during a rough patch.

I don't look at it like, "Trust me," as much as it's more like a highly stressful situation, you're making informed decisions, you're standing by those decisions, and you're praying over time that they're going to work the way you desperately need them to work. Sometimes you crap out. We've got to trust the process and then let it take us where it's going to take us. That process -- and the discipline behind that process -- has served us well more times than not, we have benefitted from it, so that's why we trust the process. But from a fan's perspective, I get it. They're fanatics, and they don't trust anything other than wins and losses and good performance versus bad.

In 2017, you had a Cy Young finalist in Luis Severino, a Rookie of the Year and MVP finalist in Judge, and several All-Stars all coming together and exceeding expectations. Why, despite that success, did you want a new manager to come in and lead the way?

I think we're definitely looking for the same results in terms of affecting the win column, but I think we just felt it was the time and place for a new voice, for new engagement and a fresh start. I have tough decisions to make, and as great a manager that Joe Girardi is and will continue to be, maybe there is an expiration period to leadership effectiveness from the dugout. And after 10 years, there was a sense coming from within that clubhouse that it was time for a change. So I reacted to that and opened up a process that led us to Aaron Boone. And hopefully he'll be impacting us in a positive way, so we'll see where it takes us. My job is to make sure that the New York Yankees and their fan base have the best opportunities at all levels at all times. With that, I wasn't afraid of making a very difficult choice.

Were there any surprises or fears going into the process of hiring a new manager?

Yes. No question. The fears are that you don't want to make a mistake. Every time you go to marketplace, whether it's a trade, free agency, hiring an employee, a manager, coach, scout, front office personnel, every decision is made answering the question, Is this going to make us better as a franchise? Does this get us closer to representing the best franchise we can possibly be as we move forward? That takes a lot of careful planning and effort. It was a very deliberate, slow interview process. But I always said it's going to take as long as it takes until we get the right outcome. We weren't going to rush into it.

We went into it with an open mind and were surprised with the candidate who ultimately won out. If you asked me at the beginning, that would have surprised me. But I'm very comfortable with the decision that was made because of how the process went.

Video: Yankees, Cashman reportedly agree to extension

What did you like about Aaron Boone? How did he blow you away?

He was impressive at every level. His content, his baseball intellect, his ability to communicate, relate and engage with all personnel, his connections throughout baseball, his open-mindedness and willingness to pull information from all sources. I was extremely impressed. We walked out of that meeting and one of my personnel with me turned and said, "Could that be real?" And I said, "We might find out." Sure enough, we continued our process, went through whatever other interviews we had left, then circled back and it was a unanimous decision on who was the No. 1 candidate.

He loves to compete. He's addicted to it. He's got some unfinished business. He got into the World Series -- he got us there with his home run against the Red Sox -- but the Marlins beat us, so there's unfinished business there. He was constantly being pulled back to the field and thinking about how he could get back into the game of competing against an opponent on the field and finding a way to beat their [rear end]. He's going to have that chance now.

You have a great product in the Major Leagues, but in the Minors, too, you've seen success. And you've said before that a prospect is just someone who hasn't done anything yet.

Potential means you haven't made it yet.

Having said that, how much pride do you take in the farm system you have and the players you've been developing?

A great deal of pride, there's no doubt about it. There are so many people directly involved in acquiring the talent, whether it's via trade, the draft, through the international signing process, and then once they're plugged in, the developmental programs that are applied to do everything that allows these players to reach or approach their ceilings. It's great to see that progress is being made, but it's also great to reflect and understand how the industry is overwhelmingly recognizing that we've got a strong program in place that seems to be allowing us to dominate in the development field. It's something we're really proud of.

Are you trepidatious when guys graduate to the Big Leagues, or are you excited?

I'm always excited when somebody new comes up. Whether it's a high-end guy who people have high expectations and showed patience for, such as Greg Bird, Sanchez or Judge, or someone that sneaks up on you more such as Jordan Montgomery. You're always curious to see how they handle this stage, which is the biggest stage within our industry. Some handle it better than others, but it's always fun to watch it play out.

What's the best part of being the GM of the New York Yankees?

The bottom line is the only fun comes when you're winning. That's really it. It's a horrible chair to be sitting in when you're not having success. But it's a great chair to be sitting in with a front-row seat if you're part of success. That's the trick. We're all trying to be massively successful and then to maintain it.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. If you would like to listen to portions of this interview, listen and subscribe to the Yankees Magazine Podcast at www.yankees.com/podcast.

Hilary Giorgi is the senior editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the April 2018 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

New York Yankees

Yankees Magazine: Up, Down and Back Again

The lessons learned last October might push Luis Severino to even greater heights
Yankees Magazine

The sky is still dark at Centro Olimpico in the Dominican Republic's capital city, and torrential rains from the night before have flooded the grass. It's a mosquito's buffet alongside the track, irksome buzzing competing with the coaches' whistles. Through the predawn gloom, there's a group of athletes hard at work.

Over the years, this complex has played host to major international sporting events and concerts. Today, it belongs to the masses, and the routines couldn't be more primal, everyone using whatever is around. Here's a track, so this is where you'll run. Here are some hurdles, so these are what you'll jump over. Here are ropes, so these are what you'll swing. Forget about treadmills or air resistance machines; this workout wouldn't have looked any different a hundred years ago.

The sky is still dark at Centro Olimpico in the Dominican Republic's capital city, and torrential rains from the night before have flooded the grass. It's a mosquito's buffet alongside the track, irksome buzzing competing with the coaches' whistles. Through the predawn gloom, there's a group of athletes hard at work.

Over the years, this complex has played host to major international sporting events and concerts. Today, it belongs to the masses, and the routines couldn't be more primal, everyone using whatever is around. Here's a track, so this is where you'll run. Here are some hurdles, so these are what you'll jump over. Here are ropes, so these are what you'll swing. Forget about treadmills or air resistance machines; this workout wouldn't have looked any different a hundred years ago.

These regimens exist in places all around the world, boot camps for the general population. Go to Central Park any morning as the sun creeps its way up the sky, and you'll find workaday warriors doing much the same things. What you won't find, though, is a Cy Young Award finalist toiling alongside you. It's different down here.

Luis Severino is out before the roosters on this January morning, but his mind is on the coming October. He's making the same calculation as his contemporaries around the league: You do this work because you want to win the last game of the year and get a choice seat for a parade in November. The rewards of individual success can be wonderfully lucrative -- this is no hobby, let's be clear -- but the Yankees, who have won that last game 27 times, do a pretty good job driving home the ultimate point. It don't mean a thing if you ain't got that bling.

Severino wears the TAKE 17 sweatshirt from last October as he arrives under a brisk chill on this barely morning, the oppressive heat still hours away from taking hold. The pullover is a small souvenir from what might have been a nightmare. And perhaps it's a reminder of how even in ever-unforgiving baseball, the pendulum still sometimes swings toward redemption.

***

It was a 3-1 offering to the Twins' Brian Dozier, delivered less than two minutes after the first postseason pitch Severino had ever thrown at any level. The Yankee Stadium crowd, boosted by an unexpectedly awesome season, was awake and ready for the American League Wild Card Game, and the 23-year-old ace was on the mound, the pendulum cocked back and about to be set free. Destiny waited.

Dan Shulman, on the microphone for the ESPN broadcast, tried to sum up the entire building's anxiety, but he couldn't even get through the thought. "A lot on his shoulders right now, and you wonder, as young as he is--" Shulman said, interrupted by a stabbing CRACK "--if that heart's beating a little bit quicker right now."

If it wasn't before, it certainly was after. Dozier had swung into a 99 mph fastball and sent it over the fence in left-center. The balloon might not have popped at that exact moment, but it didn't hold much longer. After a foul out and a walk, Eddie Rosario blasted a slider into the seats -- 3-0, Twins. The despair crept in with overwhelming speed. "Whoa," first baseman Greg Bird remembers thinking as he watched the wheels fly off the bandwagon. "That happened quick."

"If I give up a homer, I can still throw seven innings and one run," Severino says, looking back months later. "But after that, they started hitting me and I said, 'Oh, something's not right.' It was going so fast, everything was going so fast. The adrenaline, all of a sudden it was moving quickly. Everything was a mess."

A single, then a double, and Severino's big night was over 14 minutes after it started. He took a lonely stroll off the mound, carrying a disastrous pitching line. Three runs (and two runners still on his ledger). Four hits. One walk. One solitary out. Masahiro Tanaka, Ronald Torreyes and Jordan Montgomery offered him conciliatory pats on the back in the dugout, but the shattered pitcher barely broke stride en route to the clubhouse. After all the buildup and hype, Severino had wasted his moment. And that could have been it. He could have walked from the mound into the offseason, cursed to months spent dwelling on a brutally uncharacteristic performance.

But Chad Green struck out the final two batters of the inning, limiting the damage to the initial three runs. And in the bottom of the frame, the Yankees stole back the momentum, as they had done so often during the year. Brett Gardner worked one of the greatest at-bats a player can have that doesn't involve a single swing, walking on six pitches. Then Aaron Judge blooped a slider over second base, Gary Sanchez fouled out, and Didi Gregorius stepped in, with the fire returning to the 49,280 fans in the park. Ervin Santana's 3-2 pitch was 96 mph, down in the zone and slightly away. Gregorius whipped his bat through the plane and sent the ball toward the bleachers in right field. Tie game. The pendulum had swung back. Against a determined bullpen called into service for 8 2⁄3 innings, the Twins were held at bay, and the Yankees moved on to the Division Series against the Indians.

"You go from, 'Man, we're going to win the World Series,' to 'I've got to clean out my locker and pay clubhouse dues,' to 'We're back in it!'" CC Sabathia says. "It was an emotional up and down."

Severino was one of the first players over the dugout rail after the final out, looking more relieved than happy. By the time the team's clubhouse celebration wound down, he might have been the only player still thinking about the first inning. "I didn't go home feeling that great," he says, "because I didn't do my job. My team supported me and helped me, but I wasn't feeling that great."

But the Wild Card Game was over, and Severino would live to pitch another day. Redemption was around the corner, a not-entirely-new feeling for the young ace.

***

By 8 a.m., the morning cardio wraps up, and Severino's group moves over to a dirt field. The Santo Domingo sun has claimed its regular place in the sky; it's hot, but at least it's a sopping wet heat. The mercury reads 73 degrees with 88 percent humidity. It feels like a crisp 376 or so.

Severino does some long-tossing with Emmanuel Reyes, a 20-year-old pitcher in the Blue Jays' organization. Today, they're workout partners; there's no way yet to tell what the future holds for the young Reyes. But Severino is the reason that a handful of local kids are milling around the field on this Tuesday morning. It's a far cry from how he felt when he returned home after his disastrous 2016 season, which saw him go 0-8 as a starter before moving to Triple-A and then the Yankees' bullpen for the second half. Expectations had been high after a strong debut in 2015, but nothing went right in his first full season. Mechanically, he was a wreck. Mentally, he might have been even worse.

"I lost my confidence and all my stuff," he says. "If I know I have bad mechanics, none of my pitches is going to work out. If you throw a bad change-up and you throw another one bad, you're going to lose your confidence."

So just like the young admirers watching him work out, Severino turned his attention to an idol of his own, developing a relationship with Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez, a hero in his native Dominican Republic. Putting himself in Martinez's hands on the field at Santo Domingo's Estadio Quisqueya, Severino was able to focus on the mechanics of his change-up, which -- if effective -- could complement his 100 mph fastball and swing-and-miss slider.

Severino had been a late bloomer, his velocity developing later than some of his contemporaries on the island. On July 2, 2011, the date that the best international kids his age could start signing contracts, the 17-year-old Severino was passed over. But the Yankees had been watching him for a while, and their interest continued to grow. The bonus he eventually signed for -- $225,000, just after Christmas -- was well below the amount the July 2 players received. For a kid who had spent his youth working on his father's fishing boat for money and food, though, it was a start, and as his velocity improved and his slider sharpened on the climb up the organization, the young prospect became a star in the waiting.

So when the sailing got rough for Severino in 2016, it was something totally new. "I never had a bad year," he says. "That was the first time I had a bad year, so everybody was asking me, 'Are you going to move to the bullpen?'"

He headed home to the Santo Domingo apartment where he now lives with his wife, Rosmaly, and daughter, Abigail. He rested some, watched a lot of video, and resumed working with his personal trainer and coach, Cristian Nuñez. He wanted to get back at it. Spring Training couldn't come soon enough.

Severino's 2017 season started with a dud in Baltimore, but everything improved from there. By midseason, he was a first-time All-Star, joining four teammates for the festivities. "They can pinch me," he said in Miami, "because I'm here." A year after going 0-8 in his 11 starts, the 23-year-old went 14-6 with a 2.98 ERA and 230 strikeouts. He was an easy choice to start the Oct. 3 do-or-die elimination matchup against the Twins.

Severino was 23 years old, and the hiccups from 2016 aside, on the path to becoming an unmitigated success. Then the Wild Card Game started and, some 14 minutes later, the direction of that path once again came into question. But the rally that sent the team to the Division Series spared him the indignity of another unsettling offseason. "That Wild Card game was a microcosm of what he went through [in 2016]," Sabathia says. "He came back the next year and almost won the Cy Young." And so, as Game 4 against Cleveland approached, the pendulum halted once more, suspended in place, liable to go in either direction.

***

A hard drizzle fell as Severino looked out from the mound, and while that might seem oxymoronic, just go with it; nothing about the Yankees' postseason to that point made sense anyhow. The Wild Card Game mania, followed by two crushing losses in Cleveland -- the second turning on, of all things, a missed call that probably should have been reviewed -- and then a 1-0 victory with the deciding run coming on a Bird moonshot against the oft-untouchable left-hander Andrew Miller.

Video: CLE@NYY Gm4: Severino K's nine in strong outing

If the lead-in to the Wild Card Game was full of joyful hysteria, this felt different. It was the team's third elimination game in a week; best-case scenario, there would be another coming two days later. Hearts up and down the tri-state area were working too hard.

"Your whole season is coming down to one game," Sonny Gray says, describing the emotion of winner-takes-all baseball. "You're trying to treat it like one game, but at the same time, you're kind of living and dying with each pitch."

Among qualified starting pitchers last year, Severino topped the charts with a 97.7 average fastball velocity according to FanGraphs; a huge part of his success relied on being able to maintain his velocity deep into games, to approach and exceed triple digits in the middle innings and later. But as Francisco Lindor watched the first pitch come in outside of the strike zone, the 96 mph reading on the radar gun told its own story.

Adrenaline had gotten the better of Severino before the Wild Card Game, and he had tried to lean into it by firing his first pitch 100 mph. We know how that one ended. So the game plan against the Indians, developed with catcher Gary Sanchez and pitching coach Larry Rothschild, was to tone everything down. "You don't have to do more," Rothschild explains, a few months after the fact. "I thought in the Wild Card Game, he was trying to take it all on his own shoulders, and you don't have to do that."

Lindor worked a strong at-bat, eventually popping out to center field. Then Jason Kipnis took 98 middle-away for a strike, swung through a 92 mph change-up, and whiffed on a slider down in the zone. Two outs, already more than he recorded in the Wild Card Game. Jose Ramirez flew out to the warning track, and the inning was over. Severino walked calmly and cooly back to the dugout, 18 pitches into what would become, accounting for context, the best start of his life.

"To me, I wanted him to have a quick inning," Sanchez recalls. "I wanted to get a 1-2-3 from him. He did that, and by doing so, it gave him a sense of confidence. After that, I noticed he settled down. He was back to the good Severino I had seen the whole season."

By the end, fans were chanting his nickname -- "SE-VY! SE-VY!" -- and he wore his confidence for all to see. "Everything was working," Severino says. "My slider was working, my fastball; everything was great." Fired up, he flexed and screamed after a seventh-inning strikeout, and when a groundout to shortstop on his 113th pitch ended that frame, he sounded his barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the Bronx. Severino had struck out nine batters, walked one and allowed three earned runs. Statistically, it wasn't his greatest start of 2017. In reality, though, he had seized the day. It was everything his teammates wanted and needed, and probably more than anyone would have had a right to expect six days earlier when Severino sat in the clubhouse, reeling after his 29-pitch Wild Card Game outing, unaware that his team was about to swing the pendulum back.

***

There's an idea of what you are and aren't supposed to say within the confines of a baseball clubhouse, and any Yankees player will dutifully deem Severino's waking Wild Card nightmare a fluke. It was just one game, you'll hear now, the same as you would have heard the night it happened, and you'll know why they're saying it and for whose benefit. Maybe the constraints of a life in baseball mean that they even believe it. But the sentiment has to be false because brains don't work that way. It was only one game because he got another game.

"Luis Severino -- fortunately, because his team was able to come back -- was given opportunities within that year to not just rest on that one start," says Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz, an analyst for FOX and MLB Network who was in the booth for Game 4. "That would have been difficult."

As Severino's morning workout concludes, his sweat-drenched shirt clinging to a massage table where Nuñez has just given his muscles one more grind, the pitcher moves on. Abigail is about to return from her first-ever day of school, and Severino's wife and mother are preparing a nice lunch back at the apartment in the Don Honorio neighborhood of Santo Domingo. So much of the pitcher's life is about baseball, but offseasons are also for family and for the work that goes into starting up a charitable foundation. His agent, Nelson Montas de Oca, says that in previous years, even as a young Minor Leaguer, Severino was his only client who would ask for help setting up English classes during the winter.

Severino won't dwell on the twist of fortune that saw his incredible season get the reprieve it unexpectedly needed; it would have been tough to stomach, he acknowledges, "But thank God the team helped me and we won."

When he returns to the United States -- to his formal baseball activities, then Spring Training, then the 2018 season -- he'll step into a new and unfamiliar state. Severino managed, in the course of one week, to have his worst moment as a pro and his best. But inherent in that reality is a chronic imbalance; the rest of his career is about making sure that the worst moment stays the worst, while the best moment eventually gets surpassed.

A pitcher as smart as Severino probably didn't need the Wild Card horror to know how tenuous one's time on the baseball pedestal can be, but he got the lesson anyhow. The future is his to write.

"What he did for himself personally will be forever one of the greatest lessons he'll have, more than any regular season failure or success," Smoltz says. "A player, when he knows he can overcome and deal with one of the biggest moments and not one of the best feelings, the next thing you know is that no moment becomes too big and no outing is too bad to not come back from. … Now he's got something in the back of his hat to go, 'I've already been through that. I already know what that feels like. When I get revved up, here's what I can do.' I can tell somebody that, having experienced it my whole career and postseason; telling somebody is one thing, living it is another. And being prepared to handle it is another."

So Severino works, and he looks forward. "It feels different," he says of the new calendar year, "because everybody this year especially wants to go deeper than we did." He carries with him a hard-earned moral: Success can be fleeting, and you need to guard against it. But failure can pass, as well.

"He's been through a lot at the Big League level," says new manager Aaron Boone, who was a broadcaster in the ESPN booth during the Wild Card Game. "Came up, had some success, failed a little bit, was back and forth to the bullpen, and then we saw it all get put together last year. But the thing you get from being around him is, he's not satisfied with that. You can feel a little of the chip on his shoulder. 'I want to go out and be more than that.' I think he's really driven by that. That's exciting to see -- the hunger in a young player that's already had a monster season."

Severino is lucky. It was just one game. Now armed with enough knowledge and experience to handle any obstacle in his way, Severino could be looking at a smoother ride ahead, a pleasant possibility if ever there was one.

Jon Schwartz is the deputy editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the April 2018 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

New York Yankees, Luis Severino