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Yankees Magazine: Rare Vintage

In just his fourth season, Luis Severino already has the look of a once-in-a-generation pitcher
Yankees Magazine

A few minutes after the Mitchell & Ness Nostalgia Co. opened its doors on a hot summer morning in Philadelphia's Center City district, two baseball greats walked in. In town for a three-game series against the Phillies, longtime Yankees star CC Sabathia and Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson wound their way inside the clothing store. A few employees and a young customer holding a Minnesota Timberwolves throwback cap noticed the pair as soon as they walked through the glass doors.

"I can't believe that Reggie Jackson is standing there," a clerk whispered to her colleague as the Yankees' special advisor walked over to a rack of baseball jerseys. "I don't get starstruck that often, but it's not every day that you see Reggie Jackson."

A few minutes after the Mitchell & Ness Nostalgia Co. opened its doors on a hot summer morning in Philadelphia's Center City district, two baseball greats walked in. In town for a three-game series against the Phillies, longtime Yankees star CC Sabathia and Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson wound their way inside the clothing store. A few employees and a young customer holding a Minnesota Timberwolves throwback cap noticed the pair as soon as they walked through the glass doors.

"I can't believe that Reggie Jackson is standing there," a clerk whispered to her colleague as the Yankees' special advisor walked over to a rack of baseball jerseys. "I don't get starstruck that often, but it's not every day that you see Reggie Jackson."

As Jackson and Sabathia conversed about the legendary players whose jerseys hung in the store -- greats such as Cal Ripken Jr., Kirby Puckett, Mike Schmidt and even Mr. October himself -- a fan worked up the nerve to say hello.

"Great game last night," the man said about the Yankees' 4-2 victory over the Phillies on June 25. "I hope we can keep it going tonight."

"Oh, we will," Sabathia responded. "We've got Sevy on the mound, so you have to like our chances. We win when he's out there."

Sabathia's comment was off the cuff, but it was on the mark. It spoke volumes about the respect the seasoned veteran has for Luis Severino, the Yankees' off-the-charts right-hander who came into his own last season.

Severino was slated to face a contending Phillies team later that night in a pitching matchup with Jake Arrieta, who has been one of the National League's top starters since winning the 2015 National League Cy Young Award with the Cubs.

None of that gave Sabathia -- or Jackson, who quickly turned his head and gave the pitcher a thumbs-up seal of approval -- pause. Their confidence in the Yankees' 24-year-old ace was well founded, especially considering what Severino had already accomplished in 2018.

Following a breakout campaign in 2017 -- when he won 14 regular season games, posted a 2.98 ERA, was selected to the American League All-Star team and finished third in the AL Cy Young Award voting -- Severino has been even better this year.

Through 18 starts, Severino's ERA was a full run lower than where he finished in 2017. Besides the American League-best 1.98 ERA, Severino's 13-2 record gave him the best winning percentage (.867) in baseball among qualified pitchers -- and a second straight All-Star nod.

But those statistics only begin to explain Severino's dominance and, more significantly, how important he has been to the Yankees.

In Severino's first 18 starts, the Yankees went 16-2 -- the most team wins in games started by a single pitcher in baseball. At that time, Severino had allowed three runs or fewer in 15 consecutive starts, a league-leading streak he shared with Mets right-hander Jacob deGrom.

While Severino gave the Yankees a chance to win virtually every time he took the hill, he was a one-man show on several of those occasions. Starting with an Opening Day gem in which he twirled 5 2⁄3 innings of one-hit ball at Toronto, Severino produced six outings of at least that length in which he didn't allow a run.

From the visiting dugout at Citizens Bank Park in downtown Philadelphia a day before he took on the Phillies, Severino explained how he has stepped his game up in 2018.

"I threw a lot more innings last year than I ever had," Severino said. "I knew going into this season that I needed to be better conditioned, so along with my lower body workouts, I did a lot more running. That's been the main thing since the beginning of the offseason. I run for between 30 and 35 minutes every day.

"I feel like I can actually throw harder when I get to the fifth inning," he continued. "I'm not tired at all at that point in the game. I feel like I can throw 100 pitches just about every time I'm out there, and I'm not losing anything on any of my pitches late in games."

He certainly doesn't. According to FanGraphs, Severino led all Major Leaguers with an average fastball velocity of 97.8 mph through mid-July and had thrown 43 pitches in the sixth inning or later that registered at least 99 mph. Boston's Chris Sale, with 14 fastballs clocked at 99 mph or faster in those innings, ranked second.

Severino's heater, which tops off at 101 mph, has no doubt led to his impressive record this season. But having some big league experience under his belt has also helped.

"For me, the regular season is about coming in with my pitches," Severino said. "What I learned from last year and how well I did is that I have to trust my pitches. In order to get deep into games, I have to consistently throw the ball over the plate. I can't waste pitches, and I figured that out last year."

The faith that Severino has had in himself this season -- and his willingness to attack the strike zone -- has produced tangible results. With 138 strikeouts through his first 18 starts, Severino was not only on pace to eclipse his mark of 230 from last season, but he was also ahead of Ron Guidry's pace from 1978, when Gator set the single-season franchise record with 248.

"That's a great record," Severino said. "But it's not something I really think about. Just to be mentioned in the same conversation with Ron Guidry is exciting, but I want to win. That's what he did, and that's why he is still regarded so highly."

Besides having confidence in himself, Severino has taken the mound this season knowing that the Yankees' lineup will give him more runs than he'll probably need.

"We have a great team," he said. "If I'm on the mound and we're losing 2-0, I know that we're going to come back. This team can always score a few runs. I can pitch to batters without worrying about giving up a run or two. The guys around me are a huge reason why I've been able to do what I've done this season."

Severino's humility is matched by his determination to improve. After an up-and-down postseason in 2017, he approached the offseason with intensity, and what he accomplished during the first half of this season was not good enough for him. His goal was to be even better in the second half.

"I want to improve the consistency on my secondary pitches," he said. "My change-up would be the first one. If I can combine my change-up with my other pitches and get it over for strike one a lot of the time, I can be a different pitcher and throw fewer balls in the second half. I walked 51 batters last season, and I do not want to get to 50 this year."

Time will tell whether Severino, who had issued 29 walks through his first 18 starts, will be able to stay under 50. But he has proven that he can throw an effective change-up -- along with an elusive slider -- whenever he wants, making him a vastly different pitcher from the one fans saw at the beginning of his career.

"At first, when I didn't have a good change-up, I was throwing my fastball and slider most of the time," he said. "But now, if my slider isn't working, I can go to my change-up and throw it more than just a few times. I can get through good lineups with my fastball and change-up, and only throw a few sliders. That's been the biggest difference this season."

Of course, there were plenty of games in 2018 when all three of Severino's pitches were working. One of those starts took place on May 2 against the Astros in Houston. On that night, in addition to a full repertoire of Severino's pitches, the Astros had even more to overcome.

"I was still mad about losing to them last year in the postseason and not getting to the World Series," Severino said. "For me, I had to go out there and shut them out and win that game. It was something that I had to do to build my confidence and the confidence of my team."

The 24-year-old did just that, striking out 10 and walking one in shutting out the defending World Series champions in front of a hostile crowd. When contemplating how he has gone from a struggling young pitcher to the staff ace, Severino pointed to two mentors.

"I would say more than anyone else, Larry Rothschild is the reason I have improved so much," Severino said. "Having the opportunity to work with him now for a few years has been important. He really knows how to communicate with his pitchers. Every time I was taken out of a game early, he would talk to me about what I needed to do better and what I was doing well. If I didn't understand something, he would make sure I got it."

Severino's other mentor is a little further removed from the Yankees organization than the team's pitching coach but has nonetheless had a major influence on him. Growing up in the Dominican Republic, Severino looked up to Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez. While dominating competition on the island during his early years, Severino also watched closely as the fellow Dominican pitcher etched his name into baseball lore with the Dodgers, Expos and Red Sox before finishing his career with the Mets and Phillies.

In each of the last two offseasons, Severino has spent time with his idol in the Dominican Republic, and besides living out a dream, the time with Martinez has proven to be valuable for Severino's career.

"He's a nice guy, and that has made the experience of getting to know him special for me," Severino said. "He's also helped me a lot, beginning in 2016. He worked with me on my mechanics more than anything else. He noticed that I was moving my hands right before I threw certain pitches. He told me that veteran hitters were probably picking up on that, and that if I moved less, those good hitters would not know what pitch I was about to throw.

"I realized that he was right," Severino continued. "I had been doing that for my first two seasons. I worked hard on fixing it before the 2016 season. I bought a big mirror, and every day I practiced my wind-up at least 100 times in front of the mirror. When I got to Spring Training, I wasn't moving my hands at all."

This past offseason, Severino's time with his childhood hero was spent reaffirming what he had already learned.

"When we got together this offseason, he told me that the things we worked on last year helped me with the command of my fastball and slider, besides making it harder for batters to know what I was throwing," Severino said. "This time around, he just emphasized that I should keep working on my mechanics so that nothing changes."

As Sabathia had predicted in the vintage sports clothing store, Severino powered the Yankees to victory in his June 26 start in Philadelphia. With his fastball and slider at their peak, Severino rarely went to his change-up over seven innings of work. He didn't give up a run or a walk while striking out nine batters.

"Sometimes when you go to the mound, you feel like it's your night," Severino said after the game. "I was feeling like that as soon as I got here this afternoon. It was my first time pitching here, and I was a little surprised about how small this ballpark is, but right from the beginning, I was commanding all of my stuff and throwing strikes. When you're doing that, you know it's going to be a good game, no matter where you're pitching or who you're facing."

Severino has had those same feelings quite often this season, and it has made his job as enjoyable as ever.

"I'm having a lot of fun this season," he said. "I've been playing this game since I was 8 years old, and I've always loved getting out to the mound and competing. Although I take it seriously now, it's still a lot of fun, especially on nights like this."

When Severino's thoughts shifted from the euphoria of another shutout performance to the foreseeable future -- including his team's chances of winning a championship this season -- his smile was replaced with the determined look that he so often displays on the mound.

"Right now, I'm focused on the next five days and my next start," he said. "I don't really like to look too far in front of that. But I can tell you that it's going to be different this year. We're going to get there. I have faith in my team, and we're going to go all the way this year."

Five days after his gem in Philly, Severino pitched 6 2⁄3 innings against the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium, again not allowing a run. The Yankees won the game in a rout, keeping pace with their archrivals in the standings. With a recent past as great as Severino's and a future as bright as his has the potential to be, it's not hard to imagine a No. 40 pinstriped jersey hanging on a rack next to those of Ripken, Puckett, Schmidt and Jackson someday.

Alfred Santasiere III is the editor-in-chief of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the August 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

Yankees Magazine: The Skipper's Maiden Voyage

Aaron Boone reflects on the first half of his inaugural season as Yankees manager
Yankees Magazine

The first 81 games of Aaron Boone's managerial career went mostly according to plan. With the Yankees' powerful lineup, deep bullpen and bona fide ace leading the way, Boone's team reached the midway point with a 54-27 record and was tied for first in the American League East with the Red Sox. An 11-1 drubbing of Boston in Game 81 before a raucous Yankee Stadium crowd punctuated the first half of the season. Game 82, however, wasn't so great.

Despite another strong effort from the bullpen -- four Yankees relievers combined to throw six scoreless innings -- the Yankees were tied, 3-3, with Atlanta entering the 11th inning. After a Yankees error put the go-ahead run on base, rookie Ronald Acuña Jr. hit a two-run home run to give the Braves a 5-3 lead. The Yankees threatened in the bottom of the inning, but Aaron Judge was left stranded at second to end the game. It was a recurring theme throughout the night: The Yankees went 0-for-12 with runners in scoring position and left 12 runners on base.

The first 81 games of Aaron Boone's managerial career went mostly according to plan. With the Yankees' powerful lineup, deep bullpen and bona fide ace leading the way, Boone's team reached the midway point with a 54-27 record and was tied for first in the American League East with the Red Sox. An 11-1 drubbing of Boston in Game 81 before a raucous Yankee Stadium crowd punctuated the first half of the season. Game 82, however, wasn't so great.

Despite another strong effort from the bullpen -- four Yankees relievers combined to throw six scoreless innings -- the Yankees were tied, 3-3, with Atlanta entering the 11th inning. After a Yankees error put the go-ahead run on base, rookie Ronald Acuña Jr. hit a two-run home run to give the Braves a 5-3 lead. The Yankees threatened in the bottom of the inning, but Aaron Judge was left stranded at second to end the game. It was a recurring theme throughout the night: The Yankees went 0-for-12 with runners in scoring position and left 12 runners on base.

Less than 16 hours after the disappointing loss to the Braves, Boone met in his office with Yankees Magazine associate editor Thomas Golianopoulos to discuss his first 82 games as Yankees manager.

How do you unwind after a game like last night?

Well, last night was obviously a long night because it went into extra innings. We then made the decision with [Jonathan] Loaisiga. [Ed. note: The Yankees optioned Loaisiga to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre after the game.] We were up against it with how we used our 'pen, so we needed to consider a certain move. We talked through that. I got home last night at around 12:30 and then, I don't know …

Did you watch a Seinfeld rerun? Have a root beer?

Last night I went to bed pretty quick, actually. A lot of times, I'll go back and watch a clip of our game or a couple of guys in their postgame interviews. Or if I want to see something that happened in the game, I'll go back and watch a play or see something that came up. Then when I get in bed, I turn on Friends on my iPad. Friends is usually what I end every night with. It puts me to sleep.

I planned on asking this even before the tough loss last night: I was curious if you can point to a game that stuck with you into the next day. Navigating the highs and lows of a 162-game season is what makes baseball such a grind, and it seems important to put the previous night behind you and focus on the next game.

[Long pause] I don't know. I would say the last three nights, but I'm probably saying that because they are so fresh in my mind. We lost the middle game big to Boston. It was just [exhales and drops arms]. Even though in some ways getting your butt kicked is not like losing a close game; it's easy to turn the page. Then the next day you have a huge win, and you're trying to have some balance in your bullpen and use guys that you don't feel good using in that game because they haven't pitched in a while. And then last night, just having opportunities, not being able to punch through, and getting a great performance but using up all your bullpen. So, they all do.

When you were hired last December, you mentioned that you had missed the competition. Coming on the heels of the three-game series you guys played against Boston last weekend, has it lived up to your expectations? How would you compare it to your playing days?

Yeah, it's been awesome, the competition part of it. When we get to 7 o'clock and the game is happening, I love it. I love being in it. It's different than playing, no question about it.

Did you get nervous before games when you were a player?

Sure, sure. You know what? When we're at home after our batting practice, we have an hour leading up to the game. As a player and now as a manager, it's just an uneasy time. It's like, once the game starts, it's competition and playing. But that hour leading up, I'm always a little antsy.

What aspect of the team do you spend the most time worrying about?

Probably the bullpen and just protecting them the best you can, giving them the right amount of usage. I would say that's what I think -- I don't know if worry is the right word -- but that's what I consider. I am constantly aware of when they pitched, how many pitches, how much they've pitched in the last week. All of those things are what I consider the most and think about the most. Keeping our regular players fresh, too. When is the right time to give a guy a day, or do you just push through certain things? Trying to find that balance and that rhythm, I guess.

How far in advance do regulars like Judge and Giancarlo Stanton like knowing that they're scheduled for an off-day?

Sometimes with guys like that, like Didi [Gregorius] and Judgey, a lot of times I'll go to them and say, "A day is on my board." I make them part of the process, too. If there's a day off Monday, I'm thinking of tacking a day off onto that day either on the front side or the back side. That's something I try and stay ahead of. I try to give guys a heads-up. With some of our non-regulars, I'll tell them, "Hey, you're in tomorrow." I tell Giancarlo the night before -- although I didn't last night -- that he's playing right field today. I usually give him a heads-up like, "Hey, you're in left," or "Hey, you're in right," if he isn't DHing.

As a former player, you knew that managing would be a tough gig. Has any part of the job been tougher than you had anticipated? Has anything snuck up on you?

I think sometimes the hardest part, especially with our club, was when we've had to deliver some tough news or send a guy out who in a lot of ways we know doesn't deserve to get sent out; who we know is a big league player or has really contributed to our club. That's tough. That's not fun giving that news. I don't know if anything has really snuck up on me. It's all new to me, obviously. But I don't feel like I've been overwhelmed, and part of that is the room in there -- the guys. My coaching staff is so good at what they do, so I don't feel like I have to hover over them or micromanage anything. I don't feel like I've been overwhelmed necessarily.

What have you done to build relationships with the guys? Are you on group texts? Do you schedule one-on-one time with some of them?

It started this winter. When I got the job, one of the first things I did was reach out in some way, shape or form to just about every guy via text or phone call. It started the relationship process. I try in some way to check in with guys all the time, just little "How ya doing today? What's going on?" Anything from small talk to "How are you feeling? Here's what I'm thinking: Maybe an off-day in a couple." I try to check in and touch base with guys on everything from baseball-specific things we are talking about to LeBron James signing with the Lakers.

At any moment this season, has there been a time when you parroted something one of your old managers said? Do you ever think to yourself, "Wow, I sound just like my dad," or Jack McKeon or Joe Torre or Eric Wedge?

No. In some ways, I'm probably a product of all those guys you mentioned. I'm sure I've taken something from each of them in some way, but there's nothing I remember specifically like, "Oh, wow, I sound like so and so."

Do you talk to your dad regularly about the job?

I don't know if we talk so much about the job. He's probably been the biggest influence in my life and certainly of my baseball life. I'm 45 now. The way I put it is we've been having an ongoing talk about baseball for my entire life. It's the family business. Nothing has really changed there. It's not like he's giving me specific advice on certain things. We just talk the game. That's a natural go-to conversation for us, but I don't think it's really changed that much, frankly, since I took this job.

But so much else has changed in your life since you were last on the road for 162 games. Is the work/life balance tougher today than it was during your playing days?

I'm not sure yet. My family just got out here two weeks ago, and we just moved into our house. We are living here year-round now. That's just happened. They came out for two weeks in Spring Training, and they were out here for Opening Day, but I didn't see them for six or eight weeks, which was a little different. But now they're here. You need to ask me that question in a few months. What's the rhythm of all that? I don't know yet because we are still settling in and finding our groove on that.

You've talked about growing up around baseball stadiums. Do you envision your kids will have a similar experience?

My youngest boy turns 13 tomorrow so we have 13, 13 and 16. They are kind of …

Grown up already?

Yeah. I hope and imagine that they'll be at the ballpark a lot. I also have a daughter who turns 9 in a couple of weeks, so hopefully they have a presence here and are around and get to experience it and hopefully in some way love it like I do.

I wanted to ask about the most important moment from your playing days -- and I'm not talking about Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series. As a member of the Houston Astros in 2009, you had open-heart surgery at the age of 36. Did that change the way you look at the world or the way you lived your life?

I don't think so. I was actually very much at ease going through it. I have a strong faith, so I kind of believe it's in God's hands, and whatever the plan rolled out is the plan. So, I wasn't overly anxious about it. It maybe sharpens perspective a little bit and maybe sharpens appreciation you have for people close to you. And I would say the coolest thing about that time is the amount of people -- friends, family, people across the baseball world, across the country -- that reached out to me. It was very humbling and very cool for me. That time was … in some way, I have an appreciation for that time because I saw a lot of warmth come my way, and I was appreciative of that.

On a more frivolous note, let's talk about Twitter! You've tweeted over 12,000 times.

Twelve thousand? Wow.

Yeah, about 12,500 times, but only 10 times since becoming Yankees manager.

And 10 since?

Yes! Have you deleted the app from your phone?

I have the app. I just made the conscious decision that I wasn't going to -- like, I'll get on and use Twitter for the information.

You lurk.

I lurk. But I stay away from the notifications to me just because I know where that goes from when I was a broadcaster.

Did you look at them when you were at ESPN?

When I was a broadcaster, I would. But as a broadcaster you can kind of engage in that stuff and have some back and forth. I knew when I took this job that that would be different, so I knew I had to stay away from that. I kind of stay away from Twitter for the most part other than when I get on and read the people that I follow, which kind of catches me up news-wise and stuff like that. I still use it occasionally. Ten times. [Laughs]. I still Instagram some things every now and then. I take pictures and will post something on there.

Let's go back to one point early in the season. On April 20, the team was 9-9 and 7? games behind Boston. Was there any concern about the division potentially slipping away from you?

No, not at all. I felt like we had a lot of stuff happen to us the first couple of weeks. We had the Baltimore game where we had some guys get injured, some extra-inning things. We were just finding our way a little bit. I looked at it more like, "We're 9-9, and we are weathering the storm right now." In some ways, I thought, "We are hanging in there right now when it could be getting away from us." In a lot of ways, I felt OK about it.

There have been a few times when you've gotten fired up this season. There was the brawl in Boston in April, May 22 in Texas -- which was the first time you were ejected from a game as a manager -- and the scheduling snafu with ESPN. Because you come across as such a mild-mannered guy, it's more impactful when you get upset. When do you know it's the right time to be outspoken?

It's pretty organic. I'm reacting in the heat of the moment, hopefully under control and in a measured way. I think the competition brings that out, and I think that is sometimes my role to stand up and be heard a little bit. I guess I pick my spots, but I wouldn't say that I consciously go into something like I'm going to get mad at this or get fired up about this. I feel like that has to happen organically.

Lastly, in what ways do you think you've improved or grown into the job since March?

I think the communication lines with my coaches, how we talk out loud to each other during the games. The flow of how we talk through things has probably improved, and that's something that I feel like is the thing we need to get even better at -- the rhythm of how we think out loud almost and how we talk to each other. That's something I feel like is constantly evolving and hopefully improving and I feel like needs to continue getting better.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Thomas Golianopoulos is the associate editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the August 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: Master Craftsman

With nearly 200 pitchers in the organization, the Yankees rely on tireless coaches such as Danny Borrell to mold them into big leaguers
Yankees Magazine

Watching a baseball game every night can, with all apologies to steelworkers and third-grade teachers, be a lot of work. Trying to keep a close watch on nine? That takes a unique skill set. But Jonathan Loaisiga is pitching for the Yankees in Philadelphia. And Luis Medina is on the bump for Pulaski's game in Bristol, Virginia. And then there's the game unfolding in Staten Island, where Juan De Paula is doing battle with the Tri-City ValleyCats.

Up and down the Yankees' organization, pitchers have been working since about 7:30 a.m., when the first Dominican Summer League and Gulf Coast League hurlers began their side sessions. The day won't end until the last pitcher for the last affiliate throws the last pitch, and even then, there will be more to do, some amalgamation of math problems, jigsaw puzzles and air traffic control.

Watching a baseball game every night can, with all apologies to steelworkers and third-grade teachers, be a lot of work. Trying to keep a close watch on nine? That takes a unique skill set. But Jonathan Loaisiga is pitching for the Yankees in Philadelphia. And Luis Medina is on the bump for Pulaski's game in Bristol, Virginia. And then there's the game unfolding in Staten Island, where Juan De Paula is doing battle with the Tri-City ValleyCats.

Up and down the Yankees' organization, pitchers have been working since about 7:30 a.m., when the first Dominican Summer League and Gulf Coast League hurlers began their side sessions. The day won't end until the last pitcher for the last affiliate throws the last pitch, and even then, there will be more to do, some amalgamation of math problems, jigsaw puzzles and air traffic control.

In the moment, though, there is the young Loaisiga, barely minutes removed from Double-A. There is Medina, a 19-year-old supernova. And there is the 20-year-old De Paula, who is working on a scoreless, five-inning, three-hit effort that is somehow as frustrating as it is encouraging. Young, stud arms may eventually break your heart. But man if you can't dream on them. Especially when it's your job to fall in love.

The names in the pages that follow … you probably won't know most of them. Loaisiga's about as big as it's going to get, short of a cameo from Luis Severino and some bit parts by other members of the big league pitching staff. We're going deep into the weeds, behind the curtain, into the meat grinder -- choose your own cliche. But this is where it's happening, and it's all relevant, even though you won't know why for a few years. Brian Cashman runs the organization's chessboard from an office in Yankee Stadium. But his eyes and ears are pointed here, and in other far-flung Minor League towns.

"Ultimately, my job is to develop championship-caliber pitchers for the Major Leagues," says Danny Borrell. The Yankees' second-round draft pick in 2000, Borrell's career died high on the Minor League vine. Now -- along with Scott Aldred -- Borrell serves as one of the organization's two pitching coordinators, responsible for the youngest, rawest arms that the franchise assigns to short-season affiliates. When a Severino or a Loaisiga shows up in the Majors, he becomes big league pitching coach Larry Rothschild's responsibility; up until that point, often for years, it's Borrell and Aldred doing the tailoring.

In late June, Borrell opened a window to the pitching factory, inviting Yankees Magazine along for a week in his life. It's was an ordinary few days with an extraordinary goal: to make extraordinary athletic feats feel perfectly ordinary. This is a story not of harnessing the power of an arm to make it a weapon; it's about turning 185 arms into a veritable arsenal -- in some cases, out of thin air.

***

We're talking about pitching, so naturally, we should begin with a 20-year-old Dominican infielder for the Yankees' low-A affiliate in Charleston.

Dermis Garcia was the top international signing in 2014 according to MLB.com, a $3.2 million investment by the Yankees. From the earliest scouting reports, Garcia was said to have a strong, projectable bat and an absolute cannon of an arm.

It's a running joke within the organization: Any time a player demonstrates unusually impressive arm strength, Borrell starts salivating about the prospect of putting him on the mound. "The first time I saw him throw a baseball from third base," Borrell says, "it was just, 'Oh wow, that is a really good arm.'"

Borrell spends more time with the organization's pitchers than seems possible, but he still made a point to joke with the young infielder whenever their paths crossed. Maybe it was wishful thinking. Maybe it was planting a seed. Or maybe it was the same competitive brio that pushed Borrell during his playing days. "I had the highest ERA in the draft my draft year," he says of his 6.00-plus figure, adding that he was always very coachable, "because I wasn't that good, at least in my head." But he was still a second-round pick out of Wake Forest, solid on the mound and with the bat. He recalls that if the Yankees hadn't selected him as a pitcher, the Diamondbacks were primed to take him with the very next pick -- as an outfielder. "I didn't have that sense of entitlement when I was drafted because I was not a good pitcher, so it was, 'Give it, bring me all the information you can, and I'm going to try it.'"

So he tried it, and it worked, and he almost certainly would have been a big league pitcher, even despite the self-deprecating manner with which he speaks of his skills. But multiple setbacks, including Tommy John surgery in 2006, ended his time in the Yankees' system. After trying for two seasons to reach the bigs with Oakland, he felt his elbow give out again. He had a wife and a 10-month-old son and a face-to-face encounter with reality. "It was so easy for me to just say, 'All right, that's it,'" he recalls. "I remember calling my wife and -- you know, obviously the emotion takes over -- just crying."

But before shelving his baseball dream for good, Borrell recalled a conversation with the Yankees' longtime senior vice president of baseball operations, Mark Newman, who had told Borrell that there was a job waiting for him whenever he was ready. And so the now-former pitcher climbed aboard, first working as the organization's rehab coordinator before spending four years as pitching coach at different affiliates. In 2015, he rose to his current position. And he's still -- in ways totally unrecognizable for a once-almost-big league pitcher -- willing to try anything new to find an edge.

***

His days as a pitcher were felled by your garden variety pitching woes. These days, though? Borrell's still not safe.

It's about five hours until game time in Staten Island, and the 39-year-old coordinator -- still in outstanding athletic shape, owing at least in part to the 3- to 4-mile run he tries to get in every day -- is smarting from another shot to the midsection. Borrell is based in Tampa, Florida, but he spends ample time on the road, embedding himself with the short-season affiliates' pitching staffs for a week or so at a time. And rather than just observe and report from a comfortable perch behind the bullpen mound, the pitching coordinator insists on getting down in the trenches, slipping on the tools of ignorance and catching his pitchers' sessions. Alex Mauricio, a 27th-round pick a year ago, just fired a fastball into the dirt and Borrell -- who wears shin guards and a mask but, for reasons defying understanding, refuses to use a chest protector -- nearly broke his second bone in a week. "That could have been the other rib if I'd turned the other way!" he jokes. "Bilateral broken ribs!" Staten Island's pitching coach, Travis Phelps, holds in a snicker. "I would not have laughed," he says, unconvincingly.

"You know, these guys are still trying to find consistency," Phelps says later, more seriously. "And he takes some shots. They skip some balls, and they square him up in the ribs and he takes some shots, but he never backs down."

There's a method to what is most certainly madness. It's the same reason that the naturally playful and cheery Borrell goes out of his way to exaggerate those qualities, to make absolutely certain that the young players see that side of him. He never wants to seem like the exec coming in from corporate to observe the workers. As a coach, his effectiveness shares a direct correlation with how much the kids trust him. He had that experience in the Minors, when Neil Allen was his pitching coach. "I had trouble pitching up and in to lefties," Borrell says. "And he would stand in, with a helmet, and say, 'If you hit me, you hit me.' And he would just stand there. And I would wear him out in the shoulder, I hit him in the ribs. And he's like, 'No, you're good. Don't worry about it. Do it again.'

"I want them to know that it's not just me telling you what to do. I'm seeing it, and I'm feeling it."

He's also getting valuable information from it. A key aspect of the organization's pitching philosophy, Borrell repeats many times over, is that everything begins at the plate. What he means is that if a pitch is effective, they don't want to do too much to change that. A pitcher might have a wonky delivery or a strange hitch, which would be easy to diagnose just by watching him. But it also might contribute to a natural break or some deceptive late action, which is best seen by following the ball into his hard-on-the-eyes left-handed catcher's mitt. Rather than fix the wind-up, the team wants to embrace anything that can heighten a pitcher's skills. It's results over process -- within reason.

"You start at the plate, then you work back," Borrell says. "If it's working, then why am I changing it? And if I did change it -- which we have -- it would be because there is some analytical data that backs it up. 'Hey, you know what, because you're this far across your body with your stride, you're clearly affecting the movement on your fastball. So while it's successful now, in the big leagues it may not be successful.'"

Borrell has the welts, bruises and imprinted baseball seams all over his body to demonstrate his commitment, and he clearly relishes his on-field duties (later, after a bullpen session runs a bit long, he'll excitedly run toward the field to join the rest of the group in pitchers' fielding drills. Asked why he's in such a hurry to participate in what seems like a slog on a brutally hot day, he says, as though it's obvious, "I hate missing PFPs! It's the best part! Get to run around with the kids a little bit!"). He also just seems to enjoy the banter, the playfulness of life among baseball players. Garrett Mundell starts talking up his velocity, and Borrell suggests that he'll give him $100 on the spot each time he throws 98. "You know, I've got a wedding to afford," Mundell says. "Well," Borrell responds, "hopefully I pay for most of it." He remembers similar competitive games he would play with a young Luis Severino. They would wager the pitcher's conditioning based on whether he could reach a certain pitch count during a game. If Sevy hit the mark, Borrell would do his running; if he didn't, Sevy's load would double. "He never had to run," Borrell says. "He was so good."

Even still, the job is much bigger than bullpen sessions and clubhouse humor. "The on-field portion of being a pitching coordinator is a very small part of what it truly is," says Eric Schmitt, the Yankees' director of player development. Every day, Borrell and Aldred chart each pitch thrown from the Dominican Summer League to the Majors. Mention one of the 185 names to Borrell, and he can recall from memory what he did the previous night and when he's next scheduled to throw. With a cell phone that doubles as an essential organ (and an external battery pack as valuable to Borrell as Aaron Judge is to the Yankees' lineup), Borrell is in constant contact with the organization's many pitching coaches and player development officials, diagramming routines for the following day, ensuring that each affiliate has enough pitchers for the next game and shutting down any problems before they arise. He has daily availability charts for each affiliate, as well as a sheet of pitch counts and rest days broken out by month.

When Medina gets knocked out in the first inning of his game, Borrell is already game-planning the moves that he will need to set in motion to account for the workload that Pulaski's bullpen will face in response. Every single transaction has domino effects, requiring pitching moves at each affiliate below. The days don't truly end for the Yankees until Aldred and Borrell have signed off for the night, texting Cashman and his lieutenants any moves the organization will need to make to patch over any holes. Until that message arrives, no one can go to sleep. And once it does? "Last night it took me about 20 seconds," Borrell says, acknowledging that it's even worse when the big league team is playing on the West Coast.

"There are those nights when you're dragging a little from the early mornings," Schmitt says, "but until you get the 'All Clear,' we're all up."

***

After about 10 days in Staten Island, Borrell is decamping tomorrow, heading off to his next stop. Before the game, he assembles the pitchers and catchers in the weight room for a full debriefing, rolling through a list of his observations. Sitting on one leg of an elliptical machine, with catcher Chucky Vazquez translating for the Spanish-speaking players, Borrell aims to leave a positive message.

The truth is, though, the pitchers are killing it. "Everything we value here with the Yankees, you guys are doing a hell of a job with it," Borrell says. He ticks off the statistics, saying that they lead all short- season affiliates throughout the sport in K/9, K/BB and average velocity. It's not a huge surprise; for days, Borrell has been reveling in the quality of the arms throughout the system. The other side of that depth, though, is that there's simply not room to promote pitchers to the levels where they belong. "I can honestly say that 95 percent of you in this room should not be here," he says. "You guys should be at a higher level." Before the meeting, he mentioned in passing that he thinks that among the 185 arms in the system, there are 70 big leaguers, a ridiculously high percentage. Cashman, who has assembled the bounty, agrees. "Right now, at this point in time, we are very deep -- deeper than we've ever been in terms of future big league talent," the GM says. "But there are guys who are held back because there are no spots for them."

Borrell watches them all with a scout's eye. During De Paula's start in Staten Island, he stands in a well behind home plate to watch the right-hander pitch, then hustles to the clubhouse when the team hits so that he can piece together all the data points. In the video room -- a Minor League NORAD -- seven screens offer camera angles from all over the ballpark, plus the TrackMan system that gives information such as effective velocities, spin rates and other data impossible to gather with the naked eye. He also gets updates from each of the affiliates' outings. Borrell has access to video and data from every pitch thrown in the system dating back to 2013. Watching De Paula live, he can point out details that look great, and others that look concerning. Running into the video room, he can get the confirmation he needs.

The goal isn't to collect the data and then drop it all on the players' heads. Borrell mainly uses it to confirm his own analysis, to be sure that he understands any outliers he might be seeing, or what isn't conforming to what he expects by watching. De Paula's throwing 95 to 96, and he's getting the outs he needs. But his delivery changes depending on whether there are runners on. So does his pacing. So does his release point, which has a habit of dropping too low, to a point from which he simply can't throw strikes. These are all things Borrell expects from young pitchers. But he's able to use the video and the TrackMan data to build a plan to work with the pitcher the next day, when he and Phelps will sit with De Paula and call up video of both good and bad pitches. "Solo uno mechanico," Borrell will tell De Paula -- "Only one delivery."

"Mark Newman always would say, 'Danny, I don't care what you think. What do you know?'" he says a few days later. "And that really has meant a lot to me. Because I can always say whatever I think to a pitcher, but if I don't have data to back it up, or experience to back it up, then he can call BS on me really quick."

Video: TB@NYY: Loaisiga tosses 5 scoreless innings in debut

***

The plan had been for Borrell to go from Staten Island to Pulaski, but the life of a pitching coordinator means never knowing what tomorrow holds. He jokes that he's on a first-name basis with airline customer service reps, as he is constantly reserving and canceling itineraries.

But a new development arose during the organizational meetings in New York the week before, and Borrell is instead heading to Charleston. "There is a BIG change coming," he says in a late-night email, "and I need to be there for it."

So it's off to the Low-A RiverDogs' ballpark, where Borrell will repeat much of what he did in Staten Island, plus prepare for the big meeting he's going to have after Thursday night's game. Schmitt and infield coordinator Miguel Cairo are flying in for the occasion, as well.

As Borrell sits in the stands watching young stud Deivi Garcia pitch, infielder Dermis Garcia (no relation) has himself a heck of an outing: a single in the first, another in the third (followed by a stolen base), an inside-the-park homer in the sixth and a double in the eighth. Three of the four hits had an exit velocity higher than 100 mph. It's been a rough go at the plate so far in 2018 for the hyped prospect, but as his teammates douse him with Gatorade, tonight is a good night. It's about to get weird, though. A meeting in the manager's office after a huge performance. Am I getting promoted? And then, Hey, what's the pitching coordinator doing in here? "I think when he saw me in the room, he kind of assumed something was going to happen," Borrell says the next morning, hours after telling Garcia that they wanted him to split time between first base/designated hitter and the pitcher's mound. "I was actually excited because I knew that was a decision from the Yankees' top brass," Garcia says, assisted by RiverDogs manager Julio Mosquera. "I couldn't embrace it more."

Garcia had never thrown a pitch from a mound in his life. He would take his first turn in the bullpen the next day. "This was a decision that was made with a lot of different people, all in agreement that this is in Dermis's best interest," Schmitt says. The Yankees, like so many teams, spent some time in the offseason studying the merits of letting a player develop as both a hitter and a pitcher, even in the American League. "I think the Shohei Ohtani circumstance shined a light on the capabilities there," Cashman says. "A lot of times, the industry standard is, run the clock out on the one, and then typically another organization will pick up the slack and transition him to a pitcher. I don't want to be in a position to lose that opportunity, so I was like, 'Maybe we can do both. Let's try it.'"

***

Borrell emerges from the dugout wearing a huge grin, even more pronounced than usual. "Big day!" he shouts into the empty stadium. Garcia, used to being a star and a huge prospect, is in an unfamiliar state, nervous and excited. "Hey, do you have a pitcher's glove?" Borrell asks the new pitcher. "You'd better call your agent!"

As Garcia makes about eight throws on flat ground, there are two cameras being set up, each one pointing toward the mound. One of the RiverDogs' coaches, Dan Fiorito, grabs the radar gun. Justin Pope, the pitching coach, walks over with a brand-new baseball wrapped in plastic. "If you're a pitcher," he tells his new student, "you throw pearls."

Borrell's message couldn't be clearer. He wants Garcia to act like he's an infielder, only throwing from a mound instead of third base. They won't even start teaching him new grips until they introduce the change-up in two weeks. A few weeks after that, they'll show him the curveball, which he thinks Garcia will spin incredibly well. The goal, on this June 29 morning, is to have him throw 15 pitches at about 70 percent effort. Eventually, they hope he'll be ready to pitch an inning in a game in mid-August. "I don't want you thinking mechanics," Borrell yells from his crouch as Garcia prepares to take his first baby steps as a pitcher. "It's whatever's natural. You see this target. You just let it loose."

The first pitch comes in high, at 85. Then 89. The rest of the pitching staff is gathered around Fiorito, trying to peek in at the numbers on the gun. He gets as high as 91 and even throws some strikes. Afterward, there's a lot of laughing and smiling. Borrell had wanted this for a while; Garcia never even knew to want it. "There is 95 to 98 in your arm, and I didn't want that today," the coordinator tells his new pitcher before going through the plan for the coming weeks.

Today was just one day, but it was incredibly encouraging. "His stride was almost seven feet long," Borrell says. "A kid his size should have a stride of about six feet." That extra extension is going to create deception down the line. It will mean the batter will have even less time to react. "The way his fastball goes, and the way his body works, it looks like what a raw pitcher should look like. And it's easy to dream big on a guy like that."

***

It could be that Dermis Garcia turns into the next great Yankees pitcher, or maybe it won't work at all. But the experiment is an attempt to improve the player's chances of reaching the Major Leagues. Which, at the end of the day, is what Borrell's and Aldred's day-to-day work is all about, multiplied by 185. "Those guys have a lot of experience, and they're experts in their craft," says Cashman.

Severino, an All-Star in 2017 and 2018, still beams at the mention of his old pitching coach Borrell: "He gets me, you know? He knows me and he gets me and he made me, I think, a better pitcher." The message echoes among so many of the pitchers who have reached the Bronx. And even as his focus stays down in the low Minors, Borrell can't help but revel in his young pitchers' success. Back in Staten Island, between innings of De Paula's outing, the coordinator's eyes keep turning to the TV showing Loaisiga in Philadelphia. "I was never nervous when I pitched," he says as he moves between checking the RPM on De Paula's first few curveballs, getting updates from the early moments of Medina's start for Pulaski and watching Loaisiga warm up in the bottom of the first. "But watching these kids … I have no control! I have to remember that they're 18 to 20 years old. And it takes a while."

Some manage it quicker than others. Loaisiga started the year in High-A Tampa, then moved to Double-A Trenton in May, then to the bigs in June. Borrell, who knows more about the young pitcher than almost anyone, is confident. "His heart rate's about 60 right now," he says. A few innings later, when analyst David Cone is breaking down Loaisiga's smooth delivery, the former pitcher raves. "Nothing's jumpy," Cone says. "Nothing's herky-jerky. Very much under control, very smooth delivery."

"Yes, it is," Borrell says proudly, barely looking up from his iPad.

Jon Schwartz is the deputy editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the August 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: A Major Minor Showcase

The 2018 Eastern League All-Star Game in Trenton featured everything that makes baseball on the farm such a joy
Yankees Magazine

It's a fact of life in New Jersey, a place mostly between two other places, that many of its iconic vistas are actually views of New York City or Philadelphia. But in the capital city of Trenton, an indelible sight offers a brash confidence, a statement of purpose, a mantra for the state and its ambitions. Spanning the Delaware River between Trenton and Morrisville, Pennsylvania, the Lower Trenton Bridge's south face announces itself in neon, a message slightly modified from the original phrase coined by S. Roy Heath, who won $25 in a 1910 contest to establish a slogan for the budding manufacturing center.

Heath's original winning phrase was "THE WORLD TAKES -- TRENTON MAKES." But today, the bridge at night glistens with a transposed version, 330 feet in length, 8 feet high, as much a symbol of the Garden State as the pork roll produced nearby: "TRENTON MAKES -- THE WORLD TAKES."

It's a fact of life in New Jersey, a place mostly between two other places, that many of its iconic vistas are actually views of New York City or Philadelphia. But in the capital city of Trenton, an indelible sight offers a brash confidence, a statement of purpose, a mantra for the state and its ambitions. Spanning the Delaware River between Trenton and Morrisville, Pennsylvania, the Lower Trenton Bridge's south face announces itself in neon, a message slightly modified from the original phrase coined by S. Roy Heath, who won $25 in a 1910 contest to establish a slogan for the budding manufacturing center.

Heath's original winning phrase was "THE WORLD TAKES -- TRENTON MAKES." But today, the bridge at night glistens with a transposed version, 330 feet in length, 8 feet high, as much a symbol of the Garden State as the pork roll produced nearby: "TRENTON MAKES -- THE WORLD TAKES."

About a half-mile south of the landmark trussed span, the Double-A Eastern League's best players gathered in mid-July for the annual midsummer festivities, a smaller-scale version of the galaxy-rocking MLB All-Star experience that took place the next week in Washington, D.C. Minor League life is a never- ending series of metaphors, and the two-day event -- hosted by the Trenton Thunder, the Yankees' Double-A affiliate -- spared little in the way of symbolism. On Tuesday, shortly before the Home Run Derby, Rusted Root's mid-'90s hit "Send Me On My Way" played over the stadium speakers. One might struggle to find a song more appropriate to the occasion, seemingly singing on behalf of both the baseballs and the players themselves.

***

The Thunder entered the All-Star break 49-39, a half-game back in the Eastern League's Eastern Division. Between the on-field success and the perks afforded the host team, local fans had plenty of reasons to cheer during the two nights. Yankees prospect Abiatal Avelino was promoted to Triple-A Scranton/ Wilkes-Barre before he could enjoy the spectacle in Trenton, but his roster spot went to Thunder teammate Mandy Alvarez, who was joined by other names familiar to Yankees prospect-watchers, players such as Caleb Frare, James Reeves and Trey Amburgey. Additionally, the Thunder's coaching staff helmed the Eastern Division squad, with Jay Bell -- who also managed in the High-A Florida State League All-Star Game last year -- serving as skipper. Bell wanted the group to have fun. But it was still about winning.

"Even in this game, it's still about going out there and competing to win," Bell said. "I want them to understand that my reward as a coach, and their reward as players coming off the field, is that handshake after the game. So, hopefully we'll do that."

For Bell, the action started early. He threw to several different batters during the Home Run Derby, including Amburgey, who went last in the event. The rules, modeled after the Major League version, called for each batter to hit as many homers as possible in a four-minute round (with one timeout). After all eight hitters took their swings, the top two would advance to the championship round. As Amburgey took his place in the batter's box, the mark to reach was 13; with 10 seconds left, sitting on 10, Bell ramped up his pace, and Amburgey knocked two straight over the wall. But his last swing resulted in a pop-up, and the Thunder rep had to watch Reading's Deivi Grullon defeat Hartford's Sam Hilliard in the final.

Amburgey was exhausted afterward but pleased with his first taste of All-Star action. "Physically, that was one of the hardest things I've ever done," he said. "I've never had to hit that much consecutively. But to have the home-field crowd behind me, that was a good experience. It was a lot of fun."

He would get another chance for last- second heroics the next night. But in the interim, the Thunder players got to take in the joy of accomplishment, mixed with the ego-tickling thrill of a home crowd's recognition. Frare, a reliever for the Thunder who enjoyed an exceptional first half, spent a few minutes on the morning of the All-Star Game recalling growing up in tiny Miles City, Montana, where the nearest Costco was a mere 140-mile drive away in Billings, Montana. He still has never stepped foot in the Bronx. But it's impossible not to see how close he might be to having his life turned upside down. While he waits, he celebrates all that's in front of him in the moment, being where his feet are in the parlance of the Yankees' organizational code. "That's what I live for," he said. "I live for watching Trey have his success. I'm really looking forward to Reeves pitching tonight, seeing how he does. How Mandy does. I go to war every day with those guys for 140 games."

Reeves and Alvarez are anything but household names in the Bronx. Dillon Tate, who was selected to the team but couldn't play due to injury, is a top prospect, but the other Trenton representatives are still under the radar. And the Double-A All-Star Game, they hope, will soon be buried by bigger and better career highlights. As Bell prepared to lead the team, though, he noted that it was imperative that the players appreciate this specific moment in their lives. "Any time that you have success, that you're considered one of the better players in the league that particular year, I think that you should feel good about yourself, feel good about what you've accomplished in the game," Bell said. "And I think it should be a springboard to getting a little bit better. … It's that balance between thinking highly of yourself and, at the same time, maintaining some humility, as well."

There's something to that word choice, though. Frare mentioned how humbling the All-Star selection was. Alvarez echoed that, saying, "It's just humbling to be able to play in this game, thinking of all the greats that have played in the Double-A All-Star Game." Humility is good, and often called for, but might it be misplaced in this specific moment? Perhaps it's a matter of identifying the tiny line between self- assuredness and self-awareness. "If I put myself where I was, back when I was at this level, you have to be able to celebrate every milestone moment in your career," said Yankees legend Bernie Williams, who performed the national anthem at Arm & Hammer Park prior to the game. "Because you never know when it's going to end. So for these guys, they might have their sights on playing in the big leagues, but they don't know what's going to happen tomorrow. So this is a big time for them, and they should be celebrated and acknowledged for the years that they're having."

***

It being the Minors, there was something perfect about the pomp and circumstance of an All-Star Game being mixed with screwball antics. Tim Tebow was in the lineup as a representative of the Binghamton Rumble Ponies, which added to the event's attention and likely contributed to the 8,296 attendance figure, but that meant that a collection of national media members bore witness to all that makes Minor League Baseball such an absurdist joy. When Grullon won the Home Run Derby, his prize was a championship belt and a year's supply of Case's Pork Roll. The Pork Roll mascot -- the Thunder take the name of the local delicacy on Fridays -- was ubiquitous over the two days, and why not?

Between innings, there were the same bizarre interactive games familiar to Minor League patrons -- miniature bike races, dizzy races, eyeball races (won by the green eye, if you're scoring at home). It was all just heightened, exaggerated to appreciate the moment at hand. There was a contest for the best dog of the game (which seems silly in any event that features the Thunder's beloved bat dog, Rookie, a good, good boy who should win every contest ever, of every sort), but there were also the Budweiser Clydesdales on hand.

"This was two years in the making," Jeff Hurley, the Thunder general manager, said of Trenton's third time hosting the All-Star festivities. "We found out in 2016 we were going to host, so we threw out a lot of ideas. But I think when it comes down to it, you always put a twist on this type of game. You want to make it special, but you still want to stick to your grassroots, which is family fun, family entertainment -- just with Clydesdales [laughs]. People enjoy coming out to Trenton Thunder games, so why fix something that's not broken? We have a great product on the field and off the field. The ballpark is beautiful, and our entertainment is top-notch. So we went with what our fans want to see."

The on-field product was, indeed, great. The game included dramatic home runs by Jan Hernandez and Grullon, repeating his heroics from the previous night. The East pitchers retired the first 13 West batters, but the visitors broke through in the fifth inning, following up their first hit with three more to tie the game before Luigi Rodriguez took Frare deep in the top of the eighth to put the West ahead, 4-3. Binghamton's Patrick Mazeika singled to lead off the bottom of the ninth, then with two outs, Amburgey stepped into the box as the East's last hope. He laced a sharp liner to the wall in left field, just beyond the reach of Rodriguez. Mazeika sprinted home, and although there would be a penalty kicks-style hitting contest to determine a winner, the game officially went into the books as a tie.

For Amburgey, so close to enjoying a buzzer-beating celebration the night before, it was a fitting bookend. "I thought [Rodriguez] caught it, to be honest," he said. "I saw how they were playing and the way he was running, but once I heard the crowd explode I was like, 'All right, that's awesome, tie game.'"

"For Trey to come through like that in front of his home crowd is pretty special," Bell said.

Video: NYY@TB: Amburgey rips an RBI single to left field

***

The hitting contest that decided the game was everything you'd hope for in an event of this sort. It took longer to sort out the rules than it did to hold the matchup, which involved each team sending up one hitter to take two minutes of batting practice, with different point values awarded depending on where the ball landed. Any amount of time anyone spends trying to understand the concept is most assuredly a waste. In the end, the West's Will Craig out-somethinged Zach Green, but by that point, no one could pretend it mattered. Rodriguez was named the MVP, but perhaps fittingly, the night's most dramatic moment belonged to Amburgey.

From the fans' reaction in 2002, when then-commissioner Bud Selig declared the MLB All-Star Game to have ended in a tie, you'd have thought Selig had desecrated the graves of Abner Doubleday, Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson. In Trenton, mostly everyone laughed, because that's what you're supposed to do. The fans were promised fireworks, and fireworks they received. They just had to wait a few more minutes, and in the interim, they shared a few laughs. Forget the motto on a nearby bridge; you may never find a better metaphor for all that makes the Minor Leagues so wonderful, and for all that made the event in Trenton such a terrific success, on the field, off the field and over the field.

Jon Schwartz is the deputy editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the August 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: Circle Change

RiverDogs left-hander JP Sears has history in Charleston, but he dreams of a future in pinstripes
Yankees Magazine

When JP Sears takes the mound at Joe Riley Park, it feels like home -- in more ways than one. As a member of the Charleston RiverDogs, The Joe is where he currently hangs his cap and uniform. But for the South Carolina native, the 6,000-seat stadium nestled in the Lowcountry marshes along the Ashley River is even more familiar.

Sears' special connection to this specific diamond dates back to a time before he joined the Yankees' organization. It was March 24, 2017, just a couple months before the southpaw would become Seattle's 11th-round pick in the MLB draft. Sears was a junior majoring in business administration at The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina, which shares the RiverDogs' stadium in Charleston. He had earned a reputation as a workhorse and an ace. And he was about to put one more feather in his cap.

When JP Sears takes the mound at Joe Riley Park, it feels like home -- in more ways than one. As a member of the Charleston RiverDogs, The Joe is where he currently hangs his cap and uniform. But for the South Carolina native, the 6,000-seat stadium nestled in the Lowcountry marshes along the Ashley River is even more familiar.

Sears' special connection to this specific diamond dates back to a time before he joined the Yankees' organization. It was March 24, 2017, just a couple months before the southpaw would become Seattle's 11th-round pick in the MLB draft. Sears was a junior majoring in business administration at The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina, which shares the RiverDogs' stadium in Charleston. He had earned a reputation as a workhorse and an ace. And he was about to put one more feather in his cap.

Sears took the mound that day and shut out the Virginia Military Institute, 3-0. With 20 strikeouts, he tied a Citadel record (almost exactly a year to the day after nearly doing so with a 19-strikeout performance against VMI). It was the most K's in an NCAA Division I game in 2017, and Sears says it's the best memory he has of pitching, at The Joe or anywhere else.

But he's ready to change that. In 2018, Sears isn't dwelling on past glory. He's much more excited about what his future may hold -- and so are the Yankees.

***

During an offseason that most Yankees fans will remember for the arrivals of Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Boone, there's nonetheless reason to note a low-key November trade. At least, that's what Sears hopes.

In a move that garnered far less press than acquiring the reigning National League MVP, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman sent righty Nick Rumbelow to Seattle for a couple of low-level pitching prospects -- right-hander Juan Then and Sears.

For Sears, it was bittersweet. Prior to signing with Seattle, the graduate of Wilson Hall High School in Sumter, South Carolina, had never been west of Arkansas -- where he would go on summer hunting and fishing trips with family and friends -- and he was cautiously optimistic about the new challenges that he would face on the West Coast.

"I'd made some good friends when I was with the Mariners and saw myself there," he says. But a trade to the Yankees meant a chance at coming home, and the opportunity to see -- and become -- so much more. "Now I see myself here, and I'm excited about it. I was excited about going to the Yankees, one of the best franchises in baseball and one of the best franchises in the world of sports. For me, to be a part of their franchise is awesome."

Sears' military background has helped him fit naturally into the Yankees' system. The late George Steinbrenner was famous for demanding that all members of the organization abide by a system of values and rules, and those tenets have endured. Schedules are to be maintained, uniforms are to be worn a certain way. And there are absolutely no beards. Sears was on board right away.

"Little things like that make a difference," the 22-year-old says. "Sticking to the rules that the Yankees have, it's good and it makes you better because it means you don't have to worry about some of the things other baseball players have to worry about. I get to learn from a really good staff here, and everything that can make you better as a person or a player, they're going to provide you with."

Becoming a better player is paramount, not only because the Yankees demand success, but also because Sears expects it. And there's something about the left-hander that makes you believe he's destined for even more.

Sears has an easy smile and a warm way about him -- he's open and supremely likable. But he is always in control on the mound -- working quickly and methodically, with a laser focus in his eyes. And although he insists that he has fun pitching, he works at a pace that suggests a separate message. "I just want to get it over with," he says, somewhat counter-intuitively. "It's not really nervousness, it's more just anxiety. If it was my decision, I would just wake up, eat some breakfast and then go down to the mound and get it out of the way. I love being out there."

What's not ambiguous is his output. Through the middle of June, Sears still hadn't earned his first win with the RiverDogs, but some eye-popping numbers loomed further down the stat line: A 2.57 ERA; allowing one walk or less in seven of his nine starts; 34 hits allowed in 49 innings; and a .190 batting average against.

Clearly something is working, so the wins will likely come. The Low-A RiverDogs' roster is, by nature, young -- five members of the regular starting lineup are 21 or younger -- so the players are all still learning. Their climbs are just starting. And while Sears can't be expected to do it all, he wants to. When you ask the pitcher about all the things he's doing right, Sears instead talks about what he still needs to work on, how he needs to improve. The southpaw has solid command of his fastball both from the wind-up and the stretch, but as with most pitchers in the low Minors, the breaking ball and the change-up are his main areas of focus.

"Really it's about having a certain intent when you're doing it," he says, not willing to base his improvement on mere repetition. "The intent is not about just making sure you get all of them in that day. The intent is more how you go about doing it. It's about throwing my change-up different distances and working on keeping my arm speed up, keeping my arm up and making every pitch look the same. So I'll throw the change-up from 180 feet, 150 feet. It's all about keeping the ball and how you throw the same. With pitching, it's a lot about making everything look the same to the hitters so you can fool them with whatever pitch is coming, and that turns into going deeper into games."

 

RiverDogs manager Julio Mosquera applauds Sears and the way he goes about his work, and believes that if he gets a handle on the off-speed pitches, his future will be bright.

"He cares about his job, and he goes about his business really well on the mound," Mosquera says. "He's got pretty good stuff, and he attacks hitters. He's got a high ceiling. He's still learning how to pitch, but he's done a good job with what he has, and I think he's only going to get better. He's really good, and he's going to keep progressing. He's got a pretty good chance to become a Major Leaguer because of the way he goes about his business.

"I think he's really got something surprising about him."

So Sears will keep working on making improvements and peeling back the layers of his potential. And for now, he gets to do it in a place he calls home.

***

After the Yankees assigned Sears to Charleston in March, he played his first two games with the RiverDogs on the road. It wasn't until April 26 that the lefty took the mound at The Joe for the first time in something other than Citadel colors.

"It was weird," Sears says, laughing. "I'd done it so many times before, but there were more people in the stands, and I was in a different uniform. But I look the same; I pitch the same. I haven't changed how I pitch all that much -- other than maybe my velocity -- and I'm getting better with certain things like my off-speed. But I get to see a lot of the same training staff and maintenance staff and people around the stadium. It's pretty cool."

Sears knows how fortunate he is that his family members -- who live in Sumter about an hour and 45 minutes away -- and friends -- many of whom are still at The Citadel or in the Charleston area -- are able to come watch him pitch nearly every home game. Unlike last year, when he was pitching for the Clinton LumberKings in Iowa and the Everett AquaSox in Washington, Sears has his support system all around him.

"It definitely means a lot to me to have family here, and it makes everything a lot easier as far as not having to worry about feeling like you're completely on your own," Sears says. "You always have someone supporting you, and that means a lot."

For Mosquera, there's no doubt that Sears' comfort shows up in his pitching line.

"It's like he's a hometown hero," Mosquera says. "This is like home twice for him. He's able to do more because he's comfortable with his surroundings, and I think that works to his advantage when he gets on the mound."

So what happens when the call comes that Sears is getting promoted? (The next logical step would be High-A Tampa.) Well, the pitcher is excited about that, too, because his main goal is to one day be pitching in Yankee Stadium. But with every rung on the ladder comes a new opportunity to explore, and new things to uncover. Sears may feel at home in Charleston -- he plans to spend all of his offseasons in the Holy City -- but he's intent on not making this his year-round home.

"Charleston is an easy place to be proud to be from, and it means a lot to me to be from here," Sears says. "But I've enjoyed just being able to say I've been different places. Being in three different leagues already has let me travel to many different places. Whether it's Oregon or Idaho or Washington, Maryland, New Jersey, anything like that, it's been good to go different places and find something there that's historical."

History has been kind to Sears so far. The future, though, is still up for grabs. And Sears is excited to uncover it all while making himself better every step of the way.

Hilary Giorgi is the senior editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the July 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, JP Sears

Yankees Magazine: Winning Mentality

Derek Jeter recalls the championship mindset that guided the '98 Yankees to greatness
Yankees Magazine

When the 1998 New York Yankees took the field for the first time in Spring Training, Derek Jeter had already established himself as the toast of the town. After winning the 1996 American League Rookie of the Year Award and helping lead that team to the Yankees' first World Series championship in 18 years, the young shortstop had secured a spot among the pantheon of New York sports legends. But he was hungry for much more.

During the 1998 Yankees' 114-win regular season, Jeter batted a then-career-high .324, an improvement of 33 points from the previous season. He led the AL in runs scored with 127, while also reaching then-career bests in home runs (19) and RBI (84).

When the 1998 New York Yankees took the field for the first time in Spring Training, Derek Jeter had already established himself as the toast of the town. After winning the 1996 American League Rookie of the Year Award and helping lead that team to the Yankees' first World Series championship in 18 years, the young shortstop had secured a spot among the pantheon of New York sports legends. But he was hungry for much more.

During the 1998 Yankees' 114-win regular season, Jeter batted a then-career-high .324, an improvement of 33 points from the previous season. He led the AL in runs scored with 127, while also reaching then-career bests in home runs (19) and RBI (84).

Jeter was selected to his first of 14 All-Star Games in '98. And a few months after representing the Yankees in the Midsummer Classic at Colorado's Coors Field, he eclipsed the 200-hit plateau for the first of eight times in his storied career. That October, Jeter batted .353 in the Yankees' World Series sweep of the San Diego Padres, and eventually finished third in the AL MVP voting.

Earlier this season, Jeter, who is now the Miami Marlins' chief executive officer, sat down with Yankees Magazine editor-in-chief Alfred Santasiere III in his office at Marlins Park in Florida.

Going into the 1998 season, what was life like as the 24-year-old shortstop of the New York Yankees?

My life in general was great, but from a baseball standpoint, it was rough. We had just lost to the Indians in 1997. We had a team that year that we thought could win another championship, but in our minds, Cleveland upset us. That whole offseason, leading up to the '98 season, all I thought about was getting another opportunity to play in the World Series. I think that was the mindset of just about everyone on that team. Once you've won a championship, anything short of that is disappointing.

What did you learn from the defeat to Cleveland that helped you in 1998 and in the seasons after that?

That every single pitch, every single at-bat and every single moment in the course of a game matters. Obviously, we learned that in 1996, but it seems like when you win, everything goes your way. When you lose, you point to the different turning points in the game. I realized how difficult it is to win a championship in 1997. You have to have a great team, but you also have to be playing well at all of the important moments.

What were your thoughts on the potential of the 1998 team when you got to Spring Training?

The great thing about Spring Training is that there's a lot of optimism for every team. But for us, our expectations were extremely high. Our mindset was to win a championship. We knew it was going to be a long process, but it was win or bust for us that year. We didn't want to put too much pressure on ourselves, but the expectation level was as high as it could have been.

Then, you started the season 1-4.

Yeah, it was the end of the world. The season was over, according to a lot of people, even though we had 157 games left.

Well, after that, your team won 25 out of the next 28 games.

Did we really? I didn't realize that we were that hot early in the season, but it makes sense. We felt like we should have won every single day we were on the field. That's what separated us from any other team I ever played for or against. We never sat back and thought, "We've had a good streak, and it's OK if it ends here." That's the only way we were able to maintain an entire season of success the way we did.

How exciting was it to come to the Stadium that summer?

Winning is fun. It's a lot more fun than losing. Just knowing that I was coming to the field every day with a group of guys who only cared about winning was special. We didn't care who the hero was or who got the big hit or pitched a great game as long as we won. When you have a group like that, it's pretty special, and it makes going to work fun. The importance of culture and how well players on a team get along is talked about often. Well, winning makes it hard to not get along with each other.

Along those lines, how would you describe the chemistry on the '98 Yanks?

There was a mutual respect that we all had for each other. We weren't all going out to dinner together, but we respected each other. There was a great deal of accountability. No one on that team was pointing at himself or looking for the attention. There have been years where we had players who were more talented, but as far as the true definition of a team, that was by far the best team I was ever on.

From your vantage point at shortstop on May 17 -- the day that David Wells tossed a perfect game -- when did you start to believe that he could retire all 27 batters?

I realized that David had a no-hitter every time I turned around and looked at the scoreboard, but I didn't start paying attention to the fact that he had a perfect game until the seventh inning. That's when the crowd really started to get into it. The fans were standing up for every pitch. But throughout the game, David had great stuff. I know that there were a few good plays made in the field, but really, not many hitters even came close to getting a hit. He was dominating from the first batter to the last. No-hitters are one thing, but perfect games are hard to come by. They're rare for a reason.

What are the thoughts that a shortstop has when a pitcher gets within a few outs of pitching a perfect game?

"Don't screw this up."

Did you want the ball to be hit to you?

As it got later in the game, I wanted routine balls to be hit to me. But I didn't want to have to make any tough plays. When a guy is throwing a no-hitter, you can make an error, and it's no big deal. The no-hitter is still intact. But in a perfect game, you make an error, and you'll forever be known for screwing it up. Anyone who tells you that they wanted every single ball hit to them is lying because we were all just as nervous as David was.

You were selected to your first All-Star team in '98. What was the experience of playing in that game like?

It was a surreal moment. Being on the field with players I grew up idolizing and had looked up to my whole life was truly memorable. I'd like to think that I was interacting with them but I probably didn't say anything to those players, just because I was in awe. As a player, at least for me, I always hoped and wished for the opportunity to play in an All-Star Game, and when I was actually there, I couldn't believe it. I was in high school a few years earlier, and now I was on the field with some of the all-time greats in baseball history. The first time you do anything, it's special. Playing in my first All-Star Game is something I'll never forget.

You put together your best season to date in '98, and it ended up being one of the best statistical seasons of your career. How much did the experience of being in the big leagues for two full seasons before that contribute to your consistency in '98?

Baseball is a game of adjustments, and the first year you play in the league, you have to adjust. Pitchers are making adjustments to the way they approach you. Then, you have the sophomore jinx. People don't think you can come back and do it for a second year. But the more success you have, the more confident you become. You start to realize that you can play and that you can be successful. Having already played in two postseasons and won a World Series, I had gotten a taste of everything already. That helped with my whole mentality.

Although the '98 team didn't face much on-field adversity, you and your teammates were dealt some devastating news when Darryl Strawberry was diagnosed with cancer late in the season. How did that affect you?

It put everything into perspective. You're out there playing baseball every day, and you start to think that winning and losing is life or death. But the bottom line is that when someone who is close to you, who you've developed a relationship with and who is like a family member to you, goes through a real life-or-death situation, it is eye-opening. I first teamed with Darryl in the Minors, and when I came up, he went out of his way to talk to me about the pitfalls of New York, the temptations that exist in New York and the mistakes that he made. I learned a lot from him. Seeing him go through everything after he was diagnosed that year made me realize that there were things that were a lot bigger than the game of baseball.

When your team trailed the Indians in the 1998 American League Championship Series, 2 games to 1, how did Joe Torre keep everyone focused and calm, and ultimately get things back on track?

Mr. T is, in my mind, the best communicator that I've ever been around in my life. He was a calming influence. We never saw him panic. I could tell if he was upset by the way he wore his hat, but he basically had the same facial expressions all the time. Any time your manager is calm, it rubs off on the players. Our philosophy at that point was to go out and win one game. And we had won a game before -- or, should I say, a lot of games. So we just simplified it, as opposed to looking at it like, "We're down, 2 games to 1."

Video: ALCS Gm1: Jeter makes spectacular play on grounder

Starting with Jorge Posada, would you share your thoughts on a few of the guys you were closest with on that team?

Jorge's like a brother to me. We were together every day for 17 years. He's my closest friend in the game.

Tino Martinez.

Tino was intense. He expected a lot of himself, and he was a gamer. I'm still close with him today.

Andy Pettitte.

We were teammates for the first time when I was 18 years old, and we came up together. If I had to choose one guy to pitch a big game, he would always be at the top of my list.

Tim Raines.

He made baseball fun. He taught me that regardless of how many games you play or how you're playing, you have to enjoy yourself. No one had more fun than Tim Raines.

Mariano Rivera.

The best. Mo's another guy I was teammates with when I was 18 years old. When you talk about someone who dominated a position, he's the first guy you think of. He's the best to ever do what he did.

And, lastly, Bernie Williams.

Oh, Bernie. What can I say? I'm trying to think of the best way to put this into words. He was as carefree as a player could possibly be. He certainly cared, but it seemed as if he was never aware of the magnitude of a game. He was just out there playing baseball.

Do you feel that the '98 team's win total of 114 games plus 11 more in the postseason -- against just 50 losses -- adds to the lore of what the club accomplished that season?

We did something that no team had ever done, winning 125 games. And, quite frankly, I don't think another team will ever do that. We were 75 games over .500. To win that many games, and to also dominate the postseason the way we did, is pretty difficult to do. I can't imagine that it will ever happen again.

Among all of the things you accomplished in the game, where does having a major role on that team rank?

I'm most proud of being on championship teams. That's why you play the game. Any time you win a championship, it's special. When I'm asked to rank the championship teams I played on, it's like being asked to pick your favorite child when you have kids. But as far as the championships we won, the first one in 1996 was special simply because it was the first one. The 1998 team was the best team I have ever been on.

The 1998 team is often compared to some of the other greatest teams in professional sports history. How would you rank what the '98 Yankees accomplished against what teams like the 1927 Murderers' Row Yankees, the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins and the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls team that compiled a 72-10 record did?

It's difficult to debate teams from different sports and different eras. The 1972 Miami Dolphins are the measuring stick for all great football teams. That Chicago Bulls team dominated like no other basketball team ever has. And the 1927 Yankees probably had the best lineup of all time. We had to go through three rounds of playoffs, and that was really tough. Just look at the Seattle Mariners, who won 116 regular season games in 2001, but didn't even get to the World Series. You asked me, so I will say that we had the best team. Of course, I'm a little biased. Either way, just to be included in that conversation is good enough.

You're much more gracious when answering that question than some of your former teammates on the '98 team.

Well, I know how difficult it is to play baseball every day and to win as many games as we did, but I don't know how hard it is to play in the NFL or the NBA. If you ask guys who played on that Dolphins team or on that Bulls team the same question, I'm sure they would tell you that it was more difficult to accomplish what they did, and I understand that.

When your infant daughter, Bella, is older, and the conversation about the 1998 team comes up, what is the most important thing you'll share with her?

That we came to work every single day, and that every person on that team held each other accountable. We were a group that never made excuses. We had a mindset that every team and every business wants to have. People talk about the importance of everyone on a team being on the same page, but in reality, that is really hard to do. If everyone on that team wasn't on the same page, we were as close to that as could be.

This interview is part of a season-long series of Q&A's with the 1998 Yankees and has been edited for clarity and length.

Alfred Santasiere III is the editor-in-chief of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the July 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: Peace and Prosperity

Yankees relief ace Chad Green is known for his high heat and low heartbeat. How did this former starter become one of the Yankees' most valuable relievers?
Yankees Magazine

Chad Green arrived at Yankee Stadium for the 2017 American League Wild Card Game anticipating his first taste of postseason baseball as a Major Leaguer. As always, he expected to pitch that evening. Green was the Yankees' top reliever last season, a multi-inning threat boasting a 5-0 record with a 1.83 ERA and a 6.06 strikeout-to-walk ratio that could be described as Mariano-esque. He just didn't expect to pitch in the first inning.

From his seat in the bullpen, Green absorbed the atmosphere synonymous with October baseball in the Bronx -- the pageantry, the tradition, the fervent, sold-out crowd. A kid from Central Illinois on the biggest stage in baseball, Green was living a dream. With Yankees ace Luis Severino on the mound, he thought he had at least five, maybe six innings to settle in and just enjoy the scene. But Severino got knocked around early. A leadoff home run put Minnesota ahead. Pop out. Walk. Another home run. 3-0 Twins. "It's Sevy," Green said to himself. "He'll get out of it."

Chad Green arrived at Yankee Stadium for the 2017 American League Wild Card Game anticipating his first taste of postseason baseball as a Major Leaguer. As always, he expected to pitch that evening. Green was the Yankees' top reliever last season, a multi-inning threat boasting a 5-0 record with a 1.83 ERA and a 6.06 strikeout-to-walk ratio that could be described as Mariano-esque. He just didn't expect to pitch in the first inning.

From his seat in the bullpen, Green absorbed the atmosphere synonymous with October baseball in the Bronx -- the pageantry, the tradition, the fervent, sold-out crowd. A kid from Central Illinois on the biggest stage in baseball, Green was living a dream. With Yankees ace Luis Severino on the mound, he thought he had at least five, maybe six innings to settle in and just enjoy the scene. But Severino got knocked around early. A leadoff home run put Minnesota ahead. Pop out. Walk. Another home run. 3-0 Twins. "It's Sevy," Green said to himself. "He'll get out of it."

Severino then allowed another base hit. The bullpen phone rang. "My heart jumped," Green says months later, reliving the moment. "I thought it could be me. Then I heard my name." A double made it second and third with one out, ending Severino's night and jolting Green into duty.

Green says he threw 10 pitches in the bullpen -- the quickest he had warmed up all season -- but somehow he was ready. With the lights flashing and the crowd roaring, Green struck out Byron Buxton swinging on a 97 mph fastball. He ended the threat one batter later, getting Jason Castro to whiff at a fastball over the outside corner. "I was kind of out there just throwing," Green says. "I knew what was going on -- the magnitude of the situation -- but I didn't understand it until after the game. It all happened so fast."

And yet, with the Yankees' season hanging in the balance, Green was able to slow the game down. He was cool, almost detached. "It kind of felt like an out-of-body experience," he says. He never lost control of the situation. He was poised and prepared. He merely kept calm and threw strikes.

***

Though the bullpen is sometimes labeled a destination for failed starters, not every pitcher can make the transition. It requires a unique mindset to enter a close game in the late innings -- or sometimes in the first inning -- and extinguish a fire. Sure, possessing a fastball in the upper 90s helps. But the ability to maintain your composure is also a vital trait. Chad Green just so happens to possess both characteristics.

"One of Chad's biggest assets is his low heartbeat," says Yankees bullpen coach Mike Harkey. "He rarely gets overly excited or overly down, and that allows him to be a really effective reliever. You can have a bad day one day, but you have to deal with the next day. He has a really good temperament for the job."

Green wasn't always so levelheaded. In high school, his twin brother, Chase, the team's starting shortstop, would sometimes heckle Chad when he was on the mound. More often than not, Green would mutter something under his breath, but there were the occasional outbursts. "One time I told him to throw strikes," Chase remembers, "and he stepped off the mound and said, 'What do you think I'm trying to do?' I will say that I'm probably one of the few people able to get under his skin."

Chad is three minutes older and over half a foot taller than Chase. Growing up in Effingham, Illinois, a welcoming Midwestern town nestled between St. Louis and Indianapolis, their lives revolved around sports. Hoops. Baseball. Didn't matter as long as the twins could compete against each other. They would turn a game of catch into a death match. But there were benefits to their sibling rivalry: The Green twins pushed each other to strive for greatness. Both Chad and Chase played four years of basketball and baseball at Effingham High School. Both were promoted to varsity baseball as sophomores. Steel sharpens steel, as the saying goes.

Effingham High School baseball coach Chris Fleener lived directly across the street from "The Boys," as he called Chad and Chase. Fleener held some basic tenets about the game. No throwing helmets. Don't hang your head. No pouting. Stay humble. Don't give opponents any bulletin board material. Chad fit right in.

Fleener remembers the scouts first descending upon Effingham toward the end of Chad's junior season. They were soon a regular presence at Green's starts. "One time his senior year there were 12 scouts watching him in the bullpen, and one scout put the radar gun right on him," Fleener says. "They were standing behind him, beside him, watching everything he was doing, and it never bothered him one bit. He kept his composure and never let that get to his head. He just stayed confident and poised with his body."

Green went 9-2 with a 2.33 ERA as a junior and led Effingham to a regional title. The following year, he led the Flaming Hearts to another regional title with an identical 9-2 record and a 1.62 ERA. He was also a threat with the stick, batting .455 with nine homers and 46 RBI as a senior. Chase remembers a rivalry game during their junior year against Teutopolis where Chad, a left-handed batter, hit a walk-off grand slam off Derek Thompson, a southpaw hurler drafted by the Rangers in 2013. "It was like no big deal to him," Chase says. "Chad had that quiet confidence about him. You would never know it, but I think he knew that he could be special, and it showed."

The Toronto Blue Jays selected Green in the 37th round of the 2010 MLB draft, but he opted to enroll at the University of Louisville. Around this time, he realized that he could have a future as a professional ballplayer. He transformed his body during a grueling six-week training program the summer prior to his freshman year that Louisville head coach Dan McDonnell dubbed "The Combine." Green worked his way up from being a spot starter and reliever as a freshman to a Friday night starter during his junior year when he went 10-4 with a 2.42 ERA in 1041/3 innings pitched.

"You knew what you were getting when you flipped that guy the ball," McDonnell says of Green. "He's one of those guys I call 'Punch the Clock.' There are a lot of people who work hard, and they don't get paid unless they punch the clock. They punch in, they do their work, and they punch out. This dude punched the clock every day. Three years of no issues off the field, no drama, nothing. He just showed up, did his work, and did it right. That was Chad Green."

***

The Detroit Tigers selected Green in the 11th round of the 2013 MLB draft. He made 23 starts in Single-A in 2014 and 27 starts at Double-A the following season before a December 2015 trade to the Yankees altered his career. He began 2016 as a starter with the Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, posting a sparkling 1.22 ERA that earned him a promotion to the Bronx. But he was knocked around in eight big-league starts, going 2-4 with a 5.94 ERA. Entering Spring Training in 2017, Green was a long shot for the Yankees' rotation. His name was often mentioned as part of the team's "organizational depth" at the position, and once again he found himself relegated to the Minors when the Yankees broke camp.

Just like in 2016, he was promoted early on, but this time he thrived -- albeit in a different role. In his first seven appearances pitching out of the Yankees' bullpen, Green allowed three earned runs in 162⁄3 innings. Initially a long reliever, Green soon developed into a weapon who could be deployed in any situation and at any point in a game -- even in the first inning of an elimination game.

So what changed?

Moving to the bullpen allowed Green to phase out his secondary pitches and focus on this strength: his four-seam fastball. Launched in the high 90s with late life, Green can locate the pitch anywhere in the strike zone. Analytics point to his high spin rate -- last season Green placed 26th out of the 498 pitchers who threw at least 100 fastballs, according to BaseballSavant -- for his ability to produce so many swings and misses; a fastball with high spin rate stays up in the zone longer than a hitter expects. In the past this was called a "rising fastball" even though the ball does not defy gravity. Now it's referred to as having "good fastball characteristics." Green, however, credits his mental approach for his breakout 2017.

Video: AL WC: Green fans Buxton, Castro in big spot

"Last year was just being more comfortable up here," he says. "When I pitched in 2016, it was like, 'Oh man, if I throw two or three innings, that probably means I'm going down to Triple-A.' To be able to get more comfortable, have more confidence, I think played a role. I think them having more faith in me, just the mental aspect I think played a bigger role than the [mechanical] part."

Green punctuated his breakout season with his performance in the Wild Card Game, yet there were questions about his role entering Spring Training this year. Yankees management told Green to prepare to start, which didn't alter Green's preparation much since he had always gone into Spring Training with that mentality. Yet after watching him closely, new manager Aaron Boone believed that Green's talents remained best utilized out of the 'pen. "I think it became evident just how dynamic he's become as a bullpen guy," Boone says. "And with our starters doing what they were supposed to be doing, I think that made it an easy decision for us."

When asked if there was anything Green could have done in Spring Training to earn a spot in the rotation, Boone replies, "I don't know."

Whether Green considers himself a starter or a reliever is a bit more complicated.

"I think that everyone that's been a starter thinks …" he begins to say before trailing off. He pauses before continuing. "I like being in the bullpen. I like where I'm at. I like the role I'm being used in right now. But I like the aspect of pitching every fifth day and getting those four days off to recover, to throw bullpens knowing exactly when you are pitching. But as a bullpen guy, I like showing up to the ballpark every day knowing I have a chance to pitch that day. So there's things with both I like and things I dislike."

***

The big topic of conversation amongst relievers in late May was the Tampa Bay Rays' use of veteran closer Sergio Romo as a starter in back-to-back games against the Los Angeles Angels and then, a week later, in two games against the Baltimore Orioles. Green understands the strategy behind utilizing "an opener," as the tactic has been dubbed, but he doesn't think it would work over the course of a season. "There are reasons there are starters and relievers," he says. Green is a big believer in established roles and routine.

As for his own role in the bullpen, for now he occupies a nebulous position -- not a closer or eighth-inning guy, but not necessarily a long man. "Chad probably has the most widespread role," says Boone, who compares Green's fastball to that of former Nationals closer Chad Cordero. "There are going to be nights where we bring him in in the fifth inning looking to get multiple innings out of him where he shuts down the middle of the game. There are going to be nights where he becomes the primary set-up guy or the seventh-inning guy. Because of his ability to get both righties and lefties out, there is no matchup we really shy away from with Greeny."

No matter when Green has taken the ball this season, he has thrived, going 4-0 with a 1.95 ERA through mid-June. And as if it weren't apparent from last season's Wild Card Game, Green is comfortable in pressure situations. He has limited opponents to a .071 batting average (1-for-14) in at-bats with two outs and runners in scoring position. "I think he enjoys coming in in really big situations and shutting the ballgame down," says Dellin Betances, another converted starter who has found success in the bullpen. "He's excelled at that. He's pretty nasty, I'd say."

Green still sees room for improvement. He senses hitters cheating on his fastball and knows the best counter to that is a more consistent slider. He is still a work in progress. Secondary pitches must be refined. He strives to improve his numbers in the second inning of work. In the meantime though, he will do whatever he's called upon to do, whether it's entering the game in the first, the fifth or the 15th inning. He will fling that nasty four-seamer with its high spin rate. He will get swings and misses. He will strand runners. And through it all, he will keep his cool. And who knows, maybe he ends up as a starting pitcher -- preferably a real starter, and not "an opener."

Thomas Golianopoulos is the associate editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the July 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, Chad Green

Yankees Magazine: Tough Love

In his heart, Justus Sheffield knows he can compete at the big league level. His tight-knit family has made sure of it
Yankees Magazine

As soon as Masahiro Tanaka ducked out of the visitors' dugout at Citi Field on June 8, having pulled both his hamstrings while tagging up from third base in a 4-1 win over the Mets, Justus Sheffield's name came up. With Jordan Montgomery having undergone Tommy John surgery one day earlier, two-fifths of the Yankees' season-opening rotation was now injured. Attention turned toward PNC Field, 137 miles away in Moosic, Pennsylvania, where Sheffield -- the top-ranked pitching prospect in the Yankees' farm system -- was toeing the rubber for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders. Making his sixth start there after being promoted from Double-A Trenton on May 4, Sheffield tossed six innings of one-hit ball, allowing two unearned runs while striking out eight Louisville Bats -- including former Yankees outfielder Mason Williams twice -- to pick up his first Triple-A win.

Needless to say, there was plenty of chatter in the days that followed about when -- not if -- Sheffield would get the call to the big leagues. But the Yankees demurred, saying that Sheffield needed to polish his game before it was ready for The Show. When Tanaka's turn in the rotation came up again, the Yankees summoned right-hander Jonathan Loaisiga, a 23-year-old Nicaragua native whose shoulder woes caused him to miss all of 2014 and 2015 and who had never pitched above Double-A -- but who, unlike Sheffield, was already on the Yankees' 40-man roster.

As soon as Masahiro Tanaka ducked out of the visitors' dugout at Citi Field on June 8, having pulled both his hamstrings while tagging up from third base in a 4-1 win over the Mets, Justus Sheffield's name came up. With Jordan Montgomery having undergone Tommy John surgery one day earlier, two-fifths of the Yankees' season-opening rotation was now injured. Attention turned toward PNC Field, 137 miles away in Moosic, Pennsylvania, where Sheffield -- the top-ranked pitching prospect in the Yankees' farm system -- was toeing the rubber for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders. Making his sixth start there after being promoted from Double-A Trenton on May 4, Sheffield tossed six innings of one-hit ball, allowing two unearned runs while striking out eight Louisville Bats -- including former Yankees outfielder Mason Williams twice -- to pick up his first Triple-A win.

Needless to say, there was plenty of chatter in the days that followed about when -- not if -- Sheffield would get the call to the big leagues. But the Yankees demurred, saying that Sheffield needed to polish his game before it was ready for The Show. When Tanaka's turn in the rotation came up again, the Yankees summoned right-hander Jonathan Loaisiga, a 23-year-old Nicaragua native whose shoulder woes caused him to miss all of 2014 and 2015 and who had never pitched above Double-A -- but who, unlike Sheffield, was already on the Yankees' 40-man roster.

If Sheffield was bummed out, he didn't show it. He merely did what he has always done -- he went to work preparing for his next start so that when his number was called again, he would be ready to compete. Whether that start would be in the Majors or the Minors was not up to him, and Sheffield knows all too well that, for better or worse, he can only control the things that he is responsible for.

***

It's winter, a couple weeks before Spring Training, and the Sheffield boys are back home in Tullahoma, Tennessee. Jordan Sheffield, 11 months older than Justus and a right-handed starter in the Dodgers' organization, spots an open barrel outside the fieldhouse at Tullahoma High School, about 30 feet away. He scoops up a handful of snow, forms it into a tightly packed ball and lofts it toward the barrel, a perfect Steph Curry rainbow.

Swish. Jaxon Sheffield, the youngest of the three brothers -- and the most athletically gifted, according to Justus and Jordan -- has a big basketball game coming up that evening against a rival middle school team. He tries to match Jordan's shot, but to no avail.

Of course, Justus has to get in on the action. He reaches down for some white stuff, packs it into a sphere and quickly locks in on his target like it's a catcher's mitt. With that golden left arm of his -- the one that fools batters by mixing a mid-90s fastball with a slider and change-up that both sit in the 80s -- he lobs a snowball in the sky and watches as it arcs majestically toward the barrel.

Splat. Justus's snowball falls short, smashing into a million pieces on the blacktop, and his reaction -- one single word that would probably get him in trouble if he were still a student here -- pretty much sums up the fraternal fire that has been burning since he and Jordan were in diapers.

The first thing you need to know about the Sheffields is that they are a baseball family. No, former Yankees right fielder Gary Sheffield is not related. But Justus's cousin, Tony Sheffield, whom the young Yankees prospect considers an uncle, was a second-round pick of the Red Sox in 1992. And while all three boys excelled in multiple sports, their earliest sports memories revolve around hitting rocks into the fields adjacent to their home and intense games of catch with their father, Travis.

"My wife played softball, and then my side of the family is baseball gung-ho through and through, so the boys didn't really have a choice -- when they were born, they were going to play ball," Travis says.

Teaching his boys the fundamentals of baseball was important to Travis, and if he saw young Justus was cutting corners, the father let him know that it was unacceptable, "to the point that tears would come up, and he'd be like, 'Well, I'm going in the house!'" But mother Misty wasn't having it, either. She'd march Justus right back outside with instructions to practice harder.

"I think that's probably how we started throwing so hard," Jordan says. "Playing catch outside with our dad, getting mad, and just letting it rip."

Jordan was a grade ahead, so Justus had to raise his game to keep up. By the time Jordan got to high school, he was being talked about as the "stud athlete," but Justus knew he could compete with the older kids -- and he'd soon get a chance to prove it.

It was a road game in Knoxville in 2011. Justus was in the outfield, and Jordan, a sophomore, was on the mound facing Farragut High's Nicky Delmonico -- who would be drafted by the Orioles that June and is now an outfielder for the White Sox. "It was my first time starting varsity, so I was already nervous before the game," Justus recalls. "He hit a shot to the wall, and I made a sick, diving catch. I think we ended up turning two, doubled the guy up at first, and I couldn't even believe I made the play."

With that confidence booster, Justus's prep career took off. He dazzled in the field and at the plate, and when coach Brad White handed him the ball once a week or so, Sheffield discovered he could get the job done on the mound, too.

"The thing that stuck out about him was how competitive he was -- but he had to be, growing up in the house he did with a big brother who's so talented," White says. "Jordan was the more athletic guy and had all the accolades. He overshadowed Justus, and I think that made Justus a lot better because he had to work harder."

As a sophomore, Justus came into his own as a pitcher, going 9-0 with a 0.79 ERA and striking out 96 batters in 53 innings. "That's when I realized, dang, I could actually go to college, actually start doing something with this," Justus says. "I started working out, quit football, quit basketball, just started focusing on baseball, working harder."

That hard work extended to the classroom, where in four years at Tullahoma, Justus received only one grade lower than an A. (He thinks it was in personal finance.) Part of his motivation at first was that Travis and Misty had a rule: If you bring home a C, you lose all privileges -- no phone, no friends, no video games -- for nine weeks. But for Justus, it went deeper than that.

"Everybody expected him just to be an athlete, and a lot of people think athletes are not very smart or they can't compete academically," Misty says. "I think that really bothered Justus and probably drove him to prove people wrong."

As he developed into a legitimate pitching prospect on the baseball field, Justus was maturing off of it, too. Which made the night of Jan. 11, 2015, that much more shocking.

***

"I wanted to kill him," Justus's mother says. The entire family has just finished up a hearty home-cooked meal courtesy of Misty's parents, Harold and Sandy Holloway, who live next door to the Sheffields. Sandy's savory Southern cooking -- chicken and dressing, baked ham, mashed potatoes -- coupled with sweet tea and Harold's banana pie for dessert elicits smiles and talks of naps, and when the elders are asked about Justus and Jordan's rise, the feeling of love in the room is palpable.

"I'm just an old, poor country boy -- had to work my whole life and still do. For them to have the opportunities they have now and see them work for it, it's really amazing," Harold says. "But even if Justus wasn't in baseball, I'm so proud of him because he's turned out to be a super, wonderful grandson. I couldn't want no one different. He's near perfect."

Like any teen, Misty's son had done a couple knucklehead things in high school. There was the time that he had broken a team rule on a Saturday and had to complete 25 miles worth of running if he wanted to pitch in a district game that Tuesday. (He did.)

But this was different. How many times had Travis sat his boys in the barber chair in their garage and warned them about the three lures that get young men into trouble: the car keys, the perfume and the alcohol. Those "deadly sins" had converged to sway Justus into making a bad decision. It could have been worse, but now that he was a professional baseball player, it garnered widespread attention. The Associated Press reported:

Cleveland Indians minor league pitcher and recent first-round draft pick Justus Sheffield was arrested on charges of aggravated burglary and violating the drinking-age law.

The arrest warrant provided by the Coffee County General Sessions Court said the 18-year-old Sheffield entered a residence in Tullahoma on Sunday without the owner's consent.

The warrant says Sheffield "went to the bedroom of an acquaintance and began yelling and threatening the victim."

The warrant also says Sheffield acknowledged that he'd been drinking. He was released after posting $5,500 bond.

The AP went on to list some of Sheffield's baseball accomplishments and note -- erroneously -- that he was "the nephew of former All-Star outfielder Gary Sheffield." The charge was reduced to criminal trespass and eventually expunged from his record, but, Sheffield says, "That was definitely the hardest thing, the hardest obstacle, I had to overcome."

The previous year and a half had been like a dream. As a junior, Justus had led Tullahoma to its first state tournament in eight years and committed to play at national powerhouse Vanderbilt, where his brother was headed. He was nominated for the 2013 Gatorade National Player of the Year Award, which went to a kid from Loganville, Georgia, named Clint Frazier. As a senior, Sheffield was Homecoming King, Mr. Popular. "He would say 'Hi' to everybody in the hallway," recalls the school librarian, Mrs. Holliday. "It didn't matter if you were a freshman or you were a senior; he just enjoyed life."

On June 4, 2014, after finishing 10-0 with a 0.34 ERA, Sheffield was surprised to walk into school one day and find former big leaguer Trot Nixon along with a camera crew from MLB Network. Nixon, it turned out, was there to present Sheffield with the Gatorade National Player of the Year Award -- the first time it had gone to a player from Tennessee. Seeing his name on that trophy with the likes of Alex Rodriguez, Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw and, yes, Gary Sheffield -- "It was incredible," Sheffield says. "One of my biggest accomplishments."

Two weeks later, when the Indians made Sheffield the 31st overall pick in the draft, he agonized over what to do. He loved Vanderbilt, the coaching staff, and the thought of competing for a College World Series with Jordan. Only twice since 1980 -- CC Sabathia in 1998 and Derek Thompson in 2000 -- had the Indians invested a first-round draft pick on a left-handed high school pitcher. When the Tribe agreed to pay for eight semesters at Vandy at any point in the future -- on top of a $1.6 million signing bonus -- Sheffield decided to go pro.

"In high school, if you said one of them's going to Vanderbilt, one of them's going pro, I think that's easy: Jordan's going pro and Justus is going to Vanderbilt," says White. "But fate intervened and Jordan hurt his elbow and so he went to Vanderbilt, and then Justus did better than what most people thought, which has kind of been the thing all his life, you know? He's not the second kid; he's an equal man in his own right and going to be as successful or more successful [than his brother]."

Now, his skyrocketing career seemed to come crashing down to earth. Seeing his name in the police blotter made Sheffield an easy target for anonymous "fans" online who knew nothing of the young man's character, yet were quick to peg him as some entitled teenager, coddled throughout his athletic career and ill prepared to handle the demands of fortune and modest fame.

He couldn't care less about that, though. Sheffield thought about his brothers, his grandparents, the Indians organization, his teachers, his community -- all the folks that flocked to historic Grider Stadium to cheer him on as he pitched for the Wildcats. Most of all, he thought about his parents. He felt like he let them all down. And he was devastated.

After all they had talked about, of course Travis and Misty were disappointed. But seeing how difficult it was on him was way harder. Their gregarious, warm-hearted son, the one who befriended classmates with developmental disabilities and was asked to lead the town's Christmas parade, shut down.

"Me and my wife kind of felt like we were preparing him for the big picture and then when that happened, I'm not going to say it was a letdown, but it was almost like, 'Justus, man, why? We know you're a whole lot smarter than that,'" Travis says. "But to see what it had done to him for like two or three months -- I mean the dude would never come out of his room; Misty was basically taking him his food upstairs -- just to see the effect that it had on him, it hurt us. It tore us up as a family. Not tore us apart; it probably brought us together, which is crazy to think that something like that would make us stronger, but it did. It really did."

Video: Top Prospects: Justus Sheffield, LHP, Yankees

Embarrassed and ashamed, Justus eventually reached out to White to see if he could work out at the Wildcats' indoor training facility. "Justus, you're always welcome here," White told him. "We love you."

The coach wasn't lying when he said "we." Everywhere the Sheffields went that winter, Tullahomans offered words of support and encouragement that "the incident" was just a youthful mistake.

"Obviously, I wish it never happened, I really do," Justus says, and the emotion in his voice and his eyes back up his claim. "But then again, I'm kind of glad that it did because it was a real eye-opener. It was definitely not a moment I'm proud of, but definitely a moment that I'll never forget, and I'm thankful that I learned from it and overcame it and just got past it. And that was the toughest thing, just getting past it, moving on [from] thinking about what other people would think about me, because that's not me. I'm not that guy. If I could go back and talk to my 18-year-old self, it'd be like, 'Yo, what are you doing? You're being dumb right now. You've got the opportunity of your life right here, and you're going to ruin it.' But you know, I got past it and learned from it and, thank god, I moved on from it."

***

CC Sabathia only has a couple minutes before he needs to leave his locker and go stretch with the other Yankees pitchers. He's happy to answer a reporter's question, but when he learns that the topic is Justus Sheffield, he asks if it can wait.

"Can we do it after stretch? I love that kid. I want to give you a good quote."

The Majors' active strikeouts leader sees a younger version of himself in Sheffield -- a pitcher hungry to be great, willing to do whatever it takes to get there, yet still needing to learn how to properly wield all his tools.

"His stuff is off the charts, he just needs to slow down and make good pitches when he needs to," Sabathia says. "I'd laugh at him in Spring Training. Everybody was saying he had a good spring, but he had some good innings. The first inning of the start would be good, and then he'd get in the dugout and be like, 'I'm striking out the side.' So, that's just being young. We talked about it. But his stuff is there."

The soon-to-be 38-year-old veteran and the 22-year-old soon-to-be big leaguer text often, and Sabathia is confident that when Sheffield does arrive, he'll fit right in. "He's got a great head on his shoulders, he's mature for his age, he's focused, and he knows what he wants to do, so I think he's got a great future ahead of him," he says.

By the time you read this story, Sheffield might have finally gotten the call he has been waiting for. Or, he might still be refining his command in the minor leagues. Heck, some general manager might have wowed Brian Cashman with a deal to pry Sheffield away, just as Cashman did in 2016 when he sent All-Star reliever Andrew Miller to Cleveland for Sheffield, Frazier, Ben Heller and J.P. Feyereisen. In any case, Sheffield will one day soon see his name in a big league box score. Where he goes from there is up to him -- and that's exactly how he wants it to be. He has goals -- not just to be a big leaguer, but to be a great one. An ace. There are other goals, too. But if there is one thing he wishes most of all, one accomplishment that would mean more to him than anything in the world, it would be to take care of the two people most responsible for him getting to this point.

"My mom and dad, they've worked all their lives and are still working hard, just to let us do what we want to do and give us a good Christmas and things like that, make sure we have food on the table, paying for things with the baseball," Sheffield says. "They've done everything for me. My parents were 17, 18 when they had me, so they never really got to experience their 20s like that; they had to raise us, they had to grind, they had to fight. So to get down the road and give them a break and let them enjoy life -- just live and not have to work -- that's the ultimate goal."

His path to the bigs may not be as smoothly paved as it has been for others, but the twists and turns and bumps in the road along the way have provided him with lessons that will surely serve Sheffield well when he gets there. And when he finally arrives, you can bet that his supporters will be there watching.

"I'm excited for that day, that's for sure," Sabathia says. "No matter if I'm still playing or not, I'll be here."

Nathan Maciborski is the executive editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the July 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, Justus Sheffield

Yankees Magazine: Something to Prove

Greg Bird is back to being healthy and productive -- and he's intent on staying here
Yankees Magazine

Greg Bird was in no rush to go anywhere. The first baseman had just completed a morning workout with several of his teammates on a back field at the Yankees' Spring Training complex in Tampa, Florida. The two-hour fielding and batting practice session ended around 11 a.m., just in time for Bird to take refuge from the hot Florida temperatures that were escalating quickly.

For much of the workout, former Yankees first baseman and current Spring Training instructor Tino Martinez -- whose postseason heroics and other accomplishments in pinstripes earned him a plaque in Yankee Stadium's Monument Park in 2014 -- was standing on the same field. He was watching every move Bird made.

Greg Bird was in no rush to go anywhere. The first baseman had just completed a morning workout with several of his teammates on a back field at the Yankees' Spring Training complex in Tampa, Florida. The two-hour fielding and batting practice session ended around 11 a.m., just in time for Bird to take refuge from the hot Florida temperatures that were escalating quickly.

For much of the workout, former Yankees first baseman and current Spring Training instructor Tino Martinez -- whose postseason heroics and other accomplishments in pinstripes earned him a plaque in Yankee Stadium's Monument Park in 2014 -- was standing on the same field. He was watching every move Bird made.

As the players scattered in different directions following the session, Martinez was asked about the team's current first baseman.

"He can man the position very well," the Tampa native said. "But he's a lot more than that. Watching him at the plate, I feel like he's one of the best all-around hitters I've ever seen. He's got a great swing, and he will hit for average and power. He may not get as much attention this season as some other players in the Yankees' lineup, but he will produce."

Bird's sanctuary on this early March day -- like so many other days in Spring Training - was not his air-conditioned apartment, but the team weight room. There, Bird completed his second workout of the day, this one spanning nearly the same amount of time as the team practice.

Afterward, as soon as the 25-year-old arrived in the home dugout for an interview and photo shoot for this story, it became obvious that no topic could dim the optimism he had for both the 2018 season and for the rest of his playing career. Despite a rash of injuries that have kept Bird off the field for more time than he's been on it since his Major League debut in August 2015, the first baseman's outlook seemed virtually unaffected. Bird acknowledged that he had some bad luck, but he was also able to put things in perspective.

"Being hurt is no fun," said Bird, who missed the entire 2016 season following surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder and was then forced to sit out for nearly four months in 2017 with an ankle injury that required surgery. "I felt like I let my teammates down, and when you're not playing, you're really anxious to get back. But as tough as it was, I never felt like I couldn't go on to have a long and healthy career in the Majors."

Like the interview for this story, most conversations Bird has had with reporters over the past two years have included questions about his health -- or lack thereof. Knowing that having to talk about how his body feels on a daily basis is as much a part of the comeback trail as physical therapy, Bird realized that adopting a carefree attitude about it was essential to his peace of mind.

"At first, I got caught up in it more than I should have," he said. "When you're being asked the same questions all the time, and you're constantly telling people that you want to stay healthy and that you want to be out there for a whole season, you get to a point where you feel like you can only say those things in so many ways. But now, it's at a point where I just say that I'm going to do my best to stay out there. It's just about letting it happen now."

Unfortunately for Bird, the injury bug bit him again a few days before the end of Spring Training. After experiencing discomfort in his right ankle, he was sent to New York for an MRI that revealed a bone spur, which required a procedure that would sideline him for nearly the first two months of the season.

"This injury was really difficult to deal with mentally," Bird said after returning to the big league lineup on May 26. "I was hoping to ride the momentum from the end of last season and just keep it going this season. So, to end up being in what has been a familiar place -- rehabbing an injury in Tampa -- was hard."

But just as he remained confident when dealing with more significant injuries over the last two seasons, Bird did the same this time around.

"The more time that goes on after I'm healthy, the less significant all of these injuries will seem," Bird said. "I'm sure that, like it does in other situations, time will help me put this far behind me."

Bird's performance last season -- albeit in a minimal amount of time -- helped him remain optimistic about this season.

Bird was activated on Aug. 26, 2017, after missing 103 games. Although he had not faced Major League pitching since early May, he collected 22 hits and eight home runs down the stretch.

"That was an important time for me," Bird said. "I had a feeling that we were going to make a run and that the games in August and September were going to be important. My main goal was to contribute, but I was also able to use that time to prepare for the postseason."

Bird proved to be ready for his first extended playoff run. He collected an RBI single and a walk in the Yankees' come-from-behind victory over Minnesota in the American League Wild Card game. A few nights later, he hit a two-run homer in Game 2 of the AL Division Series against Cleveland. Although the outcome of that contest didn't go the Yankees' way, falling behind in that series and being able to rally back by winning three consecutive elimination games was an experience that Bird believes was invaluable for him and his teammates.

"The biggest difference between those games and the regular season is that you have to be able to focus on the task at hand and nothing else," Bird said. "You can't think about yesterday or tomorrow. You can't even think about the next inning. You have to focus completely on the pitch that is about to be thrown. At first, it was easy to get caught up in all of the other things going on, but I tried to focus on nothing but what I needed to do in the moment.

"Everything that happened against Cleveland, you take with you," he continued. "It taught me that you have to be mentally tough. I like to experience things like that and learn from them. Going through that series will definitely help me and all of our other young players. As a group, we pay attention to what we need to do, and we help each other. You could really see that happening during the ALDS."

The Yankees' comeback may not have happened without Bird's Game 3 heroics. After Cleveland starter Carlos Carrasco matched zeros with Masahiro Tanaka for 5 2⁄3 innings, Indians skipper Terry Francona turned to All-Star relief pitcher Andrew Miller, who had been acquired from the Yankees in 2016. Leading off the seventh inning, Bird deposited the left-handed Miller's third pitch into the right-field seats, giving the Yankees a 1-0 lead. The normally stoic first baseman erupted in emotion as he rounded the bases and celebrated with his teammates in the dugout.

"That was a crazy night," Bird said. "We were having fun out there, and we wanted to be able to keep playing. When your team is facing elimination, anything you can do to help is exciting. The excitement that came out just happened spontaneously. That was as thrilling as anything I had ever done on the baseball diamond."

The Yankees' bullpen kept Cleveland off the board, securing the 1-0 victory. And after defeating the Indians in Games 4 and 5, Bird and his teammates advanced to the American League Championship Series. Playing in 13 postseason games made for a memorable experience.

"For me and a lot of guys on our team, there's not been anything like last October," Bird said. "It's something that I'll never forget. For the most part, we were just a bunch of kids out there playing ball, and it was a lot of fun. When you get to experience a time like that with a group of people you get along with so well, it makes it that much more special."

While the journey was enjoyable, the team's ultimate destiny - losing to the Houston Astros in Game 7 of the ALCS -- left Bird with bittersweet feelings as fall turned to winter.

"Losing stunk," Bird said. "Especially when you're one win away from the World Series, it's really tough to deal with. But when you get that close, the relationships among players get stronger. We were really proud of what we accomplished last season, but at the end of the day, we're competitive, and we wanted to be in the World Series. I was able to get over it pretty quickly, and I feel that a lot of the players shared the same mentality. We hated losing, but we were all anxious to get going again. In the end, I think coming so close and losing actually made us a stronger team."

Once Bird flew away from New York City for the offseason, he wasted little time in preparing for 2018.

"From about mid-November to the end of December, I only did weight training and some physical therapy," Bird said. "The physical therapy was not to rehab any injuries, but just to get stronger. After the new year, I started hitting and throwing, while still working out four times a week and doing physical therapy three times a week. The big emphasis for me this offseason was getting stronger and quicker and basically just being ready to hit the ground running at the start of Spring Training.

"This past offseason was more normal compared to the last few," Bird continued. "I wasn't dealing with rehabbing my shoulder or ankle. I was instead able to figure out what I needed to work on and really fine-tune those things. I was able to build off of where I was when the season ended."

Now that Bird is back to full health, he's hoping to settle into the role he has long coveted: everyday first baseman. If he can stay on the field and continue to improve, it's easy to imagine Bird reaching the high ceiling the organization believes he has.

When the Yankees selected the 6-foot-4, left-handed power hitter in the fifth round of the 2011 draft, the idea of him launching baseballs into Yankee Stadium's short porch in right field excited the organization's brass. And although Bird has played in just over 100 games since his 2015 debut, his propensity to hit the baseball in the air as opposed to on the ground has only added to the anticipation of seeing what he is capable of over an extended period of time.

According to Fangraphs.com, Bird hit ground balls only 30.2 percent of the time he made contact in 2017. That percentage was eighth-lowest in the Majors among players who had at least 150 at-bats.

"I think your sport finds you when you're young," said Bird. "And then, if you're lucky, the right team finds you when you're a little older. This team and this organization fits me really well. When I was growing up, I would have never guessed that I'd be playing for the Yankees. I wasn't a fan of the team growing up, but I always appreciated their tradition. Since I've been here, I've realized that there is no better place to play. The more I'm around this team, the more I just smile because it fits me."

Beyond the confines of Yankee Stadium, the humble ballplayer, who was born in Tennessee and moved to Colorado when he was 10, has also discovered a love for the Big Apple.

"Living in New York City is what I have enjoyed most since coming up to the big leagues," Bird said. "I didn't really enjoy spending time in cities when I was younger. They seemed too big and too crowded, and there was too much going on. But living in New York City and spending time there has been awesome. New Yorkers care what you do, and they keep you honest. That's something that's important in sports. You have to always understand that there's a way you have to carry yourself on the field and off the field. Fans in New York City hold you to that standard. There are no days off, and I like that."

After going 0-for-4 in his first game back this season, Bird put together a seven-game hitting streak that included two home runs, three doubles and his first career triple. In those games, the Yankees went 6-1. For Bird, hopefully it was just the beginning.

When made aware of Tino Martinez's comments about him in Spring Training a few months earlier, Bird smiled during an early June interview in Toronto.

"It was an honor for him to say that," Bird said. "I have so much respect for Tino and what he accomplished. It's comforting when you hear someone who played the game for as long and as well as he did giving you a compliment. Now, I have to go out and prove it."

Alfred Santasiere III is the editor-in-chief of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the July 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, Greg Bird

Yankees Magazine: The Understudy

Austin Romine may be producing like an All-Star, but he knows his role on the 2018 Yankees
Yankees Magazine

Let's stipulate for the record: there's no way Paul O'Neill meant anything negative. It's just … well, you understand. There's a real paradox in talking about what Austin Romine has been able to accomplish so far this season. Any praise that takes context into account almost has to come off as backhanded.

Entering this season, Romine was a .220 career hitter over parts of six seasons. He had a lifetime OPS+ of 54, meaning he was about 46 percent worse than the average hitter in the Majors. Yet on June 12, after a fifth-inning single raised Romine's batting average to .354 on the year, O'Neill tried to sum up the catcher's hot start. "Certain guys," O'Neill said on the PIX 11 broadcast, "are built for certain roles, and Austin Romine is built for the role of a backup catcher."

Let's stipulate for the record: there's no way Paul O'Neill meant anything negative. It's just … well, you understand. There's a real paradox in talking about what Austin Romine has been able to accomplish so far this season. Any praise that takes context into account almost has to come off as backhanded.

Entering this season, Romine was a .220 career hitter over parts of six seasons. He had a lifetime OPS+ of 54, meaning he was about 46 percent worse than the average hitter in the Majors. Yet on June 12, after a fifth-inning single raised Romine's batting average to .354 on the year, O'Neill tried to sum up the catcher's hot start. "Certain guys," O'Neill said on the PIX 11 broadcast, "are built for certain roles, and Austin Romine is built for the role of a backup catcher."

Which is fine, except, what does that really imply? Forget, for a second, that Romine will almost certainly see his numbers trend back toward the mean at some point. What O'Neill seems to be saying is that the Yankees' backup catcher -- and reality is reality; Romine is perfectly clear about his status as Gary Sanchez's backup -- would be an asset to any roster. But surely the catcher has greater aspirations. No actor on Broadway dreams of being a fill-in.

It's an impossible role, and pitchers who work with Romine marvel at the way he is able to stay consistent and precise despite such variability in his routine. Romine generally catches Sonny Gray's starts, and after an offseason adjustment in which he adopted a closed batting stance that has led to greater production at the plate, Romine has been seeing his name in the lineup more than anyone expected. And in between games of two back-to-back starts in mid-June, he chatted -- clear-eyed, confident and occasionally pugnacious -- with Yankees deputy editor Jon Schwartz about the intricacies and dueling ambitions of baseball's most challenging job.

You're starting today. How is your role different than it would be on a day you're not starting?

Today is going to be a little more relaxed. I'm still going to do my work, but I won't hit as much. I won't do as many drills, catching-wise or receiving. It's more along the lines of making sure I'm ready -- watching video, watching hitters. I was fortunate enough to catch last night, so this is a really cool thing for me, because now I have the hitters fresh in my mind. I know how I want to attack them, I know how the pitcher's stuff is going to line up.

But on days when I'm not playing, there's going to be a lot of hitting. More work, almost to the point where you're getting tired. You've got to work on those days off so that it bridges the gap until you play again. Because if you just take off, you get tight.

When you're not in the lineup, what are you doing during the game?

It switches. I will be in the video room watching, going over hitting, watching how our starter that day is pitching, so if something happens and I have to go into a game, I don't disrupt the rhythm that the pitcher had with the catcher -- how they're trying to work, how they're trying to get hitters out. I'll also go out onto the railing and be a good teammate, I guess. Root for everybody hitting. But I'm still watching. I'm watching how their guy's pitching. I'm watching how our guy's pitching. It's a lot of staying with the game, staying in the moment, thinking about situations, calling pitches in my head. It used to be just watching; now it's more dissecting the game, just in case I go in, or maybe if I catch that third game in the series or the fourth game of the series, I want to be sure I'm ready for everything.

So if Aaron Boone says to you, "Austin, get up, you're going in to catch," are you ready right away? Or do you have to chat with Gary or pitching coach Larry Rothschild or any of the coaches?

No, there's not much talking. Maybe Larry, to go over the hitters at hand, know what he thinks. But for the most part, I'm ready. I know how I want to attack the hitters. I know who's throwing. I have stretched -- you stretch throughout the game. Third, fifth, seventh innings, you want to make sure that you're still stretching. I'll hit during the game [in the cage] just to stay loose -- or in case I get bored. It's a long time, watching a lot of games as a backup player. You've got to make sure you're hitting and staying loose. So I'll go in there and hit if I'm thinking about something. It helps just in case they say, "Hey, Ro, you're catching," or "Hey, Ro, you've got the last inning."

What's harder, going in cold to catch or going in cold to hit?

I'd say hitting. Because that timing has to be so quick. You've got to go from the bench to hitting upper 90s. It's a tough thing to do. I have a tremendous amount of respect for pinch-hitters. I think it's unbelievable how some guys are good at that.

You get used to catching; you can anticipate. You know what pitch is coming. Hitting can be pretty difficult.

After one of your at-bats last night, TV announcer Paul O'Neill said, "Certain guys are built for certain roles, and Austin Romine is built for the role of a backup catcher." He meant it as a compliment. But does that feel backhanded at all?

I'm not going to start anything with Paulie. I think it's a compliment.

I'm certain that he meant it as a compliment. But do you take it as a compliment?

I don't really take it as anything. I don't worry about what people say. I appreciate him saying that. I think, and I hope, he meant it in a good way. But nobody wants to consider himself a backup. Everybody wants to start. But I think it's a great thing to say -- for a while there, I was an automatic out. An up-and-down guy from Triple-A to the big leagues. To say that I've solidified myself in the eyes of a guy who was an unbelievable player, I think it definitely was a compliment. I have to take it that way.

You know as well as anyone, it takes way more than nine guys, or even 25 guys, to win at this level. But you're a freak hamstring pull away from being the starting catcher for the best team in baseball. Do you ever let yourself think about that?

You can't. Because if you think about it the other way, I'm also a freak injury away from not being on the team. You don't worry about that. I know that going forward, we need Gary Sanchez to win a World Series. It's a given. He's an All-Star. He's a great hitter. He has an unbelievable arm. He can catch. We need him moving forward. I would never even entertain that idea. There's too many people in here who are working really hard for anybody to think about themselves.

I'm just here if they need me. I understand my role. And I'm just trying to do it the best I can because I see a bunch of guys working their [butts] off.

There are some kids probably coming to the game tonight in their Gary Sanchez shirseys. They might not be thrilled to see Austin Romine in the lineup. Do you take that as a challenge?

No. Not at all. I'm just here to play. I worried too much early in my career about what people thought, or what people said. I really just don't care anymore. I'm here to play hard for my guys, make sure my pitchers get through innings clean. Everybody's got families that they're providing for. I'm here to do my job. I have a hell of a time doing it. I have a blast. I'm one of the guys that has the most fun when I'm playing. But we're here to do a job. We're here to win. We're here to make sure people do well, so that they can make as much money as they can in this game.

What expectations do you have of yourself?

Just to be consistent. I just want to be as consistent as possible. The one thing that sticks out in my mind -- there are superstars, and there are guys that are really good at baseball, and then it kind of goes down from there. The guys that are really good at baseball - unlike the guys that are born with just crazy talent - their consistency sticks out. Every day, they're consistent with their swings, they're consistent with their emotions and their play. I'm striving for consistency on a daily basis. I'm just trying to be as consistent as I can be for as long as I can. Because I know that that's going to help our team win more games.

Video: NYY@DET: Romine crushes a 3-run jack to left-center

I've spoken to some guys in this room who say that you have the toughest job on the team as the No. 2 catcher because you have to be ready for absolutely everything.

You have to be. It's part of the job. And getting a little older, I've learned how to focus on the stuff I need to focus on, rather than everything that can get overwhelming. Tough? Not to me. I'm just here to do my job, and it's all part of it. Going in a game late? I'm used to that. It's all I've known.

Do you see yourself as a No. 1 catcher?

I think everybody sees himself as a No. 1 player -- you have to in this game. Even backup infielders, that's the type of mentality you have to have in order to succeed. Because it's so cutthroat - there's four or five guys behind me who want my job. So you have to put yourself in that state of mind, that I am the best at what I do. Whether you are or you aren't, you need that mentality to push you to be better. Because if you're complacent or you like where you're at, that's as far as you're going to go.

So, of course, I want to start. Of course I want to play more games. Everybody would be crazy lying if they said any different. But as I've said many times, I know my role on this team. Would I like to change it? Absolutely. But at this time, to help this team win, my job is to back up Gary Sanchez, who's an All-Star catcher. That's all I'm focused on.

If, hypothetically, you did this eight more years -- in this role -- would that be good with you? Would you retire happy?

Healthy?

Sure.

If I make it eight more years healthy, I would have to call that a win. In any capacity. If I'm in baseball for eight more years, that puts me at 37 years old. As a catcher, who's been catching his whole life? I have to call that a win.

How much fun is it to hit a home run?

It's the best thing. Everybody says it. It's an awesome feeling. Coming from a guy that doesn't hit very many, it's the most fun you have in baseball.

I love watching your trot because you're very stoic around first, second, and then the minute you reach Phil Nevin, the third base coach, this incredible smirk comes over your face.

I love it! It's because I see the dugout, and they're all happy, and everybody knows I don't hit that many home runs. But I'm trying to fix that! I'm trying to hit some more. But I love that I can help contribute for my team. I love how happy they get for you. It makes me happy seeing them happy, so it's hard for me to contain that at times. Because to see that many people happy for you, that's what it's all about.

There are fewer balls in play right now than ever before. More strikeouts than hits. Do you think that's a problem?

I don't really know. There's so many numbers and stuff people throw around now. Baseball's still the same for me. Throw it, hit it. Guys are throwing harder now. Balls are moving more. That's probably why. Guys are moving the balls at 98, 99 now. They're cutting, they're sinking. That's probably why. There's no other numbers that need to go into it. Guys are throwing harder, and the balls are moving. That's what I see.

Is there merit to an automated strike zone?

No. Because then I wouldn't have a job. I'm out on that. All the umpires would be out of jobs. The backup catchers -- the guys that are good at receiving pitches and making them look like strikes -- are out of a job. Catching becomes just an arm and a bat.

Before and after every game, you have 60 reporters in here asking you to break down everything. And some guys are like, "You're making this too complicated -- we see it, and we hit it." Whereas other guys say, "Let me tell you about my process …" Where are you more comfortable?

I think we know the answer to that. It's pretty basic for me. You throw it, you hit it, you catch it. It's all cliché at this point, but at the same time, it's baseball, man.

Sure, but we can watch your at-bats from last year to this year and see a totally different stance. So, obviously, you're thinking about this stuff …

I'm checking myself. I know what works. I've messed around with stuff, done certain things -- closed, open, hands, load, all that stuff -- but at the end of the day, you've just got to hit the ball. When we go through slumps or anything bad happens, the first thing everybody says is, "simplify it." And that's baseball in a nutshell. It's simple. You throw it and you hit it and you catch it.

If someone is giving you advice, are you trusting? Or are you saying, "Hey man, stay out of my head."

Certain people. It takes time to earn trust, the same way it takes me time to earn trust from pitchers when I'm catching and calling the game. It's hard to relinquish everything to someone and say, "Hey, you call the pitches for my career. It's my livelihood, and I'm going to look good if you call this, and bad if you call that." But people earn your trust by the way they approach things, the way they say things. Trust is earned. And certain guys get in there.

Are you finding that, as the numbers are trending up this year, that there's a difference in any part of your life away from the Stadium? Are you being recognized more?

No, I'm not. I don't really care if they notice me or not. I'm here to play baseball. If they think I'm doing good, that's great. If they want to talk about it, cool. If not, it will be like every other aspect of my career. I'm just down here to do my job.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Jon Schwartz is the deputy editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the July 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, Austin Romine