The Upper Deck Baseball Academy is not the easiest place to find. Hidden in a secluded corporate park in Cumberland, Rhode Island, one has to weave around a fleet of school buses and tractor trailers to find the 8,900-square-foot facility, which is tucked away on the second floor of a warehouse. Turn the corner too quickly, and it’s easy to miss the Green Monster-like exterior wall bearing the academy’s name.
Once inside, though, the scene is familiar. In the back is a small gym known as Get Large Garage, where athletes of all ages come to work out. Leading to the gym are turf floors, pitching mounds and lots of netting. For the ballplayers who train here, posters featuring legends such as Derek Jeter, Ichiro Suzuki and Barry Bonds provide a backdrop as they make their way down the makeshift hallway created by the adjacent batting and pitching tunnels. Inspirational quotes from the likes of Clayton Kershaw and J.J. Watt line the walls as well. But make no mistake; this is Boston territory. If the building’s façade did not make that clear upon arrival, then the Red Sox and PawSox apparel -- especially the David Ortiz jersey that is pinned above all else -- most certainly will.
It is here, in the heart of New England, that Mike King spends his winters preparing to play for the team he grew up rooting for. No, not the Red Sox. The New York Yankees. And after a roller-coaster 2019 season, he’s eager to make an impact in the Bronx.
King was born on May 25, 1995, in Rochester, New York, but he’s not exactly a hometown prospect. He moved around at an early age thanks to his father’s broadcasting career and has lived most of his life in Warwick, Rhode Island.
With a Boston-born father, Jim, and a home just outside of downtown Providence, King naturally gravitated toward Beantown’s sports teams. To call the 24-year-old a Patriots fan would be a massive understatement. Talking during a Pats game is ill-advised, and King is an enthusiastic subscriber to quarterback Tom Brady’s “TB12 Method” as a means of seeking peak athletic performance. King will even bench his fantasy football players when they face New England. His fandom is a bit more subdued when it comes to the Bruins and Celtics, but he has enjoyed their recent runs of success nonetheless.
But, much to dad’s dismay, King spurned his local baseball leanings at age 8 when he attended Game 5 of the 2003 ALCS with his mom, Michele, a New Yorker. The Yankees beat the Red Sox that night, 4-2, and Mariano Rivera, Michele’s favorite player, got the save.
King’s dad had sent him to the game with $20 for a souvenir, but the plan backfired.
“I come home with a Yankees hat on, and it [ticked] my dad off,” King remembers. “I think because he was so mad about it, it made me want to be more of a Yankees fan, just to defy him.”
As King grew older, he became more than just a fan of the game. The right-hander dominated at Warwick’s Bishop Hendricken, leading the Hawks to back-to-back state championships in 2012 and 2013. He twirled two no-hitters as a junior, and as a senior in 2013 he was named the Rhode Island Gatorade Player of the Year and a Louisville Slugger First-Team All-American after going 11-0 with a 0.30 ERA.
“He was one of those guys who had a lot of poise on the mound, had a really good understanding of himself and could execute a game plan,” says Yankees pitching coach Matt Blake, whose own New England roots led him to cross paths with King when the latter participated in a high school charity game. “He had really good command, which is still evident today. The physical maturation over time is what has maybe separated him from who he was then to who he is now, but the ingredients of the person and the poise were all there from the high school level.”
King had dreams of going pro from the time he was a Little Leaguer, but he also knew he wasn’t quite ready coming out of high school. And so, a bit of a homebody and the type of pitcher who doesn’t mind the cold, he committed to play for head coach Mike Gambino at Boston College.
Gambino had taken the reins in Chestnut Hill prior to the 2011 season. By 2014, when King arrived on campus, the skipper had accumulated three straight losing seasons and just 21 ACC wins. He knew things needed to change, and that started with the culture and the types of players he brought in.
“I was looking for guys with a chip on their shoulder,” Gambino says now, and King proved to be just the type of player the coach desired. A three-year starter, King finished his collegiate career with a 3.14 ERA. As a junior in 2016, he helped the Eagles reach the NCAA Tournament -- the program’s first tournament berth since 2009 -- and advance to the Super Regional, a sweet payoff after the years of rebuilding.
More than any on-field result, King’s maturation under Gambino’s tutelage is what resonates.
“Gambino was one of the most influential guys in my life, just based on the character side of it,” King says. “His whole thing was character, academics, baseball. You’re at Boston College for academics, but you’re on this baseball team to build character, and he’s not going to recruit you unless you’re a high-character player. And then by being a high-character person, you’re able to do whatever you want in life, and that’s what he taught us.”
A scout once asked Gambino if King was tough enough to make it at the next level. The coach scoffed at the question, though he understood why it was asked.
When King is not on the mound, he is as nice and respectful as they come. Those that know him say he is easygoing, shy, polite. The type of person “you want your daughter to marry,” Gambino says. When he stands tall on the bump, though, a transformation takes place. King’s fire and intensity have scared coaches from pulling him and teammates from approaching him. His in-game identity is the complete opposite of his usual mild-mannered self. “People think toughness has to translate to kind of being a jerk,” Gambino adds, but he notes that King is evidence to the contrary.
Unsurprisingly, given his off-field demeanor, King is hesitant to talk about “The Utah Incident.” “It makes me look like a bad guy,” he says bashfully. Gambino remembers it differently.
“That was awesome,” the coach says.
It was the regional round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament, and the Eagles were facing a chirpy Utah team. The Utes jumped on King in the first, putting Boston College in a 2-0 hole. “We had no fire,” the pitcher remembers. That changed when King realized early on that Utah’s coaches had picked up on his changeup and were tipping off their hitters. Jarring and profanities ensued, and when a livid King escaped the third inning with a few changeups, he crossed paths with Utah’s third base coach on his way back to the dugout. “I might have said something to him,” King recalls with a sly smile. A verbal skirmish broke out, and soon enough Gambino and his staffers were face to face with the Utes’ coach.
“It was exactly what we needed: That … attitude,” Gambino says, peppering the memory with language more suitable for a Southie tavern. The confrontation lit a fire under the Eagles, and they eventually rallied for a 4-3 win. King went 6 2/3 solid frames.
“He’s an uber-competitor,” says Justin Dunn, King’s college teammate and now a pitcher for the Mariners. “He hates losing. When he plays, he blacks out and turns into a monster.”
If King rages like the Hulk when he toes the rubber, he’s more Bruce Banner in his preparation. King has been a meticulous -- and that’s putting it mildly -- note-taker since his college days. He, along with roommates Dunn and catcher Nick Sciortino, spent countless nights watching college baseball on ESPN3 the year they went to the tournament. King would build scouting reports not only for himself, but also for Dunn, based on how similar pitchers had fared against upcoming opponents. Their room served as the Eagles’ analytics department before such things became mainstream, and Gambino even allowed them to call some games, an uncommon occurrence at the college level.
King logs like no other, keeping personal notebooks and binders with page upon page of scouting reports. The notes exceed any reasonable expectation of the word detailed. To this day, King has a section for every team he has ever faced. Those sections list, in alphabetical order, every hitter he has ever faced on that team, the result of every at-bat against each hitter, the sequence of every at-bat against every hitter, and notes on what made King want to pitch each at-bat in such a manner.
That may seem like a bit much, but the secretive King, who declined to share any photos of his notebooks, just wants to be prepared.
“You go into a test in school, and you studied your [rear] off for it, you know everything like the back of your hand,” King says, echoing something Gambino used to preach. “You get that test, you’re not nervous at all. You’re like, ‘Give me that test, ’cause I’m going to ace it.’ If you go in unprepared, you’re nervous for that test, whatever questions are going to come. And I never wanted to feel that while I was on the mound.”
King’s extensive research, combined with his ferocity and talent, made him one of five Eagles drafted in 2016. Dunn, a Long Island native, went to the Mets in the first round, but King fell to the Marlins in the 12th.
He happened to be starting in the Super Regional in Miami that day. His mom, with tears streaming down her face, ran down from the stands to the Boston College dugout to tell her son the life-changing news.
King spent two years in the Marlins’ system, never advancing past Single-A. Then, on Nov. 20, 2017, he was dealt to the team he grew up rooting for. The trade with the Yankees sent Garrett Cooper and Caleb Smith to Miami. It was the first move former Yankees captain Derek Jeter made in his new role as Marlins CEO.
Matt Hyde, a Northeast area scout for the Yankees, had King on his radar since he was a high schooler. When the Yankees finalized the trade, special assistant Jim Hendry insisted that Hyde inform King. “Jim called me up and he said, ‘Tell him he’s a Yankee,’” Hyde says, “which was one of the cooler moments of my scouting career.” Unfortunately for Hyde, King was about to teach a private pitching lesson and missed the initial call. He missed Hyde’s second call and then one from the Marlins. It wasn’t until a few texts from his mom came in -- Hyde had reached out to her -- that King finally stepped away.
He found a quiet spot and joked to a bystander that he needed to make a call just in case he had been traded to the Yankees. “I was totally kidding,” he swears now when he tells the story.
King has since moved rapidly up the Yankees’ prospect list. He excelled in 2018, journeying from High-A Tampa to Double-A Trenton and, finally, Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. King pitched to a 1.79 ERA over a career-high 161 1/3 innings and was named the Yankees Minor League Pitcher of the Year by MLB.com. By the end of the season, he believed that he could compete for a spot on the 25-man roster in 2019.
That was the plan until a stress reaction in his right elbow cut his Spring Training short. A setback in May kept him out until July 3. With other young pitchers filling holes at the big-league level, it was determined that King would be eased back into action. He had other ideas, however.
Uninterested in a year without progress, King pushed back against the training staff’s conservative timetables. His on- and off-field personalities coming into conflict, he apologized for “being a little brat,” but he ultimately got his way. King pitched at four Minor League levels over a two-month span, beginning in the Gulf Coast League and then suiting up for Staten Island, Trenton and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. What initially looked like a wasted season soon became a dream realized.
On Sept. 19, 2019, the Yankees promoted King to the big leagues. That night, they clinched the American League East. On his first day as a big leaguer, King donned pinstripes and celebrated in a locker room doused in Champagne. “I definitely felt awkward,” he says, but eight days later, he was making his Major League debut. After a taxing season of injuries and setbacks, King ended his 2019 campaign with two scoreless innings of relief work in Texas during the final series at Globe Life Park in Arlington.
“It bothered me that I got hurt. It was really frustrating because I felt like I could totally build off of 2018,” he says. “And I wasn’t given that opportunity. But I was still happy with how I kind of got through 2019 and still made the most of it. I felt like I could have gotten written off, especially if I didn’t grind through and kind of go through rehab like my head was on fire. I just wanted to get back out on the field.”
Ever since his junior season at Boston College, King has warmed up to his very own song. The tune was a Christmas present from his recording artist sister, Olivia, and features verses from the rapper Maye Star.
“Messin’ with the King” is an aggressive track, a combination of lyrics and beats meant to encapsulate King’s confidence and self-described hatred of hitters. It opens:
I step to the mound and I put on my crown,
I royally put them down after you hear this sound,
Even the crowd knows you in for it now …
“My dad was like, ‘Whoa, if he’s gonna walk out to that, he’s gotta be a bad dude’ -- and he is,” Dunn says. “He doesn’t back down from anyone.”
King can’t wait to hear the song blasting through the public-address system at Yankee Stadium.
“We always talk about like, ‘I got to get to New York so then I can play that song as I’m pitching,’” King says of his conversations with his older sister. “And then you got 50,000 people in the stands that are hearing her song, and they’re like, ‘Oh, what is this?’ And then that’s what gets everybody going.”
That’s just one of King’s goals for 2020. Obviously, he would like to stay healthy. Making his first Major League start is at the top of his to-do list. He spent the offseason tweaking some mechanical changes with his back hip and sharpening his slider. Worrying about making the 40-man roster is no longer a concern.
The Yankees have a crowded pitching staff, though. Gerrit Cole, Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanakaand J.A. Happwill be part of the Opening Day rotation if all goes well. James Paxton’s back injury opened up a spot, but more-established insurance policies such as Luis Cessa, Jonathan Loaisiga and Jordan Montgomery would seem to have a leg up on King. No. 1 prospect Deivi García will also be an enticing option. The Yankees, even with all their injuries, used just eight different starters in 2019, not including openers. King figures to slot in at No. 8 or 9 among the pecking order of starters entering Spring Training, but he could contribute sooner as a reliever.
When King was first traded to the Yankees, he arrived at camp and noticed a surplus of electric arms. Everyone from the low-level prospects to the big leaguers seemed to be throwing high-90s gas. The realization gave him some perspective.
“I’m like, ‘Where the [heck] are they getting all these arms from?’” King remembers as he sits at a picnic table in the Upper Deck facility. “I felt like the little fish in a big pond. Which also then helps me with a little motivation factor to it.”
Now, he’s in a similar position. The stakes are just higher. But remember, this is a guy who relishes competition and finds joy in excessive homework. If and when the Yankees call King’s number -- whether it be in Spring Training or August, as a starter or reliever -- he’s confident that he’ll be ready to unleash his inner monster on the mound.