The Head and the Heart

(This story originally appeared in the October 2021 edition of Yankees Magazine.)

The first thing I’ll say about this story is that it’s a real bummer that it ended up being somewhat regrettable. It was a piece for our October magazine about how dominant Gerrit Cole had historically proven to be in the biggest, most emotional moments. It dropped on Oct. 5, the morning of his AL Wild Card Game start in Boston.

Then Cole had nothing, the Yankees lost, and there was no reason ever to think about the story again.

That’s a shame, and not just because it would have been fun to see a long postseason run from this team (if only for more opportunities to watch Giancarlo Stanton crush balls to far off planets). But also, there’s a lot in here that I really like. Gerrit is a great interview subject. He is so open about the art of pitching, about how he approaches hitters and what he’s thinking. Yet ever since he got to New York, he’s been mostly relegated to Zoom pressers, where it’s hard to get real emotion and insight.

Talking to him in the Yankees’ dugout, I was really interested in one particular quirk, the way he totally clams up after his best starts. It’s easier to get him to talk after a middling effort than it is when he dominates Shohei Ohtani, and I wanted to know why that was. Over the course of this feature, I think you can see Gerrit kind of gaming it out in his head, trying to figure it out himself.

The other thing that I did here was I tried to get as many individual quotes as possible from people around the game, all of them answering the same question: What is it that Gerrit Cole does best? It’s a simple question, but I wanted a variety of answers, and I got them. I had one person tell me that it’s just that he gets the most strikeouts, another person who said that he’s the most prepared pitcher in the game, and finally, my favorite, a quote about him essentially being the smartest bully. I loved that part of the story, and the way that we designed the piece around those quotes in print.

Cole is signed in New York for years to come, and I have to think that we’ll see better postseason starts from him (we certainly saw some great outings in 2020). I think that eventually we’ll learn that his hamstring was much worse than he let on, and that it impacted him a great deal down the stretch in 2021. Either way, I can’t wait to get more chances to talk baseball with the Yankees’ ace, because he’s a true pitching genius.

New Kids on the Block

(This story originally appeared in the September 2021 edition of Yankees Magazine.)

For months, the Yankees said that they weren’t too right-handed. Then they went out at the trade deadline and added left-handed batters Joey Gallo and Anthony Rizzo. That’s baseball, Suzyn.

Obviously, the team had a lineup balance issue, and it’s to general manager Brian Cashman’s credit that he was able to address it without doing too much damage to the top levels of the team’s farm system. Neither Gallo nor Rizzo ended up being the difference makers the Yankees needed to make a deep run in the postseason, but both were worthy additions to the team’s lineup, and while Rizzo heads into the offseason as a free agent, Gallo should get another run with the Bombers in 2022, giving him a chance to go to town on the stands in right field.

To me, though, the best thing about this story is something that is barely mentioned inside, but that I hope comes through. The interviews for this piece were the first that I did in person since spring training of 2020. I had long conversations with both Rizzo and Gallo in the dugout at Yankee Stadium, and it was amazing to remember just how different it is to get to speak to your interview subject one-on-one, face-to-face, as opposed to doing it on Zoom. Things like body language, follow-ups, shared small laughs — I think they make a huge difference in the storytelling process. I hope that it came through in the piece.

Special Selections

(This story originally appeared in the August 2021 edition of Yankees Magazine.)

Ron Blomberg is an absolute riot, and he’s also a former No. 1 overall pick in the MLB Draft. I had so much fun chatting with him about that whole experience, how it changed his life, and how different it is now. It’s crazy to think about him walking across the stage at his high school graduation and learning that he had been picked first overall; today, there’s nonstop, wall-to-wall coverage on MLB Network, to say nothing about the writers chasing down stories about the top picks.

Beyond the Q&A with Blomberg, I loved just going back and doing research on the draft, finding some quirks in there. This story has a lot of goofy facts, such as the Yankees’ historic success with the 493rd pick in the draft, or the guy picked 1,718th who actually ended up playing for the Yankees.

Lucky Day

(This story originally appeared in the July 2021 edition of Yankees Magazine.)

It can be a bit too easy sometimes to think of Lou Gehrig’s famous speech, and the happy tones in which we use it to craft our memories of the Iron Horse. The luckiest man? Why, that sounds wonderful!

In reality, Lou Gehrig was dying of a cruel disease that is as deadly today as it was in 1939. Indeed, patients diagnosed with ALS in 2021 have the same likelihood of survival that Gehrig did.

All of which is to say that the first league-wide celebration of Lou Gehrig Day was about more than recognizing the death of a great baseball man. Rather, the hope is that adding attention to more than just the speech and the ballplayer can help finally move the needle toward a cure.

A couple of interesting things that stood out to me from my reporting on this one. First, I was asking Gerrit Cole (whose father-in-law, Mike Crawford, was very involved in the effort to make MLB adopt the league-wide recognition) what it meant to be a Yankee during the first Lou Gehrig Day. How did it compare, I asked to being a Pirate on Roberto Clemente Day? What was interesting was that he reminded me that, on top of those two examples, he also played baseball at UCLA, where Jackie Robinson starred, so he really has an attachment to all three days on the MLB calendar that honor individuals.

The other thing was something that Crawford told me, a ray of light that could come from the struggle against COVID. What we all saw in the last year was that when all of the scientists and medical workers can focus on something, we can do amazing things. We got a vaccine for COVID in a matter of months. So rather than viewing ALS as an impossible problem, there’s hope that with the right amount of money and the right publicity push, maybe there are lessons to learn from the struggle to find a pathway to eradicating COVID.

The inaugural Lou Gehrig Day was a special celebration throughout MLB and America. I was proud to write about it.

New York Yankees 2021

Sweet Relief

(This story originally appeared in the June 2021 edition of Yankees Magazine.)

Some stories age better than others. This wouldn’t end up being my most regrettable feature of 2021 (that would be a tie between my Deivi García feature from the spring, and my Gerrit Cole piece that ran on the morning of his disappointing start in the AL Wild Card Game), but it was a bit of a shame. About the only saving grace here is that the Corey Kluber no-hitter bumped this off the cover, as it would have been a bit embarrassing for this to be on sale all June, when the Yankees’ relievers were going through their roughest patch of the season.

New York Yankees 2021

With that said, I do think there’s some good stuff in here, a look at what makes a bullpen great. The Yankees spent 2021 deploying tons of different arms and arsenals, baffling opponents with arm angles and a rambunctious kindergarten class worth of breaking stuff. For all that we talk about speed these days, and all the relievers that throw in triple-digits (and the Yankees have plenty of those), the best recipe seems to be mixing approaches, changing deliveries and just throwing strikes. Up through the point when I wrote this, the Yankees were doing that at a pace about as good as any bullpen in history.

Baseball is changing, and bullpens are more important than ever. Clearly the Yankees have known this for a long time, which is why they had a bullpen with something like five guys who could probably close for a bunch of teams. While they fell off the historic pace, the bullpen was still an incredible strength for the team down the stretch, and figures to be for years to come.

Nothing Like It

(This story originally appeared in the June 2021 edition of Yankees Magazine.)

For all the baseball games I’ve been to in my life, I can only count one no-hitter to my ledger. Fortunately, it was an extremely weird and memorable one, when the Astros used six pitchers to no-hit the Astros in 2003. I was sitting in the stands at the old Yankee Stadium that night, about 13 rows back, right behind the plate.

The night was amazing partly for how weird it was. My impression of a no-hitter had always been a dominant effort by a starter, one that had you humming in anticipation from about the fifth inning on. That night, it took a lot longer to realize what was happening, because Roy Oswalt had been knocked from the game in the second inning.

History is obviously kinder to the more singular no-nos. It’s easier to attach the feat to a single pitcher. But I’ve long wondered what type is worth to be on the losing end of? Would you rather just tip your cap to a pitcher who was rolling that night, acknowledging that everything he did was working? Or do you want to reckon with the reality that even no-name relievers were shutting you down on one particular night. I’m still not sure what the answer is.

Either way, on May 19, 2021, when Corey Kluber was starting in Texas, we had all but closed out our June issue. I had the cover story, about the Yankees up-to-that-point untouchable bullpen. For the July issue, I was thinking of writing about Corey Kluber, which was why I decided I wanted to watch that night’s story very closely, asking my wife to handle bedtimes and things like that so I could plant myself in front of the TV.

Arlington, TX: New York Yankees pitcher Corey Kluber delivers a pitch in the midst of throwing a no hitter, the first of his career during a game against the Texas Rangers on Wednesday, May 19, 2021. Photo by Ben Ludeman/Texas Rangers

By about the sixth inning, I was worried that we might have to fit some mention of the game into the June issue. By the ninth, I was worried we might have to scrap the cover. So it goes with no-hitters.

The next day, I wrote an entirely new cover story, about the Yankees’ first no-hitter in a couple of decades. Corey Kluber had a rocky, up-and-down year in pinstripes, with a few injuries and some incredible outings, but the no-hitter will live forever. As much of a hassle as it was to have to recreate our cover and write a story on the fly, I was incredibly grateful to get to write this one. It’s a story that I hope people will go back to when they think about great moments in Yankees history, and it’s nice to have had the chance to tell it.

Opening the Perfect Present

(This story originally appeared in the May 2021 edition of Yankees Magazine.)

Six months later, it’s weird to look back on Opening Day; I had already forgotten that there were just 10,000 fans at Yankee Stadium that day. But the thing is, even that was amazing at the time. After a deeply upsetting year, least of all for baseball reasons, it was completely amazing to be back at Yankee Stadium, listening to real fans have real conversations and real cheers. The “roll call” was incredible.

I chose to write this story backwards for two reasons: First, it’s not super fun to build up to an eventual loss in a publication like Yankees Magazine. It’s not that often I write about a single game for a long, 3,000-plus-word feature, but it’s even less common for me to write about a loss. So since I wasn’t going to climax with some sort of dramatic victory, it made sense to get rid of that fact early.

But I also loved the emotion from the line that I chose to end with, the idea of welcoming fans back to Yankee Stadium. I think that the was the 118th season in Yankees history, so there have been plenty of Opening Days. But I’m not sure there has ever been one like 2021. There certainly hasn’t been anything like a return to baseball after a year spent playing in front of empty seats. So this year’s curtain-raiser was always going to be special, no matter what happened on the field.

There’s baseball in here, sure. There’s a Gerrit Cole start, a Gary Sánchez rebirth, some fun during pregame introductions. But that’s stuff that we can get at any game. The truest joy in here is just writing about baseball, about baseball fans, and about a somewhat normal day at the ballpark.

Call to Action

(This story originally appeared in the April 2021 edition of Yankees Magazine.)

Man is Giancarlo Stanton fascinating. He’s always going to be a lightning rod for Yankees fans, partly because of his stances on issues such as Black Lives Matter, his decision to kneel for the national anthem at times in 2020 and for the fact that some fans are just ignorant. I think a huge part of it, though, is that he makes home runs look so easy that fans forget to marvel at what he does do rather than gripe about what he doesn’t do.

In the 2020 postseason, despite the upsetting ending for Yankees fans, Stanton was a monster. This story, which I wrote during the offseason, focused on that remarkable performance in the spotlight, but I also looked at the ways that Stanton found his voice during the difficult summer of 2020. A guy who preferred to keep quiet and speak with his bat for his first few years in pinstripes, suddenly Stanton was speaking out about racial injustice, using his megaphone to force people to reckon with the Black experience in America. It was a remarkable turnaround, and as impressive to watch as it was frustrating to know all the reasons that it was necessary.

I doubt that Stanton unburdening himself of all that he has dealt with is the reason that he spent 2021 hitting the absolute cover off the ball — likely, that happened because Stanton has always been an extraordinary batter, almost assuredly the hardest hitter in MLB history. But it’s nice to see a player find his voice.

This was an incredibly racially charged story, one I was nervous was going to be killed by some higher-up before it could be published. We did get a letter in response; it didn’t mention Stanton by name, but it was addressed to Yankees Magazine, and it said that the writer wanted to cancel his subscription because some ungrateful players don’t respect this country or the fans who love America. I’m just guessing it was about this story, and not about, say, Whitey Ford. Oh well. We won’t miss that reader. But for the people who look to players such as Giancarlo Stanton to learn more about experiences they will never have, I’m grateful I got to write this, grateful it got published, and grateful that Stanton seems to have found a peace that he was seeking.

Patience, Poise and Pinstripes

One of the most remarkable parts of the 2020 baseball season was the emergence of Deivi García. Long one of the team’s top prospects (and a guy I had written about twice before, in different, small ways), García is a slight and unimposing figure, but put him on the mound, and he has this poise and stature that is impossible to ignore.

He debuted in grand fashion in a game against the Mets, looking dominant most of the way, then proceeded to put together a solid if unspectacular campaign. It was good enough to earn him a one-inning start in a postseason game, even if that move proved too cute by half as the Yankees couldn’t pull out that game, then had their rotation scrambled a bit of the rest of the Division Series against Tampa Bay. So it goes … 

I spent a lot of time talking with good pitching minds for this story, and really enjoyed my two chats with Deivi and my long interview with Yankees pitching coach Matt Blake. I found it interesting to hear about the things that they worked on to help get the most possible out of the young right-hander (and then, as his 2021 season went up in flames — it was a total disaster that had everyone wondering how the team had ruined him — felt a little less clear about what I had written at the time).

Either way, I really liked learning more about pitching and about Deivi as I reported this story, and was pleased with how it came out. My thesis — that the best thing for both sides would be for Deivi to spend a lot of time in the minors in 2021 … well, I didn’t mean for him to spend that much time on the farm. And I think it’s way too early to write him off for good. That said, 2022 is going to be all kinds of interesting for the young, small right-hander.