TAMPA, Fla. – They were cousins who were also best friends, two California boys who loved to play baseball for hours, ride bikes from store to store, compete in everything and laugh forever. Man, did they laugh. Whenever Austin Romine thought about Jordan Stanton, his cousin, he thought about the kid who was always one smirk or one syllable away from making him laugh.
Those priceless jokes and expressions that Romine adored are gone now, gone because Stanton is gone. Stanton, a Marine Corporal, was killed while participating in combat operations in the Helmand province of Afghanistan on March 4. The kid that Romine called “my little brother” was 20 years old and was scheduled to return home next month. He was to be married in July.
“At this point in time,” Romine said, “I have no more tears.”
This spring had the chance to be the most memorable spring of Romine’s life. He is competing against Jesus Montero for the backup catcher’s spot on the Yankees and is trying to emulate his father, Kevin, and his brother, Andrew, by reaching the Major Leagues. Romine is a superb defensive catcher who has impressed the Yankees with his presence and his approach. Everything Romine wanted from this spring had been unfolding so smoothly.
But then everything changed. Romine was preparing to play a game against the Red Sox two and a half weeks ago when he was summoned into manager Joe Girardi’s office. Girardi told Romine to call home. When Romine reached his father, he learned the devastating news about Stanton. He didn’t play that night. He didn’t care about baseball. He cared about his family, his suddenly somber family.
“The first thing I wanted to do was be there for my family and my other cousins,” Romine said. “Jordan had two younger brothers and an older brother. I said, ‘Oh my God, I have to call them and I don’t know how I’m going to do it.’ It actually took me four or five days to call my aunt. I just didn’t have any words. What do you say?”
Eventually, Romine spoke to his aunt, his uncle and his cousins, sharing sobs and stories about Stanton. Romine stressed how proud his family was of Stanton and the sacrifice Stanton had made for his country. Stanton joined the Marine Corps in 2008, choosing that career path after graduating from Trabuco Hills High School. He became a Corporal nine months ago and was deployed to Afghanistan in November.
As Romine’s family mourned Stanton’s death in California, he remained here for more than 10 days and tried to focus on baseball. But, after the funeral arrangements were finalized, Romine left the Yankees for three days last week. More than 1,000 people attended Stanton’s funeral at Solano Catholic Church in San Francisco, which is where Stanton had been baptized. Robert Stanton, Jordan’s father, and Julie Dickson, Jordan’s fiancée, were among those that eulogized him.
“I wish everybody could have been there to see the funeral,” Romine said. “Everybody came out for him. It showed how good a kid he was. They were lining the streets. It was unbelievable.”
After the two-hour funeral, the white hearse that carried Stanton’s body navigated through the streets of Rancho Santa Margarita. Those were the same streets where Romine and Stanton had played hundreds of games as boys. Romine remembered how they would use chalk to draw a baseball field on the asphalt near one of their houses. The games were usually feisty, not casual.
Since Romine was two years older than Stanton, he typically prevailed in their one-on-one games. But when Stanton was about 10 he blasted one of Romine’s pitches deeper than any ball he had ever hit. Stanton stared at Romine with such a fulfilled look that Romine was happy as well.
“He was so proud of what he’d accomplished,” Romine said. “I was proud of him, too.”
The pride that Romine had in Stanton after the homer was miniscule compared to the pride he felt when Stanton became a Marine. As a 15-year old, Stanton decided that he wanted to join the military. Stanton was interested in that career choice in part because of his strong relationship with Jim Reynolds, a grandfather who had served in Vietnam.
While Stanton was a jokester around Romine and so many others, Romine said Stanton had a serious side and was a “calm guy who was cool under pressure.” That steely demeanor helped Stanton became an assistant team leader in his battalion.
Standing in front of his locker at Steinbrenner Field on Monday, Romine discussed Stanton for about 15 minutes. He probably could have spoken for 15 hours. He could have talked about Stanton’s obsession with physical fitness, about his fondness for tattoos, about his great relationship with his brothers and about his plans to marry Julie. There was so much Stanton had done, so much he wanted to do.
Before Romine returned to the Yankees, he asked his Uncle Robert, Jordan’s father, about the best way to honor his cousin. The uncle told Romine that he should show respect for Jordan’s memory in the way that he played baseball. So Romine promised to be like Jordan, the kid who was always more of a little brother than a cousin.
Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES