There are some Spring Training mornings that are sleepier than others. Mornings where the players you planned to interview are unavailable and you spend an hour staring at your iPhone, the clubhouse television or the carpet. Every reporter hates those unproductive sessions.
On one of those mornings that was headed toward being sleepy this spring, I ended up having my first conversation with Thomas Neal. Neal was a long shot to make the Yankees to open the season after being signed as a minor league free agent, but I had been impressed with his at bats so we started chatting. Soon, I was impressed with Neal’s demeanor, too.
For a player who only had 24 plate appearances in the Major Leagues with the Cleveland Indians and who spent most of 2012 with Class AA Akron, Neal was confident. Confident in a good way, too, not a cocky way. He spoke about his career in a thoughtful manner, explaining what he had done to make it this far and what he needed to do to make it to the big leagues and remain there.
When I asked Neal if he expected to help the 2013 Yankees, he didn’t hesitate and instantly said that he did. Two players who overheard Neal’s confident answer glanced in his direction, but I don’t think Neal even noticed that. He was focused on his plan, his path to making sure this season would be a season in which he contributed to the Yankees.
“For me, a big part of doing well in this game has been the mental side,” Neal said. “I know what I can do. I have to stay confident and show that I can do it.”
By staying confident and producing at Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes Barre, Neal (.339 average, .426 on-base percentage, two homers, 24 runs batted in) earned himself a promotion to the Yankees on Friday. The Yankees’ offense has been abysmal, going scoreless in the final 17 innings of a 3-2, 18-inning loss to the Oakland Athletics on Thursday. Mark Teixeira, Vernon Wells, Travis Hafner and Kevin Youkilis combined to go 0-for-28 with 12 strikeouts. New York was 1-for-13 with runners in scoring position.
Neal is not a savior for an offense that is 11th in the American League with 260 runs, but he gives Manager Joe Girardi another option against left-handed pitchers. In recalling Neal, the Yankees hope he can provide some kind of offense, any kind of offense. Both Wells and Ichiro Suzuki, the Yankees’ corner outfielders, have vanished.
Because the Yankees have been so uninspiring on offense, Neal will get a chance to contribute. It’s an opportunity that Neal envisioned during our conversation in spring training. When Neal wasn’t describing his grandfather’s baseball career and how he names his gloves, he predicted that he would help the Yankees in 2013. Beginning on Friday night, Neal gets his chance.
Vernon Wells Jr. is an accomplished sports artist who visits baseball clubhouses to promote his dazzling paintings so he has met Brian Cashman, the Yankees' general manager. When Wells, who is the father of the outfielder with the same name, encountered Cashman at Tampa's International Plaza Mall a few years ago, they had a conversation. One part of it was memorable to Wells.
"I don't know how it's going to happen, but I hope you get my son over there someday," Wells told Cashman. "That's how much respect I have for the Yankee organization."
While Wells' words to Cashman were sincere, he admitted that Cashman might not have even remembered them. As quickly as Wells uttered those words, they disappeared. Or did they? Not in the father's world. Since Wells, a Texas kid, was a lifelong Yankee fan, he longed for his son to play for the Yankees. It couldn't hurt to mention that to Cashman.
"We chatted very briefly," Wells explained. "But I am sure I relayed my desire for Vernon to be a Yankee."
When I asked Cashman about the mall meeting, he said he has had numerous chats with Wells and called him "a great guy." He didn't remember their specific exchange near a few racks of shoes, but, at this point, it was irrelevant to Cashman. The father's wish had become a reality. Vernon Wells III is a Yankee this season. Other than Robinson Cano, he has also been the best player on the Yankees.
"He has been AWESOME," said Cashman, in an e-mail response about Wells III.
The capitals letters were provided by Cashman, meaning the GM wanted to emphasize just how valuable Wells has been to the Yankees. The Yankees spoke to the Angels about Wells in the offseason, a time in which they viewed him as a backup. When Cashman rekindled those discussions last March, he wanted Wells as a starter because Curtis Granderson was sidelined with a fractured hand. Now that Granderson has returned, and Manager Joe Girardi is rotating four outfielders in three spots, Girardi should make sure Wells (.287, 10 homers, 24 runs batted in) is always in the lineup.
After two exasperating seasons in which Wells hit .222 with 36 homers and 95 runs batted in for the Angels, they were willing to trade him to the Yankees for some salary relief. The Angels are actually paying $28 million of the $42 million left on Wells' contract. In trying to live up to that hefty contract, Wells got himself into some bad habits. He tried to pull the ball too much to hit homers and his swing became too long.
"I don't want to say it was a rude awakening," said Wells Jr. "But I used to wonder who was wearing his uniform out there."
Where was the Vernon Wells that was so productive for the Blue Jays? In Spring Training, the father saw that player begin to reappear. After Wells, Jr. watched one of his son's games on TV, he noticed that Vernon's swing was fluid again. It was short, compact and quick. Wells' bat speed had returned.
"I called and told him that was the swing that got him to where he was," Wells Jr. said. "He wasn't trying to hit a homer. He said that he was just trying to make contact. You could see the difference."
From studying old videotape, Wells III realized that he wasn't using the entire field and had become too pull-happy and homer-happy. Once Wells simplified his approach, he became a reliable hitter again. Gary Sheffield used to whip his bat through the strike zone as quickly and viciously as any hitter I ever saw. There have been a times where Wells has reminded me of Sheffield, his bat barreling through the zone and making solid contact.
"I told him he still had a plenty left in the tank," said Wells Jr., as his son struggled for the last two years. "His approach was getting in the way. I knew it was still in there."
When Wells Jr. called himself Vernon's "batting coach since birth," it had a lot of significance. Not only does the 58-year old father study the 34-year old son's swing and offer insight, he also still plays himself. Every October, Wells competes in senior tournaments in Arizona. He is a hired hitter of sorts, shifting from roster to roster on teams that range from Over-25-year olds to Over 55-year olds. In one tournament, he hit behind Kevin Mitchell, the former National League Most Valuable Player. Wells Jr. was named the MVP of the tournament.
Because Wells is self-employed and can travel with his art materials, that allows him to stay in Arizona for the month and play baseball every day. Wells, whose website iswww.VWellsart.com, has been painting professionally for 30 years and calls himself "the most commissioned sports artist ever." Check out his website. Every painting you click on is more amazing than the previous one.
There is one painting that Wells hasn't done yet, but that he's planning to do after the season. It's a painting that he has envisioned for years, a painting that he hinted at when he spoke to Cashman. It's a painting of his son wearing a Yankee uniform, finally wearing a Yankee uniform.
"When he was a high school senior, I was hoping he'd go straight to the Yankees," Wells said. "Now he's there. There's just something different about the pinstripes."
Every Spring Training, every manager in the Major Leagues makes a similar speech. He stands in a clubhouse filled with 63, 73 or maybe even 83 players. He tells them that the goal is to win a title and, get ready for the memorable quote, that the team will need more than 25 players to achieve that goal.
The statement is true. For instance, the 2009 Yankees used 45 players. Every club will endure injuries or have struggling players, so depth is vital during a 162-game season. Still, I always wonder if every player sitting in that clubhouse in February really believes what the managers says and believes that he can have an impact on that upcoming season.
Did the pitcher who was only two years removed from being on an Independent League team believe it? Did the pitcher who had only one forgettable big league start believe it? Did the infielder who had not played one complete season at Triple A believe it? Evidently, they did. In the second game of a doubleheader against the Indians on Monday, the Yankees who fit those descriptions believed.
Vidal Nuno, the refugee from the Washington Wild Things of the Frontier League, pitched five scoreless innings to secure his first career victory in a 7-0 win. Adam Warren, the one-and-done starter from 2012, followed Nuno and tossed four shutout innings for his first career save. Corban Joseph, who was recalled as the 26th man for the day, doubled for his first career hit and scored the Yankees' second run. It was a day of firsts for the Yankees, lots of firsts that helped them split the doubleheader.
When the Yankees assembled for Spring Training in Tampa, they didn't envision that Nuno, Warren and Joseph would be the most instrumental players in one of their victories in mid-May. The Yankees liked all three players, but their team was built around Cano, Jeter and Teixeira and Sabathia, Pettitte and Rivera. If Nuno, Warren and Joseph made it to the big leagues, they were expected to be spare parts. Well, all three made it and they were more than spare parts on Monday.
Of the three players, Nuno was the most impressive. He worked quickly, barely leaving the pitcher's rubber between pitches. He threw strikes, buzzing first-pitch strikes to 17 of 21 batters. He pitched confidently, using a sneaky fastball that averaged around 89 miles per hour, a slider, a curveball and a changeup.
As Nuno tried to squeeze through the fifth, he allowed a pair of two-out singles. Since Nuno had already uncorked 85 pitches, 10 more than manager Joe Girardi said he would throw, he was running out of pitches to secure the final out he needed to possibly get a win. After Asdrubal Cabrera fouled off three straight sliders, Nuno wanted to throw an outside fastball. Catcher Austin Romine wanted another slider. Nuno spoke with Romine and said he would "pinpoint" the fastball on the outside corner. Romine nodded. And then Nuno did it, getting Cabrera to stare at a fastball that touched the black.
It was only one game in May, but it was one game where the Yankees didn't need help from Cano, Sabathia or Rivera. Instead, the help came from Nuno, Warren and Joseph. It was all about the under-the-radar players that heard Girardi's speech about needing more than 25 players and believed it. Really believed it.
NEW YORK -- Andy Pettitte was so disappointed in the way he contributed to the New York Yankees' unsightly 9-1 loss to the Houston Astros on Monday that he said he felt "sick to my stomach." Catcher Austin Romine spoke in a whisper and a half about needing to have better communication with Pettitte so that the pitcher could establish a rhythm. The clubhouse emptied in a few minutes on a forgettable night for the Yankees.
But, hidden beneath the debris of the worst loss of the season, there was one Yankee that didn't consider it a forgettable night. For Vidal Nuno, the ugly defeat was a memorable night because he made his Major League debut and pitched three scoreless innings. Nuno was surely the only Yankee that saved a baseball from the game.
"Never thought I would be here," said Nuno.
Actually, Nuno was lying. Well, sort of. He did believe he could make it to the big leagues after the Indians drafted him in the 48th round in 2009. But, after the Indians released Nuno two years later, he was poised to stop dreaming and quit baseball. He was 23 years old and wondered if it was time to "go in a different direction and look for another job."
As Nuno drove from Goodyear, Ariz., where the Indians hold Spring Training, to his home in San Diego, he called his parents and told them that he was thinking about quitting. Nuno's parents implored him not to give up his dream. If Nuno found another team that wanted him, his parents promised they would give him whatever financial help he needed.
Buoyed by his family's support, Nuno received the nudge that he needed to continue pitching. He found another roster spot, even if it was for the Washington Wild Things, an independent team in the Frontier League. He signed a contract to earn about $1,500 a month. But Nuno wasn't a Wild Thing for too long. After six games, Nuno's heart sang when the Yankees signed him to a Minor League deal. Since then, Nuno has been one of the best pitchers in the organization. Why? Quite simply, he mastered a changeup and he throws strikes.
"I just keep pounding the strike zone," Nuno said. "No messing around."
While Nuno's fastball barely touches 90 miles per hour, he has a superb changeup, a solid slider and a deceptive delivery. From the first time Nuno started throwing a baseball, he said he always threw from a three-quarter arm angle. Nuno also works quickly, saying, "I get the ball and throw it," and thinks that speedy tempo might keep some hitters off-balance. He impressed the Yankees with 13 strikeouts in 14 2/3 innings this spring, whiffing the likes of Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Matt Weiters, Nick Markakis, Chris Davis and Manny Machado.
In 2011, Nuno combined to go 7-1 with a 2.04 earned run average with 63 strikeouts in 15 walks in 66 1/3 innings for Class A Staten Island and Class A Charleston. In 2012, he pitched for Class A Tampa, Class AA Trenton and Class AAA Scranton, going 10-6 with a 2.54 ERA with 126 strikeouts and 33 walks in 138 1/3 innings. This season, Nuno was 2-0 with a 1.54 ERA with 26 strikeouts and two walks in 23 1/3 innings at Scranton. Lefties were 3-for-27 off Nuno, who was recalled by the Yankees after Ivan Nova went on the disabled list last Saturday.
"Baseball is fun," Nuno said. "It's not a job. You do the work you need to do so you're good at it, but this is fun for me."
There are millions of stories like Nuno's story, stories of players that came to a crossroads and had to make a decision about their baseball future. Nuno was only 23 when he was released so it would have been careless for him to quit. Plus, Nuno is left-handed. Baseball is always willing to make room for another lefty and another and another. Lefties can have nine lives. Nuno only needed a second life.
Here's how thrilled Nuno is to be with the Yankees: He gushed about how cool it is to patrol the outfield and shag fly balls during batting practice at Yankee Stadium. He sounded like a delirious fan, in a charming way. The guy who notched nine outs in his debut on Monday will be in the outfield during batting practice on Tuesday, too. He will be chasing fly balls, not his dream. He already caught that.