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.
There was something different about the way Phil Hughes pitched on Tuesday night. He had an edge. Hughes exhibited the body language of a pitcher who expected to win or a pitcher who was weary of having to explain what went wrong. He wanted to make some things go right for the Yankees.
So Hughes was aggressive, throwing his 93-mile per hour fastball to get ahead in counts, and using his slider and his curveball to bury hitters. So Hughes attacked, tossing strike after strike and not relenting when he needed 10 or 11 pitches to finish off one at-bat. So Hughes was resilient, overcoming what could have been a fiasco of a 32-pitch first inning to work seven solid innings.
It was a night where the Yankees played one of their most rewarding and complete games of the season in defeating the Tampa Bay Rays, 4-3. The Yankees rallied to score against David Price, the reigning Cy Young Award winner, on three different occasions. Ichiro Suzuki singled off Price to begin a rally in the eighth and eventually scored the tying run. He followed that by smacking Fernando Rodney's first-pitch fastball, a 99 mph Tic-Tac, for a two-run single that delivered the go-ahead runs. It was the kind of comeback that is memorable, a win that was spiced with timely hitting and some small ball.
But, for all the positives that unfolded for the Yankees on Tuesday, the sight of a reinvigorated Hughes pitching smoothly and confidently was the most important. Hughes allowed two runs in seven innings, matching the numbers he compiled in his last start versus the Arizona Diamondbacks. He threw first-pitch strikes to 24 of 27 batters and also whiffed six Rays, five of them with sliders.
"I'm making progress," Hughes said. "I feel like I can be better."
Hughes is right. He can be better and he needs to be better. Sometimes, observers need to be reminded about the kind of pitcher Hughes, at times, has been. In 2012, Hughes had an 11-start streak in which he was 8-2 with a 3.34 earned run average. In 2010, Hughes began the season 10-1 with a 3.17 ERA. Those are sustained periods of success, evidence that Hughes can be and has been an effective pitcher.
But Hughes has also endured too many stretches of inconsistency as a Yankee, too many starts in which he labored through long innings and failed to put hitters away. While the Yankees hoped that the first-round pick would someday be a No. 1 starter, that hasn't materialized. Before Tuesday's start, Hughes had a 6.43 ERA, making it the third straight season that he had an ERA. of at least 6.00 after his first three starts. That's the wrong kind of consistency.
As I watched Hughes pitch and then listened to his postgame interview, I sensed that even he is frustrated by his detours from reliable to unreliable. On Tuesday, Hughes walked Matt Joyce to open the seventh in a 1-1 game. Joyce eventually scored the go-ahead run when Jose Molina punched an outside fastball to right field for an RBI single. After striking out Molina with sliders, Hughes wanted to speed up Molina's bat with a fastball so he could go back to the slider. But Hughes missed his location with the fastball, a mistake that could have doomed the Yankees.
"I thought the game was over in the seventh after I made that bad pitch," he said. "Fortunately, the guys fought back and got us the win."
The Yankees fought back for the win, but, in his own way, Hughes fought back, too. Hughes was just as impressive as Price, who won 20 games last season. It was one night, but it was a night where Hughes reminded the Yankees of what he can do. Hughes said he can be better. The Yankees believe that. Now he needs to keep showing it, again and again and again.
Chase Kowalski's room still looks the same as the last time the 7-year-old jumped out of his bed. That is the bed with a blanket featuring Lightning McQueen, his favorite character from "Cars," and enough stuffed animals to fill a Jacuzzi. It is a typical 7-year-old boy's room, packed with toys, a drawing of Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 race car and an inflatable Yankees bat. His Cub Scout uniform is hanging on a closet door.
Besides Chase's bed, there is a white and black calendar. As soon as Chase's little feet hit the floor, he took a pen and wrote an X through that day. He was an energetic boy, active from the moment he started the day with an X until the moment his head touched the pillow again. Chase's last X came on Dec. 14. He never made it home again.
On that horrible day at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., Chase was one of 26 people that were killed by a gunman. It was an unspeakable tragedy, a day where so many families screamed and cried and screamed some more. How did this happen? There were so many young people still waiting to embrace the rest of their lives. So many young people, just like Chase, who were gone. It is so sad, so senseless and so shameful.
Three months after Chase's death, I stood in his room with Stephen and Rebecca, his parents. They are an inspirational couple, a mother and father who mourn their son every minute of every day.
But as much as they mourn Chase, and as much as they miss Chase, they are also dedicated to making sure that Chase's life is remembered. They want people to know Chase and realize why his life, though short, was so accomplished. Through Chase, they want to help strengthen other families.
"We want the world to be better because of this tragedy, not to be known for this tragedy," Rebecca said. "I don't want my son's name … I don't want him to be known as a victim. 'Cause, in my eyes, he's better than that."
Chase was an Energizer Bunny, a boy who kept going and going and going. Because Chase did everything from winning a triathlon (after he taught himself to swim), to riding motorcycles (where he jumped over mountains of dirt in his backyard) to playing baseball (where he played for the Newtown Yankees and was the only player on the team who could make the throw from third to first base), the Kowalskis want to raise enough money to build a community center called Chase's Place. The Kowalskis want Chase's Place to feature all of the activities their son loved and they want entire families, not just the kids, to spend time there together.
"Our mission is to get families to come together and be a part of each other's lives," Rebecca said. "We can't let our kids get close because this craziness is what happens when it's lost. And if we can positively change the way families interact and spend time together through a community center, I think that can make a big difference. And if it makes a difference in one kid's life, I think it's worth it."
How did Rebecca and Stephen develop the idea for Chase's Place? Actually, they didn't. The idea came from Chase. Two days after the Newtown disaster, Rebecca said Chase came to her in a vision and described what his family members should do now that he was no longer with them.
"It was him and it was God and it was, 'This is what you need to do, Mom,'" Rebecca explained. "You need to help Daddy get through the first steps. And then he showed me a pyramid and he showed me all these different spaces that would be filled in with our friends and friends of friends and more friends and just people that wanted to help make the world a better place and to make Chase's place a reality. And that was that. He gave it to me. And he gave me the blueprint and I consider him my CEO."
The vision from Chase was so powerful and precise that Rebecca said she went from the worst day of her life to feelings of peace. Chase's vision gave Rebecca solace, but it also gave the family some direction on how they could move forward after Chase's death. They would honor him by funneling their efforts into creating Chase's Place.
After the vision from Chase, Rebecca rushed out of bed, sat at her computer and began to feverishly write everything her son had told her. Rebecca said Chase implored her "to share it with people." As Rebecca tapped at the computer keys, she said she looked out the window and saw "a little face." She blew kisses to the face, Chase's face.
"At some point, I think I must've thought, 'This is nuts.' How could I have this kind of insightful vision?" she recalled. "And it really is. It's him filling me with peace and not having a broken heart."
Once Rebecca finished compiling her notes from Chase's vision, she showed them to Stephen. Stephen read them and didn't initially say too much. Rebecca wanted to be sure that Stephen wanted to pursue the idea of creating a community center so she turned to Chase. She told Chase that she needed "to know that Daddy thinks this is going to be amazing."
Rebecca said, "I never use the word 'amazing.'"
Across the next several hours, some friends visited and a few even told Rebecca and Stephen that they were amazing for how they were coping with Chase's death. Rebecca looked to the heavens and told Chase, "It's the right word, but it's the wrong people, honey." Rebecca needed Stephen, not a family friend, to acknowledge that the plan for Chase's Place was amazing.
Another day passed. More condolence calls and letters and more and visitors arrived at their home. One of the visitors was Yvonne Grimes, a neighbor whose son attends Chase Collegiate School in Waterbury, Conn. She gave Stephen a pile of items from the school, hoping the family would be comforted by seeing "Chase" on everything. Chase called the private school "his school" because he shared a name with it.
When the usually stoic Stephen finally had the chance to show the gifts to Rebecca, he said, "Honey, you've got to see this stuff." Stephen showed her some T-Shirts, but then he said, "And this is the greatest thing. This is the absolute best thing." In Steven's hands, he held a green backpack from a school scavenger hunt. Etched across the backpack were the words, "Amazing Chase."