YANKEE DOODLE DELUGE
THREE NEW YORK YANKEES VETERANS CELEBRATED 10 YEARS OF MLB SERVICE IN APRIL
By Jerry Crasnick
When Zack Britton made his major-league debut for Baltimore against Tampa Bay in April 2011, Vladimir Guerrero was in the cleanup spot as the Orioles’ designated hitter.
“His son hit a homer off me (in 2019), so I’ve got that going for me,’’ Britton said. “You know that’s when you’re old -- when you’re playing against the sons of guys you played with.’’
Anthony Rizzo can relate. He broke into the majors as a San Diego Padre with a triple off Livan Hernandez, who retired in 2012. And Josh Donaldson has a similar sense of perspective borne of time. He made his MLB debut as a catcher with the Oakland A’s in 2010, a year before “Moneyball’’ was nominated for an Oscar.
Rizzo, Donaldson and Britton, teammates with the New York Yankees, joined a distinguished club in April when they all reached 10 years of big-league service time. They recently reflected on their professional journeys with the MLBPA -- Rizzo and Donaldson during a road trip to Camden Yards, and Britton via a video chat from Tampa, Fla., where he’s rehabilitating from Tommy John surgery. The interviews have been edited for brevity and clarity.
WHAT’S THE SIGNIFICANCE OF 10 YEARS OF SERVICE TO YOU?
It's still hard to envision that I’ve played this long. It doesn't seem like it's been 10 years. It was always that milestone when you got drafted – ‘play 10 years in the major leagues.’ It seems like this daunting thing, and then you get there. For me, the sustainability of being able to perform and teams wanting you to perform for 10 years at the highest level is rewarding. It’s a little bit of luck, some durability and having coaches who put you in situations to be successful. There are a lot of things that make playing 10 years or longer possible.
In my situation, I wasn't the guy that just got called up and stayed. I got sent down four or five times. The path wasn’t easy, and I had to overcome some adversity early in my career. In my first full season, I was 27. So if you asked me a while back if I was going to get to this point, I probably would have said no.
It's always been that monumental threshold. Obviously you get the full major-league pension in retirement, but the average life in MLB is what, three years? Just staying on the field and being able to play a lot of games every year means a lot to me.
When you hit a milestone like that, you appreciate the sacrifices everyone around you has made to get you to this point. I’ve been with my trainer, Tom Flynn, since I got drafted (in 2007). I've worked with a lot of great coaches and I’m grateful for the instruction that I've gotten. I remember my parents taking me to all the tournaments and making ends meet just so I could showcase myself on the circuit and put myself in position to get drafted.
IF YOU COULD LOOK GIVE ANY ADVICE TO THE YOUNGER VERSION OF YOURSELF BREAKING INTO PRO BALL, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
The best advice I can give some of the young kids now is, ‘Enjoy it, because it's not going to last forever.’ I’ve heard people say, ‘You’ll be a former player longer than you’re a current player,’ and that's so true.
Early on in my career, I was so stressed out about getting to the big leagues and staying here rather than enjoying the moment. I feel like I lost some years where I could have been learning something new or making adjustments to make myself better. I reached a level that I had always dreamed about getting to, but I put so much pressure on myself and was stressed out all the time, rather than just enjoying the moment and enjoying playing Major League Baseball.
One of the biggest things I wish I had learned earlier was to become a better self evaluator and not be emotional about results right away. Focus more on the process and enjoy the game. I mean, I've always enjoyed the game, but maybe a little bit differently.
The advice I would give is, ‘Continue to enjoy the moments,’ because I've always done that. And when mistakes happen, learn from them right away and don't let them pile up. When you have success, bottle that success. Ask yourself why you're having that success or failure. See what's going on around you. A lot of it is about routine and consistency, which has helped me throughout my career.
WHAT DO YOU REMEMBER MOST VIVIDLY FROM YOUR FIRST BIG-LEAGUE CALLUP?
I got sent down at the end of spring training, which was like the worst feeling ever. Then Brian Matusz ended up getting hurt. Two days before Opening Day, I was sitting in my hotel room with Caleb Joseph, my minor-league roommate, and I get a call from our scouting director and he says, ‘Are you free to drive up to Tampa to pitch the third game of the season?’ I was supposed to go to Norfolk, so I was kind of wrapping my head around it. I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m free,’ Like, what else do you say?
I was super excited. My parents were there in spring training, so I called them and told them, ‘I made the team and I’m starting the third day.’ So they were there and my brothers and my cousins’ friends were there. I mean, it was really special.
I was at Triple-A playing in Sacramento, and we were busing to Fresno that day. It was the only time I didn't bring a suit with me because we were busing. We were halfway to Fresno and our trainer looks at me and he goes, ‘Do you have your passport?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, why?’ He says, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ But my radar goes off, and I check the big-league team and I see they’re playing in Toronto. And I’m thinking, ‘I might have a chance.’
We arrive in Fresno and Tony DeFrancesco, the manager, makes an announcement on the bus that I’m getting called up. I had to go buy a suit, and I took a redeye and didn't get into Toronto until like 8 o’clock the next morning.
I remember being in Vegas in Triple-A. You do the math as a player with the Super 2 status and all the business side, and I knew that it was right around that time. So I was playing blackjack at the Golden Nugget at the $5 table and I was excited knowing any day I could have gotten called up. Then at the end of that series, it happened.
YOUR FIRST GAME?
A lot of times, guys don't get activated until the day they start. But Buck Showalter thought it would be beneficial for me to go through the whole process of Opening Day. I got to watch two major-league games as an active player before I pitched, and that settled a lot of nerves and I ended up having a really good start.
I remember facing Manny Ramirez. It was one of his last games in the majors, and I was like, ‘Wow, I’m facing Manny Ramirez in my debut.’ It was all kind of a blur from there until we got on the plane. We were flying back to Baltimore and guys were like, ‘Hey, not only did you make your first major-league start, but you got the win.’ That was pretty cool.
I got to the yard that day and they told me I wasn’t going to play, but I had my first at-bat as a pinch-hitter off Jason Frasor. The first three pitches, I was good. I felt fine. Then all of a sudden, my heart started racing. I started realizing what was happening. I proceeded to chase two pitches out of the strike zone and I struck out.
The second day I started at catcher and I faced Dana Eveland. I was a little bit more comfortable because I had caught Dana in spring training when he was with Oakland and I kind of knew what he featured. I got lucky and ran into one and hit a homer.
I had a triple off Livan Hernandez. But more than that, it was the excitement and joy of making it to the major leagues with your family and friends there. Just the whole journey coming to fruition with that callup was pretty cool. One of my friends was there for my first hit and my 1,000th hit. His name is Josh Goldblatt. He works for the Yankees now on the sponsorship side. He was a childhood friend and he was in my wedding and my brother’s wedding.
WHAT WAS YOUR BIGGEST LOW POINT ALONG THE WAY, WHEN YOU HAD TO DIG THE DEEPEST?
In 2013, I had been up and down with the Orioles as a starter, and things weren’t going the way I thought they were gonna go. I wasn’t pitching well, and I was out of options and I needed to make the team the next spring. My wife was working as an attorney, and I was like, ‘I think I’m going to have to go back to school (and get a job).’
Coming into that spring training, I got introduced to Dave Wallace, who was our new pitching coach, and he and Dom Chiti basically started my transition to the bullpen. They pulled me aside and said, ‘Have you ever thought about being a closer?’ That was probably my lowest time, and luckily, Buck Showalter and Dave and Dom saw something in me that my path was going to be as a reliever.
That's why I always say it's a little bit of luck. People who have been around the game for a long time saw something that I didn't even know I could do, and they believed in me before I believed in myself in that role. I tell them all the time that I wouldn't have made it this far without them.
I felt tested a lot in the minor leagues, just learning just how to process things and be a professional. As a catcher fulltime, it was tough to enjoy the game because I cared so much about the pitching staff and how they performed. I also cared about how I performed. Learning how to compartmentalize those things really helped me.
There was definitely a learning curve. I was demoted several times. The last time I got sent down, my mom called and she was blaming everybody – the manager, the front office, my agent, everybody. I had one of those awakening moments where I was like, ‘No, mom, it's not their fault. They gave me an opportunity to put the uniform on. But don’t worry. I’m going to figure this out.’
That’s when I knew that it was up to me. The course of my career changed because I put it in my hands vs. letting it be in someone else’s hands. And if I was going to fail, it was going to be because of my own failing. I mean, everybody has a story. There’s always your local baseball hero that the coach screwed over, or something like that. I didn't want to have that ‘out.’ I wanted to put the onus on myself.
In 2011, when I first got called up, I stunk. But there was never a doubt that I couldn't play here. It's usually just about making adjustments.
Playing every day in this game, you’re going to be really good or really bad. When you're really bad, it seems like you're never gonna be really good again. When you're really good, you think you’re never going to be bad again. It’s like putting (in golf).
It's what makes you appreciate the game and the art of the game so much -- because it's not easy. You can go 5-for-5 one day with three home runs, and the next day you can be 0-for-5 with five punchouts. It happens that fast. Through the years and my experiences of weathering the storms, I’ve learned that in the good times and the bad times you should stay the course and do the next right thing.
IF YOU HADN'T BECOME A MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL PLAYER, WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING RIGHT NOW?
That is such a tough question. You play baseball from such a young age, and that's all you do. I didn't have any other hobbies, so I have no idea what my life would look like now. I have a brother that's in law enforcement and a lot of friends that went into the military, so I could see myself going down one of those paths.
I went to college, but I don't know exactly what I would have been. Maybe a high school coach or something like that. I don't really know. But I truly believe that whatever it was, I would have excelled, from my sheer mentality of approaching things.
I like arguing, so maybe a lawyer. I like psychology, so maybe a psychologist. And I’m really into construction. So it would probably be one of those three.
WHICH BIG LEAGUER DID YOU EMULATE OR PATTERN YOURSELF AFTER AS A KID?
Tom Glavine was the guy I wanted to be as a left-handed pitcher. In the backyard, I had the Tom Glavine Wilson pump-up glove and I tried to throw like him. I watched all the Atlanta Braves games when he was pitching. We lived in LA, so when they would come play the Dodgers, I got to see him pitch live once or twice. So Tom Glavine was the guy that I wanted to pitch like, but Fred McGriff was the hitter I want to hit like. A lot of people are like, ‘Fred McGriff?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ I loved the helicopter finish. It’s funny how certain things stick with you when you’re little. I had no shot to hit like Fred McGriff.
I grew up in Florida at a time when the Braves and Cubs were the teams we got to see all the time. So my first favorite player was Ron Gant. My second favorite guy was Sammy Sosa. I just liked his swing. I liked how he hit homers. I liked his hop coming out of the box. I liked the energy that he played the game with. But I was never very good at imitating other people. Some people have that gift. I don't really have that, even today.
I didn’t really watch as much baseball as I played. I was always outside playing. But for me, it was Gary Sheffield. And I loved Alfonso Soriano. Those two stick out a lot for me. And Derek Jeter, the Captain. Growing up and watching the Yankees win all those World Series was incredible. But it was mostly Sheffield when he was with the Marlins, and Soriano. I was always Alfonso Soriano in video games, and he always hit home runs leading off, so it was awesome. Then I actually got to play with him in Chicago.
WHICH VETERAN TEAMMATES HELPED GUIDE OR ENCOURAGE YOU WHEN YOU WERE A YOUNG PLAYER?
Derrek Lee was the Orioles’ first baseman when I first broke in and he was great about teaching me the ropes. He was a good teammate and so supportive of me. When you go through some things your rookie year, you need somebody to lean on. For some reason he took a liking to me, and he would kind of keep me in check if he felt there was a certain way I should be going about my business.
The other guy is Darren O'Day. He taught me more about how to behave as a big-league player than anybody I've ever been around. Normally, people think position players have to be the leader. Darren was the first pitcher I've ever seen be able to control a room, where everyone respected what he had to say.
Jonny Gomes was the guy for me. I always played a certain type of way, especially when I was successful. I had flair to my game, and when I got to the big leagues, I kind of shied away from doing that because of people getting upset about it. Every time I had success, especially in the minor leagues when I was younger, balls were being thrown over my head and it was this constant, non-stop (thing). Jonny brought it out of me to be myself. He told me it was okay for me to have success.
Heath Bell in San Diego gave me some good advice. He said that when you're in the thick of the season and you’re with the coaches every day, it's sometimes hard to pick up little tiny habits. So when a family member or a friend who knows a little bit about the game comes to visit and they mention to you, ‘Hey, are you doing something different?', always process that and go check. They might see that your hands have moved from here to there easier than someone who’s around you every day. That was advice I still use to this day.
When I was the Cubs, I watched David DeJesus and Alfonso Soriano and their work ethics and routines. Their process to get ready every day was just relentless. I think about Ryan Dempster, and Jon Lester. He taught me so many lessons about baseball and life when he came over to the Cubs. I’m forever indebted to him.
WHICH HALL OF FAMER WOULD YOU MOST LIKE TO HANG OUT WITH FOR A DAY?
I feel like I've already gotten to fulfill that side because I had so much interaction with Jim Palmer in Baltimore. I got to eat dinner with him and spend a lot of time with him, and I still keep in touch with him. Now that I'm dealing with an injury, he texts me all the time and asks me, ‘How are you feeling?’ You're talking about one of the best pitchers ever. I mean, the guy did basically everything you can do on the field, and I built a good relationship with him and he’s one of the guys I continue to look to. He's been great to me.
Mickey Mantle was always kind of an icon for me growing up. He would definitely be one. Ted Williams obviously would be a guy. And Barry Bonds, who I think should be in the Hall of Fame. I've had conversations with him. He would be a guy, too.
With Ted, it would be about the hitting side of it, just picking his brain to see how he thought about what he did. Obviously, he was one of the best to ever do it. With Mickey, there’s that other side to it. He had stories not just on the field, but off the field that I’m sure would be interesting to hear.
The first person who comes to mind is Babe Ruth. I kind of go generationally, through different eras of the game. I got to know Ernie Banks well when I was in Chicago. I’d like to go back and talk to a young Ernie Banks again. We just had Jackie Robinson Day recently. I’d like to go back and talk to Jackie and the other guys who broke that barrier who aren’t talked about as much today. And Roberto Clemente. Everyone in the Hall of Fame is a legacy player, but the impact they made off the field is incredible.
WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE AND LEAST FAVORITE THINGS ABOUT BEING A BIG LEAGUER?
The worst part is what I’m going through now: Being injured and not being able to rehab with the team. The bonds you build with your teammates through a major-league season are so strong, it’s harder to celebrate something like this when you’re not with them.
A big thing for me is sharing this with my family. My older brothers were both drafted and had this dream of getting to the big leagues. My dad, my mom, my brothers and my cousins are all into baseball and like watching me play. For my parents to be able to travel and see me in All-Star Games and playoff games has been awesome for me individually.
My mom is Dominican, and she says baseball is such a big thing in the culture there. There’s this family that I've never met in the Dominican just following me and watching the games and living through me. I understand it's very hard to get where we are. A lot of people would love to do it. So I enjoy trying to keep everyone included.
My favorite things are coming out here and competing, and being in the clubhouse around the guys and getting to know people. Baseball is an awesome sport to be around. You have so many different cultures in a locker room. You get to know so much about other guys’ lifestyles, and the foods they eat, and all these other things that make you a more well-rounded individual.
The thing I like the least is the travel. I understand it’s part of the grind, but the travel is tough. That’s probably the hardest part.
My least favorite part is being away from family. My favorite part is getting to explore all these cities and places you would probably never go. You see all these stadiums, and you can get out and walk around and see some of the cities and the different cultures.
We're very fortunate with the travel. We’re fed with the gold spoons everywhere we go. A lot goes into the grind, but there’s so much that’s worth it. You have only a small window of your life to be able to fulfill a childhood dream like this. You try to enjoy every part of it along the way.