By Bob Klapish
It is a typical spring training morning, and as usually the case in the far corner of the Yankees’ clubhouse Gary Sanchez is alone at his locker, preparing to hit in the batting cage. The man with the explosive bat clearly prefers peace and quiet over celebrity – he’s happiest when being left alone, even if he knows that won’t be possible in 2017.
After hitting 20 home runs in 201 at-bats last year, coupling it with a .299 average, Sanchez could very well be the Yankees’ best hitter today. He’s certainly the most dangerous with a fastball. When GM Brian Cashman says, “we’ve placed our bets on Gary” it means the organization no longer hopes for success – they now expect it.
But is Sanchez ready? Not only will he be more closely scouted and pitched to with greater caution, his role as lineup’s hub has turned the 24-year-old-Dominican into a rock star. Sanchez is about to be famous, whether he likes it or not. It’s not a lifestyle he’s looking forward to.
“I’m a shy person, this is who I am,” Sanchez said. “I love baseball, I love playing for the Yankees. But there are other parts of the game that are more difficult for me.”
Learning English has been one of the challenges. Although Sanchez can converse with pitchers on the mound, he still leans on a translator to get through interviews with the press. Like all Yankees’ prospects, Sanchez attended mandatory English classes soon after being drafted in 2009, but admits he’s still far from fluent.
“My goal is to be bilingual,” Sanchez said. “For some (Spanish-speaking) players, English comes easily. That hasn’t been true for me, so far. But I’m trying. I feel like I’m improving.”
Actually, command of English is no longer a necessity, now that Major League Baseball requires teams to provide translators. Sanchez could, if he wanted, remain on the margins, hitting those home runs without ever fully bonding with English-speaking fans.
One club official believes Sanchez would be fine doing just that – confining his world to hitting and catching and otherwise avoiding publicity. The official said, “I can tell you two things about Gary. One, he’s a great guy. We like him. Second, he’s not here to be a celebrity. You’re never going to see him in the movies or on a TV show.”
That observation may or may not have a reference to Noah Syndergaard’s cameo appearance on an upcoming Game of Thrones episode, but the point was nevertheless made: Sanchez is too busy working on his game to think about getting his name bold-faced on Page Six.
Considering his troubled past, and how hard the Yankees have worked to smooth out the rough edges in Sanchez’ personality, that’s a triumph. As reticent as Sanchez is today, he was just as moody and immature in his earlier years in the organization.
In 2012, still only a teenager, Sanchez refused to warm up a reliever after finding himself on the bench for a second straight game. The Yankees immediately demoted him from Class-A Charleston to their extended spring training program. In 2014 Sanchez was suspended for five games for violating undisclosed team rules.
Cashman explained Sanchez was punished for an accumulation of small offenses. “At some point a manager has to take a stand,” the GM said. “Our players have a code of conduct, how they behave in the dugout after they make an out, whether or not they run out ground balls, their overall attitude.”
Sanchez looked disinterested at times, irritated at others. He took terrible batting practice – loading up with every swing just to see how far he could hit the ball. The Yankees tried a million different ways to motivate him, failing every step of the way. For all his talent and explosive power, Sanchez was in danger of sabotaging his major league career.
It wasn’t until 2015 when Sanchez’ attitude – and life – finally changed. He and his wife Sahaira had their daughter Sarah, instilling in the catcher a sense of responsibility and maturity he’d previously shunned.
“I am a different man today because of her,” Sanchez said of his daughter. “I realize how much is at stake when I play baseball now. I remember that every day when I come to the ballpark, that this isn’t just for me.”
It’s too easy to say Sanchez began destroying pitchers in 2016 just because of fatherhood. He’s also entering his athletic prime and what should be a lethal run through his mid-20s. Sanchez is blessed with exceptional bat-speed to go with his power, as well as a throwing arm that Joe Girardi, himself a former catcher, calls, “incredible.”
“I can’t even imagine what it’s like to be able to throw like that,” the manager said. “The big thing is that everything Gary does, he does effortlessly. That’s what so impressive. He’s one of those guys who doesn’t look like he’s trying, and still performs at that level. It’s a gift.”
Scouts say Sanchez will have to prove he can hit breaking pitches more frequently this year – hardly anyone will be foolish enough to challenge him with heat, especially behind in the count. And if there are any red flags in Sanchez’ future, it’s his size and weight. At 230 pounds, he could eventually become too bulky to catch.
For now, however, Sanchez is in the sweet spot of the physical and emotional axis, even if too few fans know about him yet.
“Gary’s real personality comes out when he’s talking to us, speaking Spanish,” Dellin Betances said, nodding to Michael Pineda and Aroldis Chapman. “He’s just a little shy around everyone else. But I think that’s going to change. Gary’s time is coming.”