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  • By acquiring Giancarlo Stanton, the Yankees created a lineup that will take power to new heights.
By Ben Reiter
March 20, 2018

As midnight approached on Thursday, Dec. 7, Giancarlo Stanton stood on the sand behind the Faena Hotel in Miami Beach. It was the week of Art Basel, and 82,000 visitors, some of them actually interested in art, had descended upon his adopted home city. Beautiful people in asymmetric, tailored clothing lounged beneath red-and-white-striped umbrellas and gawked at the woolly mammoth skeleton—coated in 24-karat gold by the artist Damien Hirst—that had, thanks to a $15 million investment by one of the Faena’s oligarchical co-owners, spent the most recent two of its 10,000 years of rest in a glass coffin on the hotel’s manicured grounds.

Stanton’s gaze, though, kept drifting to the Atlantic, and its waves, rhythmically crashing against the shore. He loved living in Miami, loved its food, its weather, its cosmopolitanism. Now he craved something he knew this city would never provide him: consistency.

Miami had certainly given him the type of personal success the son of Southern California postal workers could once never have imagined. Three winters earlier, when he had just turned 25, the Marlins signed him to what remains the richest contract in sports, $325 million to be paid over 13 seasons. The previous month, he had been named the National League’s MVP, after batting .281 with 59 home runs and 132 RBIs. He was grateful for all of it. But it felt empty.

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Each of his eight seasons had begun with new promises. He had played under eight different managers and eight different hitting coaches, each with his own philosophy, his own rules. Some years, the players had to be clean-shaven and wear suits on road trips. Some years, anything went. The result was always the same: more losses than wins, followed by new faces and new promises. “It was all irrelevant crap, extra stuff that we had to worry about that had nothing to do with anything on the field,” Stanton says. “What’s the new circus today?”

During All-Star Games and the World Baseball Classic, his temporary teammates always asked him the same question: What’s going on down there? “You laugh it off for a while,” Stanton says. “Then you start thinking, Are you part of that mess? Are you the face of what every-one is laughing about? It didn’t sit well with me for a while—for years. Then it started to really burn me up inside. I asked myself, If your career ended tomorrow, what can you take away from it, besides a few individual accomplishments?”

The only consistency was upheaval. That was why, even as the Marlins offered him the biggest contract in sports history after the 2014 season, he had stared down owner Jeffrey Loria and team president David Samson and demanded a two-part insurance policy. It wasn’t in case disaster struck. “It was for the inevitable,” he says. One part was an opt-out clause, which he could trigger after 2020. The other was a full no-trade clause, so that, if their new promises didn’t come to fruition, they couldn’t just deal him somewhere he didn’t want to go, as they had so many of his teammates.

In September 2016, after the second year of Stanton’s contract, the Marlins’ season ended not just in tumult, but also in tragedy. Three miles south of the beach on which Stanton stood, 24-year-old pitcher José Fernández died in a late-night boating accident, his body filled with alcohol and cocaine. Stanton and the rest of the Marlins lost a friend, an irrepressible presence who chattered and laughed all day long, even in the midst of yet another one of his double-digit strikeout games. The team spent the final week of the season crying in the clubhouse. Once the season ended, they realized they also might have lost their future. “You need a pitcher like that, who is going to dominate like he can,” Stanton says. “You’re not going to have everyone play O.K., pitch O.K., and win the World Series. We needed him.”

Once, when Fernández was in the middle of his own acrimonious contract negotiation with Loria and Samson, he had sidled up to Stanton during batting practice and outlined an alternate future for the two of them. “I want to be here, but I know how things are, and I know how these guys work,” Fernández said. “If it doesn’t work out, I’m going to go to New York and play with the Yankees, and you’re coming with me.”

Maybe you, Stanton thought. I’m here through 2020, and probably my whole career. He hadn’t yet given up hope of winning in Miami. He loved his teammates, like fellow young outfielders Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich and second baseman Dee Gordon. Even after Fernández’s death, Stanton believed the team could win with them. Last August, when Derek Jeter and the venture capitalist Bruce Sherman agreed to buy the club from Loria for $1.2 billion, he thought it might represent the final fresh start the Marlins needed. “I was happy,” he says. “All you knew about Jeter was the winning background, the winning culture. We were all pumped to hopefully get things going in the right direction, to finally give some respect to our organization.”

Then he learned that Jeter’s plan involved only more upheaval—the immediate slashing of the payroll of an organization that lost $50 million in 2017 and had one of the league’s worst farm systems, in order to rebuild it from the studs. That meant that teammates would likely soon be traded. With $295 million remaining on his contract, so would he—but only if he agreed to the destination.

As he stood on the beach on Dec. 7, his phone rang. It was his agent, Joel Wolfe.

“You’re not going to believe this, G, but we got a deal,” Wolfe said. “The Yankees.”

“Let’s do it,” Stanton said.

“You sure you don’t need a night to sleep on it?”

“If you want me to take a night, I’ll take a night,” Stanton said. “The answer’s going to be the same. Do it.”

***

In the 6' 6", 245-pound Stanton and the 6' 7", 282-pound Aaron Judge, the Yankees enter the 2018 season with a lineup centered around what could be history’s most powerful duo, and the potential for enlisting a new type of sponsor for a pregame giveaway, a maker of earplugs. Judge hit 52 home runs as last year’s American League MVP runner-up, and just one pair of teammates has ever exceeded the 111 bombs Stanton and Judge combined for in 2017: the Yankees’ Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle, who slugged 115 in 1961.

The Yankees have one player to thank, aside from Stanton, for their 13 feet of oomph. Despite conspiracy theorists who insist that he wanted to send a final parting gift to his club of 20 seasons, it’s not Derek Jeter. It’s Shohei Ohtani.

As the winter began, every team, aside from perhaps the Marlins, coveted the 23-year-old Japanese star, not only for his two-way skills but also for his artificially low price tag. Due to the league’s new collective bargaining agreement, Ohtani could only command a one-time signing bonus of a few million dollars, and then an annual salary at the league minimum of $545,000. Ohtani made clear that he would only sign with a club that would both use him on the mound and commit to giving him regular at bats. When Yankees general manager Brian Cashman looked at a lineup that was already packed with power, with potential 30-home-run hitters not just in right (Judge) but at catcher (Gary Sanchez), first base (Greg Bird) and shortstop (Didi Gregorius), he saw one open spot, at designated hitter. As the off-season commenced, he saved that spot for Ohtani.

Even so, at the league’s GM meetings in Orlando in mid-November, Cashman laid the groundwork for a significantly more expensive Plan B. After one session, he tapped Michael Hill, whom Jeter had retained as the Marlins’ GM, on the shoulder. They took a walk on the grounds of the hotel. “I know we’re probably a dark horse on Stanton,” Cashman said. “None of it is possible until the Ohtani thing plays out. We could become players.”

In early December, Cashman learned that Ohtani would not be signing with a team east of the Mississippi River, nor one that conducted spring training in Florida. The Yankees satisfied neither requirement, and Ohtani eventually signed with the Angels. So Cashman began to try to figure out how to fill his DH spot with a player who might end up costing more than 50 times his preferred option.

Meanwhile, Hill had worked on potential trades for Stanton with two other clubs, pending Stanton’s approval. Stanton met with representatives from both the Cardinals and the Giants in Los Angeles, his hometown and where he spends his winters, partially to see what they had to say but also to experience, for the first time in his life, what it was like to deal with front offices other than the Marlins’. “They’ve won recent championships, they know how it’s done, they’re storied franchises,” he says. “I really just wanted to see what everyone was talking about. How an organization should be run. I was curious. All I’d ever had was just peeking over the wall.”

He came away impressed, but still: As many as 10 years of his life hung in the balance, possibly the rest of his career. He wanted to go where he wanted to go. And, as he and Wolfe had told Hill, he wanted to go to one of four teams that promised not just the long-term stability he’d never had but also immediate success: the Astros, Cubs, Dodgers or Yankees. “Those were the young teams that were ready to win now, and were headed in the right direction,” Stanton says.

On Dec. 5, Stanton met the Marlins’ new owner, face-to-face, for the first time. He flew to Miami and sat down in the manager’s office in Marlins Park across from both Jeter and Hill. He told Wolfe to stay home. “I didn’t want any proper business talk, any buffering,” he says. “Let’s just get it out, raw, the real s---.”

First, he made one final plea to Jeter to invest in a club that, with him and Gordon and Ozuna and Yelich, had finished fifth in the National League in runs, and second after the All-Star break. Lacking Fernández, they might only need a couple of free-agent pitchers to contend. “Give it one half of the season,” Stanton said. “If we aren’t right there with the Nationals, or right there in the wild-card race, then you can deal everybody.”

Jeter and Hill weren’t buying it. They told Stanton he had two options. They had worked hard to come to terms with the Cardinals and the Giants. He could pick one of them, and soon, or he could stay in Miami as they traded away all of his friends and teammates. They had no other choice, and it wasn’t personal. It was business.

“This is not going to go how you guys think it will go,” Stanton said. “I’m not going to be forced somewhere, on a deadline, just because it’s convenient for you guys. I’ve put up with enough here. Derek, I know you don’t fully understand where I’m coming from. But Mike does. He’s been here. He can fill you in. This may not go exactly how I planned. But it’s definitely not going to go how you have planned.”

After half an hour in the manager’s office, the trio emerged. Jeter and Hill still hoped that Stanton would agree to go to San Francisco or St. Louis. But Hill also figured that he had better get on the phone with the man who had tapped him on the shoulder back in Orlando.

While Cashman knew that he was contending with a smaller field of bidders than he had for Ohtani—just three—the prospect of acquiring Stanton carried with it another consideration. For the 15th straight season, the Yankees had been required to pay a luxury tax penalty to their rivals for exceeding a collectively bargained payroll threshold—their payments to the rest of the league have totaled $341 million since 2003—and Cashman and the club’s owner, Hal Steinbrenner, had vowed to stay below the $197 million limit in 2018.

“We’re tired of paying our competitors so that they can acquire more weapons to compete against us,” Cashman says. He worked with Hill to arrive at a deal that would allow the Yankees’ projected payroll to remain below that $197 million, even after adding a player who was due to earn $25 million in 2018. If the Marlins took back second baseman Starlin Castro, who was owed $10 million for ’18, and also agreed to send $30 million cash to New York, they could do it. All that was left to determine were the prospects the Yankees would surrender along with Castro. They agreed on Jorge Guzman, a pitcher in rookie ball. “I could tell it was going to happen,” Cashman says. Then, after debating a long list of names, they settled on the second prospect: 18-year-old middle infielder Jose Devers.

Wolfe got the news, and called Stanton. Then Stanton rejoined his best friends A.J. Ramos of the Mets and Ricky Nolasco of the Royals, pitchers who had once been traded away from the Marlins, as he now had. As Damien Hirst’s golden mammoth glowed, they lifted a bottle of tequila that retails for $135 to the Miami sky. Hirst had titled his work Gone but not Forgotten.

***

There was a third player, besides Stanton and Ohtani, who could have prevented Stanton’s arrival in New York. Although Aaron Judge had only just completed his rookie season with the Yankees, he was the team’s centerpiece, and now Cashman was on the verge of acquiring a player who not only possessed many of his same skills but also played the same position, rightfield. Judge was signing autographs at a hotel when Cashman called him on the morning of Dec. 8. “We have a deal in place to acquire Giancarlo Stanton,” Cashman told Judge. “That would mean that you might have to bounce around from rightfield to DH at times. Are you willing to do that?”

“If he was really against making any type of adjustment or sacrifice, or if it bothered him that any of this would be taking place, then it would probably have impacted my decision to move forward on it,” says Cashman. “He’d acquired enough capital here that I would have had to reassess things and maybe seen if Stanton would have been willing to be a pure DH at all times. We’re dealing with human beings, and buy-in, open-mindedness and willingness to adjust are important ingredients.”

Judge’s answer came without hesitation. “We have the chance to add the NL MVP to our team? Yeah, we gotta get that done,” he said. “I’m all in, Cash.”

“People always say we’re very similar,” Stanton says, and his first spring training with Judge only confirmed that for him. Both are reserved and immensely strong Californians. “Both got the same look. Freckles, skin tone, body,” says Stanton.

While one of the things that attracted Stanton to the Yankees was their stability—they haven’t had a losing season since 1992—they do have a new manager. Cashman let Joe Girardi go last fall after a decade at the helm. “On basically my first day on the job, Cash called me into his office and said, ‘I think we got Stanton,’” says new skipper Aaron Boone. “I was like, ‘Huh. Good first day here.’”

One of Boone’s early challenges will be to figure out how to slot both Judge and Stanton into his lineup every day. He says that he will most often play one in right and one at DH, though he also envisions occasions when he’ll put one in leftfield—he’s not yet sure which one. Still, Boone believes each will benefit from the presence of the other, because pitchers will likely try to attack them in the same ways and because there are few other hitters on the planet who know what it is like to try to maintain consistent swing mechanics with behemoth bodies like theirs.

Stanton agrees. “We’ll have to watch how they approach us, because it’s going to be similar,” he says. “There’s going to be a lot of learning each other’s games, and helping each other when we’re in the thick of it.”

As for their positions, Stanton says, “Both of us prefer to play in right, but we also both prefer to help the team. My responsibility is to try to fit in, rather than try to come in and take over. That’s not my nature.”

Although his size, skills and salary have long set Stanton apart, what he always desired was to fit in on a winning team, with consistent faces, rules and philosophies. He believed he had found that in Miami, with Gordon and Ozuna and Yelich—as well as first baseman Justin Bour and catcher J.T. Realmuto—but it was not to be. Jeter and Hill had traded Gordon to the Mariners, and with Stanton gone, dealt Ozuna to the Cardinals and Yelich to the Brewers.

“I miss playing with them,” Stanton says. “We came up as youngsters together, helped each other grow into the game. You watch those guys get better, you watch them struggle. We had some good times. We knew what we had with that lineup.”

It was, Stanton will always believe, a World Series nucleus, one that is now scattered across the league. While he will room in New York City with Ramos—now the potential closer for the crosstown Mets—he will have to keep track of the rest of his former teammates from afar.

Stanton insists he bears no ill will toward Jeter and has only one wish for his stewardship of the Marlins. It relates to the $2.5 million, seven-story-tall home run installation by pop artist Red Grooms, that sits beyond the left centerfield wall in Marlins Park and which Stanton set into marlin-diving, water-spraying motion 112 times over the past six years, more than twice as often as anyone else. Stanton, in fact, has by himself been responsible for 31% of its activations, which come whenever a Marlin hits a homer.

“I can’t stand that sculpture,” he says. “I never liked it. I hope Jeter takes it down. He said he wants to. I hope he does. All it does is suggest that this place is a circus, and we’re the main attraction.

“The circus is over now.” 

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