Gerrit Cole's New York Yankees Introduction: An Emotional Moment Two Decades In The Making
Less than two minutes after adjusting the top button of his No. 45 jersey, officially donning pinstripes for the first time, Gerrit Cole already had his first signature Yankee moment.
He took his time buttoning it up, with skipper Aaron Boone and general manager Brian Cashman looking on, cracking a smile as Boone pointed out Cole's clean-shaven face.
"He cleans up nice, doesn't he?" Boone joked.
All eyes were locked on the 29-year-old as he meticulously went through all five buttons, in an erratic order, before flattening the front, looking up and beaming for a barrage of photos.
Baseball's highest-paid starting pitcher ever, and one of the most-talented hurlers in the game today, had officially joined forces with the most storied franchise in baseball history.
And yet, as Cole approached the podium, on a dais full of the organization's most distinguished representatives, he had brought along something to show, proving this moment meant far more than just a formality.
"I'd like to start with something that's pretty special to my heart," he said, calling for his agent, Scott Boras, the managing general partner and co-chairperson of the Yankees, Hal Steinbrenner, along with his wife Amy, to join him at the room's focal point.
With the group gathered around him, Cole revealed a yellow-tinted canvas from behind the podium, shifting to his right for everyone in the room to see. He flipped and displayed the sign, which read "Yankee Fan Today Tomorrow Forever" in all capital letters.
"I would just like to say," he called out, "I'm here. I've always been here."
It was the same sign Cole was holding in the photo -- ever-prominent during his free-agency recruitment saga this offseason -- taken during Game 6 of the 2001 World Series in Arizona. He was an 11-year-old at the time, wearing a Derek Jeter jersey. 18 years later, he's a member of the team he grew up rooting for.
"I feel like it’s hard not to fall in love with the Yankees from 1994 to 2002," Cole said during the presser, fielding questions from local media at Yankee Stadium. "The Yankees were on at 4 o'clock every day. So I would rush home from school, pop the TV on outside ... we'd sit on the patio and watch Yankees games."
Growing up in Southern California, he recalled attending plenty of Los Angeles Angels games in Anaheim to get his MLB fix, but he explained his unwavering allegiance to the Bronx Bombers -- sparked from his father growing up in the New York area.
"Every young kid wants to be like their Dad, right?" he said.
Plenty of factors contributed to Cole's record-setting nine-year, $324 million agreement with the Yankees, a deal that was finalized eight days ago during the Winter Meetings in San Diego. Cole's long-time connection to this club, however, turned out to be a key component in his decision.
"It was my dream," Cole said. "I had a second opportunity to chase it and it's the best organization in the league in my opinion ... and it doesn't hurt to play for your favorite team."
When asked about the tipping point in his free-agency sweepstakes on YES Network after the press conferences, Cole said he ultimately followed his heart. "I talk about following my dream and I guess some day I might have a family so what better way to tell your kids to chase after the things they love and do it themselves and set an example that way."
It was a chase not just for Cole, but for the Yankees as well -- one that's been ongoing for approximately the last two decades.
Cole even knew it, thanking Cashman for "hanging in there for all those years" while shouting out those that helped him get to this point.
Cole was drafted out of high school by the Yankees in 2008, with New York's first selection in the MLB Draft -- instead, he elected to further his amateur baseball career and pursue an education by attending UCLA.
That decision to forego an opportunity to sign and play for his favorite team growing up, that early in his career, was "extremely tough" according to Cole. Education, however, had been engrained in Cole and his family from a very young age. Choosing to honor his commitment to his studies, as well as to UCLA, turned out to be beneficial.
Three years later, the right-hander was selected with the No. 1 overall pick by the Pittsburgh Pirates. Cashman told the story of the Yankees' pursuit of Cole at Wednesday's press conference -- he and the Yankee organization kept an eye on Cole's development that entire time.
"We obviously sat from afar and watched him continue to grow," Cashman recalled, praising Cole's "poise, patience and discipline" to make those difficult decisions and forge onward in his blossoming career.
A second chance came and went for the Yankees two years ago when Cole was dealt from Pittsburgh to the Houston Astros. It was a decision out of Cole's hands, but Cashman again celebrated the hurler's ability to refrain from signing an extension and say no until it was the right time and the right place.
"Now we're here," Cashman explained. "The right time, the right place. We were very transparent about our interest in this particular player ... a youthful Yankee fan.
"I don't want to speak for Gerrit Cole on this, but I think that all of those experiences along the way have put him in a better position to join these teammates he has here today and our manager and our coaching staff and this franchise and our fanbase to be in a position to contribute in a significant way."
There were several suitors interested in reeling in the market's best talent this offseason -- namely the Angels and Los Angeles Dodgers. His agent, Scott Boras, negotiated $814 million worth in salaries between Cole, Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon. All three of those deals went down over a span of about 56 hours in what's quickly become one of the most eventful (and expensive) offseasons in baseball history.
Cole recalled gestures made by New York during the negotiating process that only furthered his respect and adoration for the organization.
He received a package, covered in gold, shaped like home plate, 12-inches high and embroidered in pinstripes -- the California native explained that when he opened it, an iPad was situated on top with "everything you need to know about the Yankees organization."
"It was really quite nice. I was impressed," Cole said, also joking about the high-class wine that was featured during the in-person negotiations at the Winter Meetings. "Then, once we came to terms, there was a Yankees hat in there, which I don't think I took off for three days."
Hal Steinbrenner, who has been notorious in recent years for straying away from his father's reputation of signing the most expensive free agents, was on board with making an exception this time around.
"I truly believe Gerrit is going to be a game changer for us," Steinbrenner said on YES Network following the press conference. "It's a lot of money but remember, this isn't just for 2020, this is going to be one of the best aces in baseball we're going to have for a good number of years."
When asked what set him apart from the other free agents in the past, like a Manny Machado or Bryce Harper, who didn't receive record-high contract offers to play in the Bronx, it was Cole's "lifelong love for the Yankees" that sealed the deal.
Cole said all the right things at his introductory press conference on Wednesday, impressing with his honesty, his ability to stay composed and even joke around during his first interaction with New York media. He also emphasized his drive for winning a championship, perhaps multiple, as a member of the Yankees.
"We need to win a World Championship and ideally more than one, that's for sure," Cole said on YES in response to how he and the Yankees can make this a successful partnership. "The organization does such a good job of putting us in a position to get to October by surrounding us with great players ... Let's try to [win] 30 of 'em."
Cole's abilities on the mound are extraordinary, perhaps even worth the hefty contract. Nonetheless, talent aside, it all comes back to Cole's connection with this club.
It's hard to tell from a TV or laptop screen, but Brian Cashman confirmed that Cole was indeed getting emotional on the podium -- putting on that jersey, shaking hands with his new bosses and officially becoming a member of the organization that he's followed since his childhood.
"When he’s putting on that uniform, he started getting emotional," Cashman explained. "I know how much this means to him, even more-so by watching that play out a little bit. Then, he maintained his poise and was able to regroup himself. It’s obviously a long dream coming for him since he was a little boy."
A dream and a love story tied together by a handmade sign, kept in the back of a closet for almost two decades with words that have, inevitably, turned out to be the truth.
"Yankee Fan Today Tomorrow Forever"
Except now, he's no longer just a fan. He's the ace of arguably the best team in the league, poised for a World Series run in 2020.
Surely, that's just how he envisioned his baseball career to go all those years ago.
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