Gerrit Cole's First Day at Spring Training Reignites Conversation of the Yankees Fulfilling Championship Aspirations

Max Goodman

TAMPA, Fla. – It's been close to two months since Gerrit Cole donned pinstripes for the first time at his introductory press conference in the Bronx. In fact, it's been close to a quarter of a year since the right-hander first agreed to his record deal with the Yankees.

As Cole suited up in Yankees' gear for the first time, however, there was something special in the air at New York's Spring Training facility.

The $324 million hurler didn't do too much on Wednesday as pitchers and catchers reported at George M. Steinbrenner Field. He threw for a few minutes down the right-field line, tossed a 25-pitch bullpen session and chatted with the Yankees' coaching staff before returning to the clubhouse. 

He didn't even speak with the media. The baseball world will have to wait a little longer to hear from Cole. He's scheduled to address the media on Thursday afternoon.

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It was simply his presence that caught everyone's attention, reigniting the excitement around the organization and fanbase surrounding his free-agency decision.

"He’s arguably the game’s best pitcher. We’re adding a bona fide ace to already what we feel like is a really good rotation," skipper Aaron Boone said in the midst of his first press conference of the spring. "We’re just really excited to have him and it’s exciting to see him come here and know this is a place that he absolutely wants to be."

When Cole emerged, set to go through his throwing routine, he instantaneously became the center of attention. It seemed like each and every media member in attendance had gravitated toward the right-field corner, just to witness the 6-foot-4 hurler warm up. 

Next, reporters crouched down on their hands and knees, pointing cell phones through tiny openings in a chain link fence draped with a tarp, to get a glimpse of Cole's bullpen. Sounds of Gary Sánchez's glove popping were deafening (in a good way), echoing through the stadium's chambers. 

When integral members of the Yankees' rotation this season – including Luis Severino and Masahiro Tanaka – strolled by to kick off their first official spring workout, all eyes remained on Cole. Attention on the ace didn't waver, even as he spoke with members of the Bombers' coaching staff out of earshot. 

On the lengthy conversation with Cole and several staff members after his bullpen, Boone was impressed. He pinpointed the right-hander's attention to detail as one of the many ways he continues to improve at his craft.

"We were talking everything from how he’s shaping his changeup and how he wants to throw it, what his arm action should be doing, where his misses are," Boone recalled, explaining their chat reminded him of their meeting this winter prior to reaching an agreement via free agency. "It’s just a really good baseball conversation with a great player that understands who he is really well."

Sánchez, who was behind the dish in the 'pen, called Cole "incredibly impressive." He was excited at the opportunity to catch one of the best pitchers in the game, rather than stepping in the box against him.

Who can blame him. Cole dominated in 2019, winning 20 games and leading the league with a record-high 326 strikeouts – 26 more than any other pitcher in the game.

"Facing a guy like him who throws hard, you have to look for a pitch and you have to try not to miss that one pitch," Sánchez said through his interpreter. "You only get one chance. So it’s tough. You don’t have a lot of time to put the ball in play. Of all the pitches he has, just try no to miss that one pitch you get."

Severino recalled meeting the newest member of the Yankees' rotation at the 2017 All-Star Game, exclaiming that Cole won't just help the rotation, but is an asset regarding "anything about baseball."

"He seems like a great guy," the right-hander said, mentioning he'll throw his first 'pen of the spring on Thursday. "I'm not afraid to go out there and talk to him ... Not only can he help the team but help us individually."

With lofty expectations heading into the regular season and beyond, Boone recognized the influence that Cole can singlehandedly have on this club.

"We feel like we’ve been a championship caliber team now for a few years and have been knocking on that door. We haven’t pushed through yet," Boone said. "Obviously adding a guy like Gerrit, there’s no running from the fact that this is an elite player. [Signing him] away from one of the teams that we’ve been competing with so heavily. So we’re excited to have him and know the kind of impact that he potentially can make."

The next few weeks will feature plenty of milestones for Cole in a Yankees' uniform. He'll check off his first interactions with fans when the facility is open to the public on Thursday, he'll continue to meet his teammates when the rest of the position players report on Monday, eventually he'll make his first appearance in a game this spring and then exit his final outing of Spring Training next month, ready to toe the rubber on Opening Day.

In the meantime, after watching Cole in the spotlight on Wednesday, Boone was reminded of his club's aspirations this season. With this ace at the forefront of the Bombers' pitching staff, the Yankees have a realistic shot to contend for a World Series title.

"We have a long way to go between now and even the regular season," he said. "Even getting ahead of ourselves to October. I mean, there’s a lot of foundational things to be laid. Starting in earnest tomorrow that hopefully will put us in the position to make another serious run at this thing."

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