TAMPA, Fla. — About eight hours before his New York Yankees — a team he was practically born into rooting for — played their fourth game of spring training, Russell Wilson was already inside the complex at George M. Steinbrenner Field on Monday morning, working out.
It was an early sign of his eagerness to play a part in the storied franchise’s latest chapter.
“He’s almost giddy. You can tell this is like the first day of school,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “You can tell he’s genuinely excited to be here and to just be a part of our guys.”
Wilson, the Super Bowl-winning quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks, isn’t only “a part” of the Yankees. He’s their newest second baseman, traded for earlier this month. He isn’t going to play in any games during his six-day stay, nor will he make the 25-man roster in the near future. But the Yankees still hope his presence will have an impact on this year’s team.
Read on as ESPN spent a day in the spring training life of the quarterback-turned-part-time-second-baseman:
11 a.m. ET
Aaron Judge and Russell Wilson hit consecutively today, and both put on a show. Unofficially, Judge had 10 BP homers today. Wilson and his 31-ounce Louisville Slugger had five. Giancarlo Stanton paced the group with 15.
Not long after Wilson arrived to the Yankees’ facility, Boone gave him some rude news.
Although Wilson said it had been more than a year since he had taken batting practice, he was going to take BP on Monday with the Yankees’ modern-day embodiment of Murderer’s Row: Judge, Stanton, Sanchez, Bird.
Last year, in an injury-abbreviated season, Greg Bird had nine homers, but he figures to factor more heavily in the Yankees’ power numbers in 2018. Gary Sanchez had 33 home runs. And Giancarlo Stanton (59) and Aaron Judge (52) paced their respective leagues in homers last season, Stanton while he spent the year with the Miami Marlins in the National League.
Boone’s announcement of Wilson hitting with batting practice Group 2 included an ominous message: “You better be on it today. I’m throwing you with the big boys.”
“They better be ready.”
1:00 p.m. ET
Here’s a first look at Russell Wilson in pinstripes as a member of the New York Yankees.
One of the most important people in Wilson’s life, his father Harrison Wilson III, was a big Yankees fan before his death from complications to diabetes in 2010.
When the multi-sport playing Russell Wilson was growing up, he and his dad and his great-uncle often spoke about him one day donning the Yankees’ unmistakable pinstripes.
“I love watching winners win,” Russell Wilson said of the 27-time World Series champion Yankees. “Loved seeing the process of why they won. The discipline it took. The passion of the fans. The energy they played with. The poise that they played with. Guys like Andy Pettitte. Guys like Derek Jeter and [Jorge] Posada.
“My great-uncle wears his Yankee hat every single day. He was a lawyer in New York for a long, long time. But he wears a Yankee hat every day, no matter where he goes. He comes to a Seahawks game, he’s wearing a Yankees hat.”
With his own new Yankees hat freshly atop his head, Russell Wilson’s day began on a backfield, where he got his arm loose before fielding a few ground balls.
1:22 p.m. ET
Russell Wilson told new Yankees teammate Didi Gregorius that it had been a year and a half since he was taking ground balls. “I told him it does not look like it,” Gregorius said. “He did not look rusty at all.”
As Wilson took grounders from second base, he teamed up with Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius to form a double-play tandem. While practicing together, they worked on pivots around second base, with Wilson looking more comfortable as the drills progressed.
One turn featured Gregorius feeding Wilson a quick toss, which the second baseman promptly and smoothly proceeded to catch with his bare hand before firing across to first base.
Ever the athlete on the football field, Wilson regularly displayed in these drills the type of twinkle-toed agility around the bag that has made him one of the more noted mobile quarterbacks in the NFL. After the fielding session ended, infield instructor and Yankees major league quality control coach Carlos Mendoza dropped the bat he had used to hit Wilson grounders and clapped, applauding his efforts.
“Some people always, for me, get confused on ‘is this just a stunt’ or whatever. They don’t know me. If you really know me, baseball’s been part of my blood,” Wilson said. “When you see me make plays on the football field, a lot of that’s a direct correlation to baseball.”
Gregorius didn’t think it looked like it had been a year and a half since Wilson took ground balls.
2:10 p.m. ET
Russell Wilson on the uniform number he’s wearing this week at Yankees’ spring training: “I tried to get No. 3 but I think somebody had it already (laughs). … So I’m wearing No. 73. Number 7 was my baseball number in high school.”
News conferences are a regular part of an NFL quarterback’s job, and Wilson handled his first appearance before the New York media horde like an experienced vet.
In fact, he didn’t show the slightest set of nerves before making his way over to the large news conference space affectionately known as “The Tent” at Steinbrenner Field. Between his infield session and the news conference, he was sitting inside the Yankees’ clubhouse joking with teammates who sat nearby.
Locker neighbor Tyler Austin shared laughs with Wilson, as did other players who dropped by the area to meet the four-time Pro Bowler.
Following the laugh session, Wilson spent more than 20 minutes with reporters before his day got into full stride. It was time for stretching, in-stadium infield drills and the major spectacle of the day: batting practice.
3:26 p.m. ET
Russell Wilson got a nice assist from Gary Sanchez on a full-team, infield in drill. Short-hopped the throw home.
Before Wilson ducked into the Yankees’ home dugout to grab a black, 31-ounce Louisville Slugger that had his name branded into it in silver, he grabbed his black fielding glove and jogged over from the outfield stretching area to second base. There, he proceeded to toss a baseball around the horn with his fellow infielders as defensive workouts commenced.
Wilson’s only real fielding blemish of the day came during an infield-in drill, which forced infielders to take ground balls near the lip of the grass and throw home to get an imaginary baserunner out. One of Wilson’s throws came in a little low and short-hopped Sanchez, who was catching.
Sanchez, whose defense drew former Yankees manager Joe Girardi’s ire at times last season, fielded the short hop cleanly and completed the play. Perhaps the fake baserunner would have been out.
3:56 p.m. ET
Here’s Russell Wilson taking batting practice. No home runs the first go-around but he was jacking it. Went yard a couple times his second time up.
The moment many at the ballpark had been awaiting finally arrived: Bird, Stanton, Judge, Wilson and Sanchez were in action. The concourses and walkways were buzzing, as fans were being let into the ballpark to watch the action. The batter’s eye, scoreboards and outfield bleachers were about to get busy. But before they did, it was time for a little bunting practice.
As the Yankees typically do, non-hitting players in the batting group lined themselves along the first- and third-base lines as a hitter stepped into the batter’s box to drop down two bunts. It’s custom for the non-hitting players to carry their bats out with them, with the sole purpose of slashing the bouncing ball to each other. That’s just some of their pre-hitting bonding and fun.
It appeared Wilson, the new guy, didn’t know the ritual at first. When the first slashed ball came his way, he tried to catch it with his hand, drawing a couple of laughs from teammates.
After bunting practice, the real show began.
One of Judge’s early home runs not only left the field, it flew over the tall batter’s eye beyond the center-field wall. Like at Yankee Stadium, the center-field fence here is 408 feet from home plate. Unofficially, Judge hit 10 homers, while Stanton paced the group with 15. Bird and Sanchez had eight and five, respectively.
While Wilson’s first round of batting practice didn’t produce any home runs, his latter two did. Each of Wilson’s unofficial six blasts were hit to left field, although he did have one impressive early drive to right that made it to the warning track.
Right after a Wilson home run that banged off the bottom of the scoreboard in left field, Judge, who was standing to the left of the cage, shook his head, smiled and said, “He’s been taking BP.”
4:12 p.m. ET
Russell Wilson had a special cheering squad here to see him for his first day with the Yankees. They even videotaped a special message to send to their mother, Ciara, who couldn’t be here today.
Wilson’s day in the cage was over. The dream of putting on the pinstripes had become a reality. For another five days, he’ll be the envy of other lifelong Yankees fans who have wondered how they might feel inside the ‘stripes while playing alongside up-and-coming team legends.
Following his rounds of hitting, Wilson addressed reporters briefly again before scouring the area around the dugout for his daughter Sienna, and wife Ciara’s son, Future Zahir Wilburn. Although Wilson wouldn’t be taking the field, there was a game to play Monday night in Tampa.
What began for Wilson more than 29 years ago as a family obsession with the Yankees, will continue.
Toronto Blue Jays finalizing trade for New York Mets’ Steven Matz
Matz, a 29-year-old left-hander, agreed to a $5.2 million, one-year deal with the Mets in December.
That deal came after he had the poorest of his six seasons, going 0-5 with a 9.68 ERA while earning $1,851,852 in prorated pay from a $5 million salary. He was dropped from the rotation after starting 0-4 with a 9.00 ERA in five starts, then made three relief appearances along with a spot start.
Matz is 31-41 with a 4.35 ERA over 107 career starts and five relief appearances.
Hank Aaron remembered at funeral by Bill Clinton, Bud Selig, others
ATLANTA — The Hammer made one last trip to the spot where he hit No. 715.
After a nearly three-hour funeral service Wednesday that featured two former presidents, a long-time baseball commissioner and a civil rights icon, the hearse carrying Hank Aaron’s body detoured off the road bearing his name to swing through the former site of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
That’s where Aaron broke an iconic record on April 8, 1974, eclipsing the home run mark established by Babe Ruth.
The stadium was imploded in 1997 after the Braves moved across the street to Turner Field, replaced by a parking lot for the new ballpark. But the outer retaining wall of the old stadium remains, along with a modest display in the midst of the nondescript lot that marks the exact location where the record-breaking homer cleared the left-field fence.
A steady stream of baseball fans have been stopping by the site — comprising a small section of fence, a wall and a baseball-shaped sign that says “Hank Aaron Home Run 715” — since “Hammerin’ Hank” died Friday at age 86. The fence is covered with flowers, notes and baseball memorabilia.
Fittingly, Aaron’s funeral procession went by the display on the way to his burial at South-View Cemetery, the oldest Black burial ground in Atlanta and resting place for prominent civil rights leaders such as John Lewis and Julian Bond.
The police-escorted line of cars passed near the gold-domed Georgia state capitol, went under the tower that displayed the Olympic torch during the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games, and headed down Hank Aaron Drive.
At the bottom of a hill, the procession took a sharp right turn toward the site of the former stadium. Aaron’s flower-covered hearse and all the vehicles that followed did a loop through the circular parking lot, which covers the footprint of the cookie-cutter stadium that became home of the Braves after they moved from Milwaukee in 1966.
It was a touching tribute that capped off several days of remembrances for one of baseball’s great players. The Braves held a memorial ceremony Tuesday at their current home, suburban Truist Park.
The funeral service touched as much on Aaron’s life beyond the field as it did his unparalleled baseball accomplishments, honoring his business acumen, charitable donations, and steadfast determination to provide educational opportunities for the underprivileged.
“His whole life was a home run,'” former President Bill Clinton said. “Now he has rounded the bases.”
Clinton said the two became close friends after Aaron endorsed him during the 1992 presidential campaign, when he pulled out a narrow victory in Georgia. Clinton had been the last Democrat to win the state until Joe Biden edged Donald Trump in November.
“For the rest of his life, he never let me forget who was responsible for winning,” Clinton quipped, drawing a few chuckles during the mostly somber ceremony. “Hank Aaron never bragged about anything — except carrying Georgia for me in 1992.”
Bud Selig, who was commissioner of Major League Baseball for more than two decades and another close friend of Aaron’s, said one of his fondest memories was being at Milwaukee’s County Stadium as a fan for the pennant-clinching homer that sent the Braves to the 1957 World Series.
“The only ticket I could get was an obstructed-view seat in the bleachers behind a big, metal post,” the 86-year-old Selig said. “The image of the great Aaron, deliriously happy, being hoisted on the shoulders of his teammates and carried off the field is indelibly imprinted in my memory.”
Andrew Young, a top lieutenant of Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil right movement and a former Atlanta mayor, said Aaron helped transform his adopted hometown into one of America’s most influential cities.
The Braves moved to the Deep South during an era of intense racial strife, Young pointed out, but having one of the game’s greatest Black players helped ease some of the tensions.
Atlanta continued its explosive growth, eventually landing such major sporting events as the Olympics, multiple Super Bowls and World Series, as well as numerous college sports championships.
“Just his presence, before he hit a hit, changed this city,” Young said. “We’ve never been the same.”
Only about 50 people attended the funeral service because of COVID-19 restrictions. Other sent videotaped messages, including another former president, Jimmy Carter.
Remembering his tenure as governor of Georgia, the 96-year-old Carter joked that after the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce gave Aaron a new Cadillac, he followed up with “a $10 tag” to go on the vehicle. It said “HLA 715,” a nod to the initials for Henry Louis Aaron.
The two became close friends and even took vacation trips to Colorado with their wives. In one pursuit, at least, Carter was the better athlete.
“Hank and I both learned how to ski together,” Carter said. “He skied fairly well. I was a little bit better than that on skis.”
A longtime Braves fan, Carter noted that he was at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium the night Aaron hit his iconic home run.
On Wednesday, the Hammer went there for the final time.
Reports — New York Yankees agree with reliever Darren O’Day on 1-year, $2.5 million deal
The deal includes player and club options for 2022 and is subject to a successful physical, according to reports.
O’Day takes the spot vacated when the Yankees traded right-hander Adam Ottavino to Boston on Monday, a move that cut $7.15 million from New York’s payroll. O’Day figures to join left-hander Zack Britton and right-hander Chad Green as the primary setup men for closer Aroldis Chapman.
O’Day, 38, was 4-0 with a 1.10 ERA in 16⅓ innings over 19 games last year with Atlanta, striking out 22 and walking five while allowing eight hits. While his fastball averaged just 86 mph, his low arm angle creates deception; right-handed hitters batted .143 (7-for-49) off him with one home run, by Boston’s Xander Bogaerts, the leadoff batter of O’Day’s final appearance of the season. Left-handed hitters were 1 for 10.
He became a free agent when Atlanta declined a $3.25 million option, triggering a $250,000 buyout.
O’Day is a 13-year major league veteran, going 40-19 with a 2.51 ERA and 600 strikeouts and 158 walks in 576⅔ innings for the Los Angeles Angels (2008), New York Mets (2009), Texas (2009-11), Baltimore (2012-18) and Braves (2019-20).
He was an All-Star in 2015, when he had a 1.52 ERA and six saves while striking out 82 in 65⅓ innings, but he missed the final two months of the 2018 season with a strained left hamstring and the first five months of 2019 with a strained right forearm sustained during spring training.
O’Day made $833,333 in prorated pay last year from a $2.25 million salary, down from a $31 million, four-year contract he signed with Baltimore ahead of the 2016 season. His wife, Elizabeth Prann, is a correspondent for HLN and CNN, formerly of Fox News.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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