TAMPA — New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole is recommending wines one minute, defending his former Houston Astros teammates the next, discussing the value of analytics with his teammates in the morning, and talking about Kobe Bryant and the frailty of life in the afternoon.
He has already memorized the names and faces of the Yankee beat writers, greeting them by name as if it’s his responsibility to make them feel at ease around him.
He’s a Southern California kid who was offered nearly $300 million to stay right at home, but traded the comfort for the challenge and demands of pitching in New York.
He is fully embracing the unknown, deciding to live in Greenwich Village where he and his pregnant wife, Amy, can experience all New York has to offer.
“He’s going to love it,’’ said Philadelphia Phillies infielder Neil Walker, one of Cole’s closest friends and a former teammate with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“I think he’ll be very comfortable. He’s going to have to deal with big-city living in New York, but with his personality, he can handle anything," said Walker, who spent three seasons playing in New York. “He enjoys the process and responsibility of being relied upon heavily. He loves having people count on him. He wants people to have those high expectations.
“Really, to be honest, I think he’s been waiting for this his entire life.’’
Cole, 29, will make his Yankees debut Monday night at George M. Steinbrenner Field against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
It’s ultimately a meaningless spring training game, but having just signed a record nine-year, $324 million contract, it will be like no other exhibition Cole has ever pitched.
“The expectations here fall in line with what I’m trying to do,’’ Cole told USA TODAY Sports. “We’re all like-minded around here in that sense. I don’t know the exact word to describe it, but it’s just a really nice feeling, an exciting feeling. You look around and it’s like, 'Yeah, we’re going to try to win a World Series. We’re going to try to win a World Series next year, and the year after that, and every year you’re here.’ And they’re dead serious.
“Just putting on the Yankee uniform for the first time, man, I couldn’t believe it. I met [former Yankee second baseman] Willie Randolph. Reggie Jackson called me. And I can’t wait to meet Mariano Rivera. I can’t wait!
“I’m telling you, I’m on cloud nine.’’
Cole grew up a Yankee fan in Newport Beach, and knew that one day, no matter where his career took him, he wanted to wear that Yankee uniform at least once before he retired.
“Even if I was 40 years old, and had to go to [Class AAA] Scranton,” Cole said, “I would have done it. That’s how much it meant to me.’’
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Cole looks around the clubhouse, surveying the surplus of talent, with the Yankees established as heavy favorites to win the American League pennant.
Of course, it was the same with the Houston Astros the past two seasons, a team that won 103 games in 2018, then 107 games and the AL pennant last year.
“I’m going to miss those guys,’’ Cole said. “They’re under scrutiny right now. So many people are coming after them.
“I anticipate them bunkering down. I think they are going to play really hard, and really well this year. Hopefully if they do that, maybe they can quiet it down a little bit, proving this will be a fresh slate for them.
“But I’m telling you, we played fair and square last year. I didn’t see anything in 2018 either. I really didn’t. But no one wants to hear it now.’’
Gerrit Cole signed a nine-year, $324 million deal with the Yankees this winter. (Photo: Kim Klement, USA TODAY Sports)
Even in his own clubhouse, he hears teammates like Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Gleyber Torres accuse the Astros of cheating last year too, when they knocked the Yankees out of the playoffs. They insist that since the Astros were never caught cheating in the previous two years, why would they have stopped?
Cole will gladly tell them the truth. He has nothing to hide. But no one is listening.
“Everybody is entitled to their opinion,’’ he said, “it’s their own opinion. People handle this the way they want to handle it. We’re all grown guys around here. I’m certainly not going to tell somebody how to think. I’m personally not offended about it.
“But I’m not sure that forgiveness is something that some people will even want to talk about right now.’’
Really, the only thing that truly assaults his senses from last year is that the Astros didn’t win the World Series against the Washington Nationals.
Cole was in the bullpen warming up with the Astros leading in the seventh inning of Game 7, but never got to take the mound as the Nationals rallied to win.
Now, four months later, Cole explains why he never appeared, despite being ready for his first career relief appearance.
“We talked beforehand about what I could do,’’ Cole said. “I reconvened with [Hinch] and said, 'Look, you got to put me in position to succeed here. I certainly don’t want to pitch if we’re way behind obviously. But I want to start an inning, and for it to be a tie game or maybe a lead.’
“I had never relieved before so I don’t think the first time should be the seventh inning in a jam. And he agreed. We had enough people fresh to get out of those spots. He said, 'I’ll just bring you in if we’re tied or have the lead to finish it out' …
“It just slipped away from us, man."
Cole become a free agent as soon as the game ended, with the Yankees, Los Angeles Angels and Dodgers all in strong pursuit before he even flew back home.
The Yankees and Angels were the last ones standing in the bidding war, with the Astros making a late-minute push.
“Right at the end, there were a few teams that caught wind how close it was,’’ Cole said, “and they reached out and called. Houston was one of those teams calling. But it was pretty much already over.
“I was going to New York.’’
And just like that, the Yankees had their biggest free-agent arm since landing CC Sabathia before the 2009 season. They won the World Series that year.
“It’s the same reason we went all in on CC,’’ Yankees GM Brian Cashman said. “You’re getting a lot of the intangibles. They’re game-changers. They’re difference-makers. …
"He gets all aspects. He understands the fans. He understands the media’s needs. The fans’ needs. The team’s desire to win. He just gets all aspects of this industry.
“Some guys just clock out after a game and say, 'I don’t want to deal with the press. I don’t want to deal with the fans. I don’t want to deal with autographs. I don’t want to do interviews.’ Cole is not that guy.’’
It’s Cole’s knowledge and acceptance of baseball’s new information age, says rookie Yankees pitching coach Matt Blake, that’s invaluable to the entire pitching staff. If pitchers are reluctant to accept Blake’s teachings of analytics, advanced metrics and spin-rates, they can turn to Cole for his stamp of approval.
“It’s huge for me,’’ Blake said. “Any time you can have somebody playing at a high level and embraces the technology, and is advocating for the same message, it goes a long way getting people on board quicker than you initially would.’’
Said Cashman: “Some people are born with the gift, and they just execute the gift, and they don’t have much content past that. This is a guy that was born with the gift, but also has knowledge how to use that gift, and he’s able to communicate in a way to share his knowledge with others.’’
Cole may be the best pitcher in the game, but he’s still a kid at heart.
He breaks into a wide grin, his eyes blinking with elation, and says: “You know, I’m going to like it here. Really, really like it.
“I can’t wait to get started.’’
Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter: @BNightengale
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