The Wait

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Being a base-stealer is about being a realist.

If you try to steal while counting on the best-case scenario — the perfect jump, a bad throw — then you leave yourself exposed: the right throw, in the right location, and you’re toast.

If you try to steal while fearing for the worst-case scenario — a bad jump, the perfect throw — then you leave yourself exposed as well: each at-bat contains a limited number of pitches; missing just one good chance to take the base can be as bad as making an out.

When you’re trying to steal, there has to be a balance. You have to find that middle ground. There’s a sixth sense to it, an instinctive math.

And math, in the end, is really what it comes down to. Strip away the scouting, the timing and everything in between: It’s your speed minus their throw.

New York Yankees pinch runner Rico Noel (70) looks up after stealing second in the 10th inning of the Yankees 9-5 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays during the first baseball game of a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium in New York, Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015.  Toronto Blue Jays second baseman Ryan Goins, left, holds the ball but had no play. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

When the numbers say stay, you stay. And when numbers say go, you go.

*

My brother Orlandus is an optimist.

He’s a goofball, but in the best sense. He’s the life of the party. He’s always looking out for everyone, checking in to see if a room is too tense. And if it is, then you can count on Orlandus: He will find a way to break the tension.

Is your cookout feeling a little uptight? Not for long, if Orlandus is there. He’ll just start … dancing. Yes, alone. No, it doesn’t matter what music is on. Orlandus’ll go — and go, and go. And then, before you know it, everyone’s having fun. It’s like magic.

Orlandus is just That Guy: The one who seemingly can create positive energy from thin air. The one who manages to see the optimist’s angle, everywhere he looks. And the one who plays his hand with a smile — no matter what cards he’s been dealt.

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This past year, Orlandus was dealt some really tough cards.

In November, he started coughing a lot. He had smoked cigarettes previously, so that was our explanation for it: smoker’s cough. Nobody thought much of it.

But then he started to get some chest pains. We thought, “Okay, let’s check this out.” The doctors ran some tests.

The pains wouldn’t subside.

For the next several months, Orlandus was in and out of the hospital — test, after test, after test. The symptoms got stranger: shortness of breath … feeling like he was about to pass out … and more and more pain.

Until, finally, there was a diagnosis: Congestive heart failure.

It was worse than we could have possibly imagined.

My brother needed a new heart.

*

I was in Buffalo when the Yankees told me I was being called up to the big leagues.

Immediately, I called my mom. She was so happy for me. She knew what a dream it had been for me to reach the majors — and how hard I worked for it. In many ways, I think she understood it more clearly than I did. Moms always know, you know? They always remember.

It was worse than we could have possibly imagined. My brother needed a new heart.

And hearing her process those memories was when it really sunk in for me. Because she was right: I had worked hard — so, so hard. For it to all pay off, in one moment of news, was an incredible feeling.

But it was also bittersweet.

By now, Orlandus had been admitted to the Baylor Heart Institute in Dallas. In the time since his diagnosis, he’d lost 70 pounds — from 220 to 150. He had to have surgery to insert an LVAD — a left ventricular assist device. An LVAD is essentially a mechanical pump on the heart. The surgery for its insertion would take two months to recover from. Worst of all, while recovering from surgery, you had to be taken off the transplant list.

It was a tough time. How could I be happy when the person I loved the most was in pain? When their health was failing them, and there was nothing I could do?

The emotions were hard to fully process. Luckily, the Yankees made it easy for me.

When you walk into that clubhouse, you instantly understand the success they’ve had.

FILE- In this Sept. 4, 2015, file photo, New York Yankees' Rico Noel from the dugout during a baseball game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Yankee Stadium in New York. Will the 26-year-old speedster, whose September role is to pinch run, ever get a chance to hit, or will he join Moonlight Graham and become the 86th major league position player who never got to bat? (AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek, File)

It’s a special organization.

Here’s how special: The first thing I received, as a Yankee, was an apology.

I’ll explain: My first game after being called up was at Fenway Park. Fenway’s visitor’s clubhouse is on the smaller side, and as a new addition to the team, my locker was tucked away in the corner. When I arrived, all of the guys were already there … and space was a little tight.

They showed me to my stuff.

“Sorry there’s not much room,” one of the guys said to me.

Uhhh — hold up. I’m about to suit up … to play for the New York Yankees … in Fenway Park … and you think I care about room?!

I felt like I was in a mansion. I was on top of the world.

All of the guys have been extremely welcoming. Chris Young has been a major mentor to me. I’ve barely been with the team a month, and already C.Y. has taken me for lunch a few times and let me pick his brain. Brian McCann has been great. He’s exactly the leader you’ve heard he is. Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury have guided me through the ins and outs of impact base-running. Alex Rodriguez has taken the time to chat with me over dinner and show me the ropes. Didi Gregorius has helped me out in too many ways to count. It’s just a really good group.

Noel Suit Up Pull

I remember walking through the clubhouse one day, and hearing a voice from behind me.

“Hey man. How’s your brother?”

It was Carlos Beltrán. Carlos Beltrán. My dream is to become a starting centerfielder in the big leagues one day. And here was one of the greatest centerfielders of all time … coming up to me. And not just to say hi — to ask me about my sick brother.

It blew me away.

But pretty soon, that became standard. Once guys found out about Orlandus, they made it a point to bring him up. Not in a weird way, but in a way that said, you know, You’re one of us now. And if this is happening to you, then it is happening to the team. And we’re going to check in with you about it.

No matter what happens to me, for the rest of my career: I’ll never forget that.

*

Ask anyone: the best part about pinch-running isn’t running at all.

It’s the moment before.

New York Yankees Rico Noel takes a lead off first base after hitting a single against the Baltimore Orioles in the  first baseball game of a double header in Baltimore, Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

It’s the moment when you feel the entire ballpark watching you. You can sense it. You can actually, physically sense it — those tens of thousands of eyes shifting your way. You can feel them looking … leaning … knowing.

It’s him, they’re thinking. We know why he’s here. He’s here to steal the base.

Any pinch-runner will tell you: That’s the moment you relish.

It’s the moment before the moment.

It’s the wait.

When I pinch-ran for the first time in the big leagues, I felt it.

I was surprised at how natural it felt. There I was, taking a lead off of first, in a major league game, Liam Hendriks on the mound … and it felt … normal.

Suddenly, I realized why. I’d done it before.

The exciting part wasn’t just realizing I belonged. It was realizing everyone in the stadium knew I belonged as well.

Hundreds and hundreds of times before. Any variation they could throw at me, to hold me at first — I realized I’d already been through it. I’d been, It’s “Game 7 of the World Series”-level intense, and they know you’re stealing held before. I’d been, Six pickoff moves to first base without throwing a pitch — and then five more moves before another pitch held before. I’d been ignored before. I’d been fake-ignored before. I’d been through all of it. And I’d stolen bags in each situation.

Of course, the exciting part wasn’t just realizing I belonged. It was realizing everyone in the stadium knew I belonged as well.

It’s him, they were thinking. We know why he’s here.

And then they waited. In one of my very first appearances as a major league runner, they waited.

They waited for me to steal the base.

New York Yankees center fielder Rico Noel (70) sildes to third base after advancing on a throwing error by Chicago White Sox relief pitcher Daniel Webb on a pick off attempt during the eighth inning of a baseball game, Sunday, Sept. 27, 2015, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

And I did.

*

About 10 days ago, Orlandus was released from the hospital. He’s in an inpatient rehab center now, and he’s doing great. Every day, he’s going through physical therapy. His status keeps improving. It’s beautiful to see.

Best of all, as soon as he’s healthy enough, he’ll go back on the transplant list.

A lot of people think that transplant lists take years, but they’re actually a lot shorter than that. In Orlandus’s case, they said the wait could be as little as a couple weeks.

In a couple weeks, my brother could have a new heart.

And yet, that still seems like forever to me. It still seems too uncertain, and too much, and too far away. Orlandus’s wait is a kind I can only imagine.

*

People like to ask me if Orlandus’s health has been a distraction this season. While I understand the question, my honest answer is: It hasn’t been. If anything, being there for Orlandus as he fights his battle has improved the way I approach the game. It has made me feel in tune with how he would want me to play: Present. Positive. Tenacious. Relaxed.

At the beginning of this essay, I told you that base-stealing comes down to simple math: your speed minus their throw. The truth, though, is that I think I’d now edit that slightly.

On one hand, yes, as with everything in baseball, it’s a numbers game: preparing for the worst while not counting on the best. Analyze … react. Input … output. You need to be realistic.

On the other hand, I’m coming around to the idea that realism might not cover it.

That you also need a little optimism.

Because you can prepare and prepare; you can sharpen your instincts; you can internalize each imaginable set of odds — you can be “ready” for literally every situation.

But in the end, there are some things in life that you cannot prepare for.

You see the green light and you let yourself fly.

Everything happens in a moment. Sometimes you’ve just got to have faith.

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