Dear 10-year-old Jorge,
First of all, before I really get into this, let me just say: It’s pronounced sheets.
Like with an emphasis on the ee sound.
More on that later, though. For the moment, I have some big news to share with you.
You’re about to experience something that seems like it’s straight out of a Hollywood movie.
But don’t get too excited. Even though you love nothing more than playing shortstop for your Little League team in Santurce, Puerto Rico, it’s not going to be a scene from some baseball movie where you end up hitting a game-winning home run as the credits roll. It’s not what you think.
In a few years, there’s going to be a film in theaters called The Karate Kid. It will feature this older gentleman named Mr. Miyagi. The movie will be a huge hit. Now, I don’t want to ruin the plot for you, but I’ll just say that your dad should look into suing the writers who came up with that character.
Dad is going to be Mr. Miyagi three or four years before there ever was a Mr. Miyagi.
He’s working as a baseball scout when he’s not selling cigars or doing other jobs in San Juan, and a few days from now he’s going to bring your summer break to a screeching halt. Dad knows you can hit and run and field, but he thinks you need to get stronger — both physically and mentally. So one afternoon he will pull up to the house in his pickup truck, and you’ll notice all these silver cans in the back. Just dozens of gallon-size silver cans.
“You’re going to paint the outside of our house, Jorge,” he’ll say, leaning out the window.
This house? The whole house? Me? Like I’m going to stand out here and just paint and paint and paint? Is this a joke?
It’s not a joke.
And it’s gonna suck, man. You’ll hate it. But do me this favor for now: Just shut up and paint.
It’s not going to be easy to sacrifice your summer, of course. Your friends won’t understand why you won’t just skip out and ride bikes with them. But … just keep painting.
And make sure you do it like he shows you — Dad’s version of “wax on, wax off.” Grip the brush the way he tells you to. Focus on your shoulders and your wrists like he says, because Dad’s targeting muscles you’re going to need later on.
Dad has a plan for you. Trust in that.
And don’t get too angry when, after you finally finish, he backs into the driveway with the truck loaded up again.
Beep, beep, beep.
This time it will be dirt.
“I brought you something, Jorge,” he’s going to say. “And there’s more where that came from. I need you to level out the backyard.”
Again … not a joke.
It’s going to be 100° out. And, yeah, the backyard doesn’t even really seem uneven. But just move the dirt, Jorge.
And scrape the iron on the outside of the windows, and pick the weeds, and do everything else Dad says. It will be a long summer, but look at it this way: At least you’ll know what it’s like to do that stuff when next summer rolls around … and you have to do all those same things over again.
Wax on, wax off, little man.
Dad’s love … it’s going to be a tough love, Jorge. But it’s still love.
And trust me when I tell you that it will prepare you well for what’s to come. It will be just the right type of love.
Dad has been tossing you Wiffle balls since you were old enough to hold a bat. And he realized early on that if you were going to develop into a great player it would take a ton of hard work. He’ll also see that you’re not tough, that you have it too easy.
So he’s going to push you.
Dad’s going to work you like a dog from here on out. The chores are not going to stop. Your days of having summers off are over. For good. And each and every summer he’s going to add something different — some new task to keep you busy and focused and working up a sweat.
At times, it may even seem to you like he’s doing everything he can to make sure you’re miserable. When you’re 12, and having fun in Little League, he’s going to sit you down for a talk.
“Every time you see a righthanded pitcher, I want you to switch around and hit lefthanded,” he’ll tell you.
So you’ll do as he says. And get this: You’re going to strike out 14 straight times as a lefthanded batter that year. No joke. Fourteen.
It will be awful. You’ll cry. And you’ll know that you could’ve taken those pitchers deep as a righty. Mom will bring you chocolate after games to make you feel better.
It won’t work. But don’t give up on switch-hitting. Keep at it.
You need to make sure you work harder than everyone else. Every single day. You’ll never be good enough to just coast. So outwork people.
If you do that, the good news is that your hitting will eventually come around. And if you keep working and grinding and sacrificing, when you’re 17, you are going to be drafted by a major league baseball team.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that it won’t be in the way that you’d hoped.
You’ll receive a letter in the mail from a gentleman named Brian Sabean telling you that the Yankees selected you….
In the 43rd round.
They aren’t even going to call you, Jorge. They don’t call 43rd-round picks.
Nothing is going to be given to you. Nothing will come easy.
When it comes time to sign you, the team will offer exactly zero dollars. It will pretty much be like, “We’ll let you play for us if you really want to.”
Dad will know what that’s about. “They’re just going to release you if you agree to that sort of deal,” he’ll say. “You need to go to school in America and show people what you can do.”
The only problem with that plan will be that, at first, no schools in the States will want you.
Eventually Dad will make some calls and find a junior college in Decatur, Alabama, where you can play. But that process won’t be easy.
And also … you’re going to be moving to Decatur, Alabama.
I realize you’re still little, so you don’t know where that is. But don’t feel bad about that, because even when you’re 17 and you get a call from Coach Fred Frickie offering you a scholarship to play for Calhoun Community College, you still won’t know.
“Where’s Alabama?” you’ll ask him.
He’ll tell you that it’s right next to Georgia, which you know is in the South, where college baseball is huge. That should be all you’ll need to hear.
Don’t think twice. Just say, “I’ll be there,” and start packing your stuff.
Alabama’s gonna be a trip.
When you’re 18 years old, you’ll be trying to find your way around a Kmart near the school. As you’re walking up and down the aisles, a nice older woman will approach you and ask if you need any help.
“I’m looking for some shits,” you’ll say.
She’ll cock her head to the side and squint a little bit when she hears that.
“Shits! You know, Shits.”
“You wanna buy what, now?”
She’s not gonna get it Jorge, so start talking about “pillows.” And do that thing where you put your palms together and raise your hands to the side of your head and pretend you’re sleeping.
“Oh, sheeeeeets! Of course, they’re right over here.”
As she walks you to the appropriate aisle, she’ll say something under her breath.
“You know you were saying ‘shits,’ just now, right? Like, the swear word.”
You still won’t understand.
“You gotta really make that ee sound.”
It won’t be your finest hour, Jorge.
And that will just be Week One. Before long you’ll be eating the number 2 value meal at some place called Arby’s nearly every night and buying cowboy boots.
Yeah, you heard me right.
It’s gonna get weird there for a second in Alabama, man. Your mom won’t even recognize you when you go back home to visit.
It’ll be all turtlenecks and those ridiculous boots, but you’ll still be speaking Spanish.
You’ll be Puerto Rican country.
Enough about boots and bedsheets, though, let’s talk for a little bit about your position.
I know you love shortstop. And when you really begin to come into your own as a player, during your second year at Calhoun, it’s going to be at short. So you’re probably thinking that will be your ticket to the big leagues.
But I should let you know two things about that right now.
First, something unexpected is going to happen to you during summer ball season in Alabama.
One night before a game, you’ll be all ready to sprint out to shortstop to take infield practice when you’ll hear your coaches discussing the team’s catcher.
There’s only going to be one on the team, and he’s not gonna show up. People will be scrambling.
Now, this might not mean much to you at the moment, but be ready on that night. That exact point in time right there, Jorge, is going to be a crossroads for you. There will be two paths you can take.
You can pretend not to hear the chatter and go about your business, or….
You can speak up and change the entire trajectory of your career — your life, really.
Heed this advice, little man. Remember this for the next 10 years, so you’re ready. When you come to that moment in time, for heaven’s sake … speak up! You won’t have to say much — just three little words. But say them loud. Super loud. Make sure everyone on your team — everyone anywhere near the field, actually — can hear them.
“I can catch.”
Yes, yes, Jorge, I know: You’re a shortstop. You have the fastest hands and the quickest feet. But guess what…. You were meant to be a catcher, kid.
Even if you aren’t sure it’s true, even if your only experience at the position will have been serving as a catcher for your dad’s softball team, and even if you have no desire to catch, just say those words. Trust me. They will set you on a path that you could never have imagined.
There will be a scout for the Yankees at that game, Mr. Leon Wurth. And if he hears those words, and he sees you handle your own behind the dish, he’ll write these three words down on the report he’ll file with the team.
“He can catch.”
And with that, everything will begin to change for you.
The second thing I want you to know about playing shortstop is some inside scoop that will be critically important to your future.
The Yankees are going to draft you again, Jorge — one year later, this time in the 24th round. But not too long after that they’re going to get this skinny kid from Michigan in the first round who will ensure that they’ll be all set at shortstop for the next 20 years or so.
So do me this favor, man: Just forget about short. Move on. I know you love it, and I know it’s fun. But you have to believe me. The kid from Michigan? He’s just … I don’t know.
I’ll get back to that guy in a little bit, but for now just take my word for it. I’m looking out for you here.
Don’t get too attached to shortstop, Jorge.
After you sign with the Yankees in ’91, you’ll play mostly second base. The year after that, you’ll be sort of a utility player. Then, after you do some catching in the instructional league, the team will come to you with an idea.
“We want you to be a full-time catcher.”
Yes, yes, Jorge, I know: You’re a shortstop. You’re an infielder. You have the fastest hands and the quickest feet. You were born to be a shortstop. I hear you.
But guess what….
You were meant to be a catcher, kid.
You won’t realize that when you’re 21 and the Yankees come to you with their big idea. But that’s O.K., as long as you’re willing to do these two things: Be patient, and work your ass off.
The second part I know you’ll have no problems with. Dad will make sure you learn all about hard work over the years. The first part, though, the patience … I kinda worry about that.
Even now, as a little kid, you’re not the most patient person — you want everything done fast, you don’t want to wait around for anything — and that won’t just go away as you get older.
But please, do your best to be patient with yourself when it comes to the art of learning to play catcher. It’s not going to happen for you right away.
In fact, for a while there, it’s gonna be ugly. During your first season as a full-time catcher you will have 38 passed balls.
You read that right. It’s not a typo.
And they’ll be mostly dumb passed balls, too — pitches that hit off your glove, balls that you should catch 100 out of 100 times, just stupid mistakes.
But stick with it, man. Keep grinding.
It may take longer than you like to become great. But the cool thing is … you’ll be in good company while you’re trying to figure things out in the minors.
One day early on, during instructional ball, you’ll see this outfielder running sprints on the warning track. He’ll have smoothest stride you’ve ever seen. And he’ll be fast. Real fast.
That guy’s Mariano, Mo for short. And he’s actually not an outfielder like you’ll think, Jorge. He’s a pitcher.
Mo will be there rehabbing after arm surgery. Spend some time with that guy before heading north. Get to know him some.
Then, a little while later, while playing short-season A ball in Oneonta, New York, you’ll meet this big lefty named Andy. The two of you will hit it off, and a few years later, by the time you’re trying to figure out what it means to be an exceptional catcher, you two will become super tight. You’ll help each other out, and push one another to get better every single day.
By 1995, Andy will be in the bigs. And you and Mo will be together in AAA doing everything possible to join him.
Oh, and then there’s that shortstop I was telling you about earlier. That kid will be with you guys, too.
The shortstop has a name. It’s Derek.
You’ll meet him soon after the Yankees draft him in 1992. He’ll be in Greensboro for a short time while you’re there. You’ll immediately be taken aback.
And not in a good way, either.
“This is the guy?”
You’ll clown on him at first. For all sorts of reasons.
He’ll be sooooo skinny. And that hair? And the hat all high on his head?
He’ll have on hightop cleats with some ankle protectors. That will be a new one for you.
But don’t be too rough on him, man. And not for his sake … for your own.
Go in too hard on him and you’re gonna look like an absolute fool.
That skinny kid with the bad hat and the weird spikes will hit a home run in his first game at Greensboro and make a crazy spinning throw that will have the crowd going nuts.
Just like that, you’ll stop making fun of him, and you’ll have your answer.
Yes, Jorge … really!
You’ll finally be a big league player. And you’ll be able to experience your first go-round with the guy who has become your best friend.
A few years later, during the ’95 season, you’ll be living together in a hotel next to an Applebee’s in Columbus and become inseparable. In September, you’ll both get the call. It will mainly be for show, and you guys won’t play much, but soak in those moments. You’ll finally be a big league player. And you’ll be able to experience your first go-round with the guy who has become your best friend.
Yes, Jorge, remember those times, because those fond memories will give you even more motivation … when the team sends you back down to Triple A to begin the next season.
In 1996, the Yankees are going to send you down four times. Four!
No, wait … five. Five times they’ll send you back down to Columbus.
Here’s how I want you to frame it. Don’t think about how many times the team keeps getting rid of you. Focus on how many times they bring you back.
That’s the key.
They’ll see something in you. They’ll know.
And you know what? By that time, you’ll know, too! Deep down, below the doubt and the questions about whether you’ll ever make it behind the dish, you’ll know you’re just as good as the other catchers on the team. Heck, you’ll know you’re better than they are. Or at least you’ll think you are.
But it won’t be your time just yet. And that will be frustrating.
Right around the fourth demotion you’ll be telling everyone who will listen — your parents, your friends, your agent — that you want out.
You’ll be ready to change uniforms. You’ll have had enough of being jerked around, and you’ll be fed up with the tradition and the strict rules and the dress codes and the facial-hair guidelines and … everything.
“Get me out of this organization” is what you’ll tell them.
You’ll go to your agent and say all sorts of different things.
“They don’t want me,” you’ll shout. “So what am I doing here?”
But here’s the thing about that: Cool down, Jorge.
The struggle will help you in the end. Just pay close attention to how a guy named Joe Girardi plays the position and put in your time. There’s a reason why every pitcher on the planet loves throwing to him. He’s a master. Pick his brain. Listen. Watch. Improve.
Earn it, Jorge. Earn your spot. Work so hard that they have no choice but to play you.
It’s going to suck for a while there. No doubt. But would it make all this easier to swallow if I told you you’ll end that year with a World Series ring?
I thought that might help. Thought that might get your attention.
If you put in that work, and cool your jets a bit, before you know it, all those worries and doubts and fears and frustrations will disappear and be replaced by….
In 1997, everything will come together for you, Jorge. You’ll start to really pick up on some things — little tips and habits and bits of knowledge that will help you to become a successful major league ballplayer.
And speaking of tips, I have something for you.
This is probably the most useful piece of information that I’ll give you today, so listen up: When you begin playing for a manager named Joe Torre, pay attention to his hat.
You’ll be able to tell that guy’s mood from how he wears his cap.
I’m not making this up.
It will be like … regular mood is when he has his hat down like this:
If you see that, you’re O.K. That’s what you should be hoping for.
But take caution, if it gets to be like this:
He’s sort of pissed at that point. Maybe tread carefully. Go light on the horseplay in the clubhouse.
And if you see the hat like this, Jorge….
Just steer clear of your manager. Trust me. He’s pissed. If you see him, turn and walk in the other direction. You’ll thank me for this later, little man.
And if you do see his hat all up like that, be a good friend and alert Jeets.
“The hat’s up today, dude.”
Just say that. He’ll know what you mean.
It’s funny how winning can change your perspective.
Pretty soon, Girardi will have shown you the ropes and passed the torch. By that point, the “Yankee Way” will seem less like a burden, and more like a throwback.
It will remind you of those summers as a kid in Puerto Rico. The Yankee Way will remind you, Jorge, of your dad. It will remind you of the importance of doing things the right way, every time. Of not taking shortcuts.
And you’ll grow to love it.
Then you’ll become a world champion, over and over and over and over again.
In 1998, you’ll be a key member of one of the greatest teams in the history of the game. Between the regular season and the playoffs, you guys will win 125 and lose only 50. Then, two years later, in 2000, you’ll be part of a World Series that baseball fans in the city of New York will never forget. And you’ll also be there for one last go-round in 2009, when you and the boys will make sure that the new Yankee Stadium opens on the right foot.
By that time, of course, you’ll have gotten a little older. But do me this favor as the years pile up: Work even harder!
Make Dad proud.
And don’t ever let anyone step up and take your job away from you without a fight.
There will be these kids on the horizon. Catchers. And they’ll be pretty good, too.
They’ll be 22, and you’ll be 34, 35. Don’t pay that any mind. It doesn’t matter. Work harder than they do. Every day. Make sure they know that you are the catcher for the New York Yankees.
But also, don’t be a jerk, either. Be what Joe Girardi was to you. Continue that tradition. Help to guide the young kids. Show them what it means to be a professional. Share your knowledge.
Near the end of the line, you’ll meet a guy named Francisco. He’s going to be special. Mentor him. Be tough, but encouraging. Make him earn everything he gets, but at the same time, help him to become better.
Trust me, if you show him the right way to do things, it’s going to give you great pride to watch him play after your time in this game comes to an end.
Oh, yeah, and about that. I’m sorry to mention this part, little Jorge, but no one can play this game forever. Just like every player who has ever laced up a pair of spikes and pulled on a jersey, your time will someday come to an end.
And the end is going to sneak up faster than you’ll expect.
A few years after that last World Series, a time will come when injuries are going to make it so you won’t be able to play catcher as much as you used to. At first, it won’t seem like a huge deal. You’ll be in the lineup a lot as a DH, so you’ll tell yourself that you can still contribute to the team.
But I have news for you, Jorge….
It’s not going to take.
You’re not meant to be a DH. I hate to put it that way, but I’m just being real with you.
Now, do everything you can, of course. Try your best to become a great DH.
Talk to the best DHs in the game, guys you’ll know by then as Papi and Edgar. Heed their advice. Give it a go. Keep working hard. Never give up.
But here’s the thing, little man.
For the longest time — for your entire childhood, really — you never thought of yourself as a catcher. But by the end, you won’t be able to imagine yourself as anything else.
It will become who you are.
And when there comes a time that you’re no longer strapping on the equipment each day in the Bronx, it will be the right moment to ride off into the sunset and call it a career.
For you, Jorge, are a catcher.
And you always have been. You just don’t know it yet.