Thank You, Chicago

It started with a home run.

I almost still can’t believe it — but it really happened. In my first game as a major leaguer, in my first at-bat as a Cub, I hit a home run. I still remember it like it was yesterday: two on, nobody out, in the top of the second. Homer Bailey was pitching on a 2-2 count.

At 7 a.m. that morning I had been a 20-year-old kid in Double-A Tennessee. 12 hours later, I was at the Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati — standing there under the lights, wearing a Chicago Cubs uniform, watching a ball fly off my bat and into the right field bleachers.

A few innings later, I hit a bases-loaded triple — and became the first player in big-league history to have six RBI in their debut. I remember calling my parents from the clubhouse after the game and telling them about it … and the funny thing was, at first they didn’t believe it either.

It seemed too good to be true.

And, of course, in a way it was.

My career started in the best way possible: a home run. But not every at-bat can be a home run. Not every game can. Not even every season can. Baseball, like anything else, is full of ups and downs — and my five years in Chicago had its share of both.

The most constant “up” for me, by far, was the fans. As a player at Wrigley, when you park your car, you have to walk through the concourse to get into the clubhouse. And that became one of my favorite parts of the day: walking through Wrigley, soaking everything in and being able to interact with the fans on my way in and out of the clubhouse.

The Cubs fans were always so good to me, and I will never be able to thank them enough. When I got to Chicago, I was just a kid, trying to figure things out at a new job in a new city. When you’re new, you want to be approved of, and you want to belong. Those first big cheers I got at Wrigley are something that I will never forget. They helped me feel like I was doing something right — and they helped me feel like I was home.

And that’s exactly what Chicago was for me, from the night I got there to the morning I had to leave: home. I have so many memories. In my five years as a Cub, I became a father — twice. And so a lot of my favorite memories involve being a dad: from tossing a ball around in Lake Shore Park with Starlin Jr., to going fishing on Lake Michigan, to having a family dinner at Tropical Taste (get the ox tail with rice and beans). The city has been such a friendly place to raise a family.

To the Cubs organization: I’d like to thank you — for everything. You gave me an opportunity, you believed in me and you were always honest with me. You didn’t just help me grow as a player; you helped me become an adult.

Even when we were losing in Chicago during those first few years, it felt like we were working toward a larger goal. There were always coaches and veterans creating a sense that we were all in this together — and that the wins would come.

The veteran player who helped me most, without question, was Alfonso Soriano. We had a connection from the start because we are both Dominican — but even beyond our roots, Alfonso is the guy who taught me how to act like a professional. I remember during my rookie year, Alfonso taking the time to go with me, walk around to some stores, and help me pick out some new, more professional clothes.

“This,” Alfonso said with a smile. “Is how you dress like a big-leaguer.” It meant a lot to me. Three years later, Alfonso became the godfather to my son.

As for this past season: Getting replaced at shortstop was a struggle for me at first. Change is never easy — especially when it is a change away from something you took pride in. But I also took pride in the fact that I was not going to be one of those players who lost his spot and then brought the team down with him. I knew that I had been taught — by veterans like Alfonso, and other great leaders in the Cubs organization — to be better than that.

And the pride I felt about my own job had a lot to do with the pride I felt about what we were building as a team. I was a Cub when we lost 101 games in 2012. I played in every one of those games; I lived those 101 losses. For us to finally start winning was very satisfying to me. It didn’t matter if I was at shortstop, or second base, or watching from the bench. I would have been proud no matter what.

But at the same time, as an athlete, you want to play. You always want to play. So when I was given the opportunity to win the job at second base, I took it seriously. I worked hard. I made adjustments. I tried to treat it like a new beginning. And it paid off: After losing the shortstop job in August, I hit .426 in September at second base. Out of all of my accomplishments as a Cub, that is the one I hope people talk about when they look back on my career: That in a situation where some players would have checked out, I kept my head up and worked even harder. I didn’t just say, “I want to help the team win.” I actually helped the team win.

And now I want to help the Yankees win. That’s what I’m here to do. When I learned that I was being traded, it was bittersweet. I thought of all of the things that I would miss: from amazing teammates like Anthony Rizzo, to Wrigley and its fans, to all of the ways that Chicago has become my home since I was 20. But I am also at the stage of my career where I just want to win. Period. So, to be traded to a team with a winning tradition like the Yankees — it’s perfect. I couldn’t be happier to be playing in New York.

Luckily for me, I’ve been welcomed with open arms. Several of my new teammates have reached out to say how excited they are about next season. Carlos Beltrán, who I played against when he was in St. Louis and whose career I admire, got in touch with me right away — and already has made me feel like part of the group.

But my favorite “Welcome to New York” moment probably came when I got a phone call from Reggie Jackson. That’s the sort of call that you dream about as a kid … and it really was a dream come true: Reggie had so much advice and encouragement for me — and said that he was looking forward to working with me in spring training. I think I smiled for the rest of the day after we got off the phone.

I’m 25 now. It’s been five years since that night in Cincinnati — when I was that kid from Double-A, racing to call his parents about the home run that he had just hit in his first at-bat as a big-leaguer. And while they haven’t all been home runs, I think I’ve grown up to become a smarter and better player. I have no idea what the next five years will bring … but I’m excited to find out.

To my new city, New York, I can promise you this: You are acquiring a player who just got to experience a pennant race for the first time — and loved it.

And to my old city, Chicago, I want to thank you for such an amazing experience. I’ll always hold Chicago close to my heart. And hey — maybe I’ll still visit sometime.

How’s October?