TAMPA, Fla. — The visitors’ clubhouse at the Oakland Coliseum was old and cramped. It was June 11, 2013, and conditions had deteriorated to the point that just five days later, pipes clogged with sewage overflowed, soaking the clubhouses. Aaron Judge hardly noticed the decay. It was his first day with the New York Yankees. His locker was between Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera.
“Those were the guys that I grew up watching,” Judge said years later.
And it got even better. At one point, Pettitte — by then long established as a borderline Hall of Fame pitcher — approached Judge, who the team had just drafted and invited to visit so he could get a taste of the big leagues.
“Hey, my name’s Andy,” Pettitte said. “Great to meet you, Aaron.”
I know who you are, Judge thought. He politely shook Pettitte’s hand.
That morning, 21-year-old Judge and his parents, Wayne and Patty, had driven 90 minutes from their home in rural Linden, Calif. That evening, Judge donned gray Yankees road pants and a short-sleeve pullover that was oversized, even for his 6-foot-7 frame. He took batting practice with Austin Romine, Reid Brignac and Vernon Wells. Manager Joe Girardi leaned against the cage, watching every swing. Wayne, wearing a Yankees emblazoned T-shirt, stood next to Girardi. A few balls soared through the cool air and over the 400-foot marker on the center-field wall.
“A strong kid,” Girardi said at the time. “Hit line drives out of the ballpark. You think that they’re good line drives in the gap, and they just keep going.”
These days, Judge’s pregame batting practice sessions have become appointment viewing. The fans want to see one of the biggest stars of the game hit some of the longest home runs they’ll ever see. But back then, on his first day as a Yankee, Judge was just another guy with dreams that he could make it with baseball’s most famed franchise.
“It was just pretty surreal,” he said.
This spring training, thousands of fans will flock to George M. Steinbrenner Field. Many of them will have once dreamed about what it would be like to swap their Yankees shirsey, snapback hat and plastic seat for an authentic pinstripe jersey, fitted cap with the interlocking NY and their own locker in the clubhouse. Though it’s likely none of them will ever live out that dream, the players on the field prove that for a chosen few it is possible.
To gain perspective on what it’s like to experience Day 1 as a member of the Yankees, The Athletic spoke to a new superstar free agent, the longest-tenured player in the organization, a hometown guy, an international signee, roster bubble candidates and a Machine.
‘Like a blur’
Carlos Rodón stood in a suite at Yankee Stadium. The lefty ace felt a little uncomfortable. The day before, he was at his home in rural Indiana. His closest neighbors are deer and wild turkey. He’d rather be wearing flannel. But here he was, dressed in a suit like everybody else, his face freshly shaven for the first time in years due to the Yankees’ controversial, decades-old facial hair policy. “I looked like a baby,” he said. He shook all the hands, remembering few of the faces.
“It just feels like a blur,” he said.
Later that morning, Rodón took the podium at his introductory news conference. “I’m a man of very few words,” he began, before speaking uninterrupted for more than a minute. He was a little nervous. Sure, he was going to be paid $167 million over the next six years to pitch on the game’s biggest stages. Yeah, during his recruitment phase, he received encouraging calls from Gerrit Cole and Jose Trevino, and texts from Judge. But now it was real. A month before, he’d opted out of his contract with the Giants and immediately put the Yankees on the top of his wish list. He called the pinstripes “special.”
“A lot of legends have been through this organization,” he said. “There’s a lot of history here.”
Come February, Rodón had settled in. He’d spent some time in Tampa, bouncing between the Yankees’ player development facility and Steinbrenner Field. On the first day of camp, he took the wrong turn trying to find the players’ parking lot.
A couple of hours later, Rodón — used to the quieter life he’d lived with the White Sox and the Giants — was introduced to his new reality as part of the Yankees.
“I walk in,” he said, “and there’s like 30 media members.”
‘Don’t bother anybody’
Kyle Higashioka was asked by a clubbie what kind of wooden bat he liked to use. It was 2008, the last year of the old Yankee Stadium. Higashioka, 18, was sitting at a locker in the Yankees’ clubhouse. He had been told that he was going to take pregame batting practice on the field with the rest of the team — a treat for getting drafted by the Yankees just weeks before. He needed to make a snap decision. The first thing that came to mind was oddly specific: Alex Rodriguez swings a 34-inch maple C271 Louisville Slugger. Higashioka told the clubbie, who returned a few moments later.
“They brought out A-Rod’s bat,” he said. “I was like, ‘Yes!’”
The problem: It was raining. So, batting practice was moved indoors. Turned out, it wasn’t a problem at all. Though Higashioka was surrounded by superstars, it didn’t take as long for his anxiousness to fade as he expected. He heard Melky Cabrera razz Robinson Canó. He watched Jason Giambi take mammoth cuts.
“Wow,” Higashioka said to himself. “These guys are just like me and my teammates.”
Before Higashioka took his time in the cage, Derek Jeter “grilled me for a couple questions.” It all happened so fast. He doesn’t remember what Jeter said to him, but he could tell that the captain “wanted to make me feel at least somewhat welcome.” Jeter signed a bat for Higashioka. Rodriguez did the same. Higashioka then chatted with fellow catcher Jorge Posada. Sensing his intensity, he kept it brief.
“I didn’t want to bother these guys,” Higashioka said. “That was my main goal: Don’t bother anybody.”
Higashioka watched the game from behind the Yankees’ dugout, near the on-deck circle. He no longer remembers who it was against or who won, but one thing still stands out. “The seats were so tiny,” he said. “I barely fit in them.”
Later that night, back in his hotel room, he learned something incredible. The locker he was using that day? It had once belonged to another catcher, the late Yankees captain Thurman Munson.
Nobody had mentioned it to him while he was sitting there. Higashioka still shakes his head at the thought.
“For some reason,” he said, “they were OK with me using that locker.”
‘As awkward as it was going to get’
Harrison Bader grew up a Yankees fan in Bronxville, N.Y., and as a kid, he made plenty of trips just 11 miles south to Yankee Stadium. But this one was different. He wore a walking boot on his right foot, the result of a plantar fasciitis diagnosis earlier in the year with the Cardinals, who had just traded him the day before to New York. His golden, flowing locks had been snipped. Now, as reporters and players went about their work, he was walking into the Yankees’ clubhouse having spoken to none of his teammates yet in person.
It wasn’t the entrance Bader would have hoped for. Still, the center fielder found a silver lining.
“This was as weird and as awkward as it was going to get,” he said. “But I’d rather these guys see me with a fresh buzzcut and a boot, hobbling around, because it was only going to (get better) from there, in my mind.”
And it did.
Bader made everyone forget that he struggled through his brief regular season return in September with a blistering postseason, hitting five home runs in nine games. Fans and pundits who had panned the trade as a mistake (Why jettison reliable, if unspectacular, starting pitcher Jordan Montgomery for someone who’s hurt?) were eating crow.
The journey from uncertainty to unquestioned starter took about a month, but it felt longer for Bader. There were lots of solo days at the stadium, working with the medical staff to finally get healthy. Every day, he’d walk past pictures of icons from his childhood — Jeter, Rivera, Bernie Williams, Brett Gardner and more. He knew he had to live up to the hype that came with the Yankees simply dealing for him.
“To be traded to an organization that was not only in the playoff race but obviously, it’s the Yankees, and they have a tremendous history,” he said. “To be traded to another winning culture, surrounded by winning players, I was really grateful. Just sitting there, I was just excited for the opportunity. Not only did I get to prove to myself and my loved ones that I did belong in uniform but also my teammates who kind of saw me go through that progress of getting back on the field.”
‘This is where you sleep. Just figure it out.’
It was 16-year-old Oswaldo Cabrera and 15 other teenage boys from Venezuela. They were recent international signees who were being given a tour of the Yankees’ training complex in Boca Chica, Dominican Republic. Now, they were looking into one big room. It was filled with bunk beds.
“This is your room,” they were told. “This is where you sleep. Just figure it out.”
Cabrera was uneasy at the time, but he smiles at the memory now. It wasn’t his first time away from his home in Guarenas, Venezuela. Scouts spotted his potential early. He had been training and living at the academy owned by retired big-leaguer Carlos Guillén in Maracay, Venezuela, which was three hours from his family. Plus, the Yankees had also signed his friends Andres Chaparro and Carlos Narvaez, who are in big-league camp with the team this year.
“We were young,” he said. “Everybody was joking around. But at the same time, everybody was focusing.”
His older brother, Leobaldo, had signed with the organization a year before and had given him some advice on living alone. But even now, at age 23, Cabrera said it’s still not easy to be away from his family for long stretches.
Coming off a breakout 2022, Cabrera finds himself this spring in competition to be the team’s starting left fielder or utility man. Still, he remembers well the summer of 2015 — his first days with the Yankees.
Said Cabrera: “That was a really good moment in my life.”
‘Welcome to The Dark Side’
The Yankees’ medical staffer seemed worried. She looked at the new arrival and then looked back at the monitor.
“Are you OK?” she asked. “Is your blood pressure always high?”
Demarcus Evans offered a nervous smile. “No,” he said. “I’m just nervous as heck.”
Evans, a righty reliever, had just arrived at the team’s player development complex. It was a couple of weeks before the start of spring training. He hadn’t known what to expect in his first trip into free agency. The 26-year-old had made just 29 major-league appearances in 2020 and 2021. He didn’t rise above Triple A in 2022. But on the first day of the offseason, the Yankees came calling, telling his agent they wanted to sign him once the Rule 5 draft had passed. He was giddy. That anticipation only grew when he drove from his Mississippi home and showed up for Day 1.
“Everybody is like a family here,” he said. “You walk in, and you see Judge, and you’re like, ‘Wow, this is really real.’ You always dream about everybody’s favorite players growing up — Derek Jeter or CC Sabathia and all of them.”
Ian Hamilton’s signing was punctuated over the winter with a phone call from Boone. With lots of family in New England, the righty reliever was a devout Boston fan. The Red Sox had actually tried to sign him, too, but he looked at their rebuilding roster and he said that made his decision easy. Shortly after agreeing to his deal, his phone lit up with a number he didn’t recognize.
“Welcome to The Dark Side,” said Boone, ironically unaware of Hamilton’s lifelong allegiance to the Red Sox.
Hamilton walked into Steinbrenner Field at 7 a.m. on the first day pitchers and catchers reported to spring training and immediately was in awe of the championship banners and photos of Hall of Famers everywhere. At the entrance to the stadium, there’s a mini Monument Park, complete with plaques for Yankees legends from Yogi Berra to Jeter. A near-life-sized sculpture of late owner George Steinbrenner greets you as you walk toward the main gates.
“I want to win,” Hamilton said.
DJ LeMahieu felt the same way. After signing his first contract with the Yankees in 2019, LeMahieu immediately felt the pressure on his first day. He was coming from Colorado, which had been up and down during his seven-year tenure.
No enemy of one-word answers — they don’t call him “The Machine” for nothin’ — LeMahieu tripled his average output when recalling how he felt when he did his first workout with the Yankees just before spring training: “It’s just different.”
(Top photo of Aaron Judge in 2013 on his first day with Yankees: Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images)