They weren’t exactly turning them away at the door at the Bullpen Deli/Twin Donut on 161st St. in the Bronx, a block from Yankee Stadium, even though the future of the franchise was behind the counter playing deli man, and it was, in fact, lunch time.
Gary Sanchez, sporting his pinstriped No. 24 jersey, a white paper hat familiar to New York deli denizens, and a pair of rubber gloves, spent part of his Monday behind the counter in the shadow of the ballpark where he is expected to spend his summer behind the plate.
Sanchez’ appearance was part of a Yankee off-season promotion designed to sell tickets for the upcoming season; in 2016, even with big names such as Alex Rodriguez, CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran and Aroldis Chapman on the roster, attendance was down nearly 150,000 from 2015, and has dropped steadily — a decrease of more than 20 percent — since the new park opened in 2009.
The upcoming season will feature the kind of lineup that requires the kind of faith normally displayed by those in the cheap seats, of which there have always been few in the new Yankee Stadium. This year, after some “fan-friendly” renovations, there will be even fewer.
Which explains why this week, the Yankees are trotting out as many new – and old – faces as possible in an attempt to get people to believe in a team that has made just one playoff appearance – a one-and-out loss to the Houston Astros in 2015 – in the past four seasons and has not won a post-season game since Oct. 12, 2012.
So Monday was Sanchez’ day – he had paid a surprise visit to a Yankee season-ticket holder at her home in Manhattan before taking his place with the cold cuts in the Bronx – followed by prospects James Kaprielian, Gleyber Torres, Clint Frazier and Chance Adams making an appearance at a Town Hall-type meeting in Times Square on Tuesday and another group of youngsters, plus Starlin Castro, visiting the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum on Wednesday. The Yankees roll out the big guns – Sabathia, Chase Headley and newly-acquired DH Matt Holliday, as well as GM Brian Cashman – for Thursday’s finale at Yankee Stadium.
But the focal point of the week, and the upcoming season, is likely to be Sanchez, who put up MVP-like numbers in roughly one-third of a season after being recalled from the minor leagues last August. In 53 games, Sanchez batted .299 – higher than any regular on the Yankees roster at season’s end – belted 20 home runs, more than all but two of his teammates, and posted a ridiculous 1.032 OPS, just slightly less than that of A-Rod and Teixeira combined.
In fact, spread out over an entire season, Sanchez’ OPS would have led the Major Leagues, an honor that went to the retiring David Ortiz with a 1.021.
So naturally, there are lots of expectations for Sanchez in 2017, and along with expectations comes a commensurate amount of pressure.
After all, by the time Sanchez was called up last year, the Yankees were going nowhere fast. They were already 7-1/2 games out and had traded away Beltran, their best hitter, and their two best relievers, Chapman and Andrew Miller. A-Rod was eight days from a forced retirement. There were no expectations on anyone anymore, and guys like Sanchez, Aaron Judge, Rob Refsnyder and Tyler Austin were turned loose to show what they could do in what were essentially meaningless games.
To Sanchez’ credit, he did plenty. Enough to relegate Brian McCann, in the third year of a five-year, $85 million deal, to part-time DH duty, and eventually, to the Houston Astros in an off-season trade. And enough to make a late run at the AL Rookie of the Year Award, although he wound up running second to Detroit Tigers pitcher Michael Fulmer.
But this year will undoubtedly be different, as each baseball season always in from the ones preceding and following it. This year, there will be no A-Rod, Teixeira or Beltran to protect Sanchez in the lineup, even if only by reputation. He will have Holliday, 37 years old and coming off two seasons of declining production in St. Louis, and a bunch of kids.
There is no escaping it: This season, the Yankees expect – no, they need – Gary Sanchez’ bat to be the most dangerous in their lineup.
It is certainly a lot to ask of a kid who only turned 24 a month ago, has all of 201 big-league at-bats and will now be asked to handle a big-league pitching staff on an everyday basis probably five days a week.
And while Sanchez certainly showed the potential to be an offensive force for the Yankees for many years to come, it would be wise not to forget the lessons learned by both New York teams at about the same time Sanchez was bursting upon the scene.
In case they had forgotten from the lesson of Kevin Maas 25 years ago, the Yankees had re-learned that a couple of months of rookie success hardly guarantees continued production by the crash-and-burn of Luis Severino after a transcendent debut over the last two months of 2015.
And the Mets, after seeing Michael Conforto look so promising over the second half of 2015, suffered through watching the same hitter – whose swing had been compared to that of some Hall of Famers by a local paper last spring training – struggle to hit anyone in 2016.
And it should be recalled that last spring training, when there was at least a little pressure on Sanchez – he was virtually handed the Yankees backup catcher job if only he could outhit Austin Romine in March – Sanchez managed just two hits, a single and double, in 22 spring at-bats. His .091 batting average sent him to AAA while Romine went north with the ballclub.
Perhaps the Yankees decision to trade away McCann, making Sanchez the starting catcher without competition, will ease the burden on Sanchez. Then again, maybe the responsibility of the job will only increase the pressure on him.
Either way, 2017 is not likely to be as easy for Gary Sanchez as his sliver of 2016 appeared to be.
The truth is, MLB is a league of constant surveillance and perpetual adjustments, and you can bet that by the time Opening Day rolls around, every team in the league will know the location of every hole in Gary Sanchez’ swing. It will then be up to Sanchez to plug those holes.
“During a baseball season there’s highs and lows,’’ Sanchez said when asked if he expects to have to make adjustments for his second big-league season. “You got go through all that. As a baseball player that’s something you understand. You got to keep your head high. Hopefully, you can be consistent.’’
The Dominican-born Sanchez speaks little English but even through an interpreter, it is clear he has been coached in the art of Yank-speak, which translates to answering politely while saying nothing.
Accordingly, he is setting modest goals for himself in 2017: “To stay healthy, help the team win and do my job. And hopefully, win games.’’
And despite his relative inexperience, he was wise enough to realize that every baseball season is a clean slate. “Last year was a good season for me,’’ he said. “But that’s in the past now.’’
The Yankees were taking no chances with Sanchez behind the counter on Monday. His valuable hands went nowhere near the meat slicer, and his duties largely consisted of handing hero sandwiches – already sliced, assembled and wrapped by true deli professionals – to the handful of customers who came in lured by a small sandwich-board type sign out on 161st St.
“I don’t feel any pressure,’’ Sanchez said when it was pointed out to him that with just about every other recognizable player gone from the team, he now becomes the face of the New York Yankees. “I got to keep doing the same thing I been doing. Just play baseball. That’s what I know how to do.’’