New Yankees ace Gerrit Cole weaves a classic New York story, in detail

NEW YORK — At 11:30 on the night after Gerrit Cole met with the Yankees coalition trying to convince him to put on the pinstripes of his childhood favorite team, the recently crowned richest pitcher in baseball sat bolt upright in bed. He’d finally figured it out. It was Lou.

Lou Cucuzza, the visiting clubhouse attendant at Yankee Stadium. Cole used to sit in his office when the Houston Astros — his former team and the Yankees’ ALCS conquerors — came through town, showing him pictures of all the different meals he was cooking and eating, and of one meal in particular that Cole and his wife had in a cellar in Florence, Italy. At that meal, to celebrate an anniversary, Gerrit and Amy Cole had enjoyed a bottle of Masseto Merlot, 2004 vintage. Cole must have shown Lou that photo and that’s how manager Aaron Boone ended up presenting the then-free agent with Masseto Merlot, 2004 and 2005 vintage, at the meeting. 

It had shocked Cole at the time and all day he had been trying to figure out how the Yankees were able to give him the perfect present. ("To see the look on him and Amy's face, it was great," Boone said.) It felt good to figure it out — Lou to GM Brian Cashman to Boone to new Yankee Gerrit Cole. 

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“There are not many people in the world that know that’s my favorite wine,” Cole said Wednesday morning in bowels of the Yankee Stadium Legends Club shortly after the introductory press conference to announce his nine-year, $324 million deal. And then, looking around at the notoriously nosy New York media, “Now there are.”

New New York Yankees starting pitcher Gerrit Cole was introduced to the media on Wednesday. (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
New New York Yankees starting pitcher Gerrit Cole was introduced to the media on Wednesday. (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

It’s a great story and Cole tells it well. He did a lot of that on Wednesday, deploying his wit and precision to great effect. He’s a sportswriter’s dream, eschewing platitudes in favor of the kind of dialogue that allows a third party to reconstruct the scene. Like describing the way John Buck, briefly a Pirates catcher when Cole was a rookie, used to call him up to the front of the bus and demand, “Get your f------ book reports ready cause I want to know about Curt Flood,” instilling an appreciation for the game’s labor rights activists who made Cole’s record-setting money possible.

(I wonder if the Yankees will stamp that impulse out of him.)

But mostly he told stories about the Yankees themselves, about little boys who want to pitch like Andy Pettitte, about growing up starry-eyed and getting a piece of stardom yourself someday. At one point he even called what was happening around him “the true American Dream.” 

It’s a great story and Cole's the one to tell it. Because of the way he gets excited about relaying minutiae and also because it’s mostly true. Although he was raised in Southern California, Cole famously grew up a Yankees fan like his father, who went to school in New York. As he approached free agency this season, a photo of him taken at Game 6 of the 2001 World Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks began circulating. In it, an 11-year-old Cole holds up a sign that says "Yankee Fan Today Tomorrow Forever."

The first thing Cole did after donning a Yankees jersey was call up his wife, his agent, and the man who agreed to give him all that money to stand for a photo op with the very same poster, yellowed with age.

He didn’t actually make the famous sign himself, although it hung on his bedroom wall for years. His family was staying at the Ritz-Carlton in Phoenix — same hotel as the team, same floor as George Steinbrenner, even — and another family of Yankees fans on the floor had made it in the hotel and brought it to an earlier game in the series. It was then bequeathed to young Cole for the game his family had tickets to. Oh, and the market where they made the sign using hotel-supplied arts and crafts served yogurt parfaits.

But none of that — those little details that Cole relishes in remembering — is integral to the satisfying narrative of how Gerrit Cole has always been destined to be a Yankee. The part where they drafted him 28th overall out of Orange Lutheran High School in 2008 but Cole passed to go to UCLA has been woven in as part of the journey (he claims that his parents probably still have the pros and cons list they made at the time somewhere, too).

Back then, the Yankees were impressed primarily with his athletic prowess — “more physical and less mental back then, a man amongst boys,” Cashman said — but through college and seven big league seasons, Cole has become one of the most dominant players in the game. The kind of player who is worth opening the purse strings, going over the competitive balance tax, and signing for nine seasons at $36 million a year.

Gerrit Cole still has the sign he brought to the 2001 World Series. (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
Gerrit Cole still has the sign he brought to the 2001 World Series. (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

“I haven’t done this in the past when I could have with free agents,” Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner said. “I really felt, unlike other free agents in years past, like Gerrit would be a game changer for us.” 

It was the Yankees’ final offer, Steinbrenner said. They had initially offered an eight-year deal but felt they could get out ahead of the pack of teams who were interested in Cole by adding a ninth year relatively early in the offseason. It worked. 

And that’s why Gerrit Cole is a Yankee. Because they gave him the kind of money and security that allows him to say that he and Amy are considering living in both the city and the suburbs — two houses, maybe one in the Hamptons. But that’s not the story he tells about how he ended up here. 

“Because it was my dream,” he said when asked why he ultimately choose New York. “It doesn’t hurt to play for your favorite team.”

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