The Yankees opened their arms to Marcus Stroman and Alex Verdugo, embracing big personalities for a new chapter

TAMPA, Fl. – Marcus Stroman, tone it down? Not happening. Stroman said even before he signed as a free agent with the New York Yankees, team captain Aaron Judge, general manager Brian Cashman and manager Aaron Boone all gave him the same message.

Don’t change. Be you.

“There is nobody in this process who was like, ‘Hey Stro, you need to…’” Stroman said. “That was only the people who weren’t involved, the outsiders who were like, ‘Hey, Stro, you gonna put on a suit and tie and be Mr. Good Boy?’ I’m 33 years old. I am who I am. I’ve got 10 years in the big leagues. I don’t have to change for nobody.”

The Yankees, under previous captain Derek Jeter and now Judge, long have maintained a professional clubhouse. A longstanding ban on facial hair is the most outward, if outdated, manifestation of the team’s image. But by keeping the focus on winning, Judge and other veterans create a culture that, in theory, is capable of absorbing new players with strong, somewhat individualistic, personalities – players like Stroman and outfielder Alex Verdugo.

Neither is getting stripped of his identity with the Yankees. Stroman, according to Cashman, will be permitted to wear the durag that once drew criticism – and an apology – from Arizona Diamondbacks broadcaster Bob Brenly. Verdugo will not be allowed to wear the multiple chains he posed with early in spring training, but can still wear one during games.

“Obviously, we have the facial hair we have to keep up on. I can’t get carried away with my chains,” Verdugo said. “But they love the way I played. When I came over, they were like, bro, we faced you the past few years. We loved that passion, that fire, that swagger you kind of bring.”

Judge and Verdugo chat in the dugout at Steinbrenner Field. (Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports)

Verdugo arrived in a trade from the Boston Red Sox, whose manager, Alex Cora, benched him twice last season. Stroman joined the Yankees on a two-year, $37 million free-agent deal despite making controversial social media posts in the past and once engaging with Cashman in a public feud.

The biggest name the Yankees acquired, outfielder Juan Soto, was part of a dysfunctional clubhouse last season in San Diego, but never considered a problem with his previous club, Washington.

“Honestly, when they step in this room, there’s a standard,” Judge said. “They can see that from other guys we have around this clubhouse. How they prepare. How when they walk through this door their egos are out the door. When you get to talk with them, let them know, ‘This is what we do,’ everyone just kind of joins in.”

All teams talk about creating such an environment. The Yankees, who play in perhaps the game’s most demanding market and consider their season a failure if they do not win the World Series, consider it a priority.

“We work hard at it. I beat into these guys all the time how important that is, especially in New York, to make sure we’re strong,” Boone said. “Whether it’s bringing someone up from the minor leagues, bringing a big guy in from a trade, we want to assimilate them as quickly as possible.”

Like all teams, the Yankees conduct background checks on players they acquire. Cashman determined his new additions had two qualities the Yankees covet most – talent and what the GM calls “the care factor.” Neither guarantees success in New York, where not all talented, caring players thrive. But in Cashman’s view, those elements provide a necessary foundation.

“The most important thing is, do you have talent and are you willing to fight and compete?” Cashman said. “Because in this city, that’s more important than anything else right now. We gravitate to those guys who are not afraid and are willing to compete. This city demands that.”

Stroman, a Long Island native who spent two seasons with the Mets, was the only significant Yankees addition who joined the team as a free agent. And he jumped at the challenge, captivating Cashman and impressing Judge.

“He has always wanted to be here,” Judge said.

In 2009, moments before one of the Yankees’ World Series games in Philadelphia, Nick Swisher engaged near the dugout in a good-natured, back-and forth with Phillies fans. Jeter shot him a look and motioned him into the dugout. Swisher, taking on the uncharacteristic role of a shrinking violet, dutifully followed.

“When the captain gives you a look, regardless of who that captain is, you know exactly what’s happening,” said Swisher, who is a guest instructor with the Yankees at spring training and a special advisor to Cashman. “As authentic as you want to be, there’s always an umbrella in being a New York Yankee. And you have to stay under that umbrella.”

Judge, at least publicly, rarely deems it necessary to pull a teammate back under that umbrella. His style with new acquisitions is to open a line of communication, form a bond. First baseman Anthony Rizzo, who joined the Yankees in a trade in July 2021, described Judge as “welcoming, inviting,” adding, “he is not just the best player, but the best person.”

For Judge, Stroman and Verdugo were not unknowns. He knew Stroman from playing against him and “hanging out.” He also was familiar with Verdugo from years of competing against him in the AL East. With Soto and outfielder Trent Grisham, two other newcomers, Judge said, “You’ve got to get to know ‘em first. Get to know about their families. What they like, how they are on the baseball field, away from the baseball field.”

Said Rizzo, “If you go anywhere and the hierarchy tells you right vs. wrong right away before you even know them, you’re naturally going to be (resistant). But when you build a relationship and something comes up, it comes from more of a loving spot. This is Joe Maddon 101. You can talk to them and they should be receptive.”

A case in point occurred in June 2022, when former Yankees third baseman Josh Donaldson created a stir by asking then-White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson, “What’s up, Jackie?” Donaldson’s comment was a reference to a 2019 quote in which Anderson said he felt like he was the Jackie Robinson of trying to break baseball’s “have-fun barrier.”

Donaldson said he was “just joking around,” but Anderson called his remark “disrespectful” and “unnecessary. Major League Baseball also labeled the comment disrespectful, fined Donaldson and suspended him for one game. Judge, when asked at the time for his reaction to Donaldson’s indiscretion, exhaled and paused, then issued a rare public rebuke.

But in the clubhouse, the issue did not linger.

“We just knew how to handle it,” Judge said. “We talked to each other. That was the biggest thing. When you have that communication, that relationship we established that when he first got to the team, it allows for us in any situation that comes up to have a tough conversation.”

Donaldson, who recently retired, occasionally could grate on teammates, but Judge and other Yankees did not consider him disruptive. Judge said Donaldson brought considerable value to the team with his veteran presence and was particularly beneficial for shortstop Anthony Volpe, who last season was a rookie.

The problem with Donaldson as a Yankee was that he didn’t hit. Stroman, an All-Star last season before injuries compromised him in the second half, is younger than Donaldson was in New York and seemingly in better position to succeed. And in Judge’s view, Stroman could have the same type of positive impact on younger players.

“That’s what I tried to tell him: ‘Don’t change anything, man. You’ve had success. You know what you’re doing,” Judge said. “For someone like that to come in, especially when we have a lot of young pitching prospects, I was like, ‘Man, you can be such a valuable resource to those guys.’”

Stroman agreed, citing the example he can set with his passion, work ethic and the adversity he has overcome as a 5-foot-7 pitcher, one of the shortest in the game. He said Judge and the entire Yankees organization has made him feel “at home.”

Verdugo echoed that sentiment.

“It already feels like I’ve had a couple of seasons with these guys,” he said.

Right-hander Jameson Taillon played for the Yankees in 2021 and ‘22. He and Stroman were teammates with the Chicago Cubs in ‘23. When asked how Stroman will fit with the Yankees, he offered an unqualified endorsement.

Taillon said Stroman takes care of his body, investing time and effort away from the field to put himself in the best position to perform. He added that Stroman understands who he is as a pitcher, competes hard and takes care of the people around him.

“If people in the past have a problem with him, it’s probably because he doesn’t perfectly align with what their expectations are for people/teammates. Which is on them, not him,” Taillon said. “He will be ready when his name is called and he has his teammates’ backs. What else can you ask for or expect in a teammate?”

Verdugo, in Boston, was not always thought of as highly. Cora grew frustrated with the outfielder, most notably when he benched him last Aug. 5 for arriving to the park two hours before game time rather than the four or five typically required. That night, Cora said, “I think today we took a step back as a team.” After the trade, Verdugo seemed to take a shot at Cora, saying of Boone, “I’m very, very excited to work with Aaron. I’ve seen the way he’s had his players’ backs.”

Publicly, at least, Cora seems to hold no grudge, saying he did not have a problem with Verdugo and that sometimes a manager and player just disagree. Cora praised Verdugo’s defense and said that if he hits lefties the way he did in the first of his four seasons in Boston, he will be, “a complete player, the one everyone envisioned.”

There also is this: Verdugo, like Soto, is entering his free-agent year. Cora said that will only add to his former player’s motivation, predicting Verdugo will be “on a mission” both because he got traded and because he wants to secure a long-term deal, allowing him to settle in one place.

“He can be as good as he wants,” Cora said. “I told him in the dugout, the clubhouse, my office, outside, you can be one of the best out there. At the end, it’s up to him.”

Verdugo is entering his age 28 season, just as Swisher was when he joined the Yankees 15 years ago. Swisher said he has spoken to Verdugo about the parallels in their respective trades. The Yankees acquired Swisher, then signed CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira as free agents later that offseason. Verdugo, likewise, was overshadowed by bigger moves, the trade for Soto and signing of Stroman.

Effervescent at 43 as he was at 23, Swisher is relentlessly positive in his view of all things Yankees, and partial to live wires such as Verdugo and Stroman.

“They are who they are. That’s what I appreciate most about them,” Swisher said. “It’s hard to go out and stand on your own two feet in this game. Those two individuals, out of all of our guys, have stood on their feet the most. You need those personalities in that locker room. They’re going to help other people express themselves.”

The Yankees had their issues last season. Domingo Germán’s suspension for sticky stuff and placement on the restricted list after he agreed to treatment for alcohol abuse. Carlos Rodón blowing a mock kiss to a jeering fan in Anaheim and turning his back on pitching coach Matt Blake during a mound visit in Kansas City. Aaron Hicks getting booed repeatedly and then released.

Rizzo credits Judge with holding the team together, noting, “With the personalities that have been brought in since I’ve been here, there’s never been any leaks about a divided clubhouse.” Boone predicts Verdugo, Stroman and Soto all will flourish as Yankees, saying, “A lot of it is because of our room.”

They are who they are, right?

“I truly believe everything is connected. It’s not like I’m going to be on my tip toes, creeping around here, shy and scared to say things and then go out on the mound and be myself,” Stroman said. “I think every great team has a balance of guys who are quiet in the way they go about it, but also guys who are authentically themselves, passionate, flashy, confident, guys who aren’t scared to talk a little bit of s—-. That authenticness, paired with the group of guys they already have, it’s hard to beat that dynamic.”

The 2024 Yankees will be the latest test case.

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