TAMPA, Fla. — About eight hours before his New York Yankees — a team he was practically born into rooting for — played their fourth game of spring training, Russell Wilson was already inside the complex at George M. Steinbrenner Field on Monday morning, working out.
It was an early sign of his eagerness to play a part in the storied franchise’s latest chapter.
“He’s almost giddy. You can tell this is like the first day of school,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “You can tell he’s genuinely excited to be here and to just be a part of our guys.”
Wilson, the Super Bowl-winning quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks, isn’t only “a part” of the Yankees. He’s their newest second baseman, traded for earlier this month. He isn’t going to play in any games during his six-day stay, nor will he make the 25-man roster in the near future. But the Yankees still hope his presence will have an impact on this year’s team.
Read on as ESPN spent a day in the spring training life of the quarterback-turned-part-time-second-baseman:
11 a.m. ET
Aaron Judge and Russell Wilson hit consecutively today, and both put on a show. Unofficially, Judge had 10 BP homers today. Wilson and his 31-ounce Louisville Slugger had five. Giancarlo Stanton paced the group with 15.
Not long after Wilson arrived to the Yankees’ facility, Boone gave him some rude news.
Although Wilson said it had been more than a year since he had taken batting practice, he was going to take BP on Monday with the Yankees’ modern-day embodiment of Murderers’ Row: Judge, Stanton, Sanchez, Bird.
Last year, in an injury-abbreviated season, Greg Bird had nine homers, but he figures to factor more heavily in the Yankees’ power numbers in 2018. Gary Sanchez had 33 home runs. And Giancarlo Stanton (59) and Aaron Judge (52) paced their respective leagues in homers last season, Stanton while he spent the year with the Miami Marlins in the National League.
Boone’s announcement of Wilson hitting with batting practice Group 2 included an ominous message: “You better be on it today. I’m throwing you with the big boys.”
“They better be ready.”
1:00 p.m. ET
Here’s a first look at Russell Wilson in pinstripes as a member of the New York Yankees.
One of the most important people in Wilson’s life, his father Harrison Wilson III, was a big Yankees fan before his death from complications to diabetes in 2010.
When the multi-sport playing Russell Wilson was growing up, he and his dad and his great-uncle often spoke about him one day donning the Yankees’ unmistakable pinstripes.
“I love watching winners win,” Russell Wilson said of the 27-time World Series champion Yankees. “Loved seeing the process of why they won. The discipline it took. The passion of the fans. The energy they played with. The poise that they played with. Guys like Andy Pettitte. Guys like Derek Jeter and [Jorge] Posada.
“My great-uncle wears his Yankee hat every single day. He was a lawyer in New York for a long, long time. But he wears a Yankee hat every day, no matter where he goes. He comes to a Seahawks game, he’s wearing a Yankees hat.”
With his own new Yankees hat freshly atop his head, Russell Wilson’s day began on a backfield, where he got his arm loose before fielding a few ground balls.
1:22 p.m. ET
Russell Wilson told new Yankees teammate Didi Gregorius that it had been a year and a half since he was taking ground balls. “I told him it does not look like it,” Gregorius said. “He did not look rusty at all.”
As Wilson took grounders from second base, he teamed up with Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius to form a double-play tandem. While practicing together, they worked on pivots around second base, with Wilson looking more comfortable as the drills progressed.
One turn featured Gregorius feeding Wilson a quick toss, which the second baseman promptly and smoothly proceeded to catch with his bare hand before firing across to first base.
Ever the athlete on the football field, Wilson regularly displayed in these drills the type of twinkle-toed agility around the bag that has made him one of the more noted mobile quarterbacks in the NFL. After the fielding session ended, infield instructor and Yankees major league quality control coach Carlos Mendoza dropped the bat he had used to hit Wilson grounders and clapped, applauding his efforts.
“Some people always, for me, get confused on ‘is this just a stunt’ or whatever. They don’t know me. If you really know me, baseball’s been part of my blood,” Wilson said. “When you see me make plays on the football field, a lot of that’s a direct correlation to baseball.”
Gregorius didn’t think it looked like it had been a year and a half since Wilson took ground balls.
2:10 p.m. ET
Russell Wilson on the uniform number he’s wearing this week at Yankees’ spring training: “I tried to get No. 3 but I think somebody had it already (laughs). … So I’m wearing No. 73. Number 7 was my baseball number in high school.”
News conferences are a regular part of an NFL quarterback’s job, and Wilson handled his first appearance before the New York media horde like an experienced vet.
In fact, he didn’t show the slightest set of nerves before making his way over to the large news conference space affectionately known as “The Tent” at Steinbrenner Field. Between his infield session and the news conference, he was sitting inside the Yankees’ clubhouse joking with teammates who sat nearby.
Locker neighbor Tyler Austin shared laughs with Wilson, as did other players who dropped by the area to meet the four-time Pro Bowler.
Following the laugh session, Wilson spent more than 20 minutes with reporters before his day got into full stride. It was time for stretching, in-stadium infield drills and the major spectacle of the day: batting practice.
3:26 p.m. ET
Russell Wilson got a nice assist from Gary Sanchez on a full-team, infield in drill. Short-hopped the throw home.
Before Wilson ducked into the Yankees’ home dugout to grab a black, 31-ounce Louisville Slugger that had his name branded into it in silver, he grabbed his black fielding glove and jogged over from the outfield stretching area to second base. There, he proceeded to toss a baseball around the horn with his fellow infielders as defensive workouts commenced.
Wilson’s only real fielding blemish of the day came during an infield-in drill, which forced infielders to take ground balls near the lip of the grass and throw home to get an imaginary baserunner out. One of Wilson’s throws came in a little low and short-hopped Sanchez, who was catching.
Sanchez, whose defense drew former Yankees manager Joe Girardi’s ire at times last season, fielded the short hop cleanly and completed the play. Perhaps the fake baserunner would have been out.
3:56 p.m. ET
Here’s Russell Wilson taking batting practice. No home runs the first go-around but he was jacking it. Went yard a couple times his second time up.
The moment many at the ballpark had been awaiting finally arrived: Bird, Stanton, Judge, Wilson and Sanchez were in action. The concourses and walkways were buzzing, as fans were being let into the ballpark to watch the action. The batter’s eye, scoreboards and outfield bleachers were about to get busy. But before they did, it was time for a little bunting practice.
As the Yankees typically do, non-hitting players in the batting group lined themselves along the first- and third-base lines as a hitter stepped into the batter’s box to drop down two bunts. It’s custom for the non-hitting players to carry their bats out with them, with the sole purpose of slashing the bouncing ball to each other. That’s just some of their pre-hitting bonding and fun.
It appeared Wilson, the new guy, didn’t know the ritual at first. When the first slashed ball came his way, he tried to catch it with his hand, drawing a couple of laughs from teammates.
After bunting practice, the real show began.
One of Judge’s early home runs not only left the field, it flew over the tall batter’s eye beyond the center-field wall. Like at Yankee Stadium, the center-field fence here is 408 feet from home plate. Unofficially, Judge hit 10 homers, while Stanton paced the group with 15. Bird and Sanchez had eight and five, respectively.
While Wilson’s first round of batting practice didn’t produce any home runs, his latter two did. Each of Wilson’s unofficial six blasts were hit to left field, although he did have one impressive early drive to right that made it to the warning track.
Right after a Wilson home run that banged off the bottom of the scoreboard in left field, Judge, who was standing to the left of the cage, shook his head, smiled and said, “He’s been taking BP.”
4:12 p.m. ET
Russell Wilson had a special cheering squad here to see him for his first day with the Yankees. They even videotaped a special message to send to their mother, Ciara, who couldn’t be here today.
Wilson’s day in the cage was over. The dream of putting on the pinstripes had become a reality. For another five days, he’ll be the envy of other lifelong Yankees fans who have wondered how they might feel inside the ‘stripes while playing alongside up-and-coming team legends.
Following his rounds of hitting, Wilson addressed reporters briefly again before scouring the area around the dugout for his daughter Sienna, and wife Ciara’s son, Future Zahir Wilburn. Although Wilson wouldn’t be taking the field, there was a game to play Monday night in Tampa.
What began for Wilson more than 29 years ago as a family obsession with the Yankees, will continue.