September 5, 2017 | The Players’ Tribune | By Luis Severino
You know what the best feeling in the world is?
The best feeling in the world is waking up in the morning and remembering that you’re a New York Yankee.
The morning after I pitch a good game and get a win for the Yankees in front of our fans at the stadium, I almost always wake up thinking about how incredible it is that I made it to where I am.
Something that not a lot of people know is that me coming to play in New York almost didn’t happen. I was almost a Colorado Rockie.
Five years ago, I was 17 and living in the Dominican Republic. My family had very little money, so the idea of signing with a major league team was something that was on my mind every day. I had left home to go train at a baseball academy in Bavaro, and would go to every MLB tryout I possibly could.
When my first offer came in, it was actually from the Marlins.
The guy from the team was like, “Hey, we like what you can do. We have a contract and the money for you. It’s yours if you want it. Do you want it?”
I can’t tell you how bad I wanted to say yes.
In my mind I was like, Yes, I want it. I do. Give it to me, please. Right now.
But my agent told me to be patient — that I could get more, that a better offer would soon come in. I just needed to wait a little bit.
That was really tough. Weeks and weeks passed. Then months. It was so hard to be patient. I just kept thinking about all the things that signing money could’ve bought for my family.
When the Rockies came to me seven months later with a much better offer, it felt like 10 years had passed. I didn’t want to wait anymore. I was ready. I was going to become a Colorado Rockie. Everyone in my hometown was so happy and proud. Some people even went out and bought Rockies hats.
But then, while we were in the process of finalizing the contract, something happened that I wasn’t expecting.
The New York Yankees called and said they wanted to talk to me.
From the time I was a little kid growing up in Sabana de la Mar, I loved two things: baseball and the New York Yankees.
There was a small field right down the road from our house, so my father and older brother would always walk there to play baseball with people from our neighborhood. I’d tag along and watch. And around the time I was six, I became really focused on playing the game and getting good. When I wasn’t on the field, I’d be watching baseball on TV, just trying to understand the sport and learn as much as possible.
I loved watching the Yankees back then. There was just something about that uniform, and the pinstripes, and that logo, and … New York. And when I went to the field, I’d sometimes try to be like the guys I saw on TV, or pretend I was playing in Yankee Stadium.
I started out as a third baseman, if you can believe that, and an outfielder. But my dad also began teaching me some pitching basics on the side. When I was 10 or 11, he sat me down and went over how to throw a curveball. He talked to me about spin, and rotation, and about where to put my fingers on the ball. I was still really young, so it took me a while to get it, but I remember just sitting there so excited to be learning how to throw a new pitch.
The other big thing that my dad did for me was buy me my first Yankees hat.
I’ll never forget that day.
At the time, none of us had any idea about my future. My dad just knew how much I loved the Yankees, and that the hat would make me happy.
I wore that thing everywhere. And I made sure to keep it clean.
I loved that hat. I really did.
As I got older, and worked more on my pitching, I got better and better. By the time I was 15 I was pretty good at it, but I wasn’t throwing all that hard. My first major league tryout was with the Atlanta Braves. I was 16, and I threw 82 or 83. Around that time is when I went away to an academy to get better training, but the bottom line was that I needed to throw harder if I was going to get signed, and everyone around me knew it.
I didn’t have that much time, though. Sixteen is already pretty old to be a prospect, and 17 and 18 were right around the corner. So I just tried to keep working and go to as many tryouts as I could. For kids in the D.R., we will do whatever it takes to get signed. We don’t care if we have to do five tryouts in a week. You never know when you’re going to impress the right person, and you never pass on an opportunity.
I remember one time at the academy, they needed me to play first base and I wound up getting hit with a ball on my left arm. I couldn’t move it, but I had a tryout coming up in a few days. Some people were telling me not to go. But I didn’t think twice. I just went and threw with my left arm against my chest.
You just do whatever you have to do, you know? But it’s not easy. And there can be a lot of pressure on your shoulders. There are usually like 20 kids at those tryouts who are just like you. They all throw hard and look very young. So you sit there and watch all the other players throw, and it’s like, Oh, my God, how is that kid throwing 97?
You have to somehow separate yourself from the pack. And to stand out in that crowd, I kind of needed something to change for me quick.
I needed a new plan.
What I didn’t know at the time was that the new plan would involve putting down the baseball and trying something pretty … different.
One day, one of my coaches came to me with an idea.
You’re going to run for 30 minutes every morning, and then take a softball and play catch with it and throw it as far as you can each time. Long toss. No baseballs. All softballs.
He didn’t say why, or what he was expecting to happen. He just told me to do it.
I was surprised. But, you know, what am I gonna do? He was my coach.
So I did it. I didn’t ask any questions. I just did what he said for two straight weeks before my next tryout.
Then, when I stepped on the mound at that tryout, I threw 92 right off the bat.
I was shocked. I’d never been anywhere near those numbers in the past.
But it was no fluke. After that, my velocity just kept going up and up. By the time the Rockies came to me with that offer, I was all the way up to 97. And I also had a nasty slider.
At that point, I knew I had a real shot. And when the Yankees matched the Rockies’ offer, and it came time for me to decide where to sign, it wasn’t a tough call for me at all.
But it was still a little bit funny telling everybody about it.
I went back to my hometown after I signed with New York, and people were still thinking that I was going to be a Rockie.
When I met up with friends and family, I was more excited than I’ve ever been in my life. I was practically shouting to everyone: “I am a New York Yankee! I’m going to play in New York. I’m a Yankee!”
And they just sort of looked at me. They didn’t know what to do.
Then, after I got all the blank looks, I heard the same thing, over and over:
Are you sure this time, Luis? It’s for real this time, right?
All I could do was smile and laugh at that point.
I think maybe some of them were worried about having to buy a different hat.
But I didn’t have that problem. The Yankees cap that Dad had bought me was still as good as new.
Robinson Cano was my guy back in the day.
Don’t forget, I was a position player at first. So every time I watched a Yankees game I’d see him play the field so smoothly, and then hit all those home runs. It was incredible to me how good he was. Plus he was a Dominican guy, like me, so it was fun to root for him and think about trying to get to where he was.
But I also loved a bunch of other Yankees. Posada, Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and on and on. I watched all those guys so closely as a kid to see if I could pick up any tips that I could use.
When I got to the baseball academy, my manager was a huge Yankees fan, so we’d get together and watch every game on TV.
Then I’d go to bed at night and think about what it would be like to wear the pinstripes and play in New York City.
As much as I loved the Yankees, though, my pitching idol was always Pedro Martinez, another Dominican legend. It would be tough for me when Pedro was pitching for the Red Sox and he’d go up against my Yankees.
But I just loved watching him. From the very first time I saw him play, I was hooked. His tempo was unbelievable, and he was never afraid of anyone or anything. If he had to pitch inside, he’d pitch inside. If he needed to hit you, he’d hit you. And that changeup was just incredible to me — how he could throw so hard and then come at you with a changeup on the very next pitch. It was always just so much fun to watch.
Eventually, I realized what I needed to do. I decided that I’d root for Pedro to throw a shutout for six innings … and then for the bullpen to come in and blow the game so the Yankees could win.
At the end of the day, I always wanted the Yankees to win no matter what.
Guys like Pedro and Robinson are larger than life in the Dominican Republic. Baseball is so much more than a sport there. It is a way of life. And people like me have benefitted from that over the years.
Once you sign that contract with a major league team, the fact that baseball is so big back home — and that so many players from the Dominican have made it to the big leagues — comes in handy.
Dominican players, we look out for one another, you know?
When I first came to the U.S. a few years ago, I struggled to find the time to improve my English, and had a hard time eating McDonald’s hamburgers every single day. But there were always other Dominican players around to help me out. Pretty early on, I learned that sometimes you need to go to Burger King, just to switch it up. That was huge for me.
After a while, with some help, you just sort of get the hang of things.
Someone tells you about the Duolingo app for your phone, or that adding new toppings can make a pizza seem different from day to day.
And you just kind of go from there.
The other thing that takes some time to get used to is all the media attention that baseball players get in the States.
My first start after I got called up to the Yankees in 2015 was against the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium. And, believe it or not, I wasn’t really all that nervous.
Then I went out to dinner the night before with my wife and made the mistake of going to a restaurant with big TVs everywhere. Every five seconds, it was like, “Tomorrow will be the debut of Yankees rookie Luis Severino,” and “Big day tomorrow for Severino against the Red Sox.” Stuff like that.
Oh, my God. It wouldn’t stop.
When I went back to my hotel room, it was the same thing.
Those TVs actually put nerves into me. But you know what? After I threw my first pitch against the Red Sox, all the nerves went away. And then I just tried to do what I always do. It made it extra special that I was able to face David Ortiz and Hanley Ramirez on that day — two guys I grew up watching all the time in the D.R.
It was also fun to see people waving Dominican flags in the stands, and to know that I was now part of a big league club with so many Dominican fans. I felt right at home from the very beginning, and then to have the whole stadium cheering for me, and showing me love … it was an incredible experience for me.
Since that time, I’ve grown to love playing in New York more and more. It’s been so much fun to be a part of this franchise and to be one of a group of young guys who is looking to do big things for years and years to come. I just feel very fortunate in every way. And I can’t say enough about the people here. Yankees fans are so full of passion and energy. It makes me want to go out and do my very best every single time I pitch. I’m having the time of my life right now.
And even when I’m struggling, Yankees fans are right there to support me and help lift me up.
Last year, when I was going through a rough patch, I went to the grocery store to pick up a few things. And, out of nowhere, while I’m in the checkout line, this older gentleman taps me on the shoulder.
It kind of caught me off guard at first.
Excuse me, but are you Luis Severino?
I said, “Yes, I am.” Then he said this:
“I know things aren’t going great right now, but I still believe in you. I think you’re going to be a really good pitcher. I believe in you. You can be great.”
I mean … come on. What can you even say about an experience like that? Other than….
Man, do I love New York.