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22 August, 2021 - 04:20pm
Andrew Velazquez had 113 plate appearances in 68 games for three major-league teams from 2018-20 before signing with the Yankees last winter.
Not once did he hit a home run.
So of course the Bronx native, who grew up a Yankees fan and played at nearby Fordham Prep, stepped to the plate in the eighth inning Saturday and added another amazing chapter to this storybook segment of his career.
Velazquez turned on a first-pitch, 92-mph fastball from Twins reliever Ralph Garza Jr. and pulled it roughly 10 rows deep into the rightfield seats. Total distance: 359 feet.
As Velazquez watched the ball’s flight, his smile widened. Up in the stands, a few members of his family shed tears of joy.
With the eventual 7-1 victory already in hand, the Yankees didn’t need late-inning heroics from Velazquez this time. But this was an emotional bonus that felt tough to put into words, adding to this remarkable homecoming stretch from the kid next door.
Velazquez became the sixth New York-born Yankee to homer for the team since 1993. He joined Tim Locastro, who went deep on July 11.
"Some guy on deck kept screaming at me that I should hit my first one here," Velazquez said. "Every at-bat I got on deck, he was screaming at me, ‘Get the first one! Down the line!’ So I went 0-for-3 before that, and then on the final one, I said, 'Let me take his approach because mine ain’t working.' "
What could have been a disappointing day personally turned out to be magical instead. Velazquez mentioned that he hurried around the bases to get to celebrating with his teammates, but the physics of bashing forearms can be a little challenging for a 5-9, 170-pound shortstop — even one whose feet don’t feel as if they’re touching the ground.
"We didn’t want to knock him over," Luke Voit said, laughing. "Good for him, man. That was a really special moment for all of us — and for him, too."
It was only fitting that retrieving the baseball turned out to be a snap for the Bronx kid, too. Sometimes wrangling the ball away from a fan who catches it takes some negotiating. Maybe a swap for a signed bat or jersey. Possibly multiple items, depending on the prize.
But not this time. Getting the ball back was a breeze. "Whoever it was — thank you," Velazquez said.
While it’s easy to get caught up in the sentimental nature of this Bronx tale, Velazquez isn’t merely a novelty act for these Yankees. He’s not some late-season call-up for a team playing out the schedule. They’ve needed him, and Velazquez has responded in a way no one in the organization could have predicted.
Through 13 games, the switch hitter is batting .242 (8-for-33) with six RBIs. Not bad for a glove-first addition, and with the Yankees’ penchant for nail-biters, his defensive ability already has helped secure a game or two — most notably the ridiculous web gem that ended Tuesday’s sweep-clinching win over the Red Sox.
"It’s been really special," said Gerrit Cole, who grew up a Yankees fan himself, although on the West Coast. "I feel really fortunate to be able to share those emotions with him and watch him flourish on the biggest stage and fulfill his dream.
"Not to mention that it’s propelled us to several wins, to say the least. I can’t imagine what his family is going through right now and I’m thankful that he’s playing really well for us."
The Yankees are 11-2 in games in which Velazquez has appeared, including nine starts.
It took some extraordinarily bad luck from the team’s standpoint to get Velazquez here from Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes/Barre, as the Yankees lost Gleyber Torres (thumb sprain) and Gio Urshela (hamstring) to the injured list.
On the other hand, they’re also fortunate to have him, and the feel-good aspect of his Bronx origins is the perfect complement to the overall vibe around these resurgent Yankees. You couldn’t make it up.
"Right now we’re rolling, so just taking it one pitch at a time, just trying to stay in the moment, where my feet are," Velazquez said. "That way, I don’t get lost in everything else that’s happening."
That approach is working for Velazquez and for the Yankees. And every day he seems to create another memorable moment.
"It is awesome. We're all excited for him," Aaron Boone said, acknowledging the storybook side. "But he’s playing really well for us and helping us win games with his all-around play. That’s the thing that gets me excited. And he’s come in and fit in and had an impact in the room."
Also a flair for the dramatic. Velazquez had opportunities to hit his first home run for the Rays, Orioles or Cleveland. But he didn’t go deep until he got home to the Bronx, which almost makes you believe it was supposed to happen that way.
David Lennon is an award-winning columnist, a voter for baseball's Hall of Fame and has covered six no-hitters, including two perfect games.
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