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Dinner with Starlin Castro and Didi Gregorius

March 11, 2016 – A few days after Yankees second baseman Starlin Castro reported to spring training, I had the pleasure of sitting down with him and shortstop Didi Gregorius for dinner.

During the meal at Tampa landmark, Charley’s Steak House, I interviewed both players for the cover story of the April Issue of Yankees Magazine.

Before I could start the interview, a surprise visitor came to our table with a gift. Carlos Beltran, who was dining at the restaurant with former New York Mets GM Omar Minaya, stopped by with a bottle of 2013 cabernet sauvignon from California’s Caymus Vineyards.

Even before the waiter opened the wine bottle, I was impressed with the camaraderie between the two middle infielders, who had only been teammates for a few days at that time.

“Didi doesn’t drink wine,” Castro said. “But that’s OK. There will be more for the rest of us.”

“I will definitely try the alligator bites,” Gregorius responded, pointing to the popular appetizer on the menu. “But I will tell you right now, there’s no way Starlin will eat alligator.”

“You’re right,” Castro said. “No way.”

Besides having already gotten to know each other off the field, the two are looking forward to spending a lot of time together on the field.

“We’re already friends,” said the second baseman, who was traded to the Yankees from the Chicago Cubs in December. “But we’re going to be like family before you know it. We’re going to be the best middle infield in the game. I really believe that.”

If things continue to go the way they did for Castro and Gregorius during the second half of the last season, the second baseman’s prediction will probably come true.

After suffering through the worst slump of his career, Castro was benched for a few games last August and then moved from shortstop — where he had played for the first five and half years of his career — to second base. In his last 47 games of the season, beginning with his first appearance at second base on Aug. 11, Castro batted .353.

Castro’s late season surge was far from his first taste of success. In 2011, his second big-league season, he led the National League with 207 hits and earned his first of three All-Star Game selections.

Castro earned his third All-Star Game selection in 2014. That year, he tied his career high with 14 home runs while posting a .292 batting average, his highest since 2011.

“I was thankful that I was able to come back to being the player I had been,” Castro said as he dug into a 20-once rib eye steak. “I tried to make the most of the opportunity the Cubs gave me to be an everyday player again, and I’m proud of how I was able to rebound.”

Although Gregorius has only one full major league season under his belt, it was an impressive campaign. After getting off to slow start of his own, the 25-year-old got comfortable at the plate and became the shortstop the Yankees had hoped he would be. In 28 games last August, he collected 31 hits and 14 RBI, while batting .310, and when the 2015 season was all said and done, Gregorius’ batting average stood at .265.

“He’s a great player,” Castro said of his new teammate. “He’s a hard worker, and he constantly wants to improve.”

With only nine hits separating the 25-year-old Castro from the 1,000 hit plateau, I was sure to ask how much that individual goal means to him.

“I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t excited about it,” Castro said. “I want to get off to a good start in the regular season. I want to get it out of the way quickly, in the beginning of April, so that everyone can get completely focused on winning games, not milestones.”

To read about the rest of my interview and dinner with the middle infielders, grab a copy of the April Issue of Yankees Magazine, which will on sale beginning on April 4.

–Alfred Santasiere III

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Portrait of Starlin Castro

March 11, 2016 – At the beginning of spring training each year, the Yankees hold Photo Day, and our photographers are among a few others who get the opportunity to shoot portraits of every Yankees player and coach. On this early morning at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Florida, we try to capture as many Yankees Magazine cover and opening spread photos as possible, and this year was a huge success.

From his station on the third base side of the field, Yankees team photographer James Petrozzello shot the portrait below of Starlin Castro for the opening spread of my April Issue feature on the Yankees new second baseman.

You’ll see plenty more beautifully-lit portraits from this late February morning in upcoming issues of Yankees Magazine this season.

–Alfred Santasiere III

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Feature on Luis Severino – in the May Issue of Yankees Magazine

March 11, 2016—Not long after I arrived in Tampa for spring training, I interviewed up-and-coming pitcher Luis Severino for a feature story that is scheduled for publication in the May Issue of Yankees Magazine.

My conversation with Severino took place a few minutes after the pitcher faced live batters for the first time in 2016. Of course, he earned rave reviews for his performance in 2015, climbing from Double-A to the majors and putting together a 5-3 record with a 2.89 ERA in 11 starts with the Yankees.

On this unseasonably cool day in Tampa, it was clear that the 22-year-old Severino was not surprised by what he was able to do last season.

“If I was asked last year at this time where I was going to end up in 2015, I would have said the big leagues,” Severino said. “I really had the confidence I needed when I got to spring training last year, and I was determined to get there before the end of the season.”

Severino also spoke about the way he has prepared for the upcoming season.

“I wanted to get stronger,” said Severino, who maintained the same three-day a week throwing regimen he used in the past. “My workouts were a lot more intense. I feel like that will help me, especially as we get into the later part of the season. Because of what I did in the offseason, I have a lot more confidence than I had at the end of last season.”

Not only is the soft-spoken pitcher more confident than ever, he’s also excited to experience what he felt last season.

“When you get a taste of what it’s like pitching in front of thousands of fans in the major leagues, you can’t wait to experience that again,” Severino said. “I enjoyed the time in the minors, but there’s nothing that rivals the excitement that you feel from the number of fans rooting for you at Yankee Stadium.”

Don’t miss this entire story, which is scheduled for publication in the May Issue of Yankees Magazine.

–Alfred Santasiere III

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New York Yankees Official 2016 Spring Training Program – ON SALE, March 2

February 23, 2016 – The New York Yankees 2016 Official Spring Training Program will be on sale at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Florida, beginning on March 2.

On that afternoon, the Yankees will be kicking off their spring season, taking on the Detroit Tigers. If you are at that game, or any other matchup in Tampa this spring, be sure to grab a copy of the program.

This year’s program features two exclusive Q&A’s. For the first piece, executive editor Ken Derry sat down with Joe Girardi and spoke with the manager about this year’s team and his expectations for the season. A few weeks before Derry met with Girardi, I interviewed Alex Rodriguez and his childhood idol, Dan Marino in Miami (see blog entry below) for a compelling feature.

Also in this season’s spring training program, you’ll find contributing writer Mark Feinsand’s feature about Yogi Berra’s time with the Yankees in spring training. For this story, Feinsand spoke to several great Yankees players about their memories of the late catcher in Tampa over the last two decades.

Lastly, senior editor Jon Schwartz penned a feature about the team’s offseason acquisitions, including new second baseman Starlin Castro.

Enjoy the New York Yankees 2016 Official Spring Training Program. Opening Day will be here before you know it.

–Alfred Santasiere III

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Spring Issue of Yankees Magazine – ON SALE, MARCH 1

February 23, 2016 – The Spring Issue of Yankees Magazine will be on sale on March 1 at Yankee Stadium, and on newsstands throughout New York City and the surrounding areas.

You can also purchase a subscription to Yankees Magazine by calling (800) GO-YANKS or by visiting http://www.yankees.com/publications.

In addition to my feature with Aaron Judge (see blog entry below), this edition includes executive editor Ken Derry’s exclusive Q&A with Joe Girardi, in which the manager shares his thoughts on several topics related to the team and the 2016 season.

The first issue of 2016 also includes one of my favorite features that has ever appeared in Yankees Magazine. That inspiring story details senior editor Jon Schwartz’ experience running the New York City Marathon. After completing the race in 2014, Schwartz joined CC Sabathia’s PitCCh In Foundation’s marathon team to raise money and awareness for the charitable organization. To learn more about the pitcher’s foundation and to get a feel for what it was like for Schwartz to get back to the finish line in 2015, check out “Payoff Pitch” in the upcoming issue.

Enjoy this edition of Yankees Magazine.

–Alfred Santasiere III

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Hometown Feature on John Flaherty – in the June Issue of Yankees Magazine

February 23, 2016 – Last November, I spent a day with former Yankees catcher and current YES Network broadcaster John Flaherty in Rockland County, New York, for a feature that will be published in the June Issue of Yankees Magazine.

For Flaherty, who played for the Yankees at the end of his 14-year career — after stops in Boston, Detroit, San Diego and Tampa Bay — the rural turned suburban county in the lower Hudson Valley is home. He grew up there, and after signing with the Yankees in 2003, he moved back to the town he spent his childhood in.

During the autumn day I spent with Flaherty, we visited his high school, the house he grew up in and Germonds Park, where at 12 years old, Flaherty tossed eight no-hitters and averaged 17 strikeouts per game.

“I first started playing catcher when I was 7 years old,” Flaherty said. “I caught every year until I was 12. Then, my coach thought it would be a good idea to have me pitch and play first base. I only gave up six hits that season, and that’s when I realized that I had a stronger arm than anyone else on the field. Coach would limit me to six curveballs a game. I would pick the best hitter in the lineup, and start them off with a fastball up and in. Then I would throw the curveball right at them, and it would break over the plate. At that point, I had them.”

When he began to experience arm pain, Flaherty moved back to behind the plate, where he remained for the rest of his baseball career.

After visiting the many landmarks from Flaherty’s childhood, we sat down for lunch at Il Fresco in Orangeburg, New York. When I initially suggested the restaurant to Flaherty, I did so because it’s one of my favorite establishments in Rockland County. But little did I know, it also has special meaning to the former catcher.

During one of the summers that he was enrolled at George Washington University in the mid-’80s, Flaherty took a few classes at Orangeburg’s Dominican College while also working at the restaurant, then named the Old Stone House Inn.

“I took a few accounting classes in the morning,” Flaherty said. “My mom was a secretary at that college, and after my classes, I would walk over to her office and have lunch with her.”

At the time he was taking the summer classes, Flaherty had no idea how valuable those lunches would end up being, but he would soon realize it. About a year and a half later, Flaherty’s mother was diagnosed with cancer, and she passed away soon after.

“When I look back on the summer that I took classes at Dominican College, it’s one of the best memories of my life,” Flaherty said. “When I was meeting my mom for lunch every day, it was one of those things that just worked out as part of my daily routine. But after she got sick, I realized how special those times were. It gave me a lot of time with her that I wouldn’t have otherwise had.”

Enjoy the rest of the story about Flaherty’s life and baseball.

–Alfred Santasiere III

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Feature on Prospect Aaron Judge – in the Spring Issue of Yankees Magazine

February 23, 2016 – For a feature in the Spring Issue of Yankees Magazine, I spent some time last summer with highly-touted prospect Aaron Judge in Moosic, Pennsylvania.

After being drafted by the Yankees in 2013, Judge has climbed quickly through the Yankees minor league system, and if things continue to go well for the right fielder, it’s only a matter of time before he will land in the Bronx.

When I sat down with the 6-foot-7-inch power hitter at the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders home ballpark, he spoke about the emphasis he places on not getting ahead of himself.

“I don’t have season long goals,” Judge said after his pre-game workout at PNC Field. “I really come to the park every day with the goal of being better than I was the day before. I feel that if I can do that each day, I will get to where I want to be.”

Although he’s put up great numbers in each of the last two seasons and earned a spot in the SiriusXM All-Star Future’s Game in 2015, Judge missed the entire 2013 campaign with a torn right quad muscle.

When I asked the upbeat outfielder about the time he spent rehabbing the injury, he focused on the positives that came from that experience.

While rehabbing the quad injury in Tampa, Florida, Judge found himself reporting to the same place as stars Derek Jeter and Curtis Granderson, both of whom were recovering from their own injuries.

“Getting to spend time with both of them was huge for me,” Judge said. “I learned a lot just from watching the way Derek worked to come back from the ankle injury he had. He and I talked about what he had done to be successful year in and year out. Watching Curtis field baseballs in the outfield and talking to him about playing the outfield and hitting was especially beneficial.”

After getting to know Judge and putting together the story about him, I’m excited about the 23-year-old’s future in the Yankees organization. When you get your copy of the Spring Issue, don’t skip over this feature, because Aaron Judge might very well be a name you’ll be reading about very frequently, very soon.

–Alfred Santasiere III

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Special Feature with Paul O’Neill – in the October Issue of Yankees Magazine

February 4, 2016 – It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost 15 years since Yankees icon Paul O’Neill played his last game in pinstripes. But regardless of how many years have passed since the right fielder’s swan song, his epic good-bye will stay with him — and with the Yankees fan base from the late ’90s and early 2000’s — forever.

A few weeks ago, I traveled to Lake Worth, Florida, for Bucky Dent’s annual charity golf outing, which O’Neill played in for the first time. Before my group hit the links with O’Neill, I sat down with him to discuss his final game at Yankee Stadium — an epic win in the 2001 World Series — along with the emotional aftermath of the tragedies of Sept. 11.

My candid conversation with O’Neill will be published in the October Issue of Yankees Magazine, and this first-person piece will be highlighted by The Warrior’s recollections of Game 5 of the 2001 World Series. That night, when O’Neill took the field in the top of the ninth inning, the Stadium crowd chanted his name for nearly five minutes.

“Like so many other ballplayers, I’ve been lucky enough to get an ovation after big home runs or great catches, but this was totally different,” O’Neill began. “This wasn’t a chant that would only last for a few seconds, but instead, it seemed as if it would go on for the entire half inning. At first, I got goose bumps because I was so honored that our fans thought that much of me. I didn’t’ realize that I meant so much to New York City until that moment. Then, as the chant continued, I had no idea how to react. It wasn’t as if I could tip my cap and run into the dugout. I was standing out there in right field during a World Series game that we were losing, and more than 50,000 people were chanting my name for almost five minutes.

“If I could have said anything to the fans at that moment, it would have been, ‘Thank you very much, but we’re losing the game,’” O’Neill continued. “But knowing that I couldn’t communicate those feelings to the crowd, I began to just soak it all in.”

After the half inning — and the serenade — came to a close, O’Neill and his teammates quickly regained their focus. Although they were trailing the Diamondbacks by two runs, recent history was on their side. A night earlier, O’Neill’s ninth inning single, brought the tying run to the plate in the bottom of the ninth. Then, with two outs, Tino Martinez hit the first pitch he saw over the centerfield wall to tie Game 4, and Derek Jeter earned the nickname “Mr. November” when he won that game with a 10th inning home run.

The Yankees were facing the same obstacle in Game 5.

Then, it happened again. The Diamondbacks brought closer Byung-Hyun Kim into the game to protect a two-run lead for the second night in a row. This time around, Jorge Posada led off the inning with a double, and with two outs, Scott Brosius hit a home run to even the score. Alfonso Soriano singled in the winning run in the bottom of the 12th.

“That comeback for the ages made my swan song so much more meaningful,” O’Neill said. “The thing I will remember most from the end of that game was the joy that our fans had. I remember looking into the stands as I was walking off the Yankee Stadium field for the last time as a player, and all I saw was people hugging each other. It was very special.

“After I got into the clubhouse, I took my home jersey off for the last time, but I had no intention of parting ways with it,” O’Neill continued. “Besides playing my last game at Yankee Stadium in that jersey, it had an American flag on the back. That symbolized all that our country had fought through, and I wanted to keep it forever. When I look at that jersey all these years later, it brings me back to that incredibly emotional time.”

In the end, the Yankees fell short of their ultimate goal, falling to the Diamondbacks in the last two games of the Series, both played in Arizona. But for O’Neill, the three World Series games at Yankee Stadium provided a level of gratification that had previously come only with championship seasons.

“I was at peace with the way the season ended,” said the notoriously fierce competitor. “The three games at Yankee Stadium were the most memorable of my career. You couldn’t write a script like that. Because of what those three victories meant to New York City in the wake of the worst tragedy on American soil, those three wins were enough for me.”

–Alfred Santasiere III

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Special Q&A with Alex Rodriguez and Dan Marino – in the April Issue of Yankees Magazine

January 11, 2016 – Earlier this winter, I traveled to South Florida for what was a once-in-a-lifetime interview. After a few years of trying, I was finally able to set up at date in which Alex Rodriguez and Dan Marino could sit down with me for an exclusive conversation.

The interview with A-Rod and Marino will be published in the New York Yankees 2016 Official Spring Training Program and in the April Issue of Yankees Magazine.

Having the opportunity to be the first person to interview A-Rod and Marino together was a thrill, and thinking about the combined milestones of these greats is still overwhelming: 687 home runs and 3,070 hits (and counting) for Rodriguez and 420 touchdowns passes and 61,361 passing yards for Marino. But what made the experience even more special for me was that Marino was my childhood hero. I revered him when I was growing up, and I still do today.

Marino was also A-Rod’s childhood hero. The Yankees star spent his childhood in Miami during Marino’s heyday with the Miami Dolphins. From the time he was very young, Rodriguez rooted for Marino and Dolphins with great passion — the type of enthusiasm that I have always been able to relate to.

And, so, it was with great excitement that I sat down with Marino and A-Rod on a balmy morning at the 50-yard line of Sun Life Stadium, the Dolphins home since 1987 (see photo below). Being on the field that Marino played on for the majority of his career combined with the happiness that both legends brought to the gridiron, made the 40-minute conversation the most enjoyable interview I’ve ever conducted.

At the beginning of our conversation, I asked Rodriguez what his favorite memories of watching Marino play at the old Orange Bowl stadium are, and he was not at a loss for words.

“One of the best memories of my childhood — or of my whole life for that matter — was the <Monday Night> game in which Dan led the Dolphins to the big win against the undefeated Chicago Bears in 1985,” A-Rod said. “Everyone thought that the Bears were going to run the table, but what you did that night was unbelievable. The other game that really stands out in my mind was when the Dolphins beat the New York Jets down here in 1985. Dan connected with Mark Duper on a bomb in the last seconds of the game, and Duper took it the rest of the way for the game-winning touchdown.”

For Marino, who played at the Orange Bowl from 1983 through 1986, the Monday Night win against Chicago also marked his favorite memory of his first professional football home.

“The crowd was never louder than it was that night, and beating that team was a great accomplishment,” Marino said. “We had several players from our undefeated 1972 team on the sidelines, and preserving their undefeated record by beating Chicago is something I will always be proud of.”

Later in the conversation, I asked the two icons to discuss the first time they met.

“I remember when Alex was back in high school,” Marino began. “He used to come to the taping of my TV show at my restaurant.”

“I’ll tell you the story in much more detail, Al,” A-Rod countered. “When Dan was playing for the Dolphins, I watched everything that had to do with the team. I would watch his show all the time, and that was one of my favorite things to do each week. I read in the local paper that they were moving his show to Dan Marino’s American Sports Bar & Grill, which was only about 2 miles from where I lived. It was perfect for me because I could just take the bus there and back, and it didn’t cost anything to get a seat in the audience to watch the show. The first time I went to the show, I was about 15 years old. I got there early and scouted things out because I really wanted to meet Dan. I went out to the parking lot, and there were about a dozen other guys out there who were all about my age. We saw Dan getting out of the car, and I rushed over to him and I said, “Hey, Dan, you’re my favorite player. I wear No. 13 because of you. I’m a quarterback, but I also play shortstop.” He put his arm around me, and he said, “Boy, you’re a good-looking athlete. You have a bright future, young man.” I couldn’t wait to tell my mom that story. When I got home, I said, “Mom, I’m going to make it. Dan thinks I have a future in sports.” You never forget that. When I talk to young kids today, I still visualize that moment with Dan. It’s amazing how much athletes influence kids.”

At the end of the interview, I asked A-Rod — who was an All-State quarterback when he was in high school — what it’s been like getting to know his childhood hero over the last few decades.

“Ever since I was a little boy, I put Dan on a pedestal just like most of the kids who grew up in my generation did,” Rodriguez said. “Then, I got to meet him, and I realized that he’s an even better person than I could have ever imagined. It’s great when you meet your heroes, and they are as kind as Dan. From the first time we spent time together, he treated me like a little brother, like family. It’s been a really respectful relationship. Dan really set the example for me on how to treat young players who I’m around these days.”

After the interview, our group walked from mid-field to a lounge in Sun Life Stadium. There, we were treated to a catered lunch from Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza, an Italian restaurant chain that Marino is a partner in.

“We brought a lot of great food here today,” Marino said. “You’re going to love the meatballs and the pizza. It’s going to be a great lunch.”

Marino was right. Everything about our lunch — from the conversation to the food — was spectacular.

As our lunch was wrapping up, I thought of one last question for A-Rod. When he had arrived at the field, he caught a few passes from Marino. Knowing what a thrill that experience has been for me (on previous occasions and on that day), I asked A-Rod what it was like for him.

“Honestly, I had never thought about it until today,” he said. “But when [Dan] grabbed the football, I said to myself, “Oh my God. This is a childhood dream, and it’s about to happen.” That was really cool. It’s something I’ll never forget.”

–Alfred Santasiere III

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2015 NEW ERA PINSTRIPE BOWL OFFICIAL GAME PROGRAM – ON SALE, SATURDAY DEC. 26

December 14, 2015 – There’s still 12 days before the Duke Blue Devils and Indiana Hoosiers will take the field at Yankee Stadium for the 2015 New Era Pinstripe Bowl, but below you’ll see the cover of the official game program.

New York Yankees team photographer James Petrozzello snapped this photo, featuring the Duke and Indiana helmets, on the field at Yankee Stadium.

Besides providing all of the information you’ll ever need on the history of game and on the Duke and Indiana football programs, his year’s program includes a Q&A feature with the head coaches of each of the participating teams. On the day of that Duke University coach David Cutcliffe and Indiana University coach Kevin Wilson came to Yankee Stadium for the New Era Pinstripe Bowl press conference, editors Nathan Maciborski and Jon Schwartz spoke with them about the upcoming matchup.

A few days prior to that, Schwartz interviewed the former Penn State kicker Sam Ficken for the New Era Pinstripe Bowl alumni piece. Ficken etched his name into Yankee Stadium lore when he kicked a “walk-off extra point” to beat Boston College in the 2014 New Era Pinstripe Bowl. After BC scored the first touchdown in overtime, their kicker missed an extra point. Penn State countered with a touchdown of their own, and Ficken sealed the deal by putting the ball through the uprights.

Additionally, my Q&A with Carl Banks is included in the program (see blog entry below), and in the feature, the former New York Giants linebacker sheds light on some of the best places to visit in the Big Apple.

If you are going to be at the Dec. 26 game, be sure to grab a copy of the program. If you can’t make it out to the Stadium, you can purchase a copy of the program at www.yankees.com/publications or by calling (800) GO-YANKS.

–Alfred Santasiere III

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