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The weird brilliance of Chase Headley’s Yankees debut

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Headley’s arrival provided a moment of joy in an otherwise boring season

Photo by Rob Tringali/SportsChrome/Getty Images | Pinstripe Alley Illustrations

Marley was dead, all right, and so were the Yankees’ hopes at third base.

If you recall, not too long ago, New York had a blackhole at third base. I speak metaphorically, of course, but if you told me an actual break in the space-time continuum opened up in the Bronx, well, I wouldn’t doubt it. Just consider some of these names from the lean years of 2013-2014:

  • Jayson Nix
  • David Adams
  • Luis Cruz
  • Chris Nelson
  • Brent Lillibridge
  • Scott Sizemore
  • Zelous Wheeler

Scott Sizemore sounds like a computer-generated character in MLB The Show. So does Chris Nelson. As for Zelous Wheeler, he strikes me as someone just as likely to win the WWE 24/7 Championship as he is to play third base for the Yankees.

The best option the team found? Yangervis Solarte, a 27-year-old minor leaguer who rode a big spring training into a starting job with the Yankees. He hit .254/.337/.381 with six home runs (106 wRC+) across 289 plate appearances. Imagine that, league average production at a bat-first position—what a sight for sore eyes!

It seems funny now, especially from the vantage point of 2020, as the Yankees have two talented third basemen in Gio Urshela and Miguel Andujar. We’re far enough removed to enjoy the oddity, to chuckle at the weird baseball. Seven or eight years ago, though, the only laughter came in the form of gallows humor.

For a year and a half, the Yankees, and the New York fanbase, clamored for a competent third baseman. To borrow further from Charles Dickens: “This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.”

★ ★ ★

The Yankees loved Chase Headley. They did so for some time, too, with interest dating all the way back to July 2012. A deal never came together, though, because Headley was in the midst of a bananas-good season, and the Yankees’ farm system consisted Manny Banuelos, Gary Sanchez, Dellin Betances, and the shrug emoji.

It only took two years for the situation to change. No, the Yankees’ farm system didn’t miraculously skyrocket, although the addition of Aaron Judge et al helped. Instead, Headley’s value dropped. He answered his 145 wRC+ campaign in 2012 with a solid, but unspectacular, 113 wRC+ 2013. Then he face-planted the start of the 2014 season, hitting .229/.296/.355 with seven home runs (89 wRC+) through 219 plate appearances.

That’s how, on July 22, 2014, the Yankees swapped third basemen with the Padres, flipping Solarte (and right-handed pitcher Rafael De Paula) for Headley. “We noticed his hit velos have really jumped,” Brian Cashman told reporters after the deal, in one of the earliest public comments on exit velocity. “And obviously his success has jumped.”

That night, the Yankees hosted the Texas Rangers. The Padres, meanwhile, were in Chicago to play the Cubs. Those are important details.

★ ★ ★

When Chase Whitley delivered the first pitch at 7:09 PM, Headley had yet to arrive at Yankee Stadium. The move was made official that afternoon, meaning he was an active member of the roster, but he remained in transit, unable to make the starting lineup.

Whitley had himself a fine outing, firing off six scoreless inning. But Nick Martinez, the Rangers’ right-hander, matched him frame-for-frame, keeping the Bombers off the board. Headley appeared in the dugout in the middle of the game, sporting pinstripes and greeting his new teammates.

I don’t think we appreciate the oddity of a trade enough. Imagine being summoned to relocate at a moment’s notice, to a new town, without a place to live, without friends, all to work for an entirely different organization. If you don’t think it’s strange, take a look at Headley’s reaction in the dugout. He doesn’t know any of these guys. You can see it in his hey-hi-how-are-ya handshakes.

Headley didn’t have time for icebreakers, though, because he was summoned to pinch hit in the eighth inning, taking over for WWE Intercontinental Champion Zelous Wheeler. He struck out to end the inning.

The Yankees and Rangers continued to swap scoreless frames, pushing the game into extra innings. Texas got on the board first, in the top of the top of the 13th, when J.P. Arencibia jumped David Huff for a solo home run. The Yankees answered in the bottom half, with Brett Gardner scoring on a Jacoby Ellsbury single off Joakim Soria. What a collection of guys.

Jeff Francis, unsung hero of the night, made his first of two appearances for the Yankees. He allowed a single to Leonys Martin, but otherwise made light work of the toughest part of the Rangers’ lineup, including Adrian Beltre and Arencibia. Francis will forever be known as the ace of the 2007 Rockies. Many will forget he played for the Yankees entirely. But he set the stage for the magical moment about to unfold in the bottom of the 14th.

Nick Tepesch replaced Soria on the mound, and he quickly got Ichiro Suzuki to ground out. Brian Roberts, who definitely played for the Yankees in 2014, nearly ended the game two pitches later, but he settled for a ground-rule double. Francisco Cervelli then battled Tepesch in a five-pitch at-bat, again threatening to end it with a single, but Roberts slammed on the brakes and stopped at third.

And wouldn’t you know it, that decision brought Headley to the plate. Headley, the man who started the morning as a member of the San Diego Padres, who traveled nearly 800 miles in an afternoon to make it to the Stadium, who went 0-for-3 in his first at-bats in pinstripes. It all came down to him.

No, it had to come down to him.

And at just after midnight, he punched a single to left-center field. Headley raced down the first-base line, his right arm raised in celebration. His face, so robotic and professional in the dugout hours earlier, erupted into laughter. Chaos ensued: high-fives to Mick Kelleher, hugs from WWE United States Champion Zelous Wheeler, a mobbing by his brand new teammates. “Guys are patting him on the head he doesn’t even know!” exclaimed Paul O’Neill on the Yankees’ broadcast. The celebration was so intense, they practically ripped his jersey clean off.

The 2014 Yankees didn’t have a lot to celebrate. They deserved to go mad that strange, wonderful night.

★ ★ ★

As a baseball writer, my profession forces me to serve two masters: I know that good analysis requires large samples, and that individual data points are unreliable narrators. But spreadsheets make for lousy storytellers. The diving catch, the hustle double, the strikeout with the bases load in the ninth—they all pack an emotional punch. They are the moments that make the story, even if they aren’t generalizable. Yet king among them is the walk-off victory. I dare you to find a more exciting moment in sports.

That single victory in July 2014 doesn’t mean a whole lot in the grand scheme of things. It didn’t swing the tide of the postseason race, and the Yankees missed out on the playoffs for the second-consecutive year. The Bombers would end up signing Headley to a four-year deal in free agency that winter, but not because of this individual game. His 123 wRC+ with the Yankees did that. All of those outcomes relied upon a much larger body of information than the midnight hours of a late-July ballgame.

But there’s something to that game that I just can’t shake: Headley had to win the game, just like how Scrooge had to make good after his own marathon night. In the midst of a remarkably boring season came this wonderfully exciting moment. And, truly, who could ask for anything more than a great story?