Earlier this month, Pinstripe Alley learned that ESPN had re-signed MLB reporter Marly Rivera to a multi-year extension. Since a good portion of her work focuses on the Yankees, Rivera and ESPN were generous enough to grant PSA an exclusive interview to both break the news and dive into a detailed Yankees season preview for 2021. She’s been a superb reporter for quite awhile now, and we’re glad that she’ll be sticking around, reporting on weeknight MLB games, studio shows, ESPN radio, podcasts, and writing for ESPN.com.
(Note: This interview occurred before news of Zack Britton’s injury was revealed.)
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First off, congratulations on your new deal with ESPN, it’ll be great to keep a familiar face around the Yankees beat. For those who might be new to your work though, can you refresh us on how you joined the beat in the first place?
2010 was my first year at ESPN, and I started working on the Deportes side, though only writing in Spanish. When I was there, I offered my service to the baseball side. As they started to realize how important the Yankees were to our coverage — especially in 2011 and 2012 — they put me together with our two Yankees beat writers (Andrew Marchand and Wally Matthews), and I was sort of a third beat person at times. I didn’t do all the beat duties, but I started doing sidebars and I got more involved as the years went along. I was still on the Deportes side, but we started working together as a system. I did that for about five or six years.
Then, they realized that I was much better used across the spectrum as a national writer. It was 2016, and they had me doing a lot of Cubs and Indians stuff, so the Yankees kind of fell by the wayside. Marchand and Matthews were still there, so I could do more national work. When Coley Harvey [Marchand’s successor] left ESPN for FOX, they asked me in September 2019 if I could return. ESPN had moved anyway from beat coverage, so they asked me to focus on the Yankees while also doing my national work. But at the same time, because the Yankees take so much time and energy, you sort of become a de facto beat writer again.
Before I was at ESPN, I worked for many other places and did a lot of freelance work. I’m bilingual, and for a good 10 years, I got to know a lot of these players, so I proved to ESPN that I could be an asset. That’s how I helped a lot from ‘11 to ‘15, then worked on the national level for four years, and then I came back to the Yankees.
2020 was obviously a bizarre and difficult year to cover baseball. As someone expected to report on the game on a daily basis, what made it most challenging as the season finally developed?
If you didn’t already have sources and connections, it was hard to make them in that environment, so I was very lucky to have some established … but it hurt because what I do best is talking to the players, and we were so limited. The kind of information that you’d get over the phone call ... it was really difficult because it’d be hard for them to get back to you. They were dealing with their own coronavirus issues and family stuff, so they wouldn’t get back to you as often as they normally would in a regular season.
At the same time, I wouldn’t want to complain about it because I had a job. Even though it became difficult, you had to re-imagine how you were going to do your own job. I was still going to be stuck for four months inside my apartment, and you had to learn how you were going to do your job that way. It took a lot of adjusting.
What have you found to be the most rewarding aspects of this unique job? What would you remember as the highlights?
If you made me pick something, it’d be seeing kids at 15-16 years old grow eventually become superstars in baseball. Seeing that growth, and seeing these guys shine and bring back money to their families while establishing foundations to actually help out kids ... one of the most rewarding things has been seeing the growth of Nelson Cruz and Albert Pujols, for example — these guys I knew when they were studs and superstars. They’ve made themselves superstars in a such a different manner, helping out other kids and making an impact by using baseball beyond what you can do on the field.
When we went to Cuba with some of these players, they got to go to the fields where they once played, and they got to give all these kids gloves, bats, and balls. And you realize the amount of privilege that you have in the United States, and then they get to share it. I think that’s most rewarding — getting to see those moments, and in Mexico City as well.
Let’s be clear — I’m always going to remember Rajai Davis hitting that home run, the Cubs winning the pennant, and first games after 9/11. But if I had to pick, the other moments go into how you’ve grown beyond baseball and made yourself an ambassador for your country, for your people. What Andrew McCutchen has done with the RBI Program and kids in the inner-cities — that’s special for me, when they’re using their celebrity and their fame to make an impact on their community ... to witness and document that, there’s no better feeling.
Let’s look ahead to the 2021 Yankees. Do you think that the team did enough in the offseason to put itself in position to get back to the World Series?
Well, they absolutely put themselves in position. It is no secret that every team needs pitching. The Yankees lost three veteran pitchers in free agency. All of the sudden, you only have one sure thing: your $324 million ace. So it means that you have four question marks minimum in your rotation.
Do I think that they did enough? Yes, I do; “enough” is the key. Could they have done more? Of course, you could’ve extended the money to Masahiro Tanaka to bring him back, and you could’ve put money out there to some of those veteran pitchers that were healthy and didn’t have to gamble on. But it was very important to Hal Steinbrenner to remain under that luxury tax, and it’s important to the Yankees to do that at this point.
The American League is so weak that there is no way that the Yankees aren’t looking at this like, “This is our chance.” If you look at every team on paper, there is no better AL team than the New York Yankees. It doesn’t exist. There are teams that could challenge them, and there are teams that could play very well. We expect the White Sox to be one of those teams, and we expect the Astros to be one of those teams, but that list is very short. So I think at this point, the Yankees are looking at themselves as the clear favorite in not only the division, but the American League.
If they find themselves in late July with Jameson Taillon, Corey Kluber, Jordan Montgomery, and Luis Severino not on track, then I do see them making a splash, and trying to get somebody to help that rotation. This is their chance. If the Yankees don’t go to the World Series this year, then when are they going to go? If you look at the path right now, who is there to impede them? If you look at the NL, it’s spectacular; you can easily list 10 teams right now that have a chance to go to the World Series. In the AL, you have to think about it. The greatest thing to happen to the Yankees is the Rays getting worse ... though don’t discount the Red Sox and Blue Jays because those lineups are good.
The Yankees have this path; they can see it and it’s within their grasp. I’m not necessarily talking about a championship because that’s an entirely different issue, but the path to the World Series for them looks pretty paved. It’s going to depend on what Taillon and Kluber are going to give you. If Montgomery remains healthy and continues to pitch the way he has, there are a lot of reasons for encouragement. If Severino continues his rehab as we’ve been told ... we’ve been getting very limited information and they’re saying that he’ll throw next week, but if he comes back healthy in the second half of the season? It’s a spectacular outlook.
We can have this conversation again in July, but for now, the answer is yes. Some teams can match up with the Yankees’ lineup and pitching, but no one can do both and contend with their bullpen.
Do you think that the Yankees have confidence in Kluber and Taillon staying healthy?
Absolutely, they do. I think they did a lot of studying on their medicals, and they believe that they’re fully healthy and that they can be contributors. Let’s be clear, wouldn’t you take Kluber as your No. 3? Even bad Corey Kluber, you take him. If you go around the league, outside the NL, not many people have a good 3-4-5. They have a good 1-2, but 3-4-5? There’s a lot of confidence in these guys, and there’s also a lot of confidence in Montgomery and Deivi García, too.
In the beginning, the Yankees have a lot of off-days and the schedule gets tricky. You might see them go with a six-man rotation, use some openers, and save some pitching in the entire month of April. You’ll get spot starts by a García or Jonathan Loaisiga for just a couple of innings. I don’t know how it will go in the playoffs, but that’s where they sit early on.
Your December interview with Gary Sánchez was an excellent peek into his thoughts about a disappointing 2020. What do you think is the most common misconception that some fans might have about him?
That he’s lazy. I’m not an apologist; if you don’t work, I’m the first person to call you out on it. But Gary Sánchez is one of the most hardworking kids I’ve ever seen. To think that it’s out of laziness? That really surprises me.
That doesn’t mean that Sánchez is a good blocking catcher. The stats are out there that prove that at times, he has not been. But the fact that people think that he’s not always working to get better? That’s the part that has always been surprising, not only to me, but to him. We talked a lot about that. Some of what we left on the cutting room floor were many conversations about how he doesn’t understand this idea that he’s a lazy player.
That’s been the hardest thing for me to actually read and watch. He’s an easy target. I think that any Yankees fan has every right to criticize their catcher if he leads the league in passed balls. You can be frustrated, angry, and want him to get better, but it’s a big leap to say, “This guy’s a lazy fatass and doesn’t do any work.”
That’s the part that I don’t understand. I firmly believe that he truly is trying. That doesn’t mean that he should always keep his job; this is the part where people get confused and think I’m just always rooting for him. I root for good baseball. I have a lot of trouble with the personal attacks. Criticize the person all you want for the passed balls, but don’t criticize the person if you don’t know him.
How sudden was the news of Aaron Boone’s pacemaker surgery last week? Was there any sense that this might be coming to interrupt typical spring training coverage?
Zero. It was quite the opposite. The one thing that I’ll say — and obviously, hindsight is 20/20 — Aaron had been less energetic than usual in his Zoom calls. When he gets on, he is usually very friendly and talkative. He had not been like that lately, and I remember taking a mental note of it ... he was very matter-of-fact and direct.
So all of the sudden, this happened, and it was completely out of the blue. We knew that Boone had a heart condition, and that he had open-heart surgery 12 years ago. I worked with him for several years at ESPN, but that shows you — people carry their burdens very secretly. He kept them very close to the vest, including to his own players. So very, very few people knew about this.
The first time that we talked to Boone after he got out of the hospital, the joy in his face was back. He was smiling, and he said, “I feel great, I can’t believe how good I feel,” and you could see it. The old Aaron Boone was back. It was really noticeable.
Who is one player that you think not enough people are talking about in terms of potential impact on the Yankees’ 2021 season?
One person who is going to have a huge impact on the bullpen is Darren O’Day. No one is talking him or Justin Wilson. These are two guys who have such experience that it matters so much when things are so weird. The veteran guys adapt to things very quickly. O’Day brings a lot to the bullpen in wake of the loss of Adam Ottavino. Without Tommy Kahnle, you needed someone to bridge that gap to Zack Britton and Aroldis Chapman. Someone like O’Day is going to be a really big deal.
The other one would be Robinson Chirinos, the catcher. I don’t think people are talking about how he could potentially make the team and make an impact. He’s a huge leader, really taking the reins of working with those pitchers, and he has an excellent previous relationship of working with Gerrit Cole.
Is there a chance that Chirinos could take the backup job from Kyle Higashioka?
I do. I think there’s a chance — a small one. Just to be clear, I do think that it is Higgy’s job to lose. The guys like Higashioka, and he’s one of those long-tenured Yankees, a homegrown kid. He’s a clubhouse asset, and the pitchers love him. So that’s very important, but I do think that Chirinos is truly going to challenge him for that spot. It’s going to be interesting if Chirinos gets paired up with Cole in regular game action.
It certainly seems that the Yankees are entering 2021 with Clint Frazier as their starting left fielder over Brett Gardner. Do you get that impression as well?
It’s been said by Aaron Boone. We have asked him repeatedly, and he’s said, “Clint Frazier is my everyday left fielder.” So we are taking Boone at his word, and why wouldn’t he be? The kid is a star. He plays the kind of baseball that I like — that bat speed is a beauty to watch and it’s just so impressive to watch him in the box and how he’s made himself into this still, potent hitter.
We were talking about players who haven’t been talked about enough, and Frazier is going to be huge addition to this team. His defense is only getting better, and on the bases, the kid can run, which is something that the Yankees don’t have a lot of. Tyler Wade is one of the few others, but everyone else is pretty slow when 37-year-old Gardner is one of your fastest guys. Clint is going to make a huge impact in that lineup because pitchers are going to realize, “Oh shit, there’s another hitter we can’t pitch to.”
Do you think that the team has any concerns about Gleyber Torres being their full-time shortstop after a so-so 2020?
I think that there are concerns from last year, but I believe that the team thought a lot of that had to do with fitness and the weird year. If we had gone into a normal season, I don’t think that those concerns would’ve been there, and we can see that now. Because they saw what Gleyber did with his fitness in the offseason, they’re less concerned now. He came to spring training in top shape.
I have never seen Gleyber this fit coming into Yankees camp. So that gives the Yankees a little more hope than those defensive blunders that could’ve been partially attributed to the fitness level due to the quickness and athleticism you need at shortstop. The fact that he arrived in such great shape has alleviated those doubts.
Gary’s another one. Even acknowledging that he was already a super hard worker, this is the most fit I’ve seen him. One of the reasons I think is that he was able to play [winter league ball] in the Dominican Republic. If you compare what he looked like while he was hitting in the playoffs and what he looks like now, he’s physically a different hitter. Luis Cessa looks really different too because he’s lost a lot of that baby fat and is so, so fit. There’s a level of fitness to the Yankees that I haven’t seen in a long time, and I’ve watched this team regularly for 11 years.
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Thanks to Marly Rivera and ESPN for their time.