For the first time in a number of years, expectations for the Yankees were lukewarm at the start of the season. Questions abounded over everything from the depth of the starting pitching staff, Alex Rodriguez's ability to bounce back from a yearlong suspension, and whether Mark Teixeira could stay on the field for an entire season.
Those tepid expectations, in the eyes of former Yankees World Series hero Jim Leyritz, were a welcome change for an organization that has almost required success over the last two decades. Leyritz's game-tying home run in Game 4 of the 1996 World Series against the Braves played a big part in starting that era and is now part of Yankees lore.
"In the Nineties, it was one of those things where you either win the World Series or it was a losing season," Leyritz said before competing in the Frank Catalanotto Foundation vs. Boomer and Carton All-Stars Celebrity Softball Game at Bethpage Ballpark in Central Islip Sunday morning. "It's not that way right now. They haven't been in the playoffs [since 2012]. This is a year where, going in, most people were picking them to finish fourth or fifth . . . No one expected what they're doing."
"That took a lot of pressure off them," added Leyritz, who hit .263 in nine seasons with the Yankees. "When you get to the All-Star break and you're [in first place] and you haven't even played your best ball yet, I think it was pretty encouraging for these guys. They're playing with the confidence they may not have had in spring training."
Rodriguez's production is a big reason for that confidence. Entering Sunday's series finale with the White Sox, the third baseman was hitting .280 with 24 home runs and 61 RBIs.
"To me, he's always been one of the top five players physically in the game," Leyritz said. "Whether he took anything or didn't take anything, he was still a great athlete. That year and a half off humbled him a little bit and I think he's come out with more fire, more purpose, doing everything else the right way, really appreciating what he's got every day and going out there with a whole different attitude. I think it's really helped."
Leyritz, who was signed by the Yankees as an amateur free agent in 1985, said he's happy to see the team building from within, instead of acquiring the biggest name at the expense of the farm system.
"It's amazing," he said. "They just showed that again by not making a trade at the deadline and relying on some of the guys that were in the farm system to give them a chance."
One such player was second-base prospect Rob Refsnyder, who played four games with the Yankees before being sent down to the minors on July 19.
"You didn't see enough of him," Leyritz said. "They're concerned about his defense at second base. But, as far as the bat goes, he'll be a big contributor offensively once he gets up."
After being drafted in the fifth round in 2012, Refsnyder was moved from rightfield to second base. Leyritz, who played multiple positions throughout his 11-year career, understands what the prospect is going through.
"It's not easy," he said. "It's going to take some time to get used to it. By watching him, he has the ability. He may not be a Gold Glove second baseman, but if he can contribute more offensively than what they've been getting now, that's what they really need."