TAMPA, Fla. — Isiah Kiner-Falefa was a Yankees fan growing up. He didn’t publicize that until after he was traded to the Yankees on March 13.
So what is the origin story of the shortstop’s Yankees fandom?
“Just being from Hawaii,” he said, as if by itself that made all the sense in the world, as opposed to becoming a fan of a West Coast team such as the Dodgers or Padres.
But then he explained.
“Right after school, 7 o’clock games on the East Coast would be right as we’re ending school,” Kiner-Falefa said. “When a West Coast game is on, it’s only three hours difference, so we’re not done with [practice]. The only gap I had to watch baseball was to watch the Yankees or East Coast baseball — right between school and [baseball] practice at 3. I’d come home [after practice] and we’re watching reruns of ‘Monday Night Football’ because the game’s already over. The Yankees and East Coast baseball were the only [live] things available.”
But wait. There’s more.
“When I was 11 and 12, I went to Cooperstown [to play in youth tournaments],” he said. “We went to the Hall of Fame and then right to the old stadium in the city. I was able in 2006 to watch Mariano [Rivera’s] 400th save. So just all that hit me. I couldn’t believe it. I’m from Hawaii. I don’t see pro sports. It’s not like I went to an Oakland game first. I went to a Yankees game first and I couldn’t believe there was even something like that.”
Kiner-Falefa also went to a couple of Mets games at Shea Stadium. So why didn’t the Honolulu native become a Mets fan?
“We went to two games,” he said. “But the only thing I remember from those games is Jose Reyes hitting a triple. But there was nothing that got in me. Going from the [Yankee Stadium] Roll Call, sitting in the bleachers, there was no comparison.”
Kiner-Falefa said his favorite player was (big surprise) Derek Jeter, but he has never met the former Yankees captain. He’ll get the chance on Sept. 9, when the Yankees honor Jeter for his Hall of Fame induction as part of the Class of 2020.
It’s been eight years since Jeter last played shortstop for the Yankees, a position he felt he was always destined to fill.
Kiner-Falefa’s journey to the coveted spot of Yankees shortstop was a little more circuitous, and not just because he grew up 5,000 miles away from the Bronx.
Kiner-Falefa came up as a rare catcher/infielder with Texas. In 2018, his first big-league season, he started 38 games at third base, 35 at catcher, 19 at second and two at short. He won a Gold Glove as a third baseman in 2020 before moving full-time to shortstop for the Rangers.
On March 12, the Rangers — who had signed shortstop Corey Seager to a 10-year, $325 million free-agent contract — traded Kiner-Falefa to Minnesota.
The next day — 10 days before his 27th birthday — the Twins traded Kiner-Falefa, Josh Donaldson and catcher Ben Rortvedt to the Yankees for Gary Sanchez and Gio Urshela.
On April 7, Kiner-Falefa will be part of his first Yankee Stadium Roll Call as a player.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he said, “because when I got the call the first time, I was hoping it was the Yankees. So when they told me it was Minnesota, I was like, ‘OK.’ As the day was going on, I accepted it. The deal was fine with me. But I wanted it to be the Yankees. And when I got traded again, and they said it was the Yankees, I was like, ‘They really want me.’ It was really exciting.”
Kiner-Falefa’s play in spring training excited the Yankees. He started hot, batting .375 in the March portion of exhibition play, and earned the praise of manager Aaron Boone.
“There’s some intensity to his game,” Boone said. “He wants to be really good at this game and wants to be a big part of this team. He has embraced all those expectations.”