Anthony Volpe won't shrink from Opening Day spotlight
What a difference a year makes.
A year ago, when the Yankees opened the season in the Bronx, all the focus was on Aaron Judge. General manager Brian Cashman had just announced on the morning of Opening Day that Judge turned down the Yankees’ $230 million contract extension offer.
Some fans chanted “Take the Deal!” and “Sign the Contract!” at Judge. A few days later, he was booed at Yankee Stadium after he got off to a slow start.
You know how that turned out. Judge set the American League home run record, won the AL MVP award, signed a nine-year, $360 million contract, and was named Yankees captain.
On Thursday, on another Opening Day in the Bronx, Judge might start in centerfield. But he won’t be the center of attention.
That honor will go to Anthony Volpe. And no one knows how that’s going to turn out.
But we have an inkling: It’s going to turn out well for the Yankees. Volpe is the real deal.
If Aaron Judge is the Yankees’ Batman, Volpe could turn out to be his Robin (without the super snug tights). A Dynamic Duo for the next one-year-less than a decade.
Volpe, the 21-year-old shortstop from New Jersey with the gleaming, non-stop smile, will become the first Yankees rookie to start on Opening Day since Judge in 2017. (Judge is envious of Volpe because his first Opening Day took place in antiseptic Tropicana Field against the Rays.)
Volpe made the team by winning the job so decisively that last year’s shortstop, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, spent most of spring training learning to play the outfield. Oswald Peraza, who started a postseason game for the Yankees in 2022, will be spending his Opening Day in Triple-A.
“[Volpe] hit the ground running,” Cashman said. “He put a stranglehold on that position pretty early in camp, it seemed like. You let it play out, but he never let up. He kind of took control early, middle and late.”
Volpe seems to have the rare ability to appear totally relaxed off the field and ratchet up the intensity once he’s on it. He’ll smile at you just before he beats you.
Volpe was up to the challenge of becoming the overwhelming focus of spring training once it became clear he was going to win the shortstop battle. Every media member, every fan, every Yankees person had an eye on the kid to see how he would handle it.
He handled it well. He was polite to all, properly deferential to the Yankees’ veteran players and staff (especially mentor Willie Randolph, who established a real bond with the youngster). Volpe seemed like someone who had been in the spotlight since he was a toddler and knew how to live in that universe.
Does this mean he will “hit the ground running” in the bigs and win AL Rookie of the Year and lead the Yankees to a World Series title, as another 21-year-old rookie shortstop named Derek Jeter did in 1996? That’s a lot to ask.
The Yankees will be thrilled if Volpe plays solid defense at short — his two highlight-reel defensive plays in Tuesday’s pointless exhibition game in Washington, D.C., had to make the brass smile — and can be a force at the plate and on the bases. He will start in the No. 9 spot in the order, just as Jeter did 27 years ago.
And Volpe, who wore uniform No. 77 in spring training, will switch to No. 11 on Thursday, the Yankees announced. That's the lowest non-retired number the Yankees have left.
The Yankees are a veteran team, and the injection of youthful energy that Volpe and Oswaldo Cabrera (and perhaps even Peraza or Jasson Dominguez later in the season) can provide will be necessary if they are to have a championship season.
It all starts on Thursday.
“I think him getting a chance to have his first Opening Day at Yankee Stadium in front of family and friends, man, what an opportunity,” Judge said. “I'm excited. He's going to be nervous. There's going to be jitters. But what I've seen in camp, that kind of stuff doesn't faze him. So just go out there [and] do what won this position. Just go out there and have some fun and make sure you’ve also got a Roll Call [response] for the Bleacher Creatures. I’ve got to talk to him about that, but he probably knows.”
No surprise: He knows.
“I’ve got to think about what I’m going to do,” Volpe said. “Some of the guys have asked me what I’m going to do.”
Maybe a one-handed salute to the Bleacher Creatures in right? Maybe a doff of the cap? Maybe just a simple wave to begin what Volpe and Yankees fans hope is the start of something special, for this year and many more to come.