By the end, Gary Sanchez had become such a toxic subject around the Yankees that it was almost impossible to remember why there had ever been such a groundswell of hype and hope surrounding him in the first place. By the end, his offensive regressions and defensive transgressions had become the equivalent of a 1-2 cry for action.
For Yankees fans. And for Sanchez, too. After things had finally gotten as bad as they were going to get for Sanchez last year, his body language and his mood all but asked one of the saddest questions a New York athlete has had to ask in quite some time:
How long am I supposed to apologize for that first month?
That first month. Do you remember? In the moment, in August 2016, it felt like taking a real-time home movie of the first furlong of a Hall of Fame career. The Alex Rodriguez saga had finally ended. The Yankees, for one of the only times ever, had been sellers at the trade deadline. Sanchez showed up for work Aug. 4, went 2-for-4 with a double, and never stopped hitting.
The first home run came on Aug. 10, a breathtaking blast to deep center field at Fenway Park off Boston’s Junichi Tazawa. He hit two against the Blue Jays, two more against the Mariners. But he wasn’t just about power: On Aug. 28, 90 plate appearances into his August tryout, Sanchez was hitting .425 with an OPS of 1.426. He was playing solid defense, showing off a big arm.
He finished the year with 20 homers in 201 at-bats. Despite playing in just 53 games, he finished second in the Rookie of the Year vote, behind Detroit’s Michael Fulmer. One scout, asked point blank about Sanchez’s ceiling, simply pointed his finger beyond the Yankee Stadium fence, toward Monument Park.
“Out there,” he said, shaking his head.
Do you remember?
Six years later, Gary Sanchez settled onto the bench in the home-team dugout at Minneapolis’ Target Field. He was wearing two things noticeably absent from his time as a Yankee: a beard, which is taboo in The Bronx. And a genuine look of relief. He is a Minnesota Twin now, which means he plays for a first-place team, same as his old mates. Six years later, Sanchez is a lever in a fine machine. He’s no longer a foundation
“A lot of adrenaline, but at the same time excited,” Sanchez said, a couple of hours before the Twins would play the Yankees, Sanchez bringing a modest (if improved, based on his last four years as a Yankee) slash line of .229/.289/.446 into the game, all of it accompanied by positive words from his manager, coaches and teammates. “I have a lot of friends on that other side.”
The divorce, consummated on the first day of spring training this year, has been beneficial to both sides.
The Yankees hired an entire left side of the infield in Josh Donaldson and Isiah Kiner-Falafa. Sanchez got to migrate a thousand miles away from Yankee Stadium, which for a brief, shining moment had been his kingdom to rule but had, in time, become a gauntlet of boos and bile due mostly to a slash line that his last four years was unsightly — .201/.299/.444 — and defense which became best described as “indifferent.”
So it was that Sanchez joined a curious generation of New York athletes whose stars had burned brightly against the sky, but ever so fleetingly. Sanchez’s arc in New York wasn’t entirely unlike Matt Harvey’s (save for the catastrophic injuries): breathtaking early speed and some success later on, finishing with barely a whimper with exile to the Midwest.
You can add Kristaps Porzingis to that list, too, who somehow went from one of the two or three more popular athletes in all of New York to a dead-to-us pariah, even as he was rehabbing from a blown-out knee. His subsequent work in Dallas and Washington still occasionally hints at his erstwhile unicorn rep, but Knicks fans have surely moved on.
Sanchez? He came before Aaron Judge. Based on that first month, he was supposed to be Judge. And when Judge actually became the instant phenom he became, that didn’t help Sanchez’s case at all. He had that first month — put it on the shelf alongside 1990 Kevin Maas and 1998 Shane Spencer. He is a Twin now. No hype. Just a veteran player, trying to prove he belongs. And August 2016 feels like 30 years ago.