Yankees Magazine: The All-In Family
For Gerrit Cole, competing against his brother-in-law made Opening Day 2023 extra special
Gerrit Cole is getting pretty accustomed to setting records. After establishing a new Yankees single-season benchmark with 257 strikeouts in 2022, the 32-year-old right-hander picked up right where he left off, striking out 11 San Francisco Giants in a 5-0 Opening Day win.
Afterward, the Yankees’ media relations department disseminated a long list of notes putting Cole’s most recent achievements into historical perspective. He was the first Yankees pitcher to twirl at least six scoreless innings on Opening Day since Roger Clemens did it 20 years prior. He joined Nolan Ryan as the only two pitchers in Major League history to strike out at least 600 batters for three different franchises. Perhaps most notably, his 11 K’s were the most ever by a Yankees pitcher on Opening Day, topping the record of nine that had stood since 1991.
“Who held it?” Cole responded when asked about it in his postgame press conference.
The members of the assembled media, many of whom had heard the press box announcement an hour earlier, murmured what Steve Donohue, the Yankees’ director of medical services, had already informed Cole: It was Tim Leary.
“I knew that,” Cole said, cracking a smile at the mention of another UCLA pitcher-turned-Yankee. “He’s a Bruin, so I was just throwing it out there.”
As most fans are aware, Cole is as analytically minded as they come, able to discuss spin rates and biomechanics on a Ph.D. level. Far from some robotic jock programmed to fire 100 mph four-seamers and little else, Cole also has an equally deep human side. He can easily spout statistics off the top of his head, but he also appreciates the history of baseball, the passion that people have for the sport, and the personal connections that it fosters.
It was the last element that made Opening Day 2023 “my favorite one so far, for sure,” he says. Beyond the records he set or the opportunity to deflect a little bit of his spotlight on a fellow former UCLA pitcher, it was the chance to share the moment with someone who has been in his corner longer than almost any other peer, a fellow traveler who knows the pitcher better than probably anyone in the league. When the game was done, Cole, for his career, had struck out 649 different batters a total of 1,941 times. But just one of those 649 victims — Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford, whose sister Amy is Cole’s wife — would be invited back to his house for a pasta dinner after the game.
There’s so much focus on end results in baseball, and rightfully so — there’s not a player in the Yankees clubhouse who doesn’t think about winning the World Series on a daily basis. But sometimes, it’s good to stop and take a breath and appreciate the journey. One of those moments arrived during the Yankees’ Opening Series, when Cole got together with his brother-in-law and their wives and children for a family photo, giving the pitcher a chance to reflect on the path that had led him to this point.
“What we’re doing right now, where our kids are on the field at Yankee Stadium,” Cole says with an earnest smile, “this is the best.
“This is kind of what it’s all about.”
When the 2023 schedule came out, Crawford figured that the Giants’ three-game set in the Bronx would be a great opportunity for his four kids to visit New York City and get together with Uncle Gerrit, Aunt Amy and their cousins. But before Crawford and his wife, Jalynne, could spend the March 31 off-day at the Central Park Zoo with their two sons and two daughters or meet up with the Cole clan for a steak dinner downtown that night, there was a game to be played — and he knew just what to expect. (As much as anyone can know what to expect when facing Cole, anyway.)
The two Californians go back about 15 years. They first met when Cole was a star pitcher at Orange Lutheran High School and made an official visit to UCLA, where Crawford was a junior and a three-year letterwinner. That June, both were drafted by the teams they grew up loving — Cole by the Yankees in the first round, Crawford by the Giants in the fourth. But while Cole opted for college, Crawford made the easy decision to sign. His family had held Giants season tickets for decades. Their names are inscribed on a brick outside Oracle Park. And just like Cole, who was photographed as an 11-year-old at the 2001 World Series holding a sign professing his allegiance to the Yankees, a sign-wielding 5-year-old Crawford was captured at Candlestick Park in a 1992 San Francisco Chronicle photo that was unearthed years later.
Crawford reached the bigs on May 27, 2011, smacking a seventh-inning grand slam off Milwaukee’s Shaun Marcum in a 5-4 Giants victory for his first career hit. A couple weeks later, after a successful three-year career of his own at UCLA, Cole was taken No. 1 overall by the Pirates. And with Amy — a four-year letterwinner who was part of the Bruins’ 2010 national championship softball team — by his side, he began his march toward the Majors. When his 2013 debut came against her brother’s Giants squad, Amy got her first taste of the emotional conflict that she has had to contend with many times now.
“She’s done better with it over the years,” Cole says. “I think she roots for me really hard; in the matchups, depending on whatever the dynamic of the game is, she probably roots for relatively mutual success.
“I don’t think it’s an easy thing for her to do.”
Opening Day 2023 marked the eighth game in which Cole and Crawford faced off; by day’s end, Cole’s team had won its seventh of the matchups. Prior to this season’s opener, the most recent came on May 22, 2018, in their only matchup during Cole’s two-year stint with the Astros. After singling in his first at-bat against his brother-in-law in that game, Crawford went deep off Cole for the first time in his career (although he had come very close in Pittsburgh). As he circled the bases at Minute Maid Park, the television cameras cut to Amy, who sat smiling, neither clapping nor cheering.
Nearly five years later, with Cole set to make his fourth straight Opening Day start for the Yankees and Crawford in the lineup for his 12th straight as a Giant — only Willie Mays (15) has had a longer streak since the team moved to San Francisco — both competitors dug in their heels as their families looked on from the stands. They had been in contact the day before, but there was no communication on game day, just a slight acknowledgment as Crawford left the on-deck circle with one out and Thairo Estrada standing on first following his second-inning single.
“Both of us are kind of all business once the game starts,” Crawford says. “For me, it’s just facing another really good pitcher once I step in the box.”
Now in his 13th season, Crawford is the Giants’ all-time leader in appearances at shortstop. Among active players, only Joey Votto and Jose Altuve have played more games with one franchise than Crawford has. “He deserves to get his number retired,” Cole says. “He’s the best Giants shortstop of all time.” Cole may be biased, but Crawford has certainly earned that level of praise and respect.
Like Cole, Crawford is an astute observer of the game. He knows that the pinstriped uniform isn’t the only thing different about his brother-in-law since he joined the Yankees. The shape of Cole’s pitches, the emergence of his four-seam fastball, the development of his changeup — all factor into Crawford’s calculus.
Batting seventh on Opening Day allowed Crawford to watch the Giants hitters’ first six at-bats, each of which began with a four-seam fastball. He figured Cole, whose first four outs had all come by way of the strikeout, might try to blow a high heater past him, as well.
Playing along in his own head, Cole delivered an 89 mph changeup below the knees that Crawford swung over for strike one. He followed that up with a letter-high 97 mph fastball that Crawford also swung through.
Cole’s respect for Crawford was evident in the way the at-bat played out after 0-2. “He’s best when he puts his best swings on good pitches early in the count,” Cole says. “He’s always been a threat in that middle- to lower-half RBI-situation part of the lineup for them, because of his tenure and because he’s comfortable in those situations. So, I wanted to make sure that I was prepared with a runner on because the at-bat was going to be dictated probably in one of the first three pitches.”
The third pitch, another four-seamer, was delivered high for ball one. Cole then went back to the low changeup, which Crawford fouled off. Another changeup missed outside to square the count at 2-2. “A family affair here in the Bronx: Cole against Crawford,” television play-by-play announcer Michael Kay said as the YES Network showed a picture of Gerrit, Amy and Brandon during Gerrit’s Pittsburgh days.
The sixth pitch of the at-bat was a 97 mph fastball upstairs that Crawford swung through — Cole’s fifth punchout of the young season and the 599th of his Yankees tenure.
“The first-pitch changeup caught me off guard a little bit because he had thrown fastballs to everybody else on the first pitch,” Crawford says. “It’s a tough fastball to catch up to, and I was trying to get ready for that. He was throwing a really good changeup also, so he kept me off balance and was hard to barrel up.”
While Cole says that “we’re both going for the throat when it’s on,” he also admits that it’s hard not to root for Crawford, who has always been “a 100 percent advocate for me in the league, and vice versa.” The ideal outcome when they face each other, Cole says, is when “we win, I pitch well, he has a couple hits, and we have a margarita after the game.”
In the top of the fifth, Crawford would fly out to Oswaldo Cabrera in left-center field, dropping his career average against Cole to .273 (6-for-22). He’d break out in the second game of the series, collecting a single, a double and a home run to lead the Giants to a 7-5 victory. But it was the pregame scene on that sunny Saturday that will stay with both players long after their careers have ended.
In addition to taking the family photo on the field, the two brothers-in-law delivered the lineup cards to the umpires. Prior to that, they had a few minutes to relax and joke around with each other, Crawford telling Cole that if the tables were ever turned, he would definitely get him out with his “decent five-pitch mix.”
“It’s way easier to pitch than it is to hit,” Crawford needled.
“Obviously,” Cole deadpanned.
Before they retreated to their respective dugouts and back to their never-ending preparation and their constant quests for greatness, Cole stopped for a moment and took a mental snapshot of everyone who had gathered down on the warning track behind home plate — Amy with their two sons; Brandon and Jalynne with their four kids — and he reflected on how fortunate he felt to be sharing the opening of the 2023 season with them all.
“It makes the big leagues feel just a little bit more small-world, personal — a human element to 162 games and a lot of baseball,” he says. “Every once in a while, it’s a little bit less about results and more about pure competition between two guys that have a lot of love for each other.
“And the family wins in the end.”
Nathan Maciborski is the executive editor of Yankees Magazine. This story appears in the May 2023 edition. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at www.yankees.com/publications.