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Yankees Mag: IKF a jack-of-all-trades

Yankees Mag: A Little Bit of Everything

After he lost his primary role, Isiah Kiner-Falefa responded by taking on about 15 others

(Photo Credit: New York Yankees)

There’s something magical about watching masters at work. You can settle into your seat and tremble through the excitement as the drama dawns, thrilled to watch the best in the world on the biggest stage. The emotions will mount to a crescendo as the hours pass, before the familiar notes kick in, “New York, New York,” the song you came to hear. Whether Whitey or Frank or even — some six miles from Yankee Stadium, at the St. James Theatre — a large Broadway ensemble, it’s all about an appearance from the Chairman of the Board.

Your eyes always go to the biggest names, the ones on marquees and billboards. But there’s action in the background, in the liminal spaces of any performance. Sometimes, you just have to remember to look. The All-Stars sell the tickets; the role players make it all work. It could be Eurydice in Hadestown or Elphaba in Wicked or even Alexander himself in Hamilton, just as it could be Gerrit Cole or Aaron Judge or Anthony Volpe in the Bronx. They, like Roxie Hart in Chicago, simply cannot do it alone.

Which is not to say that it’s easy to belt out an 11 o’clock number or hit 62 home runs in a single season. Anything but. It’s just that, whether your mantel holds Tony Awards or MVP trophies, celebrity begets expectancy. Anthony Rizzo and Josh Groban both know what their jobs are every time they appear on their respective stages. And because they are great, we expect greatness.

They don’t host award ceremonies for understudies. But that’s the least of it. On Broadway, the show must go on, eight times a week, and if someone can’t perform that night, then someone else has to step in. Usually, though, it’s not as simple as one actor slotting in for another. Those showstopping numbers can have dozens of dancers on stage, each taking unique steps; each singing at slightly different octaves; each with uber-specific places they need to stand, moving scenery they need to avoid, partners they need to find. It’s not at all uncommon for one swing actor to have to fill in at completely different roles on consecutive nights, hearing the same music and seeing the same lighting cues, but knowing to step right on one night and left on another. They learn their myriad roles without much rehearsal time and can’t depend on any muscle memory to carry them from one mark to another if their mind wanders. These gameday players aren’t the tops, the Coliseum or the Louvre Museum, but without them, a show could never defy gravity.

Isiah Kiner-Falefa, a native of Honolulu, Hawaii, says that he has never seen a lavish Broadway musical, not even in the year and a half since he came to New York in a trade with the Twins. Since the 2023 season began, though, he’s been living the life of a theater swing. After struggling through a frustrating season as the regular starting shortstop last year, Kiner-Falefa has moved all over the field in his second year as a Yankee. He travels with four gloves (one infield, two outfield and a catcher’s mitt) to prepare himself for any opportunity on the field; at the All-Star break, he even had a 2.25 ERA in four appearances on the mound.

“The one thing I pride myself on is being a baseball player,” says the Gold Glover, honored in 2020 for his work at third base. Kiner-Falefa — or Izzy, or Kiner, or IKF, or any of the number of affectionate nicknames popular teammates accrue — who no doubt had stars in his eyes when he learned that he would be headed to New York to start at shortstop, didn’t earn a trip to Seattle for last month’s All-Star Game, and you likely won’t find him receiving MVP votes (nor Cy Young consideration) when the 2023 season ends. But wherever the road takes the 28-year-old, he’ll ride happily, ready to do whatever his manager needs.

“He is what you want teammates to look like and what you want team players to look like,” Aaron Boone says. “And he’s lived that every second that he’s been here.”

Spring Training 2022 — which began late due to the MLB lockout — was a whirlwind for everyone in the sport, but Kiner-Falefa had a particularly odd travel itinerary. Traded from the Rangers to the Twins and then from Minnesota to the Yankees one day later, IKF had high hopes as he got settled in Tampa, Florida. He had never played in a postseason game, but he had grown up a Yankees fan, and he knew what the expectations were in New York. He wasn’t acquired to be a superstar; he was supposed to provide elite defense, speed and plenty of hits. With the big boppers assembled around him, that should have been enough.

But the hits didn’t fall, and the glovework didn’t quite live up to the billing. He could wow fans with slick plays up the middle, but sometimes watched as routine throws sailed away or easy grounders popped out of his glove. He was frustrated, the fans were unforgiving, and when the postseason rolled around, things got worse. In Game 3 of the American League Division Series against Cleveland, he made three defensive miscues. He started just two of the remaining six games before the Yankees were sent home.

“I felt like I waited my whole life to play shortstop for the Yankees, and I wasn’t able to do the job,” Kiner-Falefa says.

IKF is far from the first big leaguer to struggle upon moving to a new city, and the spotlight doesn’t get much brighter than at Yankee Stadium, where fans will forever show up wearing jerseys of beloved Hall of Fame shortstop Derek Jeter. “That’s one of the most iconic positions in baseball,” Aaron Judge says. “That’s a tough role to fill.” It seems a bit too easy, too pat, to say that New York is a tough place to play. Presumably, any big league role is hard. Still, Boone, who was traded for the first time in his life in 2003, saw his OPS drop more than 80 points in New York after an All-Star first half with the Reds. And while he got to hear the greatest of all cheers when his walk-off homer sent the Yankees to that year’s World Series, it also bears mentioning that the Yankees’ big midseason acquisition did not start that Game 7 against the Red Sox.

“You’ve got to be mentally tough and mentally strong, physically strong,” Boone says. “You’ve got to be able to deal with success and failure, and that’s a lot of times a separator. And here, it can be even more challenging, especially if you go through some struggles.

“I think it is a tough place to play; I also think it’s the best place to play.”

Not willing to let his Yankees career be a one-year story of failure, Kiner-Falefa attacked the offseason, determined to use the hurt and anger he felt as fuel. “It was probably the best learning experience of my career,” he says. “Dealing with that, I feel like I’m able to deal with anything.”

Kiner-Falefa says that his parents raised their kids (Isiah has a sister and brother) to be accountable for everything. “When you stand up and you go out there, and you just say how it is, it goes a long way in the clubhouse,” Kiner-Falefa says. “It goes a long way with the organization. And it just shows everybody that you care and that you want to get better.”

One teammate, though, wonders if IKF has been turning the page too quickly of late. Having made clear to his coaches that he was ready to help the team in any way necessary, Kiner-Falefa has been all over the place in 2023. At the All-Star break, he had started 24 games in center field, 17 in left, seven at third base, three in right field and one at shortstop. He also spent time during the spring working at catcher, having come up earlier in his career behind the dish. Despite having lost his starting shortstop job to rookie Anthony Volpe, IKF still played in 70 of the team’s first 91 games, including the four trips to the mound. And even as he enjoyed some pretty substantial success in those mopup appearances (including on June 23, when he both hit a homer and struck out a batter, the first Yankee to do so since the advent of the designated hitter), Kiner-Falefa has been careful not to make a big deal about it. He knows that whatever novelty his pitching performances might inspire, he wouldn’t be on the mound if the game was going great.

Isiah Kiner-Falefa’s skill set allows him to impact the outcome of games in a multitude of ways. His speed can create havoc on the basepaths, and he has seamlessly shifted into a do-everything mindset, with manager Aaron Boone deploying him all over the field. (Photo Credit: New York Yankees)

Still, jokes reliever Clay Holmes, “If I was in his shoes, I would definitely let pitchers know, you know?”

But Holmes also gets deeper into his admiration for what IKF has done this year. Take the innings on the mound, otherwise forgettable pitches thrown in blowouts. Except, they’re not meaningless, because pitchers’ arms are always on a clock of sorts. Any inning Kiner-Falefa pitches is one that Ron Marinaccio or Michael King or Wandy Peralta or Holmes doesn’t have to throw. And if that means that the next night, one of the A-list bullpen arms is available to throw two innings instead of one? It’s not hard to see how that can be the difference between a win and a loss.

To Holmes, that’s the real story of IKF’s “Yes I Can” mentality.

“It’s not something that people in this clubhouse overlook,” Holmes says. “It’s definitely an attitude that can be contagious. And sometimes, it takes one guy to really put the team first and say, ‘Hey, I’m willing to do whatever.’ You never know who that can rub off on and the impact it can have.”

Kiner-Falefa doesn’t struggle with any incongruity between being a clubhouse leader and not having a set position. He says that his rough ’22 was a blessing because the work it forced him to put in has allowed him to become a valuable Swiss Army knife. In particular, he sees one of his biggest roles as helping Volpe — his rookie replacement — thrive. “I’m fresh off being the shortstop for the Yankees,” Kiner-Falefa says. “So that experience allows me to help him out a lot. And we’re locker mates, too. So, we’ve built a good relationship. And I feel like it’s beneficial to both of us.”

Volpe looks at the stall directly to his right in the clubhouse and sees what he calls the hardest worker on the team. But he also notes that there was never any awkwardness, never any resentment as the young phenom claimed the job during the spring. “He just told me that whatever I needed, I could always rely on him,” Volpe says, noting that IKF is the best teammate he has ever been around. “He obviously doesn’t have to go out of his way or do half the things that he does, but he definitely looks out for me, and I’m super grateful.”

“For him to take a guy like that under his wing,” Judge says, “to show him the ropes to the big leagues, show him how to prepare, show him how to work and just talk to him about, ‘Hey, this is what I went through last year. Be on the lookout for this.’ Or, ‘Hey, this might come up …’ That just speaks volumes to what type of character he has.”

Part of the allure of theater is that it’s performed live, without a metaphorical net. Every night has the potential to be different, as the actors feed off the energy of the crowd. Still, there is a script. Evenings don’t become enchanted just because of any unique thing happening; sometimes they arise because the orchestra begins playing “Some Enchanted Evening.”

Baseball is more reactive. Whether he’s at third base or in center field, Kiner-Falefa is responding to the unpredictable things that are happening in front of him. It helps, he says, that his roots are at two of the most challenging spots on the diamond. “Being a shortstop, being a catcher, those are by far the two hardest spots,” he says. “So, moving anywhere else just gets easier.”

In 2023, Kiner-Falefa has worked harder than ever, trying to master more responsibilities than ever before. But the lessons from a brutally frustrating year, one even worse internally than his on-field stats would indicate, have allowed him to reset, only from a different perspective.

After a tough first year in pinstripes, Isiah Kiner-Falefa has felt the love from fans at Yankee Stadium in 2023. As a kid visiting from Hawaii, he watched games from the bleachers, and getting to play for the Yankees has been a dream come true. (Photo Credit: New York Yankees)

Because most players don’t talk like IKF does. Most times, when guys lose their roles, they respond with aggression. I’ll win it back. I’ll show everyone. Kiner-Falefa never reacted that way, and maybe that’s why he has been so successful. From the first days in Tampa this winter, before camp even opened, the deposed shortstop made clear to his replacement that there would be no resentment, no anger. And what he received in return has been even greater.

“I’m able to enjoy the environment a little more,” he says. “Last year, as a shortstop, I was so focused on the things that I needed to work on, I wasn’t able to enjoy myself as much. Being a utility guy, playing center field during the Subway Series, bottom nine, two outs, I’m able to look around and kind of take everything in.”

Kiner-Falefa speaks like a man at peace, someone who reassessed himself and his goals. “I want to be one of the best utility guys, or bench players, whatever my role may be, to play here,” he says. “I always want to be the best.” If that isn’t how our brains are wired to understand the word “best,” then so be it; IKF doesn’t seem to mind. A utility role doesn’t have to be degrading, and it certainly doesn’t need to be unfulfilling. “You can still be a really, really, really good player, and a big asset, no matter if it’s running the bases or pinch-hitting,” he says. “At the end of the day, there’s value there. It’s not like because you do that job, you [stink] or you’re not good enough. You’re just good at it, and other people can’t do it.”

His value is plainly visible throughout the clubhouse, all over the field and — much more in 2023 than last year — in the box score. Oswaldo Cabrera thrilled fans by earning ever more playing time in the second half of 2022, even taking starts from Kiner-Falefa in the postseason. This year, though, has been a struggle, the type that a lot of second-year players endure. But Cabrera can look to Kiner-Falefa and see a player who has faced similar adversity in New York and come out the other side stronger for it.

“When they need him, whatever he’s doing, it’s a good job to help the team win,” Cabrera says, ever smiling and optimistic. “It’s a good example for all, especially for me, since I’m not playing too much, too.”

The reality of playing in New York, as Boone notes, is that fans often boo because they want so badly to cheer. But sometimes, the cacophony reaches a tipping point. It just becomes impossible for a player to emerge, to the point that a change of scenery becomes necessary. It doesn’t have to be that way, though. “Those things can change,” Boone says. “And I think Isiah is a good example of that. And credit to Izzy, he’s never run from it.”

It’s harder than it seems, but the infielder/outfielder/pitcher/catcher/leader chose to lean on all the tools in his kit, believing that his skill set, and his style of play, has helped him earn back the trust. As a Yankees fan long before he got a locker in the Bronx, Kiner-Falefa knows the types of players that resonate with fans here. He, himself, raves about Brett Gardner, who defined the gritty, hustling style he tries to emulate. “I try to bring that type of energy to the team,” IKF says. “I’m not breaking stuff as much as he did. But I’m trying to bring that same intensity, the same fire, the same spark and energy.

“I knew it wasn’t going to be easy to get the fans back on my side. But at the same time, if I played the way I play and kept my attitude the way I normally keep it, and just stay hard-nosed and keep grinding, I know that, as a New York fan before, that’s the kind of player they love.”

New Yorkers love the performers who give the most, who leave them breathless, holding their Playbills or scorecards at the end of the night, not fully believing what they had just seen. On June 15, at Citi Field, Kiner-Falefa found himself on third base, and more than that, noticed quickly that Mets pitcher Brooks Raley just didn’t seem to be paying much attention to him. Hopping manically as he stepped ever further down the third-base line, eventually IKF decided to go. It was a successful straight steal of home, as exciting a play as exists on a baseball field. The Yankees lost the game, but the moment belonged to the guy who could have been an afterthought if he hadn’t instead decided to totally rebuild both his physical and mental approach to the sport. It’s hard to imagine a more captivating performance.

“But I think it goes back to his mindset,” Judge says. “He had a positive mindset through this whole thing. He approached it as, ‘Don’t let me look at this as the fans got on me, I didn’t have the year I wanted to, maybe I’m not built for this.’ You switch it and say, ‘Hey, I want to be here. I want to play in the bright lights. I want to play in New York.’”

Jon Schwartz is the deputy editor for Yankees Magazine. This story appears in the August 2023 edition. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at



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