To casual observers, Derek Jeter's impending retirement has been 2014's dominant Yankees storyline. But even the hoopla of the captain's season-long farewell tour shouldn’t overshadow the emergence of the towering, 6'8" Dellin Betances, who can throw 100 miles per hour and has become his team's relief ace. He's one important reason why, at press time, the squad finds itself within striking distance of the second American League wild-card spot.
Considering the Bronx Bombers' recent struggles with pitching injuries, fans would love anyone with a 1.42 ERA and 113 strikeouts (as of August 25)—but their affection for the 26-year-old hurler runs deeper, because it wasn't long ago that he was just another face in the old Yankee Stadium bleachers cheering for Jeter, Mariano Rivera and his other favorite players.
The son of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Betances grew up in Manhattan's Washington Heights and moved to the Lower East Side when he was 9. He played high school baseball in Brooklyn at Grand Street Campus and even spent a season in the minors with the New York–Penn League's Staten Island Yankees. His father still drives a livery cab in the city.
Betances, with a ready smile and a soft-spoken manner that belies his considerable size—he's the tallest Yankee—kindly took a few minutes in the dugout before a recent game to chat with nycgo.com about life in New York City and the excitement of his breakout season.
You've talked about David Wells' 1998 perfect game before. What do you remember about seeing that game in person as kid?
I remember sitting in right field and seeing Paul O'Neill catch the last out. It was an amazing feeling. We got Beanie Babies handed to us as we walked in, and I remember some police officers were trying to buy them [from fans leaving the stadium].
What's your relationship with the bleachers now that you're a player?
I try to experience the first-inning roll call [when fans in the bleachers chant players' names until they get a response] once in a while just to hear what it's like. It's definitely exciting, man. If you come to a game, I feel like you have to sit in the bleachers.
Washington Heights is like a second Dominican Republic.
What did you like about growing up in Washington Heights?
Washington Heights is like a second Dominican Republic. They call it "Little DR." It feels like everybody that lives in the neighborhood is from the Dominican Republic or comes from Latin heritage.
Do you still go to neighborhood Dominican restaurant El Nuevo Caridad?
That's one of my go-to spots; I love the food there. I took a picture there with my family when I first signed with the Yankees, and it's hanging in the restaurant. The menu has dishes named after certain ballplayers, so you can go, "Can I get a Sammy Sosa [beef stew with rice, beans and avocado salad]?" The owner said he might want to put me on the menu.
What would you want the Dellin Betances to be?
I usually just go with fried plantains—that's the side for me—and then rice with beans, and chicken. [Note: he might have to fight Miguel Cairo for the honor.]
What was it like living on the Lower East Side?
I had a bunch of friends that I went to school with and that I played baseball with. You grow close to each other, and it's kind of like a big family. There's so much to do—you have parks and basketball courts around the neighborhood. Summertime is always fun because they have the fire hydrants open with the spray caps.
Where did you love to play in the City as a kid?
My Little League team used to play on a field right next to the basketball courts at Rucker Park. Growing up, I always knew that a lot of celebrities would go up to play basketball there, so that was pretty cool.
How did it feel to play in the All-Star Game for the first time, and to make the trip with Derek Jeter?
That was an honor for me, especially just being in my first full year, to experience that. With this being Jeet's last year—I couldn't ask for any more. You're talking about a class guy; someone that I've always looked up to. And for me to get selected by the players in the American League is just a complete honor for my family and me.
You used to be into the video game MVP Baseball. Which Yankees did you love controlling the most?
[Laughs] That game is old, man. I haven't played in a long time. But, obviously, I always played with Jeet and Mo [Rivera].
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