Triston McKenzie didn’t need to confess at first.
“I used to be an enormous Captain fan,” he began off when asked about his rooting interests as a baby. “Derek Jeter is my favorite player.”
That much McKenzie had no issue admitting right off the bat. However it took some nudging to get McKenzie, a Brooklyn native, to share his entire truth — that he grew up a Yankees fan, although his family moved to Florida when he was a baby.
McKenzie’s reluctance made sense: He’s a right-handed starting pitcher for the Guardians and he was talking a day before starting in Game 3 of his team’s American League division series against the Yankees, which will probably be held in Cleveland. But he ultimately relented, and even added that he took the Yankees’ side within the infamous 2007 Midge Game.
The pesky insects that bothered Joba Chamberlain might be back at Progressive Field for Game 3 on Saturday, but McKenzie’s allegiances have, in fact, modified since Chamberlain was swarmed all those years ago.
“I’m on the market to win,” McKenzie, Cleveland’s 2015 first-round pick, said, adding that doing so would give him bragging rights over members of the family who still reside in Long Island, Brooklyn and Queens. “Doesn’t matter who’s across the sphere.”
McKenzie, 25, is coming off a stellar regular season. His 11-11 record somewhat obscured his 2.96 E.R.A., which got here in the primary 30-start season of his profession. His 25.6 percent strikeout rate led Cleveland’s rotation, and he finished second on the Guardians in innings pitched (191⅓) and strikeouts (190), trailing only the staff ace Shane Bieber. On Friday, Bieber allowed two earned runs over five and two-thirds innings in Cleveland’s 4-2 win at Yankee Stadium.
While McKenzie described Jeter as his favorite player in his youth, it is definitely one other Yankees — and Cleveland — favorite that has helped him flourish within the majors.
Like McKenzie, CC Sabathia began his profession in Cleveland as a young, Black pitcher. Sabathia, who retired with the Yankees after the 2019 season, was a southpaw with a unique physique than the 6-foot-5, 165-pound McKenzie, but in him McKenzie still found a hurler he could look as much as.
“I feel representation as a young Black pitcher, as a young Black baseball player, seeing him play at the very best level and seeing him dominate at the very best level, is something that you simply obviously attempt to emulate,” McKenzie said. “You have a look at the fellows who’re the most effective. And although he’s left-handed, he’s someone that I saw more of myself in than a number of other pitchers on the time.”
McKenzie’s fondness for Sabathia eventually turned to friendship after the 2 met last summer.
Still a rookie on the time, McKenzie went into the encounter able to profess his fandom to Sabathia, a former Cy Young Award winner and a member of the three,000-strikeout club. However the introduction took a “surreal” turn when Sabathia echoed those sentiments toward McKenzie.
“One in every of the primary words out of his mouth were like, ‘Hey, Triston, I’m an enormous fan of you,’” McKenzie recalled. “It was, like, mind-blowing for me. I don’t even know tips on how to explain that.”
Now McKenzie refers to Sabathia as his “cuz,” one who returned to Cleveland to look at his mentee’s first playoff start on Oct. 8. McKenzie did his best impression of a vintage Sabathia that day, throwing six scoreless innings and striking out eight. The performance got here in a 15-inning, 1-0 wild-card round-winning victory over the Tampa Bay Rays.
Along with cheering for McKenzie, Sabathia recently invited him on his podcast, R2C2, and has advised him on growing up within the majors. The 2 are close, and with the variety of Black pitchers in the game limited, McKenzie said Sabathia is a beneficial resource on the subject of navigating various cities and other elements of huge league life.
“Going from L.A. to Latest York, to Miami to Texas, I feel there’s a number of various kinds of people,” McKenzie explained. “Having the ability to take care of different fans and the way different people treat us is a learning process in the sport. He’s been capable of almost speed that process up for me because he allows me to know that I can just be myself.”
McKenzie also believes that he and Sabathia have a “special bond” because they each have “roots in Cleveland.” But Sabathia, a six-time All-Star, won the 2009 World Series with the Yankees and spent 11 years within the Bronx, in comparison with eight in Cleveland.
So which team will Sabathia back when McKenzie and the Guardians attempt to put the Yankees in a 2-1 A.L.D.S. hole Saturday?
“Tomorrow? I feel he’s rooting for me,” McKenzie said. “But I feel he’s at all times rooting for the Yanks.”