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Yankees’ Gerrit Cole can help lift baseball out of its funk

Count Gerrit Cole as one of the few people who, during this profound economic downturn, received a promotion.

He arrived in The Bronx last December with the mission of saving (or at least elevating) his new team. He kicks off his second pinstriped spring training on Saturday, at Yankee Stadium once again, as a savior of his entire sport.

The $324 million right-hander became a father on Tuesday, and little Caden Gerrit Cole won’t be the only person looking to him for much-needed guidance, leadership and fun. With Major League Baseball having taken the ugliest path possible to an attempted restart from the coronavirus shutdown, its biggest stars must bulldoze the most dirt to get the game back on track. MLB appreciates this reality well enough that it wants Cole’s Yankees debut to occur in prime time July 23 at the home of the defending champion Nationals.

“I’m here to take that burden on and take it in stride,” Cole said Friday in a Zoom call. “I’m honored to do it, and I’ve prepared this entire summer to be put in that position. So I fully expect to be ready to go.”

He spoke — and broke the news of his new family member — shortly after reigning American League Most Valuable Player Mike Trout of the Angels, whose wife Jessica is expecting, shared his own mixed feelings about playing through these unprecedented conditions. Cole said he and his wife, Amy, are on board with his playing, offering the caveat, “If there’s obviously some significant breakouts or something that would really kind of put us in danger, we may adjust.”

Gerrit Cole
Gerrit ColeAP

No judgments here for anyone who opts out from this perilous endeavor.

As long as baseball gives this a shot and features willing participants, though, Cole belongs to a cadre of elite and compelling players — throw in Cole’s Yankees teammate Aaron Judge as well as the Mets’ Pete Alonso and Jacob deGrom, the Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger and Mookie Betts, Trout and his fellow Angel Shohei Ohtani, the Nationals’ Juan Soto and Cole’s old Astros pals Jose Altuve and Justin Verlander — who can begin to raise the game out of its funk the way Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa did in 1998, only with fewer steroids. Without paying fans, these guys can be must-see TV. They must.

“Obviously when negotiations spill out into the public forum where the public is used to try to create leverage against one side or another, it’s not going to be pretty. It’s especially not pretty, I think, under the backdrop of the pandemic,” Cole said of the highly contentious reboot negotiations between the players and owners. “… I think it leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths. But we’re in the second half of the year. I guess I’m kind of an optimist. It’s behind us, so hopefully we can learn from this, from both sides and hopefully we can do a better job in the future.”

“… [F]rom where I’m looking at it now, I think we’ve got 60 games ahead of us, so that’s kind of in the past for me. Our focus is on trying to come out hot and win some ballgames.”

As he cited the popularity of ESPN’s recent documentary on Michael Jordan, Cole said, “There is a desire across the country to watch baseball. Just driving into the Stadium the last few times, when people recognize you they get really excited and they wave and they smile. There’s just not enough of that going around. I think as players, we want to be able to provide that if we can.”

That opportunity may not arrive until next year, if ever, although Friday’s announcement of 38 positive COVID-19 tests out of 3,185 actually encourages. Should the fates allow it to happen, the Yankees appear to have found themselves a guy who embraces the responsibility of putting a sport on his back and carrying it to safer ground (which could crumble with a 2022 work stoppage, but let’s not harp on that right now).

If he succeeds at getting the Yankees their first title since 2009, Cole’s industry should rise concurrently, the promotion for which he didn’t apply fully validated.

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