• The San Juan Daily Star

A Bronx kid is living something wilder than his dreams


By Gary Phillips


Andrew Velazquez attended countless New York Yankees games as a kid, but he could not remember attending a matchup against the team’s most bitter rivals.


“Those tickets were probably too expensive for me,” Velazquez, a Bronx native, said Wednesday when asked if he had ever seen the Boston Red Sox visit Yankee Stadium.


Velazquez, 27, spoke while wearing a fitted Yankees cap backward and a gray Yankees hoodie. Hardly unique apparel choices in Velazquez’s home borough, if not for the wrestling-style championship belt draped over his left shoulder.


Velazquez had one of the best seats in the house for the Yankees’ three-game sweep of Boston last week. Better yet, he played an instrumental role in the standings-shifting series. With family members in the Yankee Stadium crowd, Velazquez went 3 for 7 at the plate, driving in four runs and stealing a base. He had only three RBIs in his major league career prior to the series.


Although he had long abandoned emulating his childhood hero with Derek Jeter-like jump throws, Velazquez also displayed some dazzling defense at shortstop. That included a sliding, backhanded, game-ending play Wednesday (he got help from Anthony Rizzo on a mildly errant throw).


A few minutes after Wednesday’s win, Velazquez found himself delivering a speech to his Yankees teammates, a ritual that comes with the wrestling belt for the player of the game. He likened the sequence to “The Twilight Zone.”


“I wish I wrote it down,” Velazquez said of his speech. “It sounded pretty good coming out of my mouth. It just came from the heart. I’m honored to be here in that locker room with those guys. I’ve dreamed of doing what we just did. In real life, it was way better.”


Velazquez’s outburst of productivity against Boston came as something of a surprise, and the hot streak continued Thursday when he went 2 for 3 with a triple and a stolen base in a 7-5 win over the Minnesota Twins. On Saturday, he hit his first career home run in a 7-1 victory over Minnesota as the Yankees ran their winning streak to nine games.


Sunday’s season series finale between the Yankees and Twins was rescheduled to Sept. 13 with Hurricane Henri set to make landfall near New York City.


Velazquez, who had brief stints in the majors for other teams over the past three seasons, was called up by the Yankees before a road trip that began Aug. 9. He quickly established himself as a fan favorite during a five-game stretch in his backyard.


His performance against Boston caught the attention of everyone from Bronx-born comedian Desus Nice to Dermot Shea, the NYPD commissioner. Velazquez’s father, Kenny, was a detective in the 42nd Precinct near Yankee Stadium; Velazquez wears a replica of his dad’s gold shield on a necklace during games.


Despite being the toast of the town, Velazquez has kept himself grounded by staying with his parents.


“It’s way closer than staying in Manhattan,” he said of his less-than-30-minute commute to work. “It’s cheaper, too.”


Velazquez has been living moments that he could only fantasize about as a kid. But he didn’t get here without “a lot of hard times in baseball,” he said.


A Fordham Prep product, Velazquez was drafted in the seventh round by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2012. A trade to the Rays organization followed in 2014. He was called up by Tampa Bay in 2018, but another trade sent him to Cleveland in July 2019. As a utility man, he tallied two hits in 23 at-bats between the two clubs that year.


Baltimore claimed Velazquez off waivers in February 2020. The downtrodden, rebuilding Orioles offered him his largest sample of major league action to date. Velazquez made 40 appearances during the 60-game season, but he struggled, hitting .159 in 63 at-bats. He was released in November 2020.


At that point, Velazquez had just three RBI to his name, but the Yankees saw clay that could be molded. Velazquez leapt at the opportunity to play for his hometown team, an organization that has helped hitters with similar resumes in years past.


“We have a ton of information when we do acquire these guys, and that information is communicated across the board,” said Casey Dykes, the Yankees’ hitting coach at Class AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. “So we do have an idea of why a guy like Andrew is extremely interesting and wanted in this organization, and then we have an action plan moving forward of what we’re going to address to try and help him become the best version of himself as a player.”


The switch-hitting Velazquez made some mechanical adjustments to his swing after joining the Yankees, but Dykes said the organization’s blueprint revolved around refining his approach. Dykes wanted Velazquez to be more of a “tactician in the box,” someone who understood how pitchers were going to attack him and could control the zone. Those skills would lead to better contact, which would get Velazquez on base. That would give him a chance to “create havoc” with his speed.


It was a good plan.


Velazquez immediately “endeared” himself to the Yankees coaching staff in spring training, according to Aaron Boone, and he put up strong numbers at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. After hitting .283 with an .838 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, seven home runs, 43 RBI and 26 stolen bases in Class AAA, Velazquez was called up to the Yankees when Gleyber Torres went down with a thumb injury.


“It was obvious when he first got there that this guy’s going to have the opportunity to really make an impact on this roster this year,” Dykes said. “Nobody really knew when that would be, but now he’s gotten that opportunity, and he’s been doing a great job.”


Velazquez’s days in the majors could be numbered. That could have as much to do with the impending returns of Torres and Gio Urshela than anything Velazquez has or hasn’t done.


But Velazquez isn’t thinking about that. How could he when he’s living his wildest dreams?


“We’re here now,” Velazquez said Tuesday. “It’s a beautiful thing.”