BALTIMORE – Nestor Cortes was fielding questions at his locker about his stunning success, about being the best underdog sports story this side of Rich Strike, when the tide suddenly turned. A Yankees PR official had been standing nearby during the one-on-one interview, so the pitcher had to know what was coming.
He had to know that any public conversation on this day would need to account for the price of being a public figure.
A Twitter user had unearthed some racially offensive tweets from Cortes’s past, and now the former 36th-round draft pick who had been kicked around baseball like an old catcher’s mitt had to answer for them. A day after shutting down the White Sox and going eight innings for the first time, leaving Chicago with an American League-leading 1.35 ERA, the 27-year-old Cortes was forced to answer for his younger, irresponsible self.
Actually, he wasn’t forced to do anything. Cortes could have hid in the trainer’s room for the one-hour media availability before the Yankees’ 6-2 victory over Baltimore, and hoped some other dustup grabbed everyone’s attention before his next start and allowed his social media sins to fade away. But when the clubhouse door opened to credentialed media, Cortes hopped out of a chair and headed for his locker, where he eagerly greeted an approaching reporter to start a series of interviews that included uncomfortable questions about his Twitter posts.
Cortes said he was “a little pissed off at myself” for the language he used. He said he deleted his Twitter account, but planned to return to social media in a few days to continue sending positive messages to those who follow him. “I’ve matured now. I’ve grown up, ”Cortes said. “But there’s no justification for what I tweeted.”
No there isn’t. Nobody should be judged by their worst teenage days, but Cortes did this to himself. In the middle of a seemingly magical season, he just absorbed a self-inflicted shot to the ribs.
Will it rattle him? Will it throw him off his game? The margin between winning and losing is so agonizingly small in pro sports that anything negatively impacting an athlete’s rhythm in the short term could negatively impact his or her team’s prospects in the long term.
And the Yankees need Nestor Cortes in the long term.
Once upon a time, David Cone told me that championship teams often need something to happen out of left field on the way there. He cited Derek Jeter, 1996, as a prime example. Fans of the New York Football Giants might cite Victor Cruz, 2011, as another.
Cortes could be that something if the Yankees win their first championship since 2009. Asked if he thought his team could be the team to beat in October, Cortes said, “One hundred percent. [Anthony] Rizzo has won it already, [Aaron] Judge has been on an MVP run, [Giancarlo] Stanton and Josh [Donaldson] have won MVPs. We have guys with a lot of talent and experience, and they can see that the dynamic here is championship caliber. For the guys who have never been there and are coming up, we start believing. ”
Fair enough. But Judge and Stanton can’t merely bash this team to a title. And nothing has fortified the idea that these Yankees might be special more than the sight of the generously listed 5-foot-11, 210-pound Cortes dominating one lineup after another with the arm-angle, speed-changing deception nobody saw coming from the 1,094th pick in the 2013 draft.
“I think I’ve shocked everybody around the world,” Cortes said. “It’s not normal for a soft-tossing lefty that’s 5-10 to have the success that we’re having. Everybody looks at the prototype 6-4, 6-5 pitcher throwing 97, 98 mph. … But I added a slider, and my [velocity] has ticked up a little bit, and it’s made my cutter a lot better too. ”
Yankees pitching coach Matt Blake explained that Cortes has gotten more aggressive with his four-seamer, which puts a lot of pressure on hitters most concerned with his signature cutter-forcing them to make tough choices on the perimeter of the strike zone. “I feel like that’s the backbone of who he is,” Blake said. “And then using the bigger, sweeping slider as a steal-a-strike pitch to slow guys down.”
Blake called Cortes’s ability to adjust his game plan and read situations “as good as anyone’s we have,” and described his calm demeanor as one of his most valuable assets. “He’s not scared,” the pitching coach said. “He believes in himself. He’s authentic… He’s competitive, but there aren’t these large out-placed expectations that are making him frantic about what’s going on. He’s taking it in stride. ”
That changed Monday, when Cortes faced the kind of adversity that had nothing to do with the Orioles getting rid of him once, and the Yankees getting rid of him twice. He promised to do much better on social media, and in life. He plans to go back to being a role model for underdog kids.
“I want them to look at me,” he said, “and feel like,‘ Hey, I can probably be that guy one day. He wasn’t a superstar coming up in the system. ‘ ”
Nestor Cortes has been pitching like a superstar. If he turns out to be a special Yankee, that enhances the odds of a special October in the Bronx.