Gasper looking ahead to 2021 season
The temperatures a couple of weeks ago in the Houston, Texas, area were below freezing. Snow or ice was starting to build up, just a bit.
Former Merrimack High School and Nashua Silver Knight standout Mickey Gasper would look at his roommate and good friend, fellow Yankees farmhand and former Silver Knight infielder Max Burt, and the two would just smile and shake their heads. This was nothing they hadn’t seen before, but in some instances, the winter blast was a serious disaster in Texas.
“We lost power for about 38 hours, but we were looking outside and saying, ‘This is it? This is why nobody can go anywhere, I can’t go food shopping because of 2 inches of snow?
“It was a little icy, it wasn’t anything Max and I hadn’t seen before. But at the same time everybody down here was saying ‘What in God’s name is this?'”
One major national store wouldn’t sell anything out of refrigerators because power went out. “There’s no way I would expect a store like that in New England not to have 10 generators,” Gasper said. “I honestly couldn’t believe it. We had to figure out where our next meal would be coming from, but we made out OK.”
Ah, but he wasn’t in Merrimack any more. It capped off probably the most unexpected and bizarre year of Gasper’s life. This past week he and Burt and other minor leaguers in the New York Yankees system arrived back in Tampa, Fla., for informal workouts that would lead to the beginning of formal minor league spring training on April 1.
It has been almost 12 months exactly when Gasper and others were quarantining in an Air B&B, venturing out only to get food left for them at the team’s minor league complex or to try to work out in a nearby park.
“Wow, how crazy that was all a year ago,” Gasper, now 25, said. “But I’m ready to forget about this one. I’m totally focused on 2021 right now. I’m going to be hungry.”
He has arrived back in Florida a different player. Last year he was at roughly 215 – 220 pounds, and now he’s a lean 185 – 11 percent body fat – which could help him defensively and offensively.
“I’m definitely faster, stronger, and ready to get after it,” he said from Houston, just before leaving for Tampa.
Gasper, drafted in the 27th round by New York in 2018, has been talking with Yankee coaches about what camp will be like next month, but they have few answers as to the format, etc.
And remember, the whole minor league system has been turned upside down with contraction, so the competition could be fierce. According to MiLb.com, Gasper was assigned in February to the Yankees Class A team, the Hudson Valley Renegades. In two seasons in the Yankees system, he’s hit .253 with a .788 OPS, 19 homers and 83 RBIs.
“I see big league camp is only allowing 150 people, 75 players, 75 coaches,” Gasper said. “I’m guessing minor league camp is going to be somewhat similar, which is going to up the competition even more.
“It’s going to definitely be a battle from day one.”
THE PAST 11 MONTHS
Gasper has spent the last year in Cypress, Texas, with good friend and former Silver Knight Max Burt of North Andover, Mass., also in the Yankee organization.
“It’s been a lot of practice,working on my skills, a lot of the things you’ve got to do, especially during this time.”
The solution was simple.
“Keep working,” Gasper said. “Surround yourself with guys who are already in the The Show (majors) and will tell you how great it is, why it’s worth it, all that sacrifice. I’ve been lucky enough to be around a lot of really good players down here.”
Gasper was working out with some players before they left Texas for the summer camp and start of the MLB season last July, and they returned to work out in the Houston area for the off-season.
“Learning from them, talking with them really helped me,” Gasper said. “Helped me understand what my goals are, how do I reach them. I mean, what else would I rather be doing? These guys are my age, in the big leagues, I want what they have, too. You definitely have to surround yourself with motivated, hard working people who keep you accountable.”
It was perfect for Gasper not to be on his own, and he’s done off-seasons alone. But this way, “There’s a little more light at the end of that tunnel. There’s so much uncertainty, things might change. It’s really good to be competing every day, whether it’s in the weight room, in the batting cages, it’s a day where we actually get to compete and hit live pitching.”
The uncertainty had to bother Gasper, with COVID and the minor league contraction clouding the future.
“Certainly, there were days when you were a little less motivated, a little less optimistic. But those are the days when you’ve got to push through, days that really make or break a champion, make or break a guy who makes it to the big leagues or doesn’t.”
So Gasper made sure to surround himself with those who would motivate him. He and Burt held each other accountable, and “made this process easier, even as difficult as it has been.”
THE SHUTDOWN, THE MOVE
Gasper had just walked onto the minor league field in mid-March in Tampa on a Friday, ready to catch and hit and possibly play in his first game after recovering from a shoulder procedure. His future was now.
And then suddenly the coaches gathered the players, and told them the workouts and games were cancelled until further notice thanks to the coronavirus.
Before long, it became apparent that the season wasn’t happening anytime soon and Gasper and others would have to leave Florida. But he had already had a plan for the 2020-21 off season as Yankees 2018 second rounder Josh Breaux invited he and Burt to come live with him at his Houston home.
“This was always the idea to come down here,” Gasper said. “So we get kicked out of Florida and Josh said, ‘Hey, you guys just want to come down to Houston? We have a place where you can work out, do some hitting, and keep at it.”
At that time, Gasper thought they’d all be back on the field in the summer, he didn’t feel like driving back up north, so why not? It turns out hit was his home for an entire year, save for a couple of trips back up to New Jersey, where his parents now live, during the summer and then the holidays.
The daily routine, at the beginning, with higher restrictions, and workouts were in a buddy’s garage, with weights, a squat rack, etc., in the 100 degree heat. And then to a nearby turf field for batting practice, hitting off a pitching machine. That was about six days a week, on average.
There were defensive workouts, too, and Gasper also caught bullpens.
“We’d get our lift in the garage, then head over to the field,” Gasper said. Once the restrictions were lifted in later July, the workouts shifted to Premiere Baseball Academy in nearby Tomball, Texas, which included, weights, warmups, live action, etc. in conjunction with Dynamic Sports Training. Eight fields, a baseball heaven.
The weight work was divided up into times, with about 10 at a time. Three or four at a time in the batting cages. The work was basically, as Gasper said, “like a 10-5 job.”
At times, if it was a live day on the field, there was a crowd of maybe 20-25 fans watching, which had to be inspiring. The facility was a godsend.
“As much devastation as there was with COVID, as bad as things were in the world, I was able to turn (the time) into a positive,” Gasper said. “I was able to reshape my body, and I made the most out of the situation that was at hand.
“It certainly was a blessing finding this place. I’m not sure where my career would be at if I didn’t come down here.”
Gasper got himself in great shape, and having Burt helped push him.
“He’s one of those guys where we show up and we just start competing against each other,” Gasper said. “It’s like my high school basketball team, the Merrimack Tomahawks varsity team. We got in the gym for practice and we competed against each other, and we had fun doing that.
“Max and I go about our business every day and we take pride in holding each other accountable, take pride in our work. It’s one of the best things that’s happened to me in professional baseball, having a guy like that around me every day.”
The other thing that helped was that Gasper was able to give baseball lessons, and coach at Premiere Academy, helping his cash flow so he didn’t have to get any part-time job away from the game.
He coached a 13-year old team, and then a summer college team in a league that was run at the facility.
How’d he like coaching?
“I loved it, it was a lot of fun,” he said, adding he coached with Burt.
Gasper was anxious last March to get out there following his injuries. Instead, he had to put all that on hold until he got to Houston, where it’s been a daily routine.
“A lot of strength work, a lot of mobility work, a lot of catching and defense work,” Gasper said. “We’ve been lucky to have a bunch of pitching machines, I’ve been getting my defensive work on those.”
Gasper has also caught live pitching, “some really good arms”, which, of course, he says is the best way to improve. And he’s worked on being a more consistent hitter with his swing.
“I think I’ve done a lot in every facet of baseball,” he said. “I’ve improved totally. It’s just about getting out there and playing now. I’m sure there’ll be a couple of rocky points in a day where we start games and some mistakes happen. I’ve been away for a little bit but at the same time I’ve put in the work. I’m going to just kind of let it happen.
We’ve been getting after it for about eight months. Now it’s about having fun and just letting the game come to you.”
All the minor leaguers have been away from live baseball for as long as 18 months, if you date back to the end of the 2019 season. It’s got to be tough to return to the live aspect.
“There’s nothing like it,” he said. “You can hit 10,000 balls off a live pitching machine, but not a single one of them is like when a pitcher’s toeing the rubber and trying to get you out.
“It’s definitely going to be a little growth experience, those first couple of times, because it’s been a year, but we’ve just got to trust our work and trust what you put in.”
Gasper says the entire sport has suffered in spots due to the pandemic.
“It’s definitely been a disservice to youth baseball, and everybody, not being able to get out there for a year and play,” he said.
“There’s nothing like playing baseball. But at the same time you’ve got to believe, and trust your process, and the work you put in. I’m sure there’ll be some butterflies but I’ll be ready to go. I’m sure I’ll do some damage in Tampa.”
Gasper had to also deal with the pandemic, and do whatever he could to stay safe.
“It was just doing your part,” he said. “We might have gone out one time in eight months. … We were doing what we need to do. Just being courteous. Wash your hands, wipe down benches (in the weight room). Take care of the little things like that.
“We were able to stay healthy the entire time. Even the entire gym (and facility), I don’t think there was a single COVID setback the entire year.”
Was it tough to put it out of his mind?
“It’s that level of trust,” Gasper said. “I had that level of trust with the guys around me who were pros. They were taking those precautions and steps just like I was. It was a very professional atmosphere.”
Gasper said in some ways it was tough to watch the MLB games last summer and fall, and in some cases not. He had some friends in the big leagues he was rooting for, and he was happy for them.
“It was more motivating for me than tough to watch,” he said. “I was sitting on the couch, get my pre-pitch going and making a plan in the hole (on deck) I just wanted to be out there.”
Instead he found himself rooting for his friends, such as Indians pitcher James Karinchak, his college roommate (Bryant University) and others he worked out with in the Houston area.
“They were on the big screen, where I want to be,” Gasper said. “It was more motivating for me.”
Now Gasper is set to make his mark. He’s always been a good hitter – a two strike count, with his vision, meant nothing, as Silver Knight fans can remember – but the question is what position? Catcher? First base?
“I think the Yankees see me as a guy that’s a bat,” he said. “I’m a bat-first guy, and that means I want to get in the lineup. If that means catching, or first base, who knows where else.
“I don’t want to put a label on myself. I don’t want to say I’m just a catcher, I don’t want to say I’m just a first baseman. I think the value I can bring to a team is I do have that versatility. I do have that ability to stay in that lineup because I think where I’m most impactful is with the bat.”
Gasper says his work has included a lot of defensive drills. “I’ve done a little of everything,” he said. “Catching a lot, but having Max down here, one of the best fielders if not the best fielder I’ve ever played with, working with me, helping me out, I’ve gotten a lot better at first.
“I’m just a more confident defender right now, a more confident thrower. Being around the game this much every day has definitely made me a much better defender.”
His hitting, he says, has also improved. He’s switch hitter by trade, but has always been seen as better left-handed.
“The righty has come a long way,” he said. “My exit velocity has jumped up. I’ve just gotten stronger and hitting the ball harder. I’m still focused on consistent contact, still want to be that guy that’s high on base, low strikeout. I’ve been sticking with my weight lifting routine and same thing with my hitting routine. I’m feeling great, and it’s just a matter of time before I get to face more live pitching every day.”
That’s the thing, it may be tougher to get that hitting vision back right away after the long camp layoff. “I don’t want to get myself in bad counts when I get out there,” Gasper said. “It’ll be even harder to hit. I don’t want to be in a lot of 0-2 counts. I’m going to be aggressive, but not overly aggressive. Get that two-strike approach the entire at-bat; OK, if I can handle this, I’ll go after it.”
Now Gasper is in Florida, informal workouts underway with a few coaches and players, just to get a head start. Now he’s working out in front of some people who could shape his future.
“It’s exciting,” Gasper said. “They’ll get to see all the work we put in. We’re just trying to turn some heads.”
The goal now that he’s in Tampa is simple come later next month.
“You want to break (camp) with a club,” Gasper said. “You don’t want to get stuck, you know?”
Looking back, Gasper still can’t believe the last year.
“No, definitely not,” he said. “From what’s gone on in the world to how I’ve definitely changed myself physically, how much I’ve grown as a baseball player. I wouldn’t have believed it if you had told me before this pandemic.
“At the same time, I’m proud and I’m really happy with the decisions I’ve made and the sacrifices I’ve made to come down (to Houston) and better my career.”
A career he’s ready to get back on track. Welcome back, Mickey Gasper.