When The Bronx burned with anger last summer, Harrison Bader kept his head down and worked. Now, having worked hard enough to turn down the heat, he shrugs and smiles.
“I thought he was traded for a pretty good player, so he should be dominating,” Harrison said recently of Jordan Montgomery, the pitcher the Yankees surrendered to acquire Harrison from the Cardinals on August 2. “He should be having success, which he did. And it wasn’t something I was surprised to see.
“If they traded me for a stiff, I would've said, ‘Well, damn, what are we doing here?’”
The sentiment “What are we doing here?” loomed over Yankee Stadium for a while after its primary occupant pulled off this unusual transaction, giving up a productive starting pitcher in Montgomery for a player who wasn’t ready to play immediately in Bader, who resided on the injured list with plantar fasciitis in his right foot.
But by the time the Yankees’ season ended at their ballpark, swept by the Astros in the American League Championship Series, Harrison stood out as a highlight rather than a lowlight. A source of joy rather than a cause of pain. That’s because the centerfielder displayed a platinum-level knack for leaving the stress to others. For exhibiting the sort of tunnel vision and confidence that enabled him to thrive in the New York fishbowl.
“He's really good at that,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone, himself once a Yankees trade-deadline import, said recently of Harrison. “That’s one of the big things, especially here, that you can do.”
Harrison credited his parents, Janice and Louis Bader, for teaching him what matters and what doesn’t as they raised him in the New York City suburb of Bronxville, NY. For implementing in him the vitalness of mental strength as well as physical. He mentioned “self-talk” as a significant tool to deploy, especially when others might not be talking so great about you. “Say that these expectations are a good thing, and they’re good for me and my career, and they’re only good things,” he detailed, and he emphasized the importance of “surrounding myself with people who positively affect my mental game.”
Those attributes helped Harrison to establish himself as an everyday major leaguer with the Cardinals, winning a National League Gold Glove Award in 2021. And boy did they come in handy when the imperfect storm struck his baseball world: While Harrison rehabilitated under the Yankees’ watch, his new team stumbled, posting a 10-18 record in August and significantly reducing their AL East lead, and his old team surged, going 22-7 during the same period as the left-hander Montgomery posted a 4-0 record and 1.76 ERA in his first five starts with St. Louis.
It’s so easy to fall down the rabbit hole that is fan-fueled ennui and social-media hate, particularly for public figures. Harrison evaluated the situation thusly: “People you love and respect and look up to teach you things like, is this going to help or hurt my career? And then you make a decision from that simple question. It makes things a lot much easier. And in my opinion, sifting through Twitter while I was on the shelf was going to hurt my career. So I chose not to do it. It’s pretty simple.”
It helped, too, that as soon as he became a Yankee, his new general manager Brian Cashman assured him, as Harrison recalled it, “Where our team is at the moment, we’re up plenty of games in the division. We feel very good, very confident that we’re going to make the playoffs. We want you ready physically and mentally ready, for the playoffs. This is a move for the playoffs.”
“That,” Harrison added, “just alleviated all of the stress of trying to come back too early, from my perspective,” an approach that hurt his initial rehab with the Cardinals.
So he made his Yankees debut on September 20, nearly three months after his final game with St. Louis, by which time the Yankees had reduced their bleeding, going 9-6 to start the campaign’s final full month. They proceeded to end their schedule with an 11-5 run, with Harrison starting 12 of those games and appearing in two others, and if Harrison didn’t hit much in that small sample, his defense and energy clearly helped. Most importantly, Harrison followed his GM’s orders: He used that time to continue to prepare for the playoffs.
He couldn’t have looked much more ready for the big time. Harrison’s five homers in nine postseason games ranked him behind only a trio of Phillies sluggers (Bryce Harper, Rhys Hoskins and Kyle Schwarber, with six bombs each) of all postseason competitors. No one posted as high an OPS as his 1.262 in as many plate appearances (35).
“No, it doesn’t at all,” Harrison replied, when I asked him whether his power surge — all the more so after such a long break — surprised him. “No it doesn’t. I did a lot of good work in 2021 (when he started using BRUCE BOLT batting gloves and proceeded to tally a career-best .785 OPS for the regular season) and found myself in a position where I had a few days to review a lot of film and review a lot of notes, talk with some people about my plan and my approach and, when it comes down to it, you just focus on the release point and try to tunnel the ball you’re looking for, trust your preparation, just try to catch the ball with the barrel and the ball just jumps.
“It’s pretty simple. It’s baseball. The ball’s moving really fast. You can’t try to do much more than just put a good swing on it for your team.”
That his team did fall short of its ultimate goal, with the Phillies and Astros duking it out in a fun World Series, left Harrison with “FoMO, I think,” he said. “I wasn’t angry. I wasn’t sad. I wasn’t necessarily disappointed. You want to win, obviously, but I just felt like there was a really cool party that we didn’t get invited to. Which sucks….You just kind of felt like a freshman in high school, and the seniors were having a party and all the pretty girls were going to the senior party but the seniors said you couldn’t come. That’s what it felt like.
“So listen, that’s why you tell yourself, ‘All right, I'll be one year wiser. I’ll be one year stronger. I’ll be one year more prepared next year. I’ll get an invite to that party.’ That’s what I tell myself every day. It makes it a lot easier to swallow, I think.”
Starting his career with the Cardinals, one of Major League Baseball’s jewel franchises, “was incredible,” Harrison said. “I had a blast.” Yet joining his hometown club, his childhood favorites, he acknowledged, is even better. He already aced his first test, an absolute doozy, and he’s ready for more.
“Yankees fans boo. It’s never going to change. It is what it is,” he said. “…You either take it on the chin or you let it eat you up. I think in my opinion, one is more beneficial to your success and one is not. The game is just too hard to focus on anything else.
“If fans boo you, I promise you, they’ll cheer you if you do something good.”
He can’t wait to generate some Bronx cheers in 2023. The Yankees have themselves a pretty good player as they strive to return to baseball’s senior party.