February 22, 2015
A.J. Burnett and Francisco Cervelli (Gene Puskar/AP)
BRADENTON, Fla. — This is the way it can happen in baseball. An organization signs you at age 16, a decade or more passes, and then you take a phone call from the general manager while working out in the off-season. Just like that, traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The news jolted Francisco Cervelli last November, because he had never known anything but the Yankees since signing from Venezuela in 2003. But soon he processed what it meant, the restoration of something he never quite grasped in New York. Cervelli had another chance to be a starting catcher in the majors.
“I realized it was the best for me,” he said here the other day as the Pirates opened spring training. “The opportunity I was waiting for.”
Cervelli had it once — or, at least, he should have. In 2013, after the Yankees let Russell Martin leave for Pittsburgh as a free agent, Cervelli started 16 of the first 22 games. A foul tip by Rajai Davis broke his hand in late April, and a recovery that was supposed to last six weeks ended up taking 10 months.
But the record shows another reason Cervelli never played again that season. He was one of more than a dozen players suspended by Major League Baseball for using performance-enhancing drugs from the notorious Biogenesis clinic. Another suspended Yankee, Alex Rodriguez, proclaimed his innocence, filed lawsuits and is just now returning from a one-year ban. Cervelli took his 50 games immediately.
“I forgive myself,” he said. “That’s the first thing you’ve got to do. If you keep walking around feeling guilty, guilty, guilty, it’s going to feel a little miserable. You’ve just got to move forward. At that time, my teammates support me a lot. I feel new. I’m a better person.”
Asked about Rodriguez and the challenges he faces in his comeback, Cervelli seemed uncomfortable and hedged his answer. Rodriguez has that effect on people, and besides, he is not Cervelli’s teammate anymore.
And while Cervelli speaks in generalities about his ties to Biogenesis, he said he had urged minor leaguers to learn from his example.
“When you’re guilty, you just bite the bullet and keep moving forward,” Cervelli said. “A lot of people are pointing fingers at you. It’s an embarrassing moment. But now I feel more careful with things, especially with people I know, and people you’re going to meet in the future. That’s what I tell the kids now: ‘You’ve got to be careful with the people around you. Sometimes people want a piece of you and they don’t care about you.’
“I don’t tell the kids now what they have to do, or the way they’ve got to live. Just you’ve got to be careful, and in the tough times, just sit down and think about what you’re going to do and the decisions you’re going to make.”
Rodriguez’s decisions have ruined his legacy. Cervelli, who turns 29 next month, had no legacy to tarnish. He has played parts of seven seasons and appeared in just 250 games.
Last season, Cervelli hit .301, a career high. But he rarely played because the Yankees signed Brian McCann after Cervelli was lost in 2013. McCann started a five-year, $85 million contract with the worst season of his career, while Martin led the Pirates to the playoffs for the second year in a row.
Now, Cervelli is following Martin again. The Pirates could not compete with Toronto’s five-year, $82 million deal for Martin, so they acquired Cervelli from the Yankees for reliever Justin Wilson.
Neal Huntington, the Pirates’ general manager, said the team had tried to acquire Cervelli in past years and had long admired his defense — blocking, throwing, receiving, game calling. The Pirates also believe that as a regular catcher, Cervelli can approximate his part-time hitting portfolio. His career on-base plus slugging percentage, .729, would have ranked in the upper half of catchers with 400 plate appearances last season.
“There’s going to be some regression from fatigue that comes with the position, naturally,” Huntington said. “But we see some bat speed, our scouts see him barreling the ball, they see some impact, and they think that he can more than hold his own from what we’re asking for him.”
Cervelli is one of several former Yankees on the Pirates, with his fellow catcher Chris Stewart, starter A. J. Burnett and closer Mark Melancon. It is hard to overstate Martin’s impact in Pittsburgh, but Melancon said the pitchers would also appreciate Cervelli.
“You know that he really cares,” Melancon said. “He wants you to succeed on the mound; that’s all it is. It’s a real tandem, and you feel that passion he has. He’s great to throw to.”
Like Melancon, Cervelli was a bit player on the Yankees’ last title team, in 2009. He did not play in the World Series, but he may have had the single most important at-bat of that regular season.
In a game in Atlanta in June — after Manager Joe Girardi had been ejected — Cervelli jolted the offense with his first career homer, off Kris Medlen, to break up a no-hitter in the sixth inning. The Yankees, who had lost nine of 13 games, won 10 of their next 11 and were soon back in first place.
Cervelli does not wear his championship ring, but said it sits proudly in a case at his home, and he likes to admire it. As a Yankee, he was more popular for his exuberance than anything else, and that is how he wants it. Just last week, he said, an older couple from New York recognized him at an amusement park and told him how much they loved his attitude.
“I’m never going to change the way I play,” Cervelli said. “When people say, ‘Wow, I like the way you play, you play the game with a lot of energy’ — that’s everything for me.”
With regular playing time, Cervelli acknowledged, he may have to scale back his intensity, pace himself for the long season. He wants to be a fixture in Pittsburgh, and said he would not hide from his past as he gets to know new teammates.
“It’s easy to teach how you can be successful, how you can do routines,” Cervelli said. “But it’s not easy to go down and stand up again. All my career has been like that. I’ve got to stand up again and stay tall.”