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This out-of-nowhere Rays star is slaying the Yankees and becoming a folk hero

Zach Crizer
·4-min read

In baseball’s literary universe, the New York Yankees are the dragon, the Death Star and the final boss all wrapped into one. They are just supposed to win. Status quo: Yankees win. Actual recent history — in which they haven’t won or even made it to the World Series since 2009 — doesn’t matter nearly as much as their ingrained place in the culture. Nor does their lower seeding or second-place division finish. Having Gerrit Cole, Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton adds to the Monstars vibe.

So when someone has them on the ropes in the playoffs, a hero is born. The 2020 version of this character is maybe particularly primed to have his story remembered.

Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Randy Arozarena is, first off, just absolutely killing the Yankees on the field in the American League Division Series. With the Rays up 2-1 and looking to clinch Thursday night, the 25-year-old has homered in all three games so far. He’s batting .667/.692/1.417 in the series, with eight hits, five runs and only one strikeout. Teammate Tyler Glasnow, searching for words to describe his brilliance, concluded he must be “the best baseball player on Earth right now.”

That would be notable regardless, but Arozarena — taker of 99 total regular-season plate appearances in the majors — comes to this October prepackaged for intrigue, a folk hero starter kit. Observe.

Interest-piquing origin story? Check.

Hailing from Cuba, Arozarena originally signed with the Cardinals and debuted with St. Louis as a relatively unheralded backup outfielder in 2019. He even made a couple appearances in last year’s postseason, which allowed him to show the world Cardinals manager Mike Shildt’s not-for-public-consumption postgame speech after eliminating the Braves.

Then over the offseason, he was shipped to the Rays as not-even-the-centerpiece (or so we thought) of a deal that sent prominent pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore to St. Louis and the seemingly DH-bound Jose Martinez to Tampa.

At the time, his outlook was murky (cha-ching, more folk hero points) despite strong minor-league numbers. The best guesses at his future from prospect analysts had him somewhere close to an average everyday corner outfielder. FanGraphs noted that he hit the ball exceptionally hard, and often impressed scouts with both his speed and willingness to use it. “Arozarena once turned a routine pop-up into a triple because he sprinted full-tilt out of the box while the infielders miscommunicated,” Eric Longenhagen reported in the evaluation.

He wowed the Rays in spring training before falling ill with COVID-19 and getting a late start to the condensed season. He wound up playing just 23 games, but crushed an eye-opening seven homers in just 76 plate appearances to climb into a prominent spot in the Rays lineup ahead of the playoffs.

Tampa Bay Rays' Randy Arozarena reacts after crossing the plate after hitting a solo home run during the first inning in Game 2 of a baseball American League Division Series against the New York Yankees, Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Tampa Bay Rays' Randy Arozarena reacts after crossing the plate after hitting a solo home run during the first inning in Game 2 of a baseball American League Division Series against the New York Yankees, Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Transformative time in the wilderness? Check.

OK, so Arozarena didn’t emerge from the forest or get schooled by Liam Neeson in the ways of fighting, but he does have a tale of powering up that has instantly become canon.

What was thought of as doubles power for a speed-oriented player has become over-the-fence power in his arrival on the scene in 2020, and voila, a catchy reason has entered the public consciousness. Arozarena says that during his COVID-19 quarantine, cooped up in a Florida apartment, he put on 15 pounds of muscle by eating chicken and rice and doing 300 push-ups every day.

The Arozarena Diet, the next great fitness fad.

Trademark apparel? Check.

If it’s not the Spartan diet and exercise routine, though, it’s the cowboy boots.

As MLB.com’s Juan Toribio explains, Arozarena has a longstanding tradition of taking his teammates’ boots and soaking in the apparent good fortune that comes with them. He said the practice goes back to 2017 and his time playing in the Mexican Winter League, and the effect admittedly sounds similar.

“Those are the boots that give me good luck and I always hit a home run,” Arozarena told MLB.com.

With the Rays, he’s absorbing the good juju from pitching prospect Brent Honeywell’s all-black boots, which he wore on the field before the ALDS started. So perhaps the Yankees were doomed from the start.

It’s possible Arozarena is legitimately blossoming into a star at a particularly opportune time. Or maybe he’s just having the hottest two weeks of his career. Our brains are only so complicated, though. Right now, he’s beating the Yankees on the strength of chicken and rice and push-ups, which means he’s wearing the cape in the movie that is baseball, along with some cowboy boots.

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