Gerrit Cole and Kyle Higashioka Were a Scout’s Dream Pairing

SAN DIEGO — Dave Keith, a Yankees amateur scout, was on a road trip in Utah last month when he received a text message from Kyle Higashioka, the Yankees’ backup catcher. Higashioka wanted to know if Keith had received anything in the mail. Keith told him that he was on a scouting trip, but would give him a heads up when he got home.

When Keith returned home, what he found waiting for him brought tears to his eyes: a baseball signed by Gerrit Cole, the new ace of the Yankees, and Higashioka — two players he had scouted as amateurs before they were drafted by the Yankees in 2008.

Ever since he had watched them playing as teammates on top prospect showcase squads in Southern California, Keith had dreamed that Cole and Higashioka would one day form a battery in pinstripes. It finally came true this season, after winding and diverging journeys for each player, and has continued into the playoffs, including on Monday in a 9-3 win in Game 1 of the Yankees’ American League division series against the rival Tampa Bay Rays.

Scribbled on the ball was a message — “1st strike out of the Cole-Higashioka battery” — along with details of the moment: The batter was Hanser Alberto of the Baltimore Orioles, and the setting was the first inning of a Sept. 5 game at Camden Yards in Baltimore.

“It knocked me off my feet,” Keith said in a telephone interview. “Scouts, we don’t ask for stuff. That was just coming from the heart. It touched me big time. Wow, this is special.”

The nature of Keith’s job helps explain why the small gesture means so much to him. Area scouts are a team’s primary eyes and ears for finding talent: They spend most of the year on the road away from their families, visiting smaller towns across the country to watch games, getting to know prospects and their families, and vouching for players from their coverage area to their bosses.

“When you draft these guys and you send them off — and I tell the parents this, too — you become a stepdad,” Keith said. “You’re pulling for them, and you’re in it with them the whole way. You become really attached to these kids — I still call them kids. For me, I love those two guys, and I’m so proud of them.”

Keith was particularly thrilled that Cole and Higashioka, both 30, had linked up on the field. He told both players on several occasions that he envisioned this, even as far back as 2008, when the Yankees selected Cole in the first round out of Orange Lutheran High School and Higashioka in the seventh round from Edison High School. Both schools are in Orange County, Calif.

After Higashioka was drafted, the Yankees brought him to their stadium in the Bronx, where he met with team officials and players, including the veteran catcher Jorge Posada.

“I told Higgy, ‘It’s going to be pretty cool one day watching Cole and you on the mound,’” Keith said. “And he goes, ‘Hopefully it’s a long time.’”

It took a long time for the reunion to happen, though. Unlike Higashioka, Cole passed up the chance to sign for millions with the franchise he had adored growing up because he and his father believed it was more valuable to study at U.C.L.A. and develop into a better pitcher.

They were proven right when Cole was selected first over all in the 2011 draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Yankees tried to trade for Cole before the 2018 season, but the Houston Astros won out. With the Astros, Cole blossomed into one of the best pitchers in the sport, combining a fierce competitive drive and a potent arsenal on the mound with a sharp intellect.

All along, the Yankees loomed in the background. In 2001, when he was 11, Cole attended the World Series between the Yankees and the Arizona Diamondbacks with his father and was photographed holding a now well-known “Yankee Fan Today Tomorrow Forever” sign. Keith said he still remembered Cole, during a predraft meeting with him and his father, rattling off details from past Yankees seasons and showing off his bedroom, which was covered in team memorabilia.

“That’s always stuck with me,” Keith said. “I said then, ‘I hope one day Gerrit gets to live out his dream and we can get him, and Higgy is with us.’”

So Keith was delighted in December — and he told Cole as much in a text message then — when General Manager Brian Cashman, who referred to Cole as his “white whale,” lured him as a free agent with a nine-year, $324 million contract.

Higashioka was still with the Yankees, but it had taken nine years of development, troubles at the plate, injuries and re-signing as a minor league free agent before he made his major league debut in 2017. This season, he finally earned the team’s second-string catcher’s job.

So when the starting catcher, Gary Sanchez, struggled, Higashioka earned more playing time, clicked instantly with Cole and showed why he had long been considered a strong defender and pitch caller.

“We have a pretty good understanding of how each other likes to attack the hitters, and between innings we always have a good dialogue,” Higashioka said of Cole.

Cole added: “Probably because we’re both from Southern California and we have a lot of the same interests. Kyle is easy to communicate with and a really creative thinker.”

Although the sample sizes are small, Cole has a 3.91 earned run average in eight starts with Sanchez behind the plate but a 1.32 E.R.A. in five starts entering Monday with Higashioka, including a seven-inning, 13-strikeout performance against the Cleveland Indians in the first round of the playoffs. Keith, of course, watched that game with glee from his home in Dana Point, Calif., and planned to do the same on Monday.

“Their baseball I.Q.s are through the roof,” he said. “I would love to be sitting in that dugout listening to them.”

But Keith cannot be with them, so Cole and Higashioka sent him a token of their appreciation. When Keith thanked Higashioka for the ball, Higashioka told him it was Cole’s idea to save the one from their first strikeout together as Yankees.

“Those area scouts are often underappreciated,” Cole said on Sunday, adding later, “They’re kind of the boots on the ground, and it’s hard not to at least develop some relationship with them and be appreciative for what they bring to the game.”

In fact, the gift’s impact went beyond Keith himself, he said. It has been a tough time for talent evaluators — some teams were already minimizing the role of traditional scouting before the pandemic, but now several had laid off or furloughed dozens of scouts because of revenue shortfalls. When other scouts found out about Cole and Higashioka’s gesture, Keith said, they told him that it gave them hope to “keep fighting and going for the good kids.”

He added later, “It was a dream for me to see them together, it was a dream for Cole to be a Yankee, and for the scouting community, for that class act of those two guys, it meant a lot.”




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