WATCHUNG, N.J. — It’s 6 a.m. The sun won’t rise here for another hour. A winter wind shakes the barren trees surrounding the home set deep in the woods of this bedroom community 29 miles west of New York City. It’s quiet — until the Tesla’s engine hums. Then it pulls down the long, winding driveway, turning left at the midnight blue mailbox adorned with an interlocking NY.
This is how Anthony Volpe’s journey begins.
From there, it’s 90 minutes to Rye, N.Y., where Volpe will hone every tiny detail of his re-engineered swing for two hours with his personal hitting coach. When they’re finished, he’ll scarf a sandwich while driving another couple hours to Chester, N.J., just to go through a grueling workout with the same private trainer he’s worked with since he was 10 years old. Then it’s about 35 minutes back home — if rush-hour traffic cooperates, which it never does.
In total, it’s 164 mind-numbing miles of highways, strip malls and stoplights. But Volpe, just 21 years old, has been making the trek nearly every day in each offseason since July 2020 for a very specific reason. While most others his age are planning their next party or studying for an upcoming exam, Volpe wanted to be the next Derek Jeter.
“It’s always been Anthony’s dream to play for the New York Yankees,” said Matt Buglovsky, his former gym teacher at Valley View Middle School.
On Thursday, that dream will become a reality. When ace Gerrit Cole winds up for his first pitch against the Giants at Yankee Stadium on Opening Day, Volpe will be standing behind him at shortstop for the first time in the majors.
It will mark the end of one drive that saw him overcome doubters at almost every turn on his way to a surprising debut. And it will be the start of another to prove that he belongs.
How the heck did Volpe get here, anyway? At the start of spring training, few people within the Yankees thought he had a shot at taking over the everyday role in the Bronx. Despite his top prospect status, Volpe was up against incumbent veteran Isiah Kiner-Falefa and fellow top prospect Oswald Peraza, who came on strong late last season in the majors and even earned a start in the American League Championship Series. Most figured that even if everything was even, Peraza would get the nod since Volpe had just 22 games of experience at Triple A. But much like the way he opened the Yankees’ eyes as a shortstop at Delbarton School in Morristown, N.J., before they drafted him in what some called a reach in the first round in 2019, Volpe turned skeptics into believers.
Kiner-Falefa was phased out of the running early this spring. Peraza underwhelmed at the plate. All the while, Volpe played even better. He finished hitting .309 with three homers and a 1.033 OPS in 55 at-bats. He likely sealed the deal when, late in camp, he homered off Pablo Lopez, the Twins’ scheduled Opening Day starter, and then followed the next day with a triple and a double off Aaron Nola, the Phillies righty who finished fourth in the National League Cy Young Award voting last year.
With Peraza hitting just .190, the Yankees on the last day of camp handed the job to Volpe, who will become their youngest Opening Day starter since Jeter in 1996.
“This has been the dream since I can remember,” said Volpe, whose father grew up idolizing Thurman Munson and whose grandfather adored Mickey Mantle.
“I think when we take a step back and evaluate,” manager Aaron Boone said, “he really checked every box that we could have had for him. He absolutely kicked the door in and earned this opportunity.”
“The obvious exclamation point here is: Anthony Volpe came into camp and took this position,” general manager Brian Cashman said. “He should be congratulated.”
It wasn’t the first time Volpe forced his way into the spotlight from the shadows.
When he was in seventh grade, his father, Dr. Michael Volpe, a urologist, took him to a workout for kids who were considering attending Delbarton School, one of the area’s top private high schools. Volpe told Delbarton’s head coach, Bruce Shatel, that his son hoped to play at Stanford University. Shatel then looked at Anthony, who was skinny and short, and mentally rolled his eyes. “I thought I was dealing with another Looney Toon dad,” Shatel said. “But to his credit, I think they knew better than me at the time that their boy was not going to be denied greatness.”
Anthony started at shortstop for three of his four years at Delbarton. During his sophomore year, scouts started to show up. But it wasn’t so much for him. He was classmates with Jack Leiter, one of the best high school pitchers in the state and the son of Al Leiter, former Yankees and Mets pitcher. Some scouts would appear for Anthony, though the amount would triple to see Jack, who was drafted by the Rangers No. 2 overall in 2021 after pitching at Vanderbilt. But, gradually, more and more talent evaluators would arrive between Jack’s starts for a glimpse at Anthony.
“He’s a guy that you watch enough and you’re around him a lot, you fall in love with what he’s all about,” Al Leiter said. “If you rate out each tool and want to be really picky, maybe you don’t see each of the super high-end individual tools. However, the baseball movement and the baseball IQ … You start grinding on the guy and you’re like, ‘Wait a minute. I like the way he plays.’”
Anthony Volpe started to convince the Yankees he was the real deal in 2017, when he was on the club’s Area Code amateur team. Matt Hyde, the Yankees’ lead Northeast area scout, said even back then, Volpe displayed two traits the Yankees considered vital to a winning player. The first was reliability in that he “showed up every day, came prepared, (and) came with a good attitude.” The other was availability, meaning that Volpe was “always there to pick up the clutch hit, there to steal a base.”
“Those were his superpowers,” Hyde said. “And he never takes a play off. That’s what makes him different from the rest.”
But Volpe encountered his first struggles during his introduction to pro baseball. At his first assignment at Low A Pulaski, Volpe hit just .215 in 34 games, his campaign ending early due to mononucleosis. Then, in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic forced the cancelation of the minor-league season.
On advice from his agent, Jim Murray of WME Sports, Volpe set out on his first arduous offseason drive. First, he connected in Rye with hitting coach Jason Lefkowitz, who helped him reshape his swing. And then he drove over to Bolt Fitness in Chester to work out with longtime trainer Mike Baker, adding about 20 pounds of muscle to his now 5-foot-11 frame.
The changes helped him break out. In 2021, he tore through Low A and High A, hitting 27 homers in 109 games. Last season, he clubbed 21 bombs in 132 games, finishing the year at Triple A and earning himself a spot in the Yankees’ shortstop competition.
Still, he knew he knew he had to get better.
“The dude works,” Yankees hitting coach Dillon Lawson said.
Volpe ditched his plan to take a few weeks off in the offseason and instead traveled to the team’s training complex in Tampa in late November. He spent much of the winter there, returning home for a few weeks around the holidays. At the complex, he worked out with Harrison Bader and DJ LeMahieu, who called Volpe “a baseball rat.” Lawson said Volpe worked diligently alongside organizational hitting instructors Joe Migliaccio, Trevor Amicone and Jake Hirst.
“He’s extremely focused,” Lawson said. “He doesn’t shy away from the things he actually needs to improve on. From a coaching standpoint, that’s why you have so much confidence in him beyond just the talent level.”
“I think he’s kind of a machine,” Al Leiter said. “Over the years, it’s been, ‘You might have to work on this if you want to be that.’ But it’s like plug-and-play. He puts it into his (mental) computer, and, ‘OK, I need to throw with more velocity across the diamond?’ Done. ‘Oh, so I’m an up-the-middle (hitter) and to right-center (field)? I need to pull some more? Put it into the computer.’ Done. ‘I might not be the fastest guy, but how do I maximize jumps to be a good base runner?’ Done.”
Drive around Watchung and you’d never know it was the home of the Yankees’ new starting shortstop. There aren’t any banners congratulating “A.V.,” which is what everybody here calls him. No shrines have been erected of him in town pizzerias or delis. At least, not yet. You have to drive 10 minutes away to his hairdresser’s place in New Providence to find any trace of Volpe, and it’s just a picture hanging on the wall of him in a Team USA baseball polo shirt.
Last summer, Curt Dahl wanted to change that. The Watchung councilman wanted to host an “Anthony Volpe Day” or to give the shortstop a key to the city. After all, Volpe was being touted as one of the best prospects in the game and playing every day in front of friends and family at Double A in Somerset, just down the road. Dahl ran the idea past Volpe’s father, who reported back with bad news.
“He says he feels like he hasn’t done anything yet,” Michael Volpe told Dahl.
Maybe Anthony Volpe will rethink it in December when he’s heading back down his winding driveway, turning past his Yankees-branded mailbox and on his way to yet another grueling workout, this one not aimed at becoming the shortstop in the Bronx, but at keeping the job for good.
(Top photo of Anthony Volpe: Cliff Welch / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)