PITTSBURGH (AP) — Ke’Bryan Hayes remembers his father’s instructions as a child, the ones that helped pave the way for the Pittsburgh Pirates prospect to follow in his dad Charlie’s footsteps.
The elder Hayes, who carved out a 14-year career in the majors as a corner infielder and memorably recorded the final out of the 1996 World Series while playing third base for the New York Yankees, threw a lot at his son. He stressed over and over the importance of defense and forced his son to learn every position, even if it meant occasionally playing in right field even though he would have been more effective elsewhere.
“He was like, ’I’m not even worried about it,’ ” the younger Hayes said Tuesday shortly before making his major league debut against the Chicago Cubs. “We’re going to take 200 ground balls during the weekend or during the week because I know what position you’re going to play, but you don’t have to play in the game or whatever every day at that position.”
Father knew best, though Hayes is quick to point out that his first call after being told he was going to join the team that selected him in the first round in 2015 was to his mother Lutherea. When he phoned Charlie a short time later, the stoicism Charlie long guided his son with silently evaporated.
“He kind of didn’t say anything at first and then I kind of heard it in his voice,” said Hayes, who will wear No. 13 just like his father. “Sounded like he was kind of crying a little bit. That was special for me.”
A three-time Gold Glove winner in the minors, Hayes entered the spring on the cusp of reaching the majors. He hit a respectable .280 in 13 games before things got weird. Baseball shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, and when Hayes arrived at the team’s alternate training site in Altoona, he tested positive for COVID-19 even though he was asymptomatic.
The unexpected downtime was weird. He’d find himself keeping up with the group by checking out Instagram. The team even dropped off workout equipment for him to do by himself, and the early stages of his return included arriving at the ballpark well before everyone else, then stepping aside when things got serious.
Yet his body recovered and he kept to a routine in hopes of staying sharp. It wasn’t much different than most minor league seasons, save for the lack of a nine-inning game at the end. Hayes kept track as the Pirates quickly plummeted to the bottom of the National League Central but tried to not get ahead of himself.
When Brian Esposito, who managed Hayes last season at Triple-A, called Hayes and told him he would be working out at PNC Park on Monday against rehabbing Pirates starter Mitch Keller “and then staying,” Hayes thought he was getting punked. For once, though, Esposito was serious.
So was Hayes’ reaction.
“I got chills in my body,” Hayes said. “I mean, it’s what I worked for my whole life and you can ask anyone back home, I put 100 percent effort into getting where I am today.”
The Pirates plan to play Hayes regularly, provided his body gets up to speed with the sprint that is the truncated 2020 season. Considering the roster is filled with good friends like Bryan Reynolds and Kevin Newman who mirrored Hayes’ rise through the system, he expects it to feel oddly normal.
“I grew up playing with all of those guys,” Hayes said. “We’re like brothers when we’re at the field. I think it’s very important.”
Pittsburgh is relying on it during the early stages of what general manager Ben Cherington expects to be a lengthy building process. Third base has been a trouble spot defensively dating back to Pedro Alvarez’s days there a decade ago. While first-year manager Derek Shelton is confident Hayes’ talent will be visible immediately, he also cautioned about expecting too much too soon.
“Let’s not put any pressure on him and say that he’s going to be the best defender on the field at any time,” Shelton said. “He’s a really good defender. It’s obvious.”
And Hayes is eager to show he’s not just some sort of defensive savant. He’s worked diligently to become a better hitter. He will aim for the gaps at PNC Park and see what happens. Five years after touring the facility shortly after getting drafted, he’s ready for the visions he had that day to come to life.
“Really, all I try to do whenever I’m up there is to have a competitive at-bat and hit the ball as hard as I can,” Hayes said. “Whatever happens from there happens.”
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