The next MLB superstar? Yankees' Gleyber Torres is ready to own his moment

FIVE EXECUTIVES FROM Octagon and two others from Major League Baseball's player marketing team traveled to Tampa, Florida, to meet with Gleyber Torres in January. They rented a private room near the back of a fancy steakhouse and spent five hours talking about his brand potential. Meetings like these are hardly ever staged for baseball players; they're usually reserved for stars of the NBA and the NFL, sports with greater appeal to younger fans. But Torres possessed both the potential and the interest. He flew his parents and his in-laws in from Venezuela and stayed engaged throughout, constantly asking questions.

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred was partly right when, in reference to superstar Mike Trout, he said that baseball players are generally unmotivated to promote themselves. Marketing agencies have understood this for years. Players' schedules are especially arduous, and their contracts are both lucrative and fully guaranteed, making them less inclined to do the extra work required to become culture-defining, front-facing athletes. There is even less incentive for many Latin players who aren't as comfortable speaking English and don't spend their offseasons in the U.S.

Torres, however, is different. He realized early on that he didn't just want to be a professional baseball player; he wanted to be good and popular and transcendent, not because he's arrogant or entitled but because he's a long-term thinker who always placed himself within a larger context.

"He showed that at a young age, when he was 11, 12 years old," Torres' father, Eusebio, said in Spanish. "By then he was already thinking about bigger things -- adult stuff."

Torres, 23, sits courtside at Barclays Center and wants to attend New York Fashion Week. He constantly practices his English, has learned how to cultivate a certain image on social media and is working on looking fans in the eye when signing autographs.

Torres wore only Nike before the company even knew who he was because that's what guys like LeBron James and Ken Griffey Jr. did. Today, the New York Yankees' star infielder, who will move to shortstop on a full-time basis this season, owns a lucrative endorsement deal from Nike that gives him the freedom to fully customize his cleats and batting gloves. BioSteel, a sports-nutrition company with roots in Toronto, made him its first U.S.-based baseball client and also its first Hispanic client. The same occurred with PSD, a popular underwear retailer that also sponsors NBA stars such as Kyrie Irving and Trae Young.

Three national endorsements is exceedingly rare for a baseball player. It's almost unfathomable for a Latin American in his early 20s who speaks English as a second language. Now consider this: a kid from Venezuela emerging from hardship to become the face of a seemingly unmarketable sport despite spending most of his life in another country. It's a thought Torres is willing to entertain.

"It would be, above all, an honor," he said. "A tremendous honor. I've worked since I was little to accomplish that. All those years, all those sacrifices -- it would bring enormous satisfaction to me, but mostly to my family, which has supported me from the beginning."

GLEYBER TORRES GREW up in the San Bernardino portion of Caracas, the largest city in Venezuela. He lived in a humble, middle-class neighborhood with an appreciable sense of community but also heightened tension. Crime and violence were prevalent, fights among rival gangs a constant. On too many nights, gunshots went off and Torres' parents would move him into their bed, hiding him underneath the blankets to calm his nerves.

"It scared us a lot," Eusebio Torres said. "It was a constant fear."

Eusebio was and still is a die-hard fan of the local team, the Caracas Lions. He stopped playing baseball at age 16, started fast-pitch softball at 21 and stopped again five years later to help guide Gleyber through his own pursuit. Eusebio bought Gleyber a plastic bat when he was 2 years old, enrolled him in his first league after he turned 4 and served as a volunteer coach on his teams until he was accepted into a baseball academy in Maracay at age 12.

Three years before that, Eusebio began to think Gleyber could someday play professionally. He swung a bat easily, learned quickly and was already excelling on teams with older kids. Eusebio, now 46, spent most of Gleyber's youth selling tamale leaves and working with closed-circuit security cameras. But he still made time for extra grounders or sporadic trips to the batting cage. When work got in the way, Gleyber's mother, Ibelise Castro, drove him everywhere.

"I never missed a practice," Gleyber said, "never missed a game because my parents needed to work."

Eusebio, who got back into competitive softball after Gleyber left for the academy and now catches in a semi-pro baseball league on the weekends, still has a newspaper clipping from one of the first articles ever written about his son. It was published right before he signed with the Chicago Cubs on July 2, 2013. Above the story, in bold white letters on a red background, is a quote from Torres: "Quiero comprarle una casa mas grande a mis padres." ("I want to buy my parents a bigger house.")

In December 2013, Gleyber used part of his $1.7 million signing bonus to move his parents from their two-bedroom house in the northern part of Caracas to a 6,500-square-foot residence on the Eastern part of the city, in a quieter neighborhood with a lot more security. They all spent New Year's Eve there together and thought about how quickly their lives had changed.

His next goal: To bring his parents to the U.S. with him.

Said Eusebio: "He doesn't stop talking about it."

GLEYBER TORRES BECAME the youngest MVP in Arizona Fall League history in November 2016. He was a consensus top-seven prospect when the following season began, then surged past the Eastern League as a 20-year-old and compiled an .847 OPS through his first 22 games at the Triple-A level. Before summer officially began in the Northern Hemisphere, Torres' call-up to the major leagues was beginning to seem imminent.

Then came the fourth inning of a June 17 doubleheader in downtown Buffalo, New York. Mark Payton slapped a sharp single to the right side and Torres attempted to score from second base. Ian Parmley, playing right field for the Buffalo Bisons that afternoon, made a perfect one-hop throw that forced Torres to improvise. He lunged awkwardly near the back of the batter's box, extended toward home plate and immediately felt a sharp pain through his left arm. The injury was initially ruled a hyperextension, but a follow-up MRI revealed the torn ulnar collateral ligament that would end his season.

Torres began to cry.

"That moment," he said, "it felt like everything exploded."

Torres suddenly lost his zeal; he realizes now that he might have been depressed. He went through his rehab exercises lifelessly and began to despise the game he always loved. He deleted the MLB app from his phone and shunned himself from professional baseball altogether for a period of about two months. His only contact was through teammates such as Miguel Andujar, Starlin Castro and Didi Gregorius, who joined Torres' wife, Elizabeth, in a constant effort to lift his spirits.

Little by little, the listlessness began to thaw. Torres began to understand his circumstances in a broader sense and started to celebrate the minor victories of his recovery. His elbow healed quicker than the doctors projected. By the time spring training began the following year, Torres was noticeably wiser, stronger, more confident.

"There's a Gleyber Torres before 2017," his longtime trainer, Cesar Paublini, said, "and there's a Gleyber Torres after 2017."

Torres managed only seven hits and struck out 10 times in 32 spring training at-bats in 2018. It was obvious that he had gone eight months without seeing live pitching, which only made it easier for the Yankees to send him to Triple-A and keep him there long enough to gain an extra season of control.

The cutoff to qualify for a full year of major league service time was 15 days, and Torres was motivated not to wait any longer. He told his agent, Jose Mijares, to find him a cheap hotel in Scranton, Pennsylvania, because his stay would last only half a month. Mijares instead found him a landlord who loved the Yankees and would be flexible on the lease. When he arrived at his new place, Torres spotted a calendar on the refrigerator and began to cross off each day with an "X."

Torres went 8-for-24 during an opening six-game homestand for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders. Before he left for a seven-day road trip, he told Elizabeth, whom he met at age 17, to get their stuff ready -- they'd be leaving for the Bronx shortly after he returned. Through stops in North Carolina and Georgia, he hit .421 and constantly told his teammates to enjoy him while they had him. Torres played two more games in Scranton, then drove to Yankee Stadium on the morning of April 22 -- after the 16th day of the RailRiders' season.

IT WAS THE first few weeks of the 2013 calendar year, and Donny Rowland, the Yankees' international scouting director, was going over the best prospects in Latin America. Gleyber Torres was ranked first, but Rowland glossed over him and spoke in more detail about the other players. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman wanted to hear more about Torres, who by then was only 16, but Cashman was told the Cubs already had a verbal agreement.

It's common for prospects out of Venezuela and the Dominican Republic to commit to teams a few months before the international signing period officially begins in early July. But the Cubs liked Torres so much that they seemingly locked him up around Thanksgiving of the prior year. Torres honored his commitment, but Cashman kept him at the forefront of his mind. Every time he spoke with Theo Epstein, the Cubs' president of baseball operations, Torres' name came up.

"You don't forget those guys," Cashman said. "You follow them. You follow their careers and you still dream on them. The reports stand out in your mind and you don't let go of it."

An opportunity presented itself in the summer of 2016. The Yankees had a dominant closer on a team that wouldn't make the playoffs, and the Cubs had a late-inning need on a team with World Series aspirations. The Yankees sought impact talent in exchange for Aroldis Chapman, but the Cubs balked on parting with guys such as Kyle Schwarber and Javier Baez for a two- to three-month rental. Cashman kept shopping until Epstein finally agreed to consider the top of his prospect list. It meant one name: Gleyber Torres. The Cubs ultimately included him as the headliner in a package that also included Adam Warren, Rashad Crawford and Billy McKinney.

Cashman immediately sent Rowland a text message: We finally got our man.

Through two seasons with the Yankees, Torres has made two All-Star teams and has batted .275/.338/.511 with 105 extra-base hits in 267 games. In August, he joined Joe DiMaggio as the only Yankees with 30 home runs at age 22. He finished the regular season with 38, trailing only Alex Rodriguez for the most home runs by a middle infielder before his 23rd birthday, then drove in five runs in the opening game of the American League Championship Series.

Cashman has been surprised by Torres' power and has noticed "a very slow heartbeat" in pressure-packed moments, a trait that helped make Derek Jeter an icon. This year, with a significantly shorter schedule, Torres will play more than 20% of his games against the Baltimore Orioles and the Miami Marlins, two of the worst teams in the sport, all while spending the vast majority of his time in hitter-friendly ballparks. His numbers could look absurd.

Moving forward, from 2021 to 2024, ZiPS projects Torres to OPS .945, .943, .961 and .961, respectively, and compile a combined 21 FanGraphs wins above replacement (fWAR).

When that stretch is over, he will be only 27.

"I can tell you he wants to be great," Cashman said. "He's not content with just being in the major leagues and being good. He wants to be great. He is very driven, very hungry and doesn't wanna be denied anything."

GLEYBER TORRES RECEIVED his green card during this quarantine period and can apply for citizenship in five years, at which point he hopes to bring his parents to the U.S. on a permanent basis.

Mijares, his agent, calls it "his No. 1 motivation."

Venezuela has long been embroiled in turmoil, marked by a reeling economy, rampant crime, constant political unrest and severed ties with the U.S. Eusebio and Ibelise typically spend about half their year with Gleyber in the U.S. but don't have the permanent visas that would allow them to stay longer than a few weeks at a time. When they're not with him, they call every day and do their best to keep his mind at ease. But it doesn't always work. Constant worry in the face of a demanding job is a major challenge for a Venezuelan player.

"It's tough," Cubs catcher Willson Contreras, one of Gleyber's closest friends in the league, said in Spanish. "It's like you live on standby. You spend more time thinking about what's going on in Venezuela and how your family's doing than anything else. It's really hard to just focus here and say, 'Let's play baseball.'"

Gleyber has already spent about half his life without his parents by his side. As a teenager, he was spending his weekdays at the academy and growing accustomed to seeing his mom and dad only on Saturdays and Sundays. Then he left and built an entire life for himself in another part of the world.

Ten years ago, Eusebio, Ibelise and Gleyber sat in the kitchen table and evaluated the pros and cons of sending him to a baseball academy, a common path for the country's most talented amateurs. Eusebio and Ibelise were worried about such a young kid abandoning his studies and taking on so much responsibility, but part of them also realized this was Gleyber's best option -- for his future, but also for his safety. Eusebio will never forget the way Gleyber looked him in the eye that night and said, "Just give me the opportunity."

He now longs for the day when they're truly together again.

"It's a dream we have as a family, to be reunited with him, support him in everything that he does and everything having to do with his family, with his wife, with his kids when they come," Eusebio said. "It's the ultimate dream -- to be together, under the same roof, like a family again."

WORKOUTS FOR THE Cubs' rookie-level affiliate in Mesa, Arizona, usually wrapped before noon, and Gleyber Torres was always hungry. He could communicate only in Spanish then, so if one of his teammates didn't order pizza, Torres usually drove to a nearby McDonald's because the only English phrase he could repeat was his order -- double quarter pounder with cheese, no pickles, no onions; large fries; Diet Coke.

Torres is now fluent in English and sick of McDonald's. Five years ago, he was playing Class A ball in South Bend, Indiana, when a reporter came onto the field with a camera operator and asked for an interview. A coach was summoned to translate. It irritated Torres. He realized then, at 18, that if he truly wanted to be a superstar -- if he wanted to be a marketable, recognizable figure -- he needed to cut out the middleman and communicate directly to fans in both languages, a concept exhibited to him by David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez.

"What I wanted to say, I wanted people to hear it," Torres said. "I didn't want somebody to translate it."

Torres took accelerated English lessons, became more proactive about building relationships with his American teammates and made it a point to consume popular movies and music from the U.S. He had improved drastically by the following season, but anxiety still kicked in when he played well and an English interview awaited. He kept studying, kept putting himself outside of his comfort zone. And by the time he reached Double-A in 2017, as a top prospect on the most storied franchise in his sport, Torres was conducting English interviews on his own.

Later that summer, while rehabbing his injured elbow, Torres stayed at Mijares' house in Orlando, Florida. When it was time to leave, he left some books behind and told Mijares to do what he wanted with them. Mijares later found nearly a dozen of them, all in English, about legendary Yankees such as Joe DiMaggio, Babe Ruth, Derek Jeter and George Steinbrenner.

Mijares has always been in awe of Torres' uncommon prudence. He is soft-spoken and polite but unmistakably calculated, as evidenced by the tasks that absorbed a large portion of his past three months -- practicing English, reading about Disney executive Bob Iger and learning about the stock market. Mijares likes to tell the story of how Torres saved money from each of his minor league paychecks to buy his first pair of Gucci shoes, even though most of his original signing bonus remained in his account.

But this -- studying Yankees history in the buildup to his major league debut, as if some sort of pop quiz awaited him when he arrived -- was a different level of foresight.

Mijares called Torres in bewilderment.

"You read all this?"

"Yeah," Torres said. "Why?"

"No," Mijares responded, "I wanna ask you -- why?"

Mijares gets it now.

"I think he was preparing himself to be one of the most important Yankees ever."