BY CAROLYN LaWELL
TAMPA, Florida | Luis Sojo took a few short steps into the office and realized immediately there was no reason to sit down.
He had just retired the previous fall after the New York Yankees, his team for six years, lost the 2001 World Series in seven games to the Arizona Diamondbacks. He was 36 and coming off the bench to play was getter harder ever year. So he retired. He went home to Venezuela to play ball.
A few months later, he received a call from Yankees general manager Brian Cashman. Sojo thought maybe it was for a coaching position. But no, they wanted him to come back and play. So he packed his bags and flew to Tampa for spring training.
It was his best spring training ever, he says with a grin, his eyes widening.
That last day of spring training he stood in the office in the clubhouse, still close to the door. Across the room sat Cashman, manager Joe Torre and bench coach Don Zimmer, all three with long faces, teary eyes. He knew it would be a short conversation, so he just stood.
“You get the feeling when something is not good,” Sojo says.
They told him he was let go, the last man cut from the Yankees 2002 roster.
“In that particular moment, I said, ‘Wow, now what am I going to do?’” he says. “Then I packed my stuff, walked out. In the tunnel, I saw Mr. Steinbrenner. And he goes, ‘Luis, I’m sorry. But you’re always going to be a Yankee.’”
As manager of the Tampa Yankees in the Florida State League, Sojo now sits in the same spot where Torre, Zimmer and Cashman sat a decade ago when they told him he was released. Now, on the other side of the desk, he shares that story with his players.
“Every time I send somebody down, I say, ‘Listen, I got sent down from the big leagues – that’s heartbreaking. This is A ball, it’s not the end of the world. Maybe you started here and you need to improve, but you’re still in the game. You’re still going to go down there and perform and play. I got released. I had nowhere to go,’” he says. “I like to motivate players. When something is bad, I tell them to keep going, don’t give up.”
After being cut from the Yankees roster, Sojo received another call. To coach. He headed to the Norwich Navigators, then the Yankees’ Double-A affiliate. The Navigators won the Eastern League championship during his only season with the team. Sojo then bounced within the organization as a player again in 2003, then as a third-base coach for the Yankees in 2004 and ’05. From 2006 to ’09 and then 2011 through right now, he has been the manager of the High-A Tampa Yankees. The team won the Florida State League championship under his leadership in 2009.
Every home game at George M. Steinbrenner Field, Sojo looks out in center field above the scoreboard and sees the name of the man who told him he would always be a Yankee. Every time he sees it, he’s grateful for the opportunities he’s been given.
That’s why he coaches minor league ball, to help players understand the game, improve their skills and prepare them for those bigger opportunities, whenever they might come.
“The one thing I like to teach is you have to be strong mentally,” Sojo says. “It doesn’t matter what you want to be, you have to be strong mentally. If you’re strong mentally, you’re going to be successful, because we all have talent.”
Time for minor league trivia. What New York Yankee rehabbed in Tampa this week? Oh, come on, this one is easy.
A strong outing by left-hander Nik Turley and early offense pushed the Tampa Yankees to a 6-2 win Monday night over the Clearwater Threshers. Turley went seven innings with seven strikeouts, six hits and no runs. The Yankees scored four runs in the third and never lost the lead. Jose Mojica doubled and Neil Medchill, Eduardo Sosa, Kevin Castro and Ramon Flores all singled in the inning. Sosa led the team with three hits, two runs and two RBI.
Luis Sojo loves basketball. He realized at the age of 17 he wasn’t good enough to play professionally, so he stopped to concentrate on baseball and avoid injures. He says he had point guard tendencies and is still a great shooter. In January, he bought Guaros de Lara, a professional basketball team in Venezuela.
Legends Field was renamed George M. Steinbrenner Field in 2008, more than two years before the death of the longtime Yankees’ owner and Tampa resident. Home to the New York Yankees during spring training and the Tampa Yankees during the minor league season, the stadium was built in 1996, can hold a crowd of more than 11,000 and is a smaller replica of the team’s old stadium in the Bronx. The stadium sits next to Raymond James Stadium, home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Want the answer? Andy Pettitte made his second rehab appearance last Sunday, allowing no runs on two hits and striking out three over four innings. He has pitched a total of seven innings in two starts for the Tampa Yankees this year. Pettitte retired from the New York Yankees after the 2010 season and has decided to return to the game and the organization.
And in random statistical news, the first pitch was a ball and the first batter grounded out to third. The game started on time and was the first prompt game we’ve seen all season. The “Star-Spangled Banner” was 1 minute and 11 seconds. Also, we didn’t eat any hot dogs.
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