Higgy’s Yankees love continues despite ‘shocking’ departure

Kyle Higashioka celebrates with teammates after his walk-off double helped the Yankees win 4-3 against the Brewers in 13 innings on Sept 10, 2023, at Yankee Stadium.
Sara Molnick
Thursday December 28, 2023

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Former Yankees backstop Kyle Higashioka continues to feel the echoes of cheers from fans in the Bronx, a poignant reminder of the steadfast support he garnered throughout his time in pinstripes. During a phone interview with the New York Post, the ex-Yankee acknowledged the overwhelming love from Yankees fans that still keeps him reminding of his days there.

“I don’t know if any non-everyday player feels that kind of love and support from a fan base in many other areas,” Higashioka said. “I guess just a big, ‘Thank you.’” 

His remarkable 16 seasons within the Yankees organization, culminating in the Juan Soto trade and his subsequent move to the Padres, constituted a truly unique journey.

“Kind of shocking,” Higashioka acknowledged, a sentiment that resonated with the surprise many experienced witnessing his enduring and steady rise.

Higashioka fondly remembers his Yankees days

The act of signing autographs brought about heartwarming “little interactions,” Higashioka reminisced, and a smile played on his lips as he recalled the fervent cheers from fans behind the bullpen, always ready to infuse him with energy before stepping onto the field.

Higashioka expressed his sentiments over the phone on Wednesday when asked about his message to Yankees fans. He mentioned feeling unsure if non-regular players experienced such significant love and backing from a fan base in other regions. Higgy conveyed a heartfelt “thank you” to the Yankees fans as a way of appreciation for their support and affection.

The long ascent of Higashioka

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Selected in 2008 alongside eventual legends like Buster Posey and short-lived stars like Ike Davis, Higashioka’s journey to the majors was far from direct. Despite catching the Yankees’ attention with his prowess in a California high school, the climb proved more arduous than initially anticipated.

Setbacks, such as Tommy John surgery in 2013 and a broken thumb in 2014, robbed him of crucial playing years, resulting in a mere 24 games across two seasons. The emergence of established names like Brian McCann and Austin Romine pushed Higashioka further down the pecking order, demoting him to High-A Tampa in 2015. Even at Double-A, the presence of Gary Sanchez obstructed his path, forcing Higashioka to grind through the modest Florida State League at the age of 25, desperately seeking consistent playing time crucial for his development.

Constantly leapfrogged by competitors, Higashioka’s early career embodied the spirit of perseverance. Injuries and a crowded catching depth chart posed significant threats to his dreams, yet he adamantly resisted being benched. His odyssey through the minor league tiers, from the sun-soaked fields of California to the less glamorous surroundings of the Florida State League, unfolded as an untold narrative of steadfast dedication and unshakeable hope.

Higashioka’s climb to spotlight in pinstripes

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His unwavering dedication to pitch-framing yielded substantial rewards, and a revamped swing geared toward launching the ball skyward began to bear fruit. Double-A served as his proving ground in 2017, followed by a lone Triple-A game before fate stepped in.

Gary Sanchez’s injury swung the door of opportunity wide open, and after nine years of toiling through the minor leagues, Higashioka finally took the stage in Major League Baseball.

Speaking from his Oregon residence, Higashioka reflected on the challenging initial years of his career in the minors. He acknowledged experiencing several difficult moments during that time, admitting doubts about whether he would ever reach the major leagues. However, he expressed gratitude for eventually making it to the big leagues and cherishing numerous memorable moments, both on a personal level and as part of a team.

Affectionately known as “Higgy,” he carved a niche for himself with his exceptional defense, steadily chipping away at Sanchez’s playing time. The year 2020 marked a significant turning point. Higashioka smashed his first-ever three-homer game across any league and earned three starting nods during the Yankees’ playoff run that season.

The accolades continued in 2021, where he was the catcher for Corey Kluber’s no-hitter. However, he saved the most remarkable feat for 2023, guiding Domingo German through a perfect game in Oakland, solidifying his name and nimble glove in the annals of baseball history.

The 33-year-old expressed his feelings, mentioning that Higashioka considers himself fortunate for experiencing many remarkable events. He mentioned his intention to be an exception among former Yankees by not growing a beard, noting that he already has a lifetime’s worth of stories.

He reflected on his career, acknowledging that if it were to conclude solely with the Yankees, it would still be a fantastic journey, considering his humble beginnings. Higashioka conveyed gratitude for the opportunity for his career to persist and continue evolving.

Looking to a new beginning in San Diego

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The Padres not only present Higashioka with a fresh start but also a return to his California roots. His “very happy” mother, now just a hop, skip, and jump away, can finally watch him play without enduring long-distance flights.

Whispers of sunny San Diego, its welcoming baseball atmosphere, and, of course, the undeniable allure of its year-round warmth, paint a picture far removed from the Arizona training grounds where news of the Soto trade hit him.

His phone call with his agent, though unexpected, wasn’t met with tears or bitterness. Instead, he hung up, found his then-teammate Anthony Volpe, and simply got back to work. It was a testament to Higashioka’s quiet professionalism, his understanding of the business side of the game, and the deep respect he held for the Yankees—the only organization he’d ever called home.

“They made me the player I am,” he acknowledges, a simple yet powerful statement that speaks volumes about the 16 years of sweat, blood, and determination poured into pinstripes. Leaving isn’t easy, but the allure of family, familiar California sunshine, and a chance to prove himself on a new team offers an exciting chapter in Higashioka’s baseball journey.

He goes west not with resentment but with a grateful heart and the quiet strength of a player who knows his worth.

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