Last Thursday, as part of its Real.Big.Summer program, Pepsi brought a four-story-high, world-record claw machine with larger-than-life prizes to Jenkinson's Boardwalk on the Jersey Shore. The event included a special appearance by Yankees All-Star pitcher Dellin Betances.
Bleacher Report's Yankees featured columnist Peter F. Richman spoke with Betances about what it means to hold a prominent role for his hometown, childhood team and let us in on the most important wisdom he received from David Wells and Mariano Rivera long before his rapid ascension in 2014 commenced.
Peter F. Richman (PFR): First off, congratulations on the All-Star selection and thanks for your time—I know it's been a busy, but fulfilling, day for you. How did you become involved with Pepsi's Real.Big.Summer program, what are you going to be doing today and why is it so important to you?
Dellin Betances (DB): Pepsi's always looking to do something big and bring some real surprises to the fans, so I'm definitely looking forward to this experience. Giving back is always something I'm doing—I'm honored for this experience, to always give back to the community. What I'm doing today is surprising a young Yankees fan with tickets to a game, as well as signing some autographs and playing a little catch with him, too. It's something that I'm looking forward to...it should be an awesome day, and I'm glad to be working with Pepsi for this event.
PFR: Let's talk about your own hometown and community. You were born in Washington Heights, and New York City has traditionally been a cultural hub and breeding ground for basketball. How does a kid with your size and athleticism avoid getting pigeonholed into life on the hardwood?
DB: You know, basketball has always been a sport I loved and grew up playing. For me, it was one of those things that...I guess baseball was just in my genes a little bit, you know? I have a lot of cousins that played baseball. Basketball is not an easy sport—you definitely got to be gifted to play that game. I felt like I was pretty good at it, but my ability was better in baseball.
PFR: You not only grew up with the '90s Yankees, but you went with your family to a number of games. How influential were those experiences in choosing baseball?
DB: Yeah, we went to a bunch of Yankees games when I was younger. My family always wanted me to play baseball. Basketball was always my first love, but they actually were the ones that drove me to play the game of baseball—and I thank them for allowing me to choose it.
PFR: Let me ask you about one game that you and I both attended: David Wells' perfect game in '98. What was that experience like for you? You were a young Bleacher Creature that day, right?
DB: That was definitely awesome...it was an awesome experience. I was nine years old at the time, and I...I didn't even play baseball at the time. But just to be there...
PFR: Did you have any thought sitting in the right-field bleachers that they'd be chanting your name 16 years later, giving that type of energy back to you one day?
DB: Not necessarily! I was out there just watching the game, and I got lucky I got to experience that. Now that I look back on it, it's a pretty cool story. I got to meet David Wells a couple years ago...and he talked about how every five days he was ready to help the team win...I mean, a great pitcher, someone that I grew up watching and, you know, I'm definitely honored to be here now, in the position that I am.
PFR: How about Manny Ramirez? He once became a high school superstar in Washington Heights and made a mark in the same youth league you eventually played for. What was his impact on you growing up as a Dominican ballplayer in the same neighborhood, and what sort of influence did he have on you, if any?
DB: You know—Manny Ramirez, man...growing up in New York City, being born in Washington Heights...that's someone that you always heard: Manny Ramirez, you know? I played in the same program. His name always came up. You're talking about the greatest hitters of all time. It's somebody that I looked up to just because we grew up in the same roots—the same neighborhood—and his name was always being mentioned.
PFR: Did it matter he was on the Red Sox?
DB: Uh...at the time, I always grew up watching the Yanks, but I enjoyed watching him hit. I didn't root for him to win—but I enjoyed watching him hit. And It was just somebody who I always heard about because he played for George Washington High School and played for Youth Service in Brooklyn. Someone I've always heard about.
PFR: Let's jump from the Bleacher Creatures in 1998 to your 2014 reality—it's been a little over three months. You come into spring training, break camp with the big league team, become a major force out of the bullpen—and here you are an All-Star. What has that rapid transition been like?
DB: I came into spring training hoping to make the team but not knowing what was going to happen...but my goal was definitely to make the team. After I made it, I felt pretty comfortable being there, but I wanted to be...you know, somebody that had a big role...and just try to help the team win as many games as I can out of the bullpen. For me, I feel honored to be part of the organization. It's been a great, great few months, it's something I look forward to continuing doing. Just working hard, getting better.
PFR: Did anything change? Or do you think you changed at all?
DB: For me, the key has been just being more consistent with my delivery and just believing in myself that I can go out there and do the job. So confidence has definitely played a big part in my first half.
PFR: Was there a particular moment when you embraced being a reliever? In 2013 you were switched from your starter role.
DB: Last year, I felt like in Triple-A [Scranton/Wilkes-Barre] I pitched well out of the bullpen, and I was just more consistent [84 IP, 108 K, 2.68 ERA]. I felt like I was throwing more strikes; I was more aggressive; my pitches got better just because I was out there more. And I felt like the experience in September last year [5.0 IP in call-up, 10 K, 2 BB, 6 ER] helped me coming into this spring training. I put in a lot of work in the offseason and feel like it helped me a whole lot.
PFR: A moment that stands out for me came in camp this year. You got the ball in a one-out, bases-loaded jam in the seventh inning against the Blue Jays [March 23]. First you made Jose Bautista look bad, buckling his knees, then you got Edwin Encarnacion to fly out. I feel like that locked your spot in Girardi's eyes.
DB: Definitely that game against Toronto in spring training...I think I opened some of the coaches' eyes, just...they felt like my confidence was there and my force was there. I think that was one of the keys for making the team out of camp.
PFR: You said earlier that making the roster wasn't really enough—that you wanted to have a big role in helping the team win ballgames. What's the most important thing you learned from Mariano Rivera, the Yankees' most famous security blanket and winning ingredient?
DB: For me...it was always watching him, how he goes about his business. Just the way he goes out and performs. No matter what happens on that day...you know, good or bad...he's ready to go out there again. Just seeing him compete at that level, and the confidence, and him just believing in himself. I felt like that was one of the things I learned the most from him...just watching him.
PFR: How about the most valuable piece of wisdom he gave you?
DB: He's always given me good advice. He's always trying to help me. Especially last year, he always told me: always to have confidence and trust your stuff...that you can definitely pitch up here...Somebody I always looked up to.
PFR: How do you feel about your first half in 2014 being compared to his '96 breakout? Does it give you more confidence? Is it premature?
DB: You know, for me, just getting mentioned in the same breath as Mariano...I'm honored. That's an honor for me. I try not to put pressure on myself, you know. But for me I just try to go out there and do the job I have to do. Mariano's one of the best to ever do it—or...the best—the best to ever do it, actually! Just to be mentioned in the same breath as Mariano...my dream is just to go out there and do the best I can, to help the team win.
PFR: You're an incredibly humble, genuine person. You're obviously going to be—if you're not already—a great role model for young fans. Think about the next Dellin Betances sitting in the right-field bleachers. What do you say to a New York City kid—even a kid from Washington Heights—growing up, dreaming of becoming the next you?
DB: Just always believe in yourself...and dreams—and dreams do come true. I always dreamed of being here in the major leagues. For me to play in the same city I grew up in, I mean...I'm definitely blessed. But just always believe in yourself. And work hard. And dreams definitely come true.
Peter F. Richman is a Yankees featured columnist and expert, and a Bleacher Report copy editor. For more NYY opinions, discussion, debate and analysis, feel free to reach out via Twitter: Follow @Peter_F_Richman