Mark Teixeira was the embodiment of everything wrong with the Yankees at the end of last season. Too old, too expensive and too injury-prone, the first baseman seemed little more than a shell of the fearsome hitter who had averaged 37 home runs and 114 RBIs his first three seasons in the Bronx.
Teixeira knew something had to change after the Yankees missed the playoffs and he finished the season hitting .216. Though many Yankees fans seemed to be writing him off, he believed if he could get healthy, he still had a lot of baseball left.
"I just felt terrible," Teixeira said. "I had wrist surgery in 2013 and last year I felt terrible all year. I knew I had to take the offseason and address this wrist issue. I had to. When you're used to a level of excellence and you have it taken away from you, all you want is to get back there. I think that's one reason why this has been so special."
Teixeira, 35, was using the word special to describe his selection to Tuesday's All-Star Game in Cincinnati, but it also can be used to describe his season in general. Thirteen years into his major-league career, Teixeira is swinging the bat like a 25-year-old and has emerged as the Yankees' MVP for the first half of the season. The Yankees head out of the All-Star break in first place in the American League East with Teixeira's resurgence, along with the unexpected strong return of Alex Rodriguez, as prime reasons.
Teixeira leads the Yankees with 22 home runs and leads the American League with 62 RBIs. Oddly, that's exactly the number of home runs and RBIs he finished with last season, only he has taken 41 fewer games to compile them. Teixeira is on pace for his best season since 2011 when he hit 39 home runs and drove in 111 runs.
"You have to give him credit. He came back and he came back with a vengeance," Yankees hitting coach Jeff Pentland said. "I think he had something to prove. Not only to himself, but to his family and the people around him."
Added fellow All-Star Brett Gardner: "He seems like the Tex from four or five years ago."
Teixeira says his whole resurgence simply boils down to the fact he no longer is in pain.
Teixeira first injured his wrist preparing for the World Baseball Classic before the 2013 season. He played only 15 games that season before undergoing surgery on July 2, 2013. Though he was cleared to play all last year, the wrist continued to bother him and he received multiple cortisone shots. That's when Teixeira decided to try some alternative therapies.
Much has been made about Teixeira's gluten-free diet, but his eating regimen is more restrictive than simply eliminating wheat products. At the end of last season, Teixeira hired Ben Prentiss, a Connecticut-based personal trainer who has worked with dozens of NHL players, including former Ranger Martin St. Louis. Prentiss believed that years of cortisone shots had taken a toll on Teixeira. He ran him through a bunch of food sensitivity tests and then put him on a strict anti-inflammation diet. No pasta. No ice cream. No pancakes. No cheese.
"No gluten. No dairy. No processed sugar," Teixeira said with a shrug. "It's all been aimed to make my body feel better and recover. And it's been great. It's something I will continue to do the rest of my career. I feel great. I've never felt better."
Though there might be some eye rolling around the clubhouse when Teixeira starts preaching the benefits of his diet, the Yankees are thrilled to have him back performing at a top level. "When you see the type of first half he has had this season, you certainly realize how much we missed him the last two years," manager Joe Girardi said. "He's a top-flight run producer, a force in the middle of our lineup and a Gold Glove at first base."
All dedication is playing off
Pentland, who is new to the Yankees this year but has closely followed Teixeira's career, believes that he may be an even better player now at 35 than he was a few years ago before the wrist injury.
"I think he's really improved in areas where you might not notice," Pentland said. "I think over the years his strike zone has gotten a lot better. His ability to hit when it really counts is better. Sometimes that gets overlooked with all the sabermetric type of things. I have just seen him develop this ability to come up big in the big moment. It's fun for me to watch."
No one has had more fun than Teixeira.
Teixeira said some good things came out of the last two years, even though he wasn't playing the way he wanted to play. Teixeira said he learned a lot about himself and how to deal with adversity.
"I learned I really enjoyed playing baseball," Teixeira said. "I missed a whole season of games. It isn't fun sitting at home and watching your whole team on TV. It just really made me enjoy playing the game.
"I didn't know if I would ever make it back to an All-Star Game. Just putting in the work and dedication and saying if I can get healthy, I know I can be the player I was in the past. That hard work paying off means a lot to me."