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Meet Rico Noel, Yankees Pinch-run Specialist

Rico Noel (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Rico Noel (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)


Jablonski Rico Noel. Yes, Jablonski is the New York Yankees September call-up and pinch running sensation’s legal first name. Jablonski is a Polish last name that his godmother once read in a book and brought to his mother’s attention. But it’s also a name that caught the attention of kids at school.

“The reason I started going by Rico though is because when I was younger, 5-6 years old, kids couldn’t pronounce it so I just got tired of people butchering my name so I was just like my names Rico, just call me Rico,” Noel told me in the Yankees locker room. “So that’s how it got started and then it just stuck. I always went by Rico after that.”

Noel was born in Louisiana, but his family moved to Oklahoma when he was a junior in High School. He attended Lawton High School in Lawton, a city in the southwest corner of the state, where he played three sports – football, basketball and baseball. He caught the eyes of Coastal Carolina baseball coaches at a showcase tournament before his senior year and Noel decided that he would rather pursue baseball full-time over football.

“With football you never know. You could play one game and your season could be over very quickly. So I just wanted to stay away from the injury part,” said Noel, who became the tenth Chanticleer to reach the big leagues. “I started getting some pro letters in high school so I was like you know what this might be what I need to do. I never concentrated on one sport and I’ve always played football, basketball and baseball all through high school. So I was like you know what let me see how good I could get at one sport.”

He became an All-American at Coastal Carolina and a two-time, first team All-Big South selection. He also led the nation in stolen bases in 2009 (48) and 2010 (56), while ranking eighth in the NCAA in runs scored in 2010 with a CCU record 82. In school history, Noel ranks third on the all-time list for stolen bases (120) and fourth in runs scored (187). Noel, a 5-foot-eight, 170-pound outfielder, showed enough to catch the attention of the San Diego Padres who came calling in the fifth round of the 2010 draft along with a $163,000 signing bonus.

In four minor league seasons from 2011-14, Noel stole 243 bases, including 90 in in the Class A California League in 2012. He was the Padres’ 2011 Minor League Defensive Player of the Year, a two-time All-Star (2012 Advanced A Lake Elsinore, 2013 AA San Antonio) and non-roster invitee to MLB spring training twice (2014 and 2015). It was in spring training this season where Noel had his most notable brush with fame in professional baseball – bunting for an out against Will Ferrell during the actor’s pitching cameo for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“He’s a funny guy and that was purposely bunted straight back at him,” said Noel, who walked to the plate having received one instruction: Bunt. “But he did make it seem a lot easier than I expected him to make it seem so maybe I should of pushed it a little away from his body to get him to move a little bit and see him work those feet. But it was fun to just be a part of that and he did it for charity so it was great.”

During the spring, Noel also got the chance to work with Padres’ bench coach David Roberts, who infamously pinch ran the Red Sox right back into the 2004 ALCS against the Yankees. The 26-year old Noel started the year with San Diego’s Triple-A affiliate in El Paso, but he asked for his release in June from the organization, a move that he felt was necessary in order to advance his career.

“I wasn’t in a good spot over there,” said Noel, who took up switch-hitting for three seasons in the minors at the Padres request (he hits right-handed naturally). “Just a situation I felt like I got dealt bad cards because they had a lot of guys there in my position and it was just a log-jam over there. So I figured it was best for me and my career to get out of there and kind of venture out and take that risk and see where it goes.”

Noel quickly caught on with the Yankees on a minor league deal early in July, but he had an idea that a late season call-up was a possibility because of his speed.

“I kind of mentioned it, just hoping that they were open to that,” said Noel, who was hitting .059 (1-for-17) at Triple-A Scranton before getting called up when the rosters were expanded on Sept. 1. “They told me there were no guarantees or anything, but they are open to that so that’s all I needed. I figured if they gave me the opportunity to show what I can do, then everything would fall into place.”

Perhaps the Yankees were intrigued by Noel because of what speedster Terrance Gore’s did for the Royals late last season, or what Quintin Berry has done for the 2012 Tigers, 2013 Red Sox, 2014 Orioles and now the 2015 Cubs. The Bronx Bombers weren’t the only team seeking speed to aide in a playoff push. In late August, the Mets reacquired Eric Young Jr., who led the National League with 46 steals in 2013 but spent the majority of this season in the minors. Meanwhile, the Dodgers had three fast players in the minors that they tutored in the art of stealing by opening what amounts to a baserunning academy.

Stealing bases isn’t just about speed. It’s a skill, that only few players have the talent and smarts to do at an exceptional level. After all, four-time All-American sprinter Herb Washington was just 31-for-48 (64.6%) in his experimental 105-game stint with the Oakland A’s in 1974 and 1975.

“It’s definitely not all about speed. Its instincts,” said Noel, who admired the dynamic speed of Ichiro Suzuki as a kid. “It’s doing it over, and over and over and over, over the years. There’s a knack for it that not many people can put their finger on. You got to be fast and you got to be smart as well. So there’s a lot that goes into it that doesn’t really seem like there’s a lot maybe to outsiders, but it’s definitely an instinctual thing and that’s what carries most guys. So you see a lot of average runners steal bases and you see some fast guys that don’t steal bases.”

Stealing bases, though, isn’t the only thing on Noel’s mind right now. His younger brother, Orlandus, is at the Baylor Heart Institute in Dallas, Texas, and he needs a new heart.

“It’s been tough but my family is pretty strong,” said Noel, who grew up as a son of a military man. “He’s released from the hospital and he’s in the inpatient physical therapy center. So he’s just going through physical therapy, he’s walking now and getting back to his normal self, or as close as he can get to it I should say until the heart comes in and he gets back on the list and all that works out. But he’ll probably be recovering for another month or so and then he’ll get back on the list for the heart transplant.”

On Saturday, Noel avoided joining Moonlight Graham as the 86th big league position player who never got to bat, by pinch hitting and collecting an infield single in the ninth inning of the first game of a doubleheader. With the Wild Card game looming tonight, Noel may or may not be asked to run rampant on the basepaths. That’s not his decision, but Noel believes he’s made a case to be on the Yankees roster in October.

“That’s out of my hands and I’m just going to keep doing what I do,” said Noel. “If that works out, that’d be great and I definitely think I can help the team along the journey. So we’ll see.”

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