ORACLE PARK — Joe Panik couldn’t help but smile.
Normally, after an exhaustive 10-minute pregame interview — especially one by an opposing broadcaster — players’ eyes roll, their eyebrows raise and they let loose with a heavy sigh. Not on Friday. Panik — the San Francisco Giants’ starting second baseman — grew up listening to Suzyn Waldman, the New York Yankees’ radio color commentator. He never dreamed he’d be interviewed by her.
“That was pretty cool,” he said.
As the New York Yankees come to town for just the second time in the 20-year history of Oracle Park, they don’t have a healthy Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton or Clint Frazier — among 15 Yankees currently on the disabled list — but they still have the iconic interlocking NY on their ballcaps, and the same block NEW YORK they’ve won on the road for decades. The series is a big one simply because of the laundry involved. For Panik — who grew up rooting for that laundy — playing against that laundry for the first time in his career is a thrill, no matter who’s wearing it.
Born in Yonkers, Panik grew up in Hopewell Junction, north of New York City. He played his college ball at St. John’s. When he was young, he would stand in his parents’ living room with a bat and mimic the swing of Wade Boggs. He does everything right-handed, except for swing a golf club, and swing baseball bat, thanks to the Hall-of-Famer who spent five seasons with New York, earning four All-Star nods. It’s why he wears No. 12 to this day.
“When you’re in the moment, when lineups are introduced and you go out there and you see the NY and the New York, it brings you back,” Panik said. “It’s going to be special just for that reason. I grew up going to games.”
Panik has never gotten to play the Yankees in the Bronx. When the Major League schedule came out in late 2015, he saw that San Francisco would be visiting Yankee Stadium that July.
“You have that circled on your calendar,” Panik said. “I had a lot of famioly and friends who were really excited.”
On June 18, Tampa Bay starter Matt Moore — destined to be Panik’s teammate with the Giants later that season — hit the native New Yorker in the head with a pitch. The resulting concussion and its aftereffects kept Panik off the road, and he didn’t get his chance to play in the park in which he dreamed of playing. He knew a week before the game that he would likely not be able to return in time.
“I was trying to get back,” Panik said, sheepishly acknowledging that there’s not much that can be done to rush concussion recovery. “You couldn’t do much. That was a lousy feeling. You tell yourself you’re getting better, you’re getting better, trying to convince yourself. You try to do stuff, and you’re like, ‘Nope.’”
When Moore was traded to the Giants at the deadline, Panik had a few words for him, but didn’t mention his heartbreak at not being able to play his childhood team.
“‘I was looking forward to this my entire life,’” Panik said in mock outrage, feigning an interaction with Moore in the Giants clubhouse that didn’t actually occur. “He felt so bad, so I teased him. I was like, ‘Hey, man, eye for an eye, right? Can I hit you in the head now?’ Matt’s such a great guy, he felt so bad. I was like, ‘Listen man, I’m just kidding, welcome to the team. I’m Joe, I have a dry sense of humor, sorry.’”
Still, despite Panik’s good humor about the situation, he said, “It stung.”
He grew up during the Yankee’s historic run in the late 1990s and early 2000s. His youth saw Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams Mariano Rivera and Boggs at the height of their powers.
“My idol was Derek Jeter, but the first guy, it was Wade Boggs,” Panik said. “Kids would watch cartoons. I’d watch games. We’d watch Yankee games. We were Yankee fans. I would pick up the bat and crouch. I would mimic him. My mom and dad, they didn’t care if I batted lefty or righty. They were just like, ‘Here’s a bat.’ That was my guy, first.”
His clearest memory? It should be one that, at least in its expression, is familiar to Giants fans. It came on one of hte first nights he was allowed to stay up late. “A special exception,” to bedtime, he recalled.
“The first World Series that they won [in that run], in ‘96,” Panik said. “I still remember, for me, Wade Boggs riding around Yankee Stadium on a horse, kind of like Madison [Bumgarner]. I remember him riding around, that was one of the cooler memories.”
It matters little that the current Yankees are short a few big boppers, replaced with former spring training Giant Cameron Maybin (picked off the scrap heap), Mike Trauchman and Thairo Estrada.
“You’re kind of hoping to see — for me, I want to see Aaron Judge — you see them on TV, you see the work that he does, and from a distance, you kind of admire [them],” Panik said. “You kind of want to see what it’s like coming off the bat, see how he plays in person, but at the same time, for me, the Yankees are still the Yankees.”