Written by Biko Skalla:

 

Drew Yniesta has always been one of the smallest guys on every team he’s played for. He’s always been one of the best, too. Just about as versatile as they come, Drew has prided himself on being able to pick it anywhere on the field. Even more so though, he’s hung his hat on swinging an incredibly dangerous bat. The summer of 2021 in Savannah would be the first baseball season of his life that he wasn’t a top tier hitter, but it would also offer the greatest offensive moment of his career.

Drew grew up in North Charleston, South Carolina. Always just about as small as they come for his age, he played soccer, baseball, and wrestled. His grandfather Ireneo had been a soccer player at the University of the Philippines before moving stateside and Drew was one of the most talented young players in the area growing up, so his dad purchased a handful of soccer coaching books and prepared to go all in on the sport. That is until Drew got to coach-pitch baseball at eight years old and truly fell in love with the game.

“After that soccer season when I was eight my dad found a travel baseball tryout and I made the team,” Drew remembered. “I just loved the game so much and I was all in on it from there on out.”

Drew’s father Manny was more than happy to indulge his son’s love for baseball, even if it meant soccer and wrestling would hit the back burner.

Once he really started playing baseball that was it,” Manny told me. “But you could tell he had the talent, could play anywhere and could hit. And from a young age he had the work ethic where he wanted to be the best.”

Drew was playing up two years in travel ball and was still performing at an elite level. As he progressed through the ranks, Manny thought he saw part of what continued to drive Drew to put so much work into the game.

“He won’t tell you that he plays with like a chip on his shoulder, but I could see it pretty early on,” Manny said, chuckling. “You know when he was playing travel ball he was on a nationally ranked team and he’s the smallest one out there but also one of the top players. I think that always drove him to prove to everybody that no matter what size you are anyone can be great at baseball.”

Even though he continued to thrive in every level of his baseball career, Drew never experienced a Bryson Bloomer-esque growth spirt in high school. A fate he would share with his future Bananas teammate though, was not attracting droves of Power 5 coaches to his his doorstep. Going into his senior season of high school, there were some junior college offers with little to no money involved, which was pretty much a deal breaker for Drew. That is until longtime head coach of the Erskine baseball team, Kevin Nichols, called with a strong desire to make Drew a member of the Flying Fleet, and he had a serious scholarship to back it up too.

“All I was really looking for was money,” Drew said. “I know my parents invested a lot with me growing up playing travel ball and kind of our thought on that was to invest now so we can save later. Erskine was by far the best offer so it was the best decision to make. And I knew the program was always good in the past, they had some kids drafted and Nichols was a big hitting guy and that was what I was always into, so that all really swayed my decision too.”

Just a couple weeks after signing, Kevin Nichols announced his 18-year run at the helm of Erskine baseball was ending, as he was heading to the College of Charleston. Erskine brought in Mark Crocco from Presbyterian College, and this is when things get weird.

“We would run camps at Presbyterian and for a few years we always had this little Hawaiian looking kid who was tiny, I’m talking tiny,” Coach Crocco said with a little laugh. “But he had this spunk about him and he had some juice running around out there.”

It turned out this young Filipino ball player reminded Crocco a lot of himself.

”I’ve always been full of energy and I also wasn’t 6’5”, throwing 97,” Crocco said. “I was an undersized guy who could pick it, I brought a lot of energy, and I saw myself in this kid. It’s just refreshing, one of those guys at a camp where you just gotta love him. Played every position, hit great, but he was just so undersized.”

Fast-forward to 2017, when Crocco gets back from his honeymoon and is immediately told he’s the top target to fill Erskine’s new head coaching vacancy. He hits it off with the powers that be and is thrilled to take over one of the top D2 programs in the country. He takes a look at the roster and only recognizes three names, one of them being Drew Yniesta. As it turns out, an assistant coach from Erskine had first targeted Drew as a guy he wanted to have on his team at a Presbyterian camp that Crocco was working.

“It gets better,” Crocco told me.

It does get better. About 10 days later it’s his first day on the job and he’s sitting in his new office overlooking the field.

”It’s the first day kids could even be on campus,” Crocco remembered. “And there’s this little Hawaiian looking kid running wind sprints from behind second base to dead centerfield. First of all, that’s a really long ways to be running wind sprints. Probably like 180, 200 feet. I’m not sure, I’ll measure it. But anyways, then I went to a meeting and came back and he was still running. I looked over to my recruiting guy who was the only other person with me and I said, ‘That kid’s gonna play for us as a freshman.’”

Not only would he play for Crocco as a freshman, he would play just about everywhere for Crocco as a freshman. From right to third to second to center to left and then even some shortstop towards the end of the spring. While starting all over the place and putting up solid numbers in his first college season, Drew was also taking full advantage of the weight room.

”I’m a wild maniac when it comes to morning workouts, lifting groups, all the above, just absolutely getting after these guys,” Crocco said. “This kid is finishing first in everything, getting after it, just doing the job and he is everything I’m looking for. He puts on I don’t know, probably 18 pounds of muscle and really started to become the Drew Yniesta you see today.”

All of that added up to Drew hitting .305 with a .395 OBP, while notching 50 hits in 48 games played. His father Manny noted that his average was up around .370 with a couple weeks left in the year before he had to take over shortstop duties because of injuries. Either way though, pops was enthused by Drew’s first year performance.

“I always knew he could thrive at the next level,” Manny told me. “I think he got a little tired out from the long schedule at the end of the season but he had so much success and learned so much that first year it was awesome to watch.”

Even though Mark Crocco hadn’t been the head coach Drew had signed up to play for, it ended up being a match made in heaven.

”He kind of laid new groundwork in philosophy for hitting and I really ran away with it,” Drew said. “Ever since then I’ve had the idea of, ‘I have to have the perfect hack and what can I do to fix it.’ And that’s all I’ve really cared about, honestly. It was a new mindset that really helped me out. I just had my freakin’ ears wide open to anything anyone would tell me. I was just trying to listen and learn.”

Over the summer Drew hit the weights hard and stayed sharp by playing in a Dixie League back home. The culmination of his work on and off the field would be more than evident in his sophomore season. Drew would lead Erskine in average (.378), hits (73), runs (55), doubles (17), triples (4), RBIs (48), walks (24), on-base percentage (.458%), and slugging percentage (.663). Oh and he was also second on the team with 10 home runs.

“That was a monster season,” Crocco told me, chuckling. “All-Region in his second year was some serious stuff. Yaya had arrived and everyone knew it.”

Drew parlayed his enormous spring into a temporary contract with the Wilmington Sharks in the Coastal Plain League. He struggled in his short stint, and was not extended a full-time contract. But it was a good peak into what CPL baseball was all about, and Drew didn’t let the road bump slow him down. He called up Crocco and before he knew it was suiting up for the Mooresville Spinners in the Southern Collegiate Baseball League. He would have a lot more success there, posting a .314 batting average and a .400 on-base-percentage while clubbing 4 home runs in 31 games played. 

The strong summer would be another important step in Drew’s trajectory towards the Bananas. Although he would break his hand in the fall limiting what he could do on the field, behind the scenes there were whispers of Savannah.

“Gillum and I go way back from working camps together,” Crocco said. “Yniesta is my first captain as a junior. I want to send my leader, my captain to the Bananas because one of our big things is preaching service before self. That the best thing you can be is a servant to others. And Savannah is obviously a place where you’re not just playing baseball, you’re also serving others through the entertainment aspect that Jesse has going on down there. So I called Gillum and told him I’ve got the perfect guy for his team.”

Gillum loved everything he heard about Drew, especially the fact that he was as hard of a worker as you’ll find and that he had already experienced success in both spring and summer baseball. Drew had known two Bananas, Matt Arias through Erskine and Daniel Lloyd was a family friend since childhood. Both had nothing but good things to say about Savannah, and that was more than enough to convince Drew it was the place to play in the summer. First he had his junior season in front of him, and he lived up to his pre-season All-American ranking. In the COVID shortened spring, Drew hit .362 with a .456 OBP, scoring a team high 35 runs in just 26 games played. Even after two and a half dominant springs, and a solid previous summer, Drew had some nerves when going to Savannah.

“I was a little bit nervous because I knew how good the competition was going to be with the Cape and a bunch of other leagues not playing,” Drew told me. “So I had to prove I should be playing, but I was also like, ‘s**t I gotta prove I’m kind of entertaining too.'”

Right off the bat, Drew realized he was in a very unique situation.

“We had the Banana Ball scrimmage before the season and it was half capacity because of COVID and we were literally just playing ourselves but there were still like 2,000 people in the stands which was way more than I had ever played in front of,” Drew said.

When I got the opportunity to talk to him before the season, Drew told me he was a “dirtbag,” (basically a guy who’s gonna need the uniform dry cleaned after most games), and “a man on a mission.” As soon as I saw how he went about the business and played the game, I thought both were perfect descriptions. Drew would thrive under the bright lights of Grayson Stadium, hitting .304 and tying for the team lead with 4 home runs in 24 games played. And he would thrive in his entertainment roles as well, possibly to the surprise of some of his teammates.

“I enjoy doing the entertainment stuff, believe it or not,” Drew said. “For some reason people think I don’t like doing that stuff but I really do.”

The Bananas would fall short of their ultimate goal, dropping the CPL South Championship game 6-5 in Macon to the Bacon. But when all was said and done, Savannah had been just the experience Crocco had hoped it would be for Drew, and Drew had been a perfect fit for the Bananas as well. He showed his versatility by starting a third base, second base, and all three outfield spots. He shined in player dances and ring dude performances alike, and his biggest moment of the summer in between the lines racked up nearly a million views on Tik Tok for the team…

Three home runs in two days will earn you a broadcast angle post online as well…

How naïve I was to think that I was the Banana Oracle when I knew nothing of the predictive powers of Bill LeRoy. Anyhow, that’s a story for another day.

Drew didn’t let another hand injury in the fall slow him down at all. The returning captain would put up more tremendous numbers for the Flying Fleet in the spring, hitting to the tune of a .376 average and knocking 11 home runs, 5th most in the Conference Carolinas. He was also top 10 in the conference in doubles, RBI’s, total bases, and slugging percentage.

Drew returned to the Bananas with lofty expectations both for himself and the veteran filled team. Although the guys got off to their best start in franchise history, winning the first 11 games they played, Drew started slowly at the plate and just never quite found his bearings. As the season charged on, with the Bananas never spending a day without the best record in the league, Drew showed sparks of his usual dominant self but never found consistency.

“That was definitely the worst I’ve ever hit in my life and I pride myself on being a complete hitter,” Drew said. “I care about my defense and love being able to play wherever I’m needed, but hitting is my thing. There were a couple physical things I needed to change but it was mostly a mental thing for me. This summer was the most I’ve ever been frustrated with myself. I definitely learned a lot though, especially when it comes to handling my failures better.”

“I’m definitely hard on myself and as it gets closer to what could be the end of my baseball career I was also thinking it could be my last summer in Savannah and I just didn’t want it to end with me struggling like that.”

It was a strange experience for Drew’s family too, who had seen him thrive for so long on the diamond.

It was hard because we weren’t used to it either,” Manny told me. “He only really struggled for 6 or 7 at-bats at worst in his life before he got hot again. He would call me and we would talk and he was frustrated with his play and you know I’d just say to ‘keep your head up because if you keep doing things right it will come.'”

There were plenty of bright spots throughout the summer too, with Drew in the middle of a handful of Bananas victories. The best stretch of all came right at the start of the final week of the regular season, when Drew homered in back to back games, although he was overshadowed by Bryson Bloomer who had four home runs in the same time period. But it was proof that the work was working, and that he could still turn a game on its head at any given moment. Even with his struggles at the dish Drew would rack up the third most games played in the regular season on the incredibly talented Bananas team. When it came time for the playoffs though, there was no tougher lineup to crack than his own team’s, with Tyler Gillum having the ability to fill the lineup strictly with guys north of .400 in on-base-percentage. Take a second for that to sink in. The 2021 Bananas were insane. Gillum recognized he had a problem that you love to have.

“Our lineup was just so deep,” Gillum said. “A lot of it was matchups based too, and he obviously was struggling a little and wasn’t our hottest hitter at that point in the season. But it was really just that we had so many overqualified guys for the job.”

Drew didn’t complain about his situation once. He kept showing up to the field early, furiously cheering on his teammates, and doing all he could on the entertainment side of things.

I understood completely why I didn’t crack the lineup,” Drew told me. “Those guys proved that they deserved to start those games and I trust our coaches and our other guys to come through, and I knew we would go out there and win the damn thing if I was playing or not.”

The Bananas found themselves in a win-or-go-home Game 3 of the CPL Championship. After an emotional loss at home in Game 2 the night before, Gillum was getting the field ready for one final time and talking with his four-year assistant coach Errick Fox about their lineup.

I’m always watching body language, and throughout all of the postseason games Yniesta was one of our best teammates,” Gillum remembered. “He was right in the mix of everything and just doing exactly what you want to see as a coach. Also, I heard that he had been telling the guys, ‘Whenever Gillum needs me I’ll be ready.’ Then we find out they’re gonna start a lefty on the mound, and Yniesta’s always been really good against lefties. So I ask Fox what he thinks for that spot between Drew, Kitchen and Bill Knight, and he says he thinks we should start Yniesta because he crushes lefties and he’s also just got a gut feeling about it. We finished working on the field and brought it up to our other coaches and they were all in on Drew starting too. It just felt right.”

It turned out Drew had in fact been spreading the rumor that he would be ready to rock and roll whenever his named was called, and he had a great feeling about the day as he drove in with his Erskine teammate Livan Reinoso, who had been the Game 1 hero two nights earlier.

I just remember getting in the car with Livan and I said, ‘If I’m in the lineup today I’m gonna do something big.'”

Manny was there hours before hand with is brother Ish and father Ireneo, just as they had been so many times before throughout the summer so they could get their preferred seats in the first base bleachers. When the team came out to sing and dance at 5:30 with the entire cast and crew, Drew danced over to his dad with a message.

“He came over and hugged me and said, ‘I feel like I’m gonna do something big tonight,'” Manny remembered, with a chuckle. “I told him I didn’t doubt it and that it was his time to shine.”

It is actually hard to describe how exciting it was for everyone in Bananaland when we found out Drew was starting. Drew is our guy. He’d been on the grind with us for two summers now, and each and every day he had been a model Banana in every way. There was a palpable buzz and a powerful feeling of clairvoyance in the marketing office that Drew was in fact going to do something big. Gillum could feel the energy his decision had created.

“It was kind of a weird scenario because everyone was really excited that Drew was in the lineup,” Gillum told me. “From his teammates to the front office, I mean even Jesse Cole was fired up about it. Everyone kind of felt it.”

But even as confident as everyone was in Drew’s big game abilities, I’m not sure anyone saw this coming…

His first swing of the playoffs. You just can’t make it up. The championship was all but won with one out in the bottom of the second inning. It felt like an earthquake had struck Daffin Park. You know what, here’s another angle so the magnitude of the moment can really soak in…

Folks say they felt Drew Yniesta’s stomp on home plate all the way down on River Street. It was just the jolt of energy the Bananas needed to spark an offensive onslaught. They would break it open with six more runs in the 4th inning, the exclamation point coming from Bryson Bloomer, who was under strict orders from Drew to hit a home run.

“I had told him, ‘I followed you in the regular season, but I went first this time, now it’s time for you to go,'” Drew remembered. Bryson would not let his teammate down…

Drew would go 2-3, with a walk, 2 runs scored and 4 runs driven in as the Bananas would stomp the Marlins 13-3 to win the CPL Championship. Drew’s 3-run home run had secured it’s spot as quite possibly the biggest swing in Bananas history.

It was such an emotional moment for me man,” Gillum reminisced, “probably top 2 or 3 baseball moment of my coaching career. With everything that went on, and then him getting that opportunity and coming through. I was crying in the third base box by the time he got to me. He had earned it, he put his work in, and it all paid off for him on the biggest stage possible. I’ll remember that for the rest of my life.”

Drew will certainly remember it too.

That’s the s**t you dream of in the backyard growing up,” Drew eloquently put it. “Just getting to be a part of a big moment like that, I mean that’s what I live for. I really felt lucky to be in that spot after not playing those first five games. Just getting the opportunity was awesome, and I knew my team was behind me the whole time so I just had to go out there and do it.”

It was pure pandemonium in the Yniesta’s usual cheering section on the 1st base side.

“Oh my god I went crazy jumping up and down the row,” Manny said, laughing. “Everyone basically knew us there at that point so they knew I was Drew’s dad and they were going crazy with me. It was just so cool man, so cool. The place went nuts and it was such an amazing moment for him and his team, that was what its all about.”

Mark Crocco was in Long Island working some camps, but he had been locked in throughout the Bananas season and he had seen that moment building for a while.

I saw watching the broadcasts, especially down the stretch, how engaged Drew was in the dugout,” Crocco told me. “That was very foreshadowing for me, that he was ready to go when he got his opportunity. As baseball guys we like to see guys have those moments. And what did the dugout do when he cracked that? It blew off the hinges. It sounds different for different guys when it’s about others. And the game honored him for how he went about his business. You look back at Savannah’s history, Savannah’s glory, and that’s one of the greatest moments anybody has ever had there is that home run.” 

It was validation that Drew’s process was right. He had come through when his team and its ever growing international fan base needed him most. The celebration that followed was pure euphoria. Championship belts were presented to every player, pictures were taking with the thousands of fans on hand, and the team got to celebrate their ultimate achievement together.

Unfortunately the celebration would have to be short, as most of the team had little time before having to report back to school. Drew couldn’t return to Erskine because there was no opportunity for grad school there. But there was a strong desire from Nick Clarno’s Lenoir Rhyne coaching staff to bring in the senior who has done nothing but terrorize collegiate pitching in his three and a half springs of action. It’s been a great start to his final chapter in college baseball, as Drew looks to destroy the best the South Atlantic Conference has to offer. One thing is for certain though when it comes to his real final act of college ball. It will take place in Savannah next summer.