Rounding Home

For the past few months, Mark Teixeira’s life has been one of relative quietude: Mornings of exercise and chauffeuring young students to school, afternoons attending charity functions, a quiet dinner with his wife, Leigh, and their three children at their comfortable Greenwich home. For him, much of the effort these days is just in showing up. But everything will soon be different. It’s almost time for him to stop picking up the kids and start picking up a bat.

The New York Yankees first baseman since 2009 and for almost a decade one of the top players in baseball, Teixeira wears the number 25 on his uniform, but as all Yankee fans know, the number 28 means more to him and his teammates. That is the number of world championships the Yankees will have if they win it all in 2012. With 2011’s best record in the American League, expectations for 28 are high this year. Teixeira wouldn’t have it any other way.

“No player starts the season hoping to finish second,” he says. “You live with the highs, you live with the lows. At the end of the day, we’re going to be judged on whether we win the last game.”

If Teixeira feels any pressure, he doesn’t show it. “I truly believe every baseball player should have the privilege of wearing pinstripes just one time,” he declares between sips of a decaf cappuccino at Starbucks on Greenwich Avenue. “Just one game. Play at Yankee Stadium with the pinstripes on. Because there is nothing like it.”

Teixeira is not only comfortable with high expectations, he prefers them. Whether its refining his swing during the off-season or committing to one of his charities, Teixeira doesn’t believe in half-measures.

“I owe it to my fans to give 100 percent of my focus and energies,” he says. “There’s some days I’m at 70 percent, whether it’s mentally or physically, if I’ve had a long road trip or a tough night’s sleep. If you’re only 70 percent there, then give 100 percent of what you have.”

Rich Berlin, executive director of Harlem RBI, an organization providing education and baseball programming for children of low-income families in East Harlem, New York, remembers a meeting with Teixeira at the end of 2010. Teixeira had been Harlem RBI’s celebrity endorser for a year, but now he wanted to be something else.

“Every time I offered less or more, he took more,” Berlin remembers. “He’d say: ‘No, I don’t want to be on the honorary board, I want to be on the board.’ ‘No,
I don’t want to be an honorary chairman of your capital campaign, I want to chair it and I want to give a million dollars as my first gift.’”

Over a year later, Teixeira still works on that campaign, raising $20 million to build a combined charter school and Harlem RBI headquarters. After a fast start getting a few friends to commit to million-dollar donations singly and in groups, Teixeira now is focused on rallying small donors in a tough economic climate. As with the 2012 Yankees, he is optimistic. “That’s Mark’s personality,” Berlin says. “He’s always raising the bar and has his eye on the ball.”

His Early Innings

When he was a boy growing up in Severna Park, Maryland, it was learning how to hit left after right-handed homers got too easy. When he graduated from high school a hot young baseball prospect, he was turning down a million-and-a-half dollar offer from the Boston Red Sox for a college education at Georgia Tech.

“I’m a gut-instinct guy,” he says with a shrug. “I listen to my heart. It hasn’t really gotten me in trouble too much.”

On the field, Teixeira is a model of consistency who combines rock-solid, switch-hitting run production (over 100 RBI and thirty home runs in each of his last eight of nine total major-league seasons) with steady Gold Glove-caliber position play at first base. In 2011 he hit his 300th home run, his 1,000th RBI, and, for the twelfth time, a home run from both sides of the plate in a single game, breaking a major-league record he shared with Eddie Murray and Chili Davis.

“Teixeira is seen as an all-star caliber player accumulating Hall of Fame credentials,” says Bob Costas, who follows the game as a broadcaster with the MLB Network. “When people look at box scores alone, they overlook how good a defensive player he is. It’s not only a question of how many great plays he makes, but how many errors he prevents reaching for and catching errant throws.”

In person, Teixeira projects a sense of ease you don’t expect from one of baseball’s best-paid players, equal parts confidence and approachability. Standing in the service line at Starbuck’s, he is left alone as he scrolls through his iPhone messages. Is that because of the invisible shield of feigned indifference Greenwich bestows upon celebrities or because, wearing a black zipfront jacket and jeans instead of pinstripes, he looks like any other tall, broad-shouldered soccer dad? Maybe a bit of both.

Going to Georgia Tech was the best decision Mark says he ever made, and not just because he made the majors when he was older and readier. At a party at GT, he met Leigh Williams, an industrial design major who knew one of Mark’s friends.

“It was instant,” he says. “I knew I was going to marry her right away. It took me probably five months to finally get a date with her, but once I got that date I never let go.”

Leigh thinks it was more a matter of weeks than months, but agrees with the rest. A Georgia native, she married Mark soon after his one summer in the minor leagues in 2002.

“It’s a hard life in the minors,” Leigh says. “They travel a lot. It’s not glamorous at all. He just worked hard. I was working in Texas at the time. He would come home, or I would go out and see him when I could.”

“Minor league baseball is brutal,” Mark sighs. “It’s not fun. And it hurts a lot of guys, because they don’t have love for the game.”

Mark’s own love for baseball goes back as far as he or anyone else can remember. His sister, Elizabeth Durastanti, recalls his batting almost as soon as he could walk: “He always had that amazing hand-eye coordination. At three years old, he could toss up a ball and hit it.”

Both Mark and his sister credit their parents, John and Margaret, with providing Mark with a disciplined upbringing. “It was strict in that my Dad was former military, and that he and Mom had high expectations of Mark and me,” says Elizabeth, today an executive with KPMG living in New Jersey. (John graduated from Annapolis and spent six years in active service flying P-3 Orions, eventually reaching the rank of Lieutenant Commander.) “Mark definitely has my Dad’s discipline.”

That meant no long hair, no alcohol, no drugs, and a lot of baseball. If Mark ever minded, he doesn’t remember.

“I think you have to be strict under the umbrella of love,” Mark says. “You can’t be strict for the sake of being strict because your kids might end up resenting it. But my parents loved me so much they gave me every opportunity to do the right things.”

Success in the majors came quickly. The Texas Rangers played Teixeira in 146 games his rookie season. The next year, in 2004, he had his first 30/100 season, with thirty-eight home runs and 112 RBI. The following year, he started on the American League’s All-Star Team.

After that came acclaim, money and address changes. First, the Rangers traded him to the Braves in the middle of the 2007 season when they couldn’t come to terms on a contract. Almost a year later, he was traded again, this time to the Angels, helping them win 100 games for the first time in their history.

Then, in January 2009, Teixeira was signed by the Yankees. What followed was perhaps his best season ever. He led the American League with thirty-nine home runs and 122 RBI, picked up the third of four Gold Gloves, and most important, got a nifty ring when the Yankees broke their nine-year “curse” and won the World Series, their twenty-seventh.

A Bomber Comes To Greenwich

Coming to the Yankees meant another move for him, Leigh, and their growing family. “We were looking for a place not more than forty-five minutes from the Bronx,” Leigh says. “A lot of people had suggested Greenwich. We came out here and we both loved it. We looked at ten houses, and bought the last one we saw that very day. We moved in two months later.”

Greenwich was Leigh’s call, but Mark’s happy she made it: “I’ve lived everywhere. What Greenwich gives you is a great place to raise your family. A great education. A small-town feeling, but not a boring town. And easy access to New York City. I have the best of both worlds. I get to live in a beautiful suburb like Greenwich, and have the woods in my backyard, but then I can drive forty-five minutes and be in Manhattan.”

Teixeira is not the first baseball player to make Greenwich his home. Tom Seaver, Craig Swan, George Foster, and Bobby Bonilla are among the dugout luminaries who have resided here long-term, all beginning while they played for the New York Mets. Another former Met, Tim Teufel, is a Greenwich native.

The Yankees may have more fans in Greenwich than they do just about anywhere else in the greater metropolitan area outside Queens, but, except for a brief stop in town by pitcher David Cone, no Yankee player has made his home here.

“I always recommend it to other Yankees,” Teixeira says. “The first thing they say is it’s too far away. On an average day, it takes me forty-five minutes to get to the Bronx. I tell them, ‘Guys, the ten or fifteen extra minutes, even if it’s thirty minutes, is worth it for my family.’

He pauses a moment to sip his decaf. “I’m going to be here a lot longer… I mean, I’m here!” By which he means Greenwich and not the table at Starbuck’s he taps emphatically with his finger.

This probably pleases Yankees fans. It definitely agrees with Leigh, who praises both the people and the places. Greenwich Avenue, she says, is “really charming. I like to pop in and pop out. It gets pretty festive. I love seeing the change of seasons, which is pretty incredible. That’s one of my favorite things about Greenwich.”

For his part, Mark touts the restaurants Pizza Post, Valbella, Boxcar Cantina and Tengda. Last winter the couple discovered the Bruce Museum with the children. “We love every second of Greenwich,” he says.

Mark even made a point of calling out Greenwich in a 2011 appearance on the series Entourage, playing himself having an irate phone conversation with one of the show’s characters. Teixeira is reminded that he can’t cry poor with an eight-year, $180 million contract (which now has five years to run.) “I’ve also got three kids in private school in Greenwich, Connecticut,” a tense Tex shoots back. “You don’t have three kids in private school in Greenwich, Connecticut, do you, Turtle? Then you don’t know how expensive it is.”

Beyond Baseball

Teixeira divides his life into what he calls three “boxes.” Two are family and baseball. The third is a catch-all that combines business and charity interests. Mark majored in business at Georgia Tech, and sees that sort of activity in his future. So does his sister.

“Mark is very well spoken,” Elizabeth says. “He could pass as a businessman in any office in New York City. Walking into those offices, talking to these businesses, he talks their language. He just happens to be a professional athlete.”

For the moment, the business of Mark’s third box happens to be Harlem RBI. Reaching about a thousand children from kindergarten to the twelfth grade, Harlem RBI enjoys both a high retention rate, and for Harlem, an astronomical post-program college-completion rate of 64 percent. The capstone of the twenty-year-old program would be the creation of a charter school around which to build after-school educational and seasonal baseball programming. Mark has created a special charity, Dream Team 25, to raise the needed $20 million.

After getting some bigger donations, he now focuses on getting donations between $25 and $100. “Giving $25 or $100 is a lot for some people,” he says. “We are thankful for everything we can raise.”

With each of these donations, he asks for a letter explaining what inspired the gift. In September 2011, nine letter-writers were selected as Mark’s guests at Yankee Stadium. Mark not only played host, but, in the midst of a demanding season, read through dozens of entries personally, sometimes multiple times.

At the moment, the campaign remains a few million short. “It’s a lofty goal, but we think it’s attainable,” Mark says.

Rich Berlin notes that Teixeira is not only an active fundraiser but a frequent visitor to the program, meeting young people and encouraging their ambitions to make better lives for themselves.

“If he was just a guy out there doing a public-service announcement, it wouldn’t resonate as deeply with people,” Berlin says. “But because it’s so obvious how
committed he is, people take more notice.”

Teixeira has an appreciation not only for the benefits his celebrity can bring to causes he cares about, but for the rarified air he breathes. He’s not only holding down the job once held by Lou Gehrig, self-proclaimed “luckiest man on the face of the earth,” but of Don Mattingly, the player he most admired growing up. It’s not something he takes for granted.

“My natural instinct is to say: ‘I’m Mark Teixeira, the kid. I don’t belong here.’ I need to remind myself that I have the confidence, that I’ve done this before, that I can have success.”

So he readies for games by watching videos of himself getting hits off specific pitchers before he faces them. Just the hits. “There’s way too many clips of me striking out,” he adds. This ritual not only pumps him up, but shows him what he did right on previous at-bats.

Someday, Teixeira knows it will all be over. With all of last year’s career milestones came a reminder that, as Mark says, “Man, I’m getting old.” Yet there’s still much to accomplish.

“There are those extra championships I want. There are 400 home runs, 500 home runs. I want to play long enough to hit 500 home runs.”

There’s something else Teixeira sees in his future: Greenwich. “My youngest son, he’s graduating from high school here,” he says. “We’re going to be here a long time.”

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