Mother's tough love key to Cervelli's growth
Advice during trying 2012 season gave Yankees catcher proper perspective
Francisco Cervelli insisted that he was fine, that the box scores littered with errors and strikeouts were no reason for concern, and that he definitely didn't need any help to navigate this nightmarish season in the International League.
Cervelli begged his parents not to travel, but Damelis Cervelli has always been able to tell when something is wrong. She and Cervelli's father, Manuel, made the long trip from Valencia, Venezuela, to Buffalo, N.Y., and when they hugged their son, her instincts were confirmed.
"I was happy, because of all the frustrations and all the crazy things that were happening at that time -- it fixed everything," Cervelli said. "They stayed with me and talked to me the right way. They didn't tell me what I wanted to hear.
"In the beginning, it's hard because you don't want to hear those kinds of things, but then you sit down and think about everything and it's true. They always want the best for you."
It was at a kitchen table in Venezuela that a 15-year-old Cervelli told his mother he planned to be a big league catcher, and he seemed to be living that dream as the Yankees prepared to open the 2012 season, going through the spring expecting to serve as Russell Martin's backup.
That shattered on the afternoon of April 4, the final day of Spring Training in Florida, as the Yankees acquired catcher Chris Stewart from the Giants. The move bumped Cervelli to a nomadic Scranton/Wilkes-Barre team forced to play all of its games on the road while its home ballpark was renovated.
"I hated myself at that time, the way I was playing," said Cervelli, who was hitting under .200 and leading the league in passed balls after two months last year. "She always said, 'No matter what, just play. Baseball is so beautiful.'
"'If you have a bad game today, tomorrow you have an opportunity to do something different and people forget about that. So smile all the time. Do what you like. It's your passion, and they pay you. You're lucky, man.'"
Damelis and Manuel stayed with their son for three weeks last season, hitting the Minor League outposts in rapid succession, gray places like Buffalo, Rochester and Toledo. Their car trailed the Yankees' bus for hundreds of highway miles, and when the tires finally stopped rolling, Cervelli received tough love from his mom.
"I remember she told me, 'Wake up. Play the way you play. If not, then you are coming home with us. I'm tired of seeing a guy playing baseball as a different person,'" Cervelli said.
Cervelli would see his parents watching closely from the box seats near the on-deck circle, even on the nasty, cold evenings with fewer than 100 people in the stands. He'd get messages after each game from his parents about the positive contributions he was making.
"Even if I had three strikeouts, she was happy," Cervelli said. "She's always got something. I'd say, 'Mom, I got three strikeouts,' and she'd say, 'Yeah, but you won the game. You helped this guy to do something.' Always looking on the positive side. It's a gift."
It was the kick that Cervelli needed, and he wasn't surprised that his mother -- a housewife whom he said he can't remember ever seeing cry -- was the one to deliver the unvarnished messages he needed.
"She was always tough," Cervelli said. "I remember when I started with the Yankees in the Dominican, I called her crying and said, 'I don't like the food. I'm not eating anything. It's tough here.' She said, 'Oh. You told me you wanted to play baseball,' and she hung up the phone.
"She's my everything, man. My dad is the guy who cries, the guy who's going to come to you and hug you and tell you everything is going to be fine. If my mom cries, I never see it. She never gives you panic. She always wants to let you know how good you are and the fighter that you are."
And that is continuing even now. Cervelli realized his dream this season, rejoining the Yankees and grabbing the majority of starts behind the plate when a foul tip fractured his right hand on April 26.
Cervelli's parents had just made it to Florida when the initial X-rays were taken, and they intended to return to Venezuela. Cervelli had surgery the next morning and told his parents not to worry, that he would be fine. He should have known better; Damelis Cervelli's son isn't going to be alone this time, either.
So as Cervelli grinned at his Yankee Stadium locker, a cast on his right hand and his bags packed to report to Tampa, Fla., he said that his parents would be waiting for him when the plane touched down.
"It's the same again," Cervelli said. "I consider myself a tough guy mentally, but I'm human. Sometimes I wake up and I feel bad, frustration, whatever. They're coming again, waiting for me. When I want to say something, they're going to be there. They've always got the right answers.
"Before every game starts, I have to call her to hear her voice. I started to practice not doing it because when you miss them, it's hard. But you know what? I've always been a mommy's boy."