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Defensive hero Alex Verdugo being embraced by Yankees ahead of Arizona homecoming: ‘I can just be myself’

HOUSTON – Growing up in Tucson, Arizona, Alex Verdugo enjoyed a normal childhood. Nothing, he said, really stood out from the ordinary, yet he still calls the area home.

“It’s a lot smaller of a city,” Verdugo told the Daily News, comparing it to the metropolises he’s played for: Los Angeles, Boston and New York. “Arizona’s big, but Tucson is kind of small, man. There’s nothing too crazy about it, but I like it. We have everything we need, and it’s peaceful.”

That includes family, which will be in attendance when the Yankees begin a three-game series against the pennant-winning Diamondbacks on Monday. Verdugo’s parents, proudly tatted on his chest, will see him play in an official game for the Yankees for the first time after the club acquired him from the Red Sox in the offseason.

“I’ll have a lot of family out there. It’ll be a good event,” Verdugo said. “It’ll be a lot of people, so it’ll be a lot of fun.”

Verdugo added that he’ll get to spend time with his parents and other relatives away from Chase Field. He’ll play the part of host, and he’s got a taco truck reserved for his visitors.

“Everybody’s gonna come over to the crib and we’re gonna have some nice food and hang out with family,” he said. “So it’s gonna be a good trip. I’m looking forward to it.”

As Verdugo prepared to see his real family, he found himself fitting in just fine with his new baseball family.

It’s helped that he’s played well, tallying a few hits, one RBI and some solid defensive plays in the Yankees’ season-opening series against the Astros. That included a sliding, game-ending grab in Sunday’s finale, a 4-3 win that cemented a four-game sweep for the Yankees.

“That’s money time right there with the game on the line,” manager Aaron Boone said of the catch, which robbed Kyle Tucker of a game-tying hit. “It seemed like he got a great read. My first instinct off the bat was, ‘That’s dropping in.’ When I looked up, he was on the dead-run tracking it. Almost knew he had it. He kind of hotdogged it, but I loved it.”

Added Juan Soto, who contributed his own heroics on offense in the ninth: “Perfect. Beautiful. He just won the game for us. That was pretty cool.”

Some wondered if the eccentric Verdugo’s aesthetic — heavily influenced by ink and shiny chains — would clash with the so-called Yankee Way. The left fielder also tends to speak his mind, and he was benched twice by Red Sox manager Alex Cora last year.

One reprimand came after Verdugo failed to hustle. The other benching happened because Verdugo arrived late to the ballpark. Verdugo was once chewed out by former Dodgers teammate Rich Hill for tardiness as well, and his past also includes a 2015 incident in Arizona in which police investigated the alleged sexual assault of a minor by another player. Verdugo, citing a “police investigation” and a “team thing,” said he was cleared of wrongdoing after joining the Red Sox in the trade that sent Mookie Betts to the Dodgers.

Charges were not filed for that incident, and Brian Cashman said the Yankees did a “deep dive” on Verdugo before acquiring him.

In the months since, multiple Yankees, including Aaron Judge, Anthony Rizzo and Boone, have said that they’ve wanted Verdugo in pinstripes for a while.

“He’s been great,” Boone said of the 27-year-old. “He’s embraced the room. The room has embraced him. I love what he brings to the table. I’ve been trying to get him for a couple years.”

Verdugo, an impending free agent, said that hearing things like that “fires me up” and “makes me want to play better” for the Yankees.

“You want to be wanted,” he said, “and the fact that they wanted me over here speaks volumes.”

With that in mind, it’s been an easy transition for Verdugo thus far.

Perhaps it’s coincidence, but Verdugo’s strong start with the Yankees comes with him no longer at odds with a manager. Nor is he playing under the weight of the expectations that came with being the centerpiece of the Betts deal.

He feels like he’s fit in well, and he’s enjoyed getting to know and joking around with his new teammates.

“It’s not rubbing anybody the wrong way,” Verdugo said of his personality.

Asked if he felt he had something to prove about who he is after the sour ending in Boston, Verdugo acknowledged that this is a “fresh start,” a line he’s repeated since becoming a Yankee. He noted that “every team has a different vibe” and culture; he may not have fit Boston’s.

That hasn’t been the case with the Yankees early on.

“It’s a clean slate,” Verdugo said. “I feel like you can’t judge a book by its cover, right? You gotta kind of open it up and at least read something about it to then have an opinion on it. I feel like that’s kind of what happened here. I can just be myself. I can talk to the guys, bullshit. So far, it’s been great.”


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