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In Minnesota, Alex Verdugo escaped city life with ice fishing and his grandpa

Crammed between International Falls, Minn., and Fort Frances, Ontario, the Rainy River acts as a natural border between the United States and Canada. From the west, the waterway pours into Rainy Lake, a picturesque, 360-square mile surface area that straddles the two countries.

Roughly 10 minutes away, on the International Falls side, lies an acre of property owned by Alex Verdugo’s maternal grandfather, Don Potter. When the Yankees outfielder went to see his grandparents as a kid and young adult, the area served as an outdoorsy escape, with four-wheelers, bird hunting and snowmobiles offering a slower pace than Verdugo’s home in Tucson, Ariz., and some of the bigger cities he’s played in.

“You’re just in nature,” Verdugo told the Daily News before the Yankees ventured to Minnesota for a series with the Twins. “When you’re looking, you don’t see f–king buildings everywhere. You see land. You see water. You see animals. It’s just a very peaceful, scenic-type feeling for me.”

In the winter, the scene turns to tundra and the lake freezes over. That’s when Verdugo, Potter and the rest of their family would go ice fishing.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Verdugo said. “You could do it several ways. You can have an actual fish house that you drive out there and put it down. You can have a little pop-up tent. It’s really however you want to do it.”

Potter prefers to use a fish house, or a portable shelter that’s moved onto the ice via truck. Once in place, holes are drilled in the ice from inside the house before anglers drop their lines into the slushy water.

High-end fish houses can cost tens of thousands of dollars and come with various creature comforts, almost like a luxury RV. However, Potter’s is simple.

An 8 x 12 shack, it features a table, a furnace, and cutouts in the floor that expose the ice. Potter assembled it himself years ago.

“They got some nice ones, but the one we have is one that my grandpa built,” Verdugo said, beaming with pride. “He’s awesome. He’s always been a big handyman and did stuff himself. He built and worked on cars, you name it. He was always really good at working with wood and things like that. So he’s like an old-timer, man.”

Only big enough to fit a few people, Verdugo and the rest of his family would rotate in and out of the shanty during fishing trips for walleye, northern pike, perch and bass. Once satisfied with the haul, Verdugo and co. would take the fish back to Potter’s home, clean them and “do a little fish fry.”

Known for his diamond chains, custom cleats and other flashy accessories, Verdugo knows that he doesn’t look the part of a typical outdoorsman. He said he’s gotten that reaction a lot throughout his professional career, especially when he’s told “country” teammates about his exploits in International Falls.

Some would assume the ice fishing and other activities are out of character. But like a frozen lake, there’s always more beneath the surface of an athlete’s public persona.

“I don’t think that’s fair to say,” said Caleb Ferguson, a teammate of Verdugo’s with the Yankees and Dodgers. “There’s a lot of guys that do a lot of things outside of the baseball field, but because of how they’re molded as a player, people think it’s weird. Everybody just knows one version of that guy, you know?”

Verdugo and Ferguson were minor league roommates when the Dodgers first drafted the duo in 2014. However, Ferguson did not find out about his past and present teammate’s affinity for ice fishing until after the two became Yankees over the offseason.

“I guess that’s bad on my part for not knowing that about him,” Ferguson said, though Verdugo bears some responsibility.

That’s because Verdugo has never taken any of his teammates ice fishing. He also hasn’t been to International Falls since the Dodgers traded him to the Red Sox in February 2020.

Verdugo is hoping to put an end to both streaks this January, when Rainy Lake will be completely frozen and ready for ice fishing. He’d like a few Yankees join him, though there’s no guarantee the impending free agent will still be employed by the team.

“There is a good chance,” Verdugo said of some Bombers making the trip. “We might do something.”

The cleanup hitter added that he’ll teach his three kids to ice fish as well.

In the meantime, Verdugo is looking forward to the club’s series in Minneapolis. The city is about five hours from International Falls, but Potter and other family members plan on attending the games with Verdugo celebrating his 28th birthday on Wednesday.

It’s been a difficult time for the maternal side of Verdugo’s family. Potter, afflicted by a condition that Verdugo likened to Parkinson’s, has had a difficult time talking. Then there’s Verdugo’s mom, Michelle. She is battling breast cancer after losing her mother to the disease a few years ago, though she thankfully has just one or two treatment sessions left.

With some birthday plans in place, the North Star State will give Verdugo and his family a chance to escape once again, just like when he was little.

“We’ll probably do a dinner or something,” Verdugo said. “Nothing crazy. Obviously, we’re still in season and you gotta be prepared for the next game. But we’re gonna enjoy it.”


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