Jake Cave kept the souvenir. Of course he did. A broken bat, the result of barely getting some wood on one of
's famous cutters. The Sandman's signature, along with his career save total and date he broke the record, are on it.
"It was one of the best experiences of my life," Cave said.
Unfortunately, it's also maybe the highlight of Cave's brief professional career to this point.
Eleven months after he was taken in the sixth round of the
, Cave is recovering from surgery to remove a fragment of his kneecap that had broken off. His right leg is in a brace, and he's several weeks away from being able to play again.
"They're being really cautious about it and they don't want me on the field if I'm hurt," Cave said of the Yankees' organization. "When they invest money in you, they don't want to just put you back in there. It still upsets me that I can't play, but I'm only 19 years old.
"You always want to play, and sitting back and watching everybody else play, it sucks. But when you think about it, being young and having the best instructors and weight trainers and players, it's still a dream come true."
Baseball was Cave's dream long before he was the Peninsula District and Daily Press Player of the Year last spring at Kecoughtan. He was 8 years old when his name first appeared in this newspaper — as the MVP of the Peninsula
As a freshman at Hampton Christian, he hit .562 with 12 home runs and went 7-0 as a pitcher. After his sophomore season, he made headlines by accepting a scholarship offer from LSU and transferring to Kecoughtan.
A left-hander who throws in the mid-90s, Cave was drafted by the Yankees as an outfielder. They liked his hitting, his athleticism, and his no-fear style of play.
He showed that in his one and only game with the Yankees' Gulf Coast League team last Aug. 22. After flying out on his first at bat, Cave drew a walk. After taking second on a throwing error, he was waved home on a line-drive single to left.
Unfortunately, the left fielder, a kid named Brian Pointer, had a rocket arm. Cave was out by 10 feet, but he wasn't going down easily — certainly not in his first game. He crashed into catcher Chace Numata in an attempt — futile, it turned out — to jar the ball loose.
Instead, his right knee collided with Numata's shin guard. He limped back to the dugout and played the rest of the game. But there was pain, and it turned out to be a fractured kneecap.
Cave missed the rest of the season, but after rehab he was ready to go for
in January. He put on some weight and felt faster than ever. In his first spring training game, he hit a home run to straight-away center. On his next at bat, he singled.
Things were going great. One day, he and another player were asked to take some swings against Rivera, who had stayed behind when the big club went on a road trip. He went to Steinbrenner Field, the Yankees' spring training facility, and took his whacks against
's all-time save leader.
Sure, he was in awe. He was when he passed
in a hallway. And when he saw
. (A January tweet: "I don't care if I'm in the organization. I still get excited when I go to the cage and see Jeter").
In extended spring training, Cave was running to first after a hit when he was suddenly unable put any weight on his knee. The doctors said it could be scar tissue, so he took it easy for a couple weeks. When he came back, he said, "it felt like somebody was sticking a knife in my knee."
X-rays showed a bone fragment from the fractured kneecap, and the only option was surgery. So Chris Ahmad, the Yankees' team doctor who is also handling Rivera's ACL injury, went in and removed it.
"Now, everything that was aggravating my knee is gone," he said.
Cave comes to work every day and works on his range motion, bending, and flexing his quad muscle. He's doing plenty of upper-body lifting. He said Ahmad told him there was no ligament damage to his knee and that he'll come back "as strong as how much effort I put into it."
But for a kid who loves playing baseball, not playing isn't easy.
"He gets down sometimes," Cave's father, Bryan, said. "But then he gets in the training room and sees Joba (Chamberlain) and (Michael) Pineda and other guys in there going about their business. And they have injuries that might be career threatening. Jake realizes this isn't the end of the world."
Cave expects to be back on the field at some point this summer. As for when and where, he's not sure. He's put his trust in the Yankees, and he knows it would be better to come back a week late than a week early.
"I look forward to it," Cave said. "Part of it is because when it happened last year, I worked so hard and came back bigger and stronger and played a lot better. Now, I look forward to coming back with the exact same result."
Last spring, Jake Cave was one of five pitchers in the Peninsula District who had signed with Division I colleges. Here's how the other four are doing this spring:
8-3 with a 2.01 ERA as a senior at Menchville.
0-1 with a 7.88 ERA in eight appearances as a freshman at East Carolina.
9-1 with a 1.68 ERA as a senior at Woodside.
0-1 in 4 1/3 innings as a freshman at Marshall.
5-4 with a 1.98 ERA as a senior at Denbigh.
1-0 with a 3.38 ERA in 22 relief appearances as a freshman at Longwood.
7-2 as a senior at Warwick.