WHEN ISABELLE DE LEON and Michael Volpe drive to and from work in Manhattan each day, turning on sports talk radio is automatic: WFAN’s Boomer Esiason in the morning, ESPN New York’s Michael Kay on the way home.
When the couple met at SUNY Downstate Medical School in Brooklyn in 1990, they bonded over their New York Yankees fandom, trading trivia questions and going on dates in the bleachers. They were the couple who would sleep outside Yankee Stadium when playoff tickets went on sale. And when Isabelle went into labor on April 27, 2001, the couple watched the Yankees beat the Oakland Athletics on television at Mount Sinai Hospital before she gave birth to their son the next morning.
For years, Michael called into those local shows to give his take on the team, one of countless callers discussing who the Yankees should pursue in free agency or whether GM Brian Cashman was doing enough at the trade deadline. But recently, there’s been a new topic to discuss.
“Now it’s like, ‘Oh my God, they’re talking about my son,'” Isabelle says. “We just kind of look at each other like, ‘Wow.'”
Their son — shortstop Anthony Volpe — is indeed the talk of the town. On Thursday, the 21-year-old became the youngest Yankee to start on Opening Day since Derek Jeter, his childhood hero growing up in Manhattan and later Watchung, New Jersey. The Yankees entered spring training calling the shortstop job an open competition — and Volpe was so impressive, he earned the leap to the majors after just 22 games in Triple-A.
Imagine this back page story: A kid born in New York City who grew up rooting for the Yankees helps lead his favorite team to its first World Series title since 2009. After losing to the Houston Astros in the playoffs three of the past six seasons, the Yankees and their fans hope Volpe will make it happen.
The Yankees have always been careful about managing expectations for their players, knowing the hype can get out of hand. As Volpe’s parents are well aware, New York can turn a Yankee into a superhero among mere mortals. But it can just as easily make him a villain — just ask Joey Gallo, Clint Frazier or Gary Sanchez, among the most recent examples.
That’s particularly true at shortstop, where for multiple offseasons, Yankees fans have grumbled about production, the shadow of Jeter’s legacy always looming over the position. Didi Gregorius, who lasted five seasons in New York after Jeter’s retirement, was a good player and generally well-liked, but he wasn’t the Captain. Since Sir Didi departed as a free agent after the 2019 season, 10 different players have manned shortstop. Most notably, the Yankees tried Gleyber Torres there for a season and a half before moving him back to second base in 2021 after he struggled defensively.
The Yankees had an opportunity after the 2021 and 2022 seasons to sign a big-name free agent for the position — Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Marcus Semien, Javier Baez, Dansby Swanson, Xander Bogaerts and Trea Turner were all available.
The team passed, just as it passed on trade offers involving Volpe over the past few years. And now, with Volpe earning his spot in the big leagues so quickly, all those decisions seem to point to one conclusion: This shortstop prospect must be special. Volpe’s background, his upbringing, his confidence at such a young age, his work ethic, his relationships with his teammates, all draw comparisons to Jeter, giving the team plenty of reason to believe he can handle the spotlight. For many within the organization, Volpe — the No. 3 prospect in baseball, according to ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel — seems like he was made in a Yankee lab.
“Even some veteran players, it’s like, ‘Wow,'” says manager Aaron Boone. “It’s the energy and the intensity and the effort — the little things — that get your attention. You get excited about it.”
To this point, all of it seems like a fairy tale, even to those living it. When Volpe shares stories of taking batting practice with some of the biggest names in baseball, like Giancarlo Stanton and newly minted captain Aaron Judge, his die-hard Yankees fan parents know exactly how cool it is — and how high the stakes are.
“There are moments where I talk to family and tell them about my day,” Volpe says. “I’ll say stuff off the cuff and their jaws drop.”
IT’S EARLY MARCHduring batting practice before a spring training game with the rival Boston Red Sox at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Florida. Yankees legend Lou Piniella is standing around the batting cage, chatting up Cashman. The two men catch the eye of Volpe, who shuffles over. As the rookie prepares to meet Piniella for the first time, he makes a move that would later send earthquake tremors throughout the Yankees faithful: He takes off his cap before shaking Piniella’s hand.
“Volpe did something today that just kind of choked me up,” said Kay on the game broadcast on the YES Network. “Someone introduced him to Lou Piniella and out of respect, he took his hat off. This kid just gets it.”
The clip of Volpe meeting Piniella went viral. It’s the type of thing that floods his father’s phone these days. Texts from friends sending screenshots of stories and tweets praising Anthony’s performances. Sometimes it’s highlights of his latest snag in the field. Other times, it’s videos of fans and analysts speculating on Volpe’s future.
Isabelle and Michael — an anesthesiologist and urologist, respectively — never pushed their son into the sport. It was always Anthony asking. For the first 10 years of Anthony’s life, the Volpes lived in Murray Hill and the Upper West Side, and they would bring him to The Baseball Center — a training facility nearby — because he wanted to play as much as possible. Often after school, Michael and Anthony would go to the park and field ground balls for hours, trying to field 100 in a row. If Anthony dropped even the 99th ball, they would start over, often to Anthony’s delight.
“It’s going to be a late night for you, Dad,” Anthony would say with a smile.
Being a Yankees fan was more than a backdrop. In the mornings before school, Anthony would lay out his Yankees shirseys, sometimes choosing Jeter, sometimes Jorge Posada, sometimes another favorite player. When Jeter played his last home game as a Yankee, Anthony and Michael were there to see the Captain’s walk-off single.
“It’s like fate, the way it happened,” Anthony says of that moment
Memories like that fueled his desire to get better on the diamond. As he got older, Anthony played for travel teams, eventually driving with his dad from New Jersey to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to play with better competition. There could be a snowstorm brewing or homework piling up. Still, he was at practice every weekend.
That homework always got done, by the way, thanks to how Isabelle ran the house. Growing up, Anthony begged his parents for a dog, but his mother resisted. Anthony showed Isabelle videos of cute pups, for days on end, until she relented. But there was a major condition: From August through Christmas, he needed to make his bed every day, with no slipups. Every dish must be put away. No socks on the floor. No toothpaste caps left off. He was to keep his room pristine, as if a photoshoot for House & Garden magazine could break out at any moment.
By November, Isabelle had seen enough.
Anthony had a perfect record — and the Volpes welcomed Jedi into the house.
“We have a dog because of him,” Michael says. “He did all of those things, and he kept up with making his bed and stuff after we got the dog, too.”
After Volpe was selected 30th in the 2019 draft, Yankees head of minor league operations Kevin Reese noticed that his intensity around doing the small things, the reps that often bore others, would become contagious. Quickly, minor leaguers older than Volpe started treating him like a veteran.
“I had 12 years in the game, he’s 12 years younger than me and we were having not just professional conversations about pitchers and game situations, but about life,” says Derek Dietrich, an eight-year major league veteran who played in the Yankees farm system the past two seasons.
Volpe credits his confidence, maturity and perspective on life to the many nights he spends with his grandparents. Isabelle’s parents live with the Volpes, while Michael’s parents’ house is across the street. It’s a family tradition to gather around the dinner table and tell stories.
Volpe’s great-grandfather on his father’s side moved to the United States from Italy with a third-grade education. While trying to build a foundation in America, he sold fruit from a pushcart on Mott Street in downtown Manhattan. He later served in World War II, where he fought in the Battle of the Bulge, receiving shrapnel injuries to his leg before returning to work at the post office. Volpe’s paternal grandfather served in the Marines in Japan from 1958 through 1962.
Isabelle’s parents, Benjamin and Concepcion de Leon, came to the United States in the 1960s due to the political landscape in the Philippines. Isabelle’s grandfather served as the mayor of Paranaque and, as a colonel in the army, was in the Bataan Death March, the transfer of American and Filipino prisoners of war by the Imperial Japanese Army. After Isabelle’s father, Benjamin, lost a race for vice mayor of Paranaque, the family decided to leave the country. They arrived with no money and just two of their seven children, the rest of whom they brought over five and a half years later when they were more settled.
“I’m old enough now to register and understand the context, but everyone, my aunts, uncles, everyone just worked,” Volpe says. “They always put their heads down and never asked for anything.”
THESE DAYS, MICHAEL doesn’t call in to sports radio anymore. The excitement around his son is impossible to avoid, and with all the positives come the negatives. A few years back, Michael turned his Twitter account anonymous after he got into a back-and-forth with some fans criticizing Anthony’s fielding.
“I made some comments to the effect of, ‘Who do you scout for? How do you know so much about fielding?'” Michael says. “That was such a bad look, so I promised my wife and my family that I would never make any comment in any kind of social media or anything like that again.”
Right now, Yankees fans criticizing his son are on a lonely corner of the internet. There’s a palpable excitement over one of the team’s most hyped prospects ever, particularly one compared to Jeter. In front of the cameras and microphones, Volpe deflects those comparisons, pointing out he has a long way to go before he approaches the Hall of Famer’s résumé.
In private, he admits, it can weigh on him.
“Why are there comparisons to Jeter?” Volpe sometimes asks his mom. “I haven’t accomplished anything close to him. There’s never going to be another Jeter.”
And while Isabelle views the comparisons as a bit detached from reality, she understands where people are coming from.
“He just wants to be Anthony,” Isabelle says. “But he will do whatever it takes to help the Yankees win.”
The press is positive, for now, but as Yankees fans, the Volpes know as well as anyone that a tabloid back page criticizing their son is inevitable. Right now, everyone dreams of whether Volpe can live up to Jeter, but just wait until he has his first slump.
“He usually handles that well,” Michael says. “My wife and I don’t handle it as well. We’re always freaking out.”
When Volpe is home in New Jersey, the family avoids talking about his future and what might be in store. Both Michael and Isabelle know it’s the last thing he wants to talk about. Instead, Michael spends hours on the phone with his brother talking about what Anthony’s future could look like. Anthony and his younger sister Olivia, meanwhile, prefer talking about her life at Georgetown, Taylor Swift or politics. Instead of dreaming of glory or dreading failure, Anthony would rather be spending time playing golf, eating his grandma’s sinigang or playing with Jedi.
“I really am trying to stay present,” he says.
Volpe will have a clubhouse full of teammates who can relate. When Judge burst onto the scene as a superstar rookie in 2017, hitting 52 homers, earning rookie of the year honors and finishing second in the MVP race, then-manager Joe Girardi compared the slugger to Jeter, noting his attitude, presence and smile. Judge hears the same thrusted on Volpe, and has shared advice.
“It happens quick,” Judge says. “But all of it is nerve-wracking and exciting. You don’t want to make a mistake. You want to show people you belong here. I can see it in the way they walk around, how they’re in the cages. They’re a little nervous but they’re showing, this is where I belong.”
It wasn’t that long ago when Volpe was worshiping Judge as a teenager in New Jersey. Even last year, as Judge approached Roger Maris’ home run mark, the Volpes watched the towering slugger in awe, enjoying the moment as fans, with no way of knowing Anthony would share a spot with Judge in the next year’s Opening Day lineup.
“It can get overwhelming for Anthony because he’s so shy,” Isabelle says. “In the back of his mind, he’s always thinking, he’s there, he’s there, he’s there. ‘I’m in the same room as Aaron Judge.'”
Now it’s Volpe who garners that reaction from both fans and aspiring ballplayers, and his father grapples with the possibility that Volpe could fall short of expectations, and that the fan base that brought him and his wife together could turn on their son.
“I try to remind myself that even if Anthony doesn’t make it, he will be successful at whatever he wants to do in life,” Michael says. “That’s who he is.”
He’s made it this far, to Opening Day at Yankee Stadium. Those around Volpe note he always stayed after his minor league games for as long as possible to sign autographs, half an hour after the lights were turned off, the fireworks ended and his teammates had returned to the locker room.
It’s not something Isabelle tells him to do, but she makes it a point to remind him that with this opportunity comes a responsibility to others. His parents used to do for Jeter and the Core Four the way so many will do for him on Opening Day and during his debut season in the Bronx. There will be strangers asking for his attention, many of whom will be critical or disappointed at times. The chance to succeed or fail at his childhood dreams is a privilege. So Volpe will continue to heed his mom’s advice.
“Never turn away,” Isabelle always tells him, “because Mom was one of those people.”