Yes to Yaya: Erie embraces energetic reliever
ERIE, Penn. -- Yasin Chentouf, a bearded, long-haired and compactly built SeaWolves relief pitcher, has always had a gift for gab. It's just who he is. This propensity for loquaciousness resulted in his nickname, which he's had for the entirety of his baseball career: Yaya. "My first year playing baseball,
ERIE, Penn. -- Yasin Chentouf, a bearded, long-haired and compactly built SeaWolves relief pitcher, has always had a gift for gab. It's just who he is. This propensity for loquaciousness resulted in his nickname, which he's had for the entirety of his baseball career: Yaya.
"My first year playing baseball, I was seven or eight or something, and I looked like the kid from 'The Sandlot,' Yeah-Yeah," said Chentouf, speaking prior to the SeaWolves game on Sept. 10. "And I talked a lot. I mean, all my teammates know I talk a lot. But back in the day my first coach just called me 'Yaya' and it stuck from there. It just never went away... And, yeah, it's a little easier to say Yaya than Yasin."
Fans love to root for an underdog, and Chentouf -- a 36th-round Draft pick whose height is listed, perhaps generously, at 5-foot-9 -- fits the part. These aspects of his story, combined with a relentlessly friendly nature and fun-to-yell nickname, have made him a distinct fan favorite at Erie's UPMC Park.
Erie president Greg Coleman said that Chentouf is "just the type of team ambassador we want to have, in the community and at the ballpark." An unsolicited but apt description was also provided by a SeaWolves clubhouse attendant, who sporadically yelled "The people's champ!" as this writer's interview with Chentouf was being conducted.
It's a role that Chentouf relishes, and the location of UPMC Park's home bullpen facilitates it. It's nestled in the left-field corner, with the foul line on one side and a fan walkway on the other.
"Fun vibes in the bullpen," said Chentouf. "The fans have been absolutely awesome this season. They’ve treated me like family. As for the way I interact with fans, I just like people. I like people. I like talking to the kids. Doesn’t matter who you are. If you ask me a question, I’m probably going to answer it. I’m gonna talk. My teammates say I sometimes talk too much to the fans, but I enjoy it. It’s a lot of fun. It’s a fun game."
Chentouf is a native of Orlando, Florida, a long way both culturally and geographically from Erie and its cold weather climate. He was well-prepared to pitch in Pennsylvania's third-largest city, however, a result of having attended college in the state's second-largest city, at the University of Pittsburgh.
"I wasn’t really highly recruited at first, but when I first got good exposure Pitt was there. They sent me an offer, asked me to visit. I went there. It was cold but I loved the campus, the coaching staff, and it took off from there," said Chentouf. "I love Pittsburgh. I feel like I'm part Yinzer."
Chentouf was selected by the Tigers in 2018, and made his Minor League debut that season. He split 2021 between High-A West Michigan and Erie, returning to the SeaWolves in 2022 for his first full season with just one ballclub. He compiled a 2.97 ERA over 49 appearances spanning 57 2/3 innings, striking out 65 and notching seven saves.
"[Playing in Pittsburgh] definitely helped me throwing at the beginning of the season, just because it gets a little colder out here [in Erie]. So the last few years in Michigan and here, it’s been cold weather and I’ve been blessed to be used to it a little bit," the 25-year-old said. "If I was a normal Florida guy coming out here, trying to throw in the 40 degree weather, I’d probably be in a little trouble."
The SeaWolves concluded their regular season on Sunday, edging out Bowie for the Eastern League Southwest Division second-half title. Erie will battle Richmond in the Division Series, with Game 1 scheduled for Tuesday night at UPMC Park. This means that Yaya will have at least one more opportunity to interact with the fans who love him, and whom he loves right back.
"Erie fans are always so supportive. It’s awesome, to have them behind me and not against me," Chentouf. "You go to a lot of places and the fans start picking on me because I’m smaller and this and that and that...I’m just going to go out there and pound the zone. Get outs and do what I can do, what I can control, because I’m not getting any taller."
Chentouf might not be getting any taller, but there's still room for his reputation in Erie -- and the sport of baseball -- to grow.
"Oh, it's gonna be electric," said Chentouf with a sly smile, thinking about the possibility of pitching in the playoffs. "Erie's gonna be as electric as it can be, I'm telling you. A championship is always the goal."
And with that, Chentouf fell silent. He might love to talk, but at that moment the people's champ had nothing left to say.
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.