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Interview With CJ Riefenhauser

Ian Millman: We’re here with CJ Riefenhauser, Mahopac High School graduate, New York Nine alum and current Tampa Bay Ray farmhand. We appreciate you taking the time with us today.

CJ Riefenhauser: Appreciate you having me.

Ian: Take us back to High School in New York, what was your experience like and how do you think it prepared you for what you were looking to do down the road?

CJ: At Mahopac High School, every coach I had from Freshman to Senior year was always teaching the basics, having fun and getting after it. I learned from there with summer ball when I played against some of the best kids around the area and then traveling going to North Carolina and South Carolina and playing against some of the best High School kids in the country. It’s fun getting around and seeing what’s out there and seeing where you stand.

Ian: You took an interesting college route. You started out at Iona and went down south to Chipola Junior College in Florida. What was your story and what advice do you have for current New York amateur ballplayers as far as pursuing schools or in their college hunt.

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CJ: Easy, don’t go for biggest scholarship sometimes. I think the biggest thing is go to a school with an open mind, go in with the mindset, if you never played baseball a day in your life would you like it there? The first step is to like where you’re at. And obviously for the ballplayers you have to look at yourself in the mirror and be very realistic. Sometimes your dream school may not be the best spot for you. Kids get drafted from division 1, 2 or 3 and obviously junior college and if you’re good enough they will find you. Go somewhere where you’re comfortable, where you’re going to play. Not playing, would be a miserable and very long college experience. In addition to going somewhere you like, and somewhere you’re going to play, you need to be dedicated and work very very hard.

Ian: As far as your development, there was constant improvement from your High School to College career and beyond. What did you do to continue your development and get the radar gun to continue to creep up and put yourself in a position to get an opportunity from a Major League team.

CJ: It really started my freshman year of college playing against kids a little older than me. I could see myself playing at the next level and that’s when I learned to, and was able to limit all the distractions and took baseball really seriously. I focused on school and baseball, that’s it. Hard work does pay off and a little bit of luck never hurt.

Ian: What was your major and career choice should baseball have not gotten you drafted or beyond.

CJ: I was studying to be a Phys Ed major. I thought being a Phys Ed teacher is a nice life and I thought if I couldn’t play the game, I would like to be around it and I definitely see myself coaching in the future and helping out. I just love the game and always try to be around it.

Ian: So you finish up at Chipola and draft day comes and you get called in the 20th round by the Tampa Bay Rays, what’s going through your mind?

CJ: It was frustrating because I was promised a lot. You hear from the scouts who say, ‘you’ll be drafted 8-12 no later than the 15th.’ A couple teams called me on day 2 and I filled out questionnaires and took tests for 29 out of 30 teams but I was drafted later than I was told from teams and scouts. At the time I was committed to play baseball at Elon. Actually, that day I decided I was going to go to Elon and I was finishing up a Summer class at Chipola in order to play baseball there. But I went home after summer school and talked it through with my family and decided there might not be another shot and you never know what’s going to happen, every pitch might be your last. So I decided to start my career, give it my all and see what happens.

Ian: So you signed and touched down with what team?

CJ: Princeton. Princeton, West Virginia. It was a culture shock, it wasn’t New York, you know? It was short season baseball and I am happy to be playing AAA ball now.

Ian: [laughs] It’s not exactly living the dream right away. How does short season ball work?

CJ: It’s a shock, a culture shock. I didn’t know much going into pro ball besides there’s AA, AAA and the big leagues, but there’s a lot more to it than that. Princeton, West Virginia was rookie ball and a long road ahead. It actually scared me at first, I thought I was going to be in the Minors forever because I heard about the Rays reputation of not promoting guys quickly and it just seemed like it would be forever to reach my goal of pitching in the big leagues.

Ian: What is the most important thing you’ve learned in the last couple of years in the minor leagues and how have you been able to put it to use as you’ve climbed the ladder.

CJ: How important the basics and little things are, like pitchers fielding practice and not trying to overthrow. It’s all the stuff that you hear all the time when you’re a kid. I can’t tell you how important it is, especially in the upper levels as you go up and you don’t do them as much as you did in the lower levels or college or high school and how much of a factor it turns out to be. It saves you runs and helps you out in the long run.

Ian: So it brings us to 2014, you’re having a solid season in Durham, being used late in ballgames to get important outs. Then it happens, every kid’s dream, how does the call go?

CJ: No better feeling. My manager called me at midnight after a game in Norfolk, Virginia. He got a text at dinner with his whole family saying I’m getting called up. I was sitting in the hotel room watching something, I can’t remember and when he told me, his whole family is screaming in the phone congratulating me. I was just speechless, I had no emotions and I didn’t know what to do. I called my parents and that’s when it hit me. Then the next day I have to wake up early, but I barely got any sleep because I was staring at the ceiling all night thinking. They flew me first class on a flight to Florida and I’m looking around and thinking ‘this is the life.’ Everything is taken care of for you, you have a driver taking your suitcase and you don’t pick up your bag from when you land until you get to the field. It’s a pretty unbelievable feeling.

Ian: So you get to meet your new Manager, Joe Maddon and the crew. Do they have any words of wisdom for first time rookies who are definitely going to see some action and against your hometown team, the New York Yankees?

CJ: Yeah, the first couple of games was vs the Yankees. I thank the whole entire team for that experience because they are great guys. The best advice I got was just keep your head down, because the game is faster at every level. At every level you go the game speeds up on you and you don’t want the game to speed up on you. You want to stay in the game because when your head drifts off and you start thinking about being in the Major Leagues, that’s when you get in trouble. That was the biggest thing for me, just staying in the whole game and not trying to look up in the stands and soak it in, I could do that after I pitched or after the game.

Ian: Did you find yourself peeking up and locating your parents? Or were you able to keep it to yourself until you met them in the tunnel.

CJ: Nah, after I got [Alfonso] Soriano to ground out, walking off the field I was looking for them. I knew what section they were in and that was pretty cool, just walking off the field and giving them a little head nod, that was pretty awesome.

Ian: As our first official New York Nine alum to reach the bigs, we couldn’t be prouder. It’s fantastic to see your dream come true and all the work you put in happen right there on the TV screen. And if I’m not mistaken you were opposite another New York guy, Dellin Betances, and for me personally with my background with both of your gentlemen, it was beyond a highlight for me and I thank you for putting me in a position to sit at home and take that in. So you get your two outings and then get hurt quickly in your return to Durham.

CJ: The first time going back to back all year was in the big leagues and I come back to Durham and pitch in, I think, 2 games. It was one of those things where I’m warming up real quick to get into a situation where I have to face the guy on deck or the guy in the hole and I’m trying to warm up real fast, so I kind of blame myself for that one. I wasn’t properly warmed up and that’s your job, to take care of yourself and to make sure you’re at the best of your ability to go in that night. I got called on quick and didn’t warm up like I usually do and that cost me a good amount of time on the DL, which is never fun. Probably the most boring 3 weeks of my career.

Ian: Is there anything you can remember from your experience with the Nine or any suggestions for New York area athletes from a baseball perspective for things they should be looking to do for themselves to improve their opportunities to play this game.

CJ: I definitely couldn’t have done it without the whole New York Nine organization. You guys played the best competition, which makes you better prepared and just better. It also helps you look yourself in the mirror and see where you fit in. For me, I got hit around, I had a good game and a bad game, and the New York Nine always taught me something after every single game.

Ian: We appreciate you as an ambassador for us and not just for where you’ve made it but how you’ve conducted yourself. As we’ve always said, nothing in life is going to come easy and you’ve found a way to be consistent and remain focused and do your job to the best of your abilities. So what lies ahead for you, CJ?

CJ: Hopefully finish up the season strong here and if my name happens to get called up in September that would be great, but if not, I’ll go home in the offseason and get ready for the 2015 season. That’s how it is, a grind every single day.

Ian: Absolutely. I personally thank you for your time and how you represent yourself, your family and our organization every time you take the field. And as we’ve spoken about, I hope to see you back home with us during the offseason coaching and passing on your knowledge to the kids. Thanks, CJ!

CJ: Thanks, Ian.