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Nine Alum TJ Rivera Finally Gets “The Call”

August 10, 2016 – TJ Rivera entered Tuesday night’s doubleheader with the New York Mets affiliate Las Vegas 51s leading the Pacific Coast League with a .349 Batting Average and 80 RBIs, and had just been named the PCL Player of the Week for a second time. He also boasted 26 doubles and 11 Home Runs and was hitting .517 in his past week, so when skipper Wally Backman called him into the office and told him that he was going to be rested for the second game of a scheduled doubleheader, TJ was a bit surprised. It was then that the six year minor leaguer, with a .323 career average, the best in all of baseball, and many individual awards and accolades to his credit, was informed that he better hurry home to pack so he could make his red-eye to New York which was leaving in a couple of hours. The long overdue “call to the show” finally came.

Rivera is a Bronx native who played his prep baseball at Lehman High School. He was on the inaugural New York Nine Scout Team in 2006, helping lead the club to its first ever regional birth. Rivera then set the Nine record with a .508 batting average in 2007, as he homered three times in an NABF regional playoff game versus the Long Island Tigers to propel the Nine to their first World Series appearance in Jackson, Mississippi (where the Nine subsequently finished third). Rivera still holds many top ten records listed on the Scout team leaderboard.

After solid campaigns at both George Wallace CC in Dothan, Alabama, then Troy State, Rivera went undrafted. Two Hundred rounds had passed in the four years that he was draft eligible and his name was never called. Rivera had turned down an opportunity after his sophomore year to sign as a converted catcher with an American League club and began to wonder if that would have been his only chance at professional baseball. When the New York Mets had a need for a “filler” infielder at the lowest possible level, Rivera got his shot. The expectation is he would stick around long enough to fill the needed roster spot, but then Rivera hit, hit some more, and only had one sub-.300 season in the minor leagues. As players of lesser offensive skill were promoted over him, TJ kept his laser-like focus, professional workman like approach and attitude. He knew that if he kept doing his job that at some point he would get the opportunity and be ready for it. Preparation met opportunity on Tuesday.

“I couldn’t be happier for the Rivera family, specifically for TJ,” stated Nine President Ian Millman. “I think it would be tough to find anyone who has had to have the patience and fortitude shown by TJ year after year, to keep showing up for work and putting up the numbers he did while many others got the opportunity he had earned. They say that once you get past double-A the results speak for themselves and those who deserve the shot will get it. I was starting to question why the Mets didn’t give him that chance as he hit around .350 mutiple times in double and triple-A. What I can tell the world about Rivera is he is a first rate person, has an unbelievable amount of self-confidence which I know helped him through these past couple of years, and has the best barrel-to-ball skills of any player I have ever coached, and among the best I’ve ever seen. He has always been able to hit. There is no doubt in my mind that with TJ, if the Mets let him put his foot in the door, he will kick it off the hinges. The kid just needs a fair chance”.

Rivera started at third base against the Arizona Diamondbacks just hours after landing in New York, with about 30 members of his friends and family in attendance. They also got to witness his first big league hit, a single to open the home half of the tenth inning. Be sure to keep an eye on, and root for, one of our own – Thomas Javier Rivera of the hometown New York Mets.

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Interview With TJ Rivera

New York Nine President, Ian Millman, interviewed New York Mets prospect, TJ Rivera, who is currently leading the Florida State League in batting average, during Spring Training:

Ian Millman: Let’s start from the beginning, what’s the biggest transition you had to make as a player from high school to college, what do you feel were the major differences that you ultimately needed to prepare yourself for and what advice and suggestions to you have for people making their plans

TJ Rivera: The things that helped me the most was being prepared every day, having a plan and being organized, especially going into college where you’re working on your grades and keeping those where they need to be. Playing hard every day and doing everything 100% and giving everything I have to give no matter where, on the field or in the classroom. Which is something I wasn’t very good at, but I learned as I got older to take that stuff seriously because you never know what’s going to happen, especially with injuries. Baseball is not going to be around all my life so you just never know.

Ian: So you’re telling me I can’t resign then

TJ: [laughs]

Ian: When looking for colleges, what suggestions do you have for players as far as what they should focus on when choosing a college program?

TJ: To not do what I did. I was going with baseball decisions more than academics and did not choose schools that would help as much academically, and I think that was a mistake I made. Baseball is my passion growing up, all I knew was baseball and I kind of just took it wherever baseball would take me and I went with the schools where I could focus on baseball and I didn’t focus on academics, like what I wanted to study, and that was one thing I wish I had a little more focus on was what I wanted to study and what I wanted to do with my future if baseball didn’t work out. I think that’s the most important thing and if you can get a scholarship to somewhere that has a strong program that you want to study that would be awesome for kids going from high school to college.

Ian: So is it fair to say that people should go to the best academic institution they can and if they are good enough at baseball someone will find them?

TJ: Right, my main focus would be something I want to study, something I enjoy doing so if baseball doesn’t work, then I had something to fall back on. And then if you can make baseball your career and you got a good education, that’s awesome.

Ian: And what was your major at Troy State?

TJ: Criminal Justice

Ian: When did you focus on the academics and thinking about your back up plan if baseball didn’t work out?

TJ: As I got older in college that’s when I actually started focusing on academics. It was almost my senior year when I really started focusing on having a back up plan. I should have started from freshman year or even in high school. I should have been thinking a little more about if baseball doesn’t work out, what am I going to do and what am I going to study? I want to study something that’s going to make me happy and something I enjoy doing. I think that’s something a lot of guys should think about, especially when they look at colleges. You shouldn’t forget about the baseball if you love baseball and that’s your passion, but it’s also about getting a good education even if you’re not comfortable doing that.

Ian: Absolutely, let’s go back to High School for a minute. How important was summer baseball for you during your high school career and what were some of things you took from summer baseball?

TJ: I think it was one of the most important aspects of my pre college career because it helped me get my name out there. Between the tournaments we played where people saw me, along with the connections you and the coaches had it really helped me get my name out. Not only that, but it helped me grow as a person because I was meeting different kinds of people, and I had to learn to interact with all different kinds of personalities. It helped me out for when I got to college and pro baseball, where we have to interact and play as a team with people from different areas and different backgrounds.

Ian: As far as your summer organization, the New York Nine, what are some things you recall about your experiences there or highlights of playing with the Nine that you’d like to share with people?

TJ: We were like a family, we had a really good relation between the guys and I enjoyed it greatly. You and the coaches were awesome. You and the coaches always helped me out with everything. It was on a personal level, it wasn’t just going to play baseball, it was about baseball and family. No matter what you guys kept in touch and always worried about personal or family issues, so it was really good chemistry when you feel like the coaches have your back not only on the field but personally, too. When you go out and play summer ball and take trips to the tournaments you want to be comfortable and that’s what the New York Nine excelled at. I had an awesome time on those trips and playing good baseball with and against good competition. I mean, you couldn’t ask for anything better, for sure.
Ian: So fair to say even at this point you still hold a special place for the New York Nine?

TJ: Oh yeah, for sure. I always will. You guys got me out there, put my name out there and got me into a college where I could go start my baseball and academic career.

Ian: Absolutely, and we appreciate you, you know? Keeping up with the players is important to us with the New York Nine. Let’s talk about after college for a second. You were offered a shot, The draft goes by in your junior and senior years, and you don’t get drafted. What goes through your mind when college ends and draft has come and gone?

TJ: My whole college career flashed by so quick and I thought too many times that baseball was going to be my career no matter what and I think that might have been a disadvantage for me and screwed up some things for me. I thought no matter what baseball was something I was going to do and then next thing I know I don’t get drafted or signed and it was a bit disappointing but I’ve always had that mentality where when something knocks me down, I’m always going to get up and come back harder. That’s how I go about my business, no matter what I do. So it was kind of disappointing, for sure, not hearing my name called and you play with guys who you think you are better than and you put up better numbers than and it just doesn’t happen. It is certainly disappointing but at the same time you can’t give up, you have to keep fighting and roll with it.

Ian: The Mets sign you and you get an opportunity to play because they have some injuries and they are going to give you a brief opportunity to go in and fill some spots. And here we are 3 years later, Florida State League all star appearances, Mets minor league shortstop of the year in 2012 and still out there in the big picture you’re not one of the top 20 guys. How does that play into your mindset entering spring training this year and beyond?

TJ: It’s tough. Sometimes you think they don’t believe in you. But, honestly, when I got my opportunity from the Mets, I just knew I wasn’t going to look back and was going to give all I had. And I knew I wasn’t going to be a prospect and I knew I wasn’t going to be a big time name with all the money or be in the top prospect articles but I just knew that once they gave me an opportunity I wasn’t going to give it up. I was going to give it everything I had day in and day out. That’s what I’ve been doing, I have been blessed to get an opportunity and hopefully it works out for me in the end.

Ian: How do you prepare to be consistent every single day to the point where you’ve got teammates who are highly regarded in the organization who say that you’re the most professional, consistent player they have ever played with. How do you prepare for that grind every single day?

TJ: One thing I learned playing pro ball and I didn’t have much of it in college was the mental game. I had heard about it all the time and never really paid attention to it. I always thought the physical part of the game was most important because that’s what we were doing. We were going out and busting our butt physically playing every day. But the one thing that really turned my game around was the mental part. I like to stay positive, this game is a game of failure, you know that, everybody says it. It’s a grind, especially in pro ball because you’re playing day in and day out and you’re traveling and have late nights. You might not be feeling good that day but it comes down to, if you want it that bad you’re going to have to go out and perform and give it your all. That’s the kind of mentality that I go through everything with. I go up there every day and say, this guy is not better than me, I know you might throw 96 and you might be a first round draft pick and you might have 4 plus pitches but you’re not going to beat me and that’s the mentality I go out there every day no matter who I’m facing, who I’m playing with or who I’m competing with. They might be a better athlete, faster than me, stronger, have more money, but in my mind you’re not better than me, you’re not going to beat me that day. So that’s the mentality I go through every day with. Obviously it gets away from you at times, but it’s also about how fast you can get back into that mentality and be confident and play like you’re the best player out there at all times no matter what. I don’t mean by being cocky, pimping balls or showing off, but having that consistent thought process that you’re not going to beat me today. I think that really helped my game out, and especially in pro ball. I was always confident and confident in my abilities, but I never really practiced the mental part of the game until I was signed.

Ian: If there is still one weakness to your game that you had to work on right now, not that we’d give away any secrets to the opposition, but what’s the one thing you feel you could still be better at?

TJ: Controlling my strike zone is one thing, I’ve always been an aggressive hitter because I like to put the ball in play and try to put the ball in play hard at all times but as I get older and there’s better pitching, I start coming out my zone sometimes on low and away pitches when I could wait for a better pitch. But honestly, I think I could work on everything. I think there are ways to get better no matter what. Every offseason I try to get stronger, I try to get faster, I try to get more flexible and I just try to just come in better than the year before. And no matter how good or bad I did the year before I’m still going to work harder. So to answer your question, there’s still a lot of things I need to work on, I know I do, but I also just try to simplify the game as much as possible.
Ian: Last question, what parting words do you have specifically for New York Nine players or players looking to play for the New York Nine or the organization itself?

TJ: If you want to play somewhere where you’re going to be comfortable in the organization, where you’re going to be seen, where the people around you, the coach, the staff, the people you meet that are actually going to care for you, then it’s the place you want to play. And I believe that’s where everybody wants to play. Everybody wants to be comfortable, everybody wants to have fun, but at the same time get better, work hard and learn some things, but at the same time get seen by colleges and pro scouts. So if you want to do things like that and also have a good time and meet great people and play for people who are going to care for you then New York Nine is the place to be.

Ian: Thanks, TJ. Good luck in the upcoming season.