The Riveras gathered in the bowels of Citi Field just before midnight on Wednesday, huddled together in a lounge reserved for players’ families. Accompanied by some close friends, their nervous energy was palpable even though the game had already ended.
Exhausted yet elated, the group snapped photos with each other while patiently awaiting the arrival of their pride and joy. With shock still apparent on many faces in the room, the surreal nature of the previous 24 hours still setting in, that night’s starting third baseman burst through the door grinning from ear to ear.
T.J. Rivera, the 27-year-old Bronx native with almost six minor league seasons under his belt, finally had the homecoming he and his close-knit band of supporters had dreamed of for years. Grasping manager Terry Collins’ lineup card tightly, one of several keepsakes from a game he’ll never forget, Rivera glided across the floor with the gait of a man who had just realized his childhood dream.
As he greeted everyone individually, the collective feeling was clear. This was the culmination of all of the little league practices, the junior college games, the minor league bus rides, the countless hours in the batting cage. T.J. was home, and despite being undrafted and passed over several times, he had made it.
NYC to Alabama … and Back Again
This story may sound familiar, and that’s because it is. Well, sort of. A lot of major leaguers can tell inspirational tales about how they achieved the ultimate goal, including the family and friends that helped get them there. Not many, however, travel the path of T.J. Rivera and end up on a big league roster.
It all started on Randall Avenue in the working-class Throgs Neck neighborhood, where Rivera first fell in love with being on a baseball diamond. Like many other Bronx kids from his generation, T.J. idolized two stars who played in his borough at the time.
“My favorite players were Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams,” Rivera said. “I loved the way they played the game.”
It was at Shea Stadium where T.J. would attend the most games in those days, though, thanks in no small part to his father Tommy and the team he rooted for.
“I did grow up a Yankee fan but I also liked the Mets,” the former Lehman High School standout said when asked about his allegiances growing up. “My dad was a Met fan so he kind of kept that on me… I was able to see a lot of Met games, which was cool.”
Nilsa Rivera, meanwhile, saw that her son had a knack for the game early on.
“We realized that he had something special by the age of two,” she said earlier this year. “But it was when he started playing organized ball in little league that we recognized that he was always above average for his age group.”
Those little league games led to a successful four years at Lehman, the same East Bronx high school where former Mets All-Star Bobby Bonilla – also undrafted – played until 1981. While there Rivera was one of two New York high schoolers named to Street & Smith’s 50 Juniors to Watch in 2005, alongside Yankees All-Star closer Dellin Betances.
After graduation T.J. left New York for Alabama to play for ex-Met catcher Mackey Sasser at Wallace Community College, where he performed well enough to earn a scholarship to nearby Troy University. Rivera spent two years as a member of the Trojans, helping the club reach the 2011 College World Series Regionals by hitting .303 in 62 games. The time spent at Troy would also help shape his life in a different way, as he would meet his future wife Ashton.
Rivera played the last game of his college career on June 5 of that year in Nashville, just one day before Major League Baseball’s Amateur Draft. Fresh out of school and still dreaming about a future in professional baseball, the next few days would prove disappointing. T.J. kept an eye on the draft online, hoping his name would pop up. By the end, 1,530 players would be selected. He wasn’t one of them.
“Ever since I was a kid I saw myself playing professional baseball, so not being drafted was a letdown,” Rivera said during spring training. “When I wasn’t picked I didn’t really know what the next step was. Grad school was really the only other thing I had in mind.”
After a few weeks of uncertainty, Rivera signed with the Mets as a non-drafted free agent on the nation’s birthday. The dream was still alive. The kid from Throgs Neck was now property of his dad’s favorite team, and it was time to suit up as a professional ballplayer.
Paying His Dues … and Then Some
Rivera started playing in the Mets system almost immediately, starting out in rookie ball with Kingsport and finishing up the 2011 season as a member of the Brooklyn Cyclones in the New York-Penn League. He was just getting started, but as an undrafted middle infielder nowhere to be seen on any organizational depth charts the uphill climb to reach Citi Field would be a steep one.
“When I signed as a free agent and went undrafted out of college, I figured I wasn’t going to be on the fast track,” Rivera said. “I also knew that I was going to have to prove to the organization that I could play.”
As the years passed, T.J. slowly but steadily rose through the minor league ranks. While a perceived lack of power and lower than average walk totals may have kept his name out of some prospect conversations at the time, one thing was constant at every level. Rivera made consistent contact and he could hit for average.
From 2011-14 he hit close to or above .300 at every level, including a 54-game stretch with Double-A Binghamton in ’14 where he compiled an impressive .358/.394/.438 slash line and went 11-for-34 during the postseason en route to an Eastern League championship. Rivera’s combined .349 batting average that year led all qualifying Mets minor leaguers and led to his second MiLB.com Organization All-Star award.
Still far from a household name, people associated with the Mets began to talk about T.J. a bit more. In spite of the added chatter, chances of a call-up still seemed slim.
“It’s extremely hard for an undrafted player,” said a scout familiar with the Mets system. “Most of the time those players are just filling spots at the lower levels.”
2015 was different, however. Now 26 years old and becoming somewhat of a minor league veteran, Rivera started the season in Double-A but wound up seeing significant time in Triple-A Las Vegas. He batted .325 across both levels and was especially effective with runners in scoring position, compiling a .407 (22-for-54) average at Binghamton and .356 (16-for-45) with Vegas.
Rivera would continue his hot hitting in winter ball, batting .302 in 25 games for Mayaguez, before receiving his first invitation to major league spring training in February of this year.
“Most undrafted players never get close to an invite,” according to the aforementioned scout. “Rivera is rare because he has really produced at every level of the minors.”
After sticking with the big league club until the final days of spring training, Rivera was reassigned to minor league camp; a place he had become very familiar with. Now 27 years old, Rivera was back with the Las Vegas 51s and silently wondering if his shot would ever come.
Rather than pout and get upset, T.J. did what he had always done. He got back to work, a lesson his father instilled in him, dominating PCL pitching to the tune of a .349/.391/.513 slash line over 97 games; ranking among the league leaders with 80 RBIs.
“He was always telling me that someone else is out there working harder than you,” Rivera said. “I’ve always been someone that goes out there and works as hard as they can and whatever happens happens.”
Throughout the season, as he continued to put up impressive numbers, the Mets continued to promote several of his Las Vegas teammates in an effort to shore up the roster due to a rash of injuries and offensive shortcomings.
“You start to wonder if this is the year that you will get the call,” Rivera said. “But you try to put that behind you and kind of just grind away at the season.”
That’s exactly what he was doing on Tuesday night in Albequerque. Grinding. Las Vegas had just dropped the first game of a doubleheader, with T.J. going 2-for-3, when manager Wally Backman called him into the office. Backman, the gritty second baseman from the Mets’ 1986 championship team, wasn’t going to deliver the news without a little humor.
“Wally called me into his office and kind of tricked me a little bit,” Rivera said. “He said he was giving me a little bit of a break, a little rest, for the second game. I wasn’t playing, and then he kind of snuck it up on me that I was flying out. It was pretty cool.”
This was no trick. T.J. was on the red eye back to New York City, back to where it all began.
A Dream Come True
617 regular season games in the minors. 2,382 at-bats. 770 hits. And now … this.
After getting into town at 6:30 in the morning and sleeping for a few restless hours, Rivera headed to the Mets’ ballpark in Queens like he’d done so many times as a kid. He wouldn’t need a ticket this time, though.
He was now part of the show, wearing #54 and penciled into the six spot in the starting lineup. He had his own walk-up music, the 1997 hip-hop anthem Deja Vu (Uptown Baby) by fellow Bronx natives Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz. Team captain David Wright even offered Rivera four tickets right behind home plate, which he gave to his wife and parents.
T.J. went 1-for-5, lining a single to centerfield to lead off the tenth inning for his first major league hit.
“I just want one hit,” his father Tommy said before the game. “Just get that first one out of the way.”
He also looked comfortable at third base, not his natural position, making a few nifty plays on slowly hit grounders. And although the Mets lost in 12 innings to last-place Arizona, nothing could put a damper on the night or the memories for T.J. and the 30+ people that came to see him.
“The whole game, I really felt like I still had to smack myself, almost like, ‘I’m here. I’m actually here,” Rivera said.
Here’s how Rivera’s family members reacted when they first received the good news.
Ashton Rivera, T.J.’s wife
“I was absolutely shocked. Usually you see hints on Twitter or there is an injury that makes you think maybe this will be his chance, but I had a feeling when he called me between his doubleheader. My legs instantly went numb when he told me. I still have not got the feeling back. It’s the best feeling in the world knowing your husband is finally getting to live his dream. I just can’t put into words the way I am feeling right now, but will say I couldn’t sleep a wink.”
Nilsa Rivera, T.J.’s mother
“Seeing T.J’s name come up on my phone in the evening, while I was awaiting the second game of the doubleheader to start, was very surprising. I thought he had a free moment or had a question, but honestly did not think that it was the call we had been anticipating for so long. I jumped up when he said he is not playing the second game. Tears of joy flowed. We are all just beside ourselves just knowing he finally gets his well deserved chance.”
Alexis Rivera, T.J.’s sister
“I am so extremely proud of T.J. This has been a long and tough journey for him, but to see him finally get the chance to prove to everyone what he’s proven to us his entire life is so surreal. He is inspiring, watching him devote every ounce of himself to baseball because he loves it so much and has had this dream since he was a kid. He inspires me every day.”
Jose Thomas Rivera (Tommy), T.J.’s father
“I got the call while I was at work, and I must say that I heard what he said but I just didn’t believe it for a moment. So long we have waited for this call. So long that I almost burned my Mets cap, but I am grateful and proud that the Mets organization has given my son the opportunity that he has worked so hard for. I can’t be more proud of T.J.”
Photo Credit: Andy Marlin