A Bronx tale: Rivera beats odds to Majors

A Bronx tale: Rivera beats odds to Majors

NEW YORK -- For much of the first half of last century, as baseball carved its place among our most national fixtures, New York served as its cultural center and main talent incubator. Many of the game's legends began Major League journeys alongside many of its workmen, on fields cramped amid the city's urban tapestry: tucked under bridges, hugging freeways, plopped in between apartment buildings.

Some of Lou Gehrig's and Sandy Koufax's fields still exist, and baseball is still played, every soggy spring, on their imperfect surfaces. But rarely do these working-class sectors of this city produce big leaguers anymore.

Which is why to truly appreciate the ascent of T.J. Rivera -- from undrafted free agent to 28-year-old rookie to the Mets' hottest hitter -- one must look past the scope of his resume points. By now, the unlikelihood of Rivera's big league career has been well documented. But perhaps the odds had actually been undersold in regards to the no-money non-prospect who went from hitting tennis balls on the streets of the Bronx -- to protect the neighborhood windows -- to hitting .324 over eight professional seasons.

Rivera is one of just four active big leaguers born and raised within New York City's five boroughs. Rockies reliever Adam Ottavino attended an affluent prep school with an elite baseball program. Orioles slugger Pedro Alvarez was a No. 2 overall pick. Yankees star Dellin Betances grew to be 6-foot-8 and throw 100 mph.

Rivera is average size and has average speed, little power and an offensive skill set devalued in the modern game. He was nearly cut from the junior varsity team at Lehman High. Rivera may be the local kid who plays home games 15 minutes from his parents' house in the Throggs Neck section of the Bronx, but to his teammates, his background is the baseball equivalent of Mars.

Rivera's diving stop at first

"I grew up in an apartment building. We played Wiffle ball, football, on concrete. We played basketball with the garbage pails," Rivera said. "Most of these guys grew up in Florida, where there are parks and fields. It's hilarious telling them my story."

Mets manager Terry Collins calls his utility man "a throwback." The cliché, in this case, couldn't be more apt. Rivera's story is ripe with 1950s nostalgia, of a schoolyard-type baseball education that's heavily muted in the age of smartphones and rarely acts as a Major League starting point circa 2017.

It's a Bronx tale that helps explain both why it took 2,670 plate appearances of elite hitting for Rivera to receive that big league call, and how he mustered the resolve to wait around for it.

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Thomas Javier Rivera always had a ball in his hands, so at age 4, his mother, Nilsa, and father, Tommy, registered him for Little League. During that first game, on a concrete "field" in the middle of the Parkchester project homes, Rivera ran through bases painted to the ground.

Such began an amateur career defined by humble circumstances. Rivera played on the street, in alleys and in between buildings. Tommy pitched to his son in front of their building or on the hardtop at Public Intermediate School 192. Grass was a luxury, and Pelham Bay Park, which had the most of it, was reserved for weekends when the Riveras played softball.

So when Rivera and his friends discovered a grass field nearby, in the square of a different project building, they cautiously flocked to it. Rivera now tells his millionaire teammates he loved the game so much, he ran into the projects to play.

"My teammates call me 'Hey Arnold' from the old Nickelodeon show. He used to play in the street. That's what they think of me as," Rivera said. "It's not even that we lived in a bad area, but that's the New York style."

Courtesy T.J. Rivera

That style is evident in Rivera's swing. It's a compact catch-22 of a cut, the reason he's in the big leagues and the reason it took him so long to get there. Rivera rarely homers and rarely walks, making him the antithesis of what clubs scout for in the post-Moneyball Era.

"For me, I always wanted to hit line drives," Rivera said. "I don't know if it came from playing Wiffle ball or what. I didn't want to hit the ball on top of the buildings, maybe that's why."

What Rivera lacks in power and patience, he makes up for in his ability to make good contact. He has always hit. The .306 average in Class A became .349 in Double-A, which mushroomed to .337 in Triple-A Vegas. But without much prospect status or discipline, Rivera was constantly passed over for promotions.

"Coming from where he came from, we hoped he stuck around and made some good money," said Edwin Betances, Rivera's old coach at Lehman High School. "We wondered: 'Why isn't he getting a chance?'"

The problem was, Rivera's on-base percentage was almost entirely comprised of his batting average, which team officials feared would drop at the highest level. They feared if he wouldn't walk in the Minors, he really wouldn't walk in the Majors.

They weren't wrong. Rivera didn't walk much when he was finally promoted -- just three times in 33 games down the stretch in 2016. But he also hit .333.

Rivera made the Mets' Opening Day roster this spring for the first time in his career. He has seen significant playing time thanks to a slew of injuries, filling in admirably at three positions.

"He's dangerous," Collins said. "Does he kind of go against some of the stuff we look for? Yes, but that's who he is. That's his whole approach."

T.J. Rivera's solo homer

Rivera is hitting .300 in 20 games and has started 12 in a row. He has boosted his walk rate from 2.6 to a more average 7.2 percent, a hike he attributes to the success he has had up here where word spreads quickly.

"Walks and power are linked," Rivera said after hitting his first homer on Friday. "I think they'll come."

In a way, Rivera's aggressiveness makes sense in the context of the prove-yourself mandate that has defined his life. Swinging is a fighter's mentality.

"It's been that way since high school -- you had to work hard to walk him," Edwin Betances said. "But we wanted him to hit."

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Rivera nearly didn't make Betances' junior varsity team after the 13-year-old showed up to tryouts, admittedly raw and baseball naive. This was the fall of 2002, when up to 300 kids would try out to play for Lehman in the Public School Athletic League's ultra-competitive Bronx A Division.

Rivera took the field with a 13-inch softball glove, saying he was a shortstop. He was almost cut even after procuring a standard 11 1/2-inch glove.

"I was really thin, really slow," Rivera said. "I had a buddy who was a year older, and he had to put the word in for me with the coach."

Rivera made varsity the next season. There, he began weightlifting and developing into one of the better hitters in the city, slashing line drives across the PSAL's many public fields.

"Literally there could be a softball game going on in the same outfield, and you're using a mound that's publicly used," Rivera said. "It was so normal back then, but now I realize how everybody else was playing."

Courtesy T.J. Rivera

In what would become a trend throughout his life, Rivera's lack of flashy tools let his contemporaries overshadow his productively fundamental play.

"We had other kids that were so much more talented, physically," Edwin Betances said. "They didn't have it between the ears. They didn't have the work ethic. He was a coach's dream."

Rivera earned spots on scout teams alongside Alvarez and former big leaguers Pedro Beato and Johnny Monell, but he graduated without a Division I scholarship. From there, a baseball life that began in the urban projects sent Rivera to three Alabama colleges and through countless Minor League towns, nearly a decade of trying to not lose the baseball over the buildings and hoping someone would notice.

Betances still coaches at Lehman, where he teaches gym. Every morning he gathers with students and staff for a daily "T.J. Rivera Update" classroom segment. Every student has seen that Throggs Neck swing the previous night on television, in the big leagues, 15 minutes by car and a million miles away by every other measure.

And before every at-bat he takes, Rivera taps a one-word sticker strapped to the brim of his batting helmet. It reads: "Believe."

"I try to take every day like it's my last, that New York mentality. Nothing will be given to you," Rivera said. "People have to grind out here in New York. They have no choice. Whatever you have, you make use of it."

Joe Trezza is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @joetrezz. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.