NEW YORK -- The road was long and there were plenty of places along the way where T.J. Rivera's dream of reaching the major leagues could have died. But the 27-year-old from the Bronx kept hitting, so he kept going. And now the road has brought him to Citi Field.
Rivera was summoned from Triple-A Las Vegas on Tuesday night after the New York Mets' 5-3 loss to the Diamondbacks. He took a red-eye flight from Albuquerque and arrived at Citi on Wednesday to find himself in the Mets’ starting lineup against Arizona, batting sixth and playing third base.
“It’s just unreal right now -- it still hasn’t hit me fully,” Rivera said.
His journey from Lehman High in the Bronx to the Mets is a study in perseverance. He did not leave high school with a Division I scholarship, but rather ended up at Wallace Community College in Alabama. He was not selected in the 2011 draft out of Troy University, but eventually landed with the Mets. The Mets left him unprotected for the Rule 5 draft in December, and none of the other major league teams wanted him. He was passed over for promotion to the big leagues time and again this season despite his formidable offensive numbers for the Las Vegas 51s.
But now the injury-riddled Mets need a right-handed hitter to help them in their drive to return to the playoffs, and Rivera is getting the shot. The choice might smack of desperation, but if there is one thing he has done at every level, it’s hit.
“We came in [Tuesday] and [GM Sandy Alderson] knows we’re pretty predominately left-handed, and he walked in yesterday and said, ‘I think it’s time for Rivera – [I’ll] call him up.’ I said ‘great,’” Mets manager Terry Collins said.
Rivera was leading the Pacific Coast League with a .349 average and ranked third in RBIs with 80. In 617 at-bats at every minor league level, he is a .323 hitter, the best among any active minor leaguer.
“[I] just kept grinding away, trying not to think about the things I can’t control,” Rivera said of his wait. “So [I was] trying to put good at-bats together consistently, and luckily I was able to finally get the call.”
Former Mets catcher Mackey Sasser coached Rivera at Wallace Community College, was stunned he didn’t get drafted out of Troy, and gave an endorsement when Mets talent evaluators were looking at Rivera’s track record. He was signed to a minor league deal.
There were plenty of times that Rivera thought maybe his dream would die on the vine.
“You do [wonder] after the trade deadline and things like that -- you start to wonder if this year is going to be the year you get the call, but you try to put that behind you and grind away at the season,” he said.
Wednesday night promised to be even sweeter because he would be playing in his hometown and in front of his parents. Though he grew up a fan of the Yankees -- he lived in the Throgs Neck section of the Bronx, after all -- his father’s favorite team was the Mets.
“It is special because he’s done a lot for me throughout my career,” Rivera said of his father, Tommy. “So it was really special to tell him I was signed with them, even though I wasn’t drafted. Like, ‘I’m going to your favorite team,’ and he was super-excited. And for me to play in the pinstripes in front of him and go out there at Citi Field? It’s going to be a special moment for him.”
Collins said he was impressed by Rivera’s compact and mechanical swing in spring training, and now that he’s with the major league club, the front office wants him to play all over the diamond. He has played every position in the infield and some left field as well, so there could be chances aplenty even as injured players begin to come off the disabled list. Infielder Jose Reyes (oblique strain) begins a rehab assignment on Thursday.
“I think right now the plan is going to be to give him the chance to play some third base here,” Collins said.
After not getting drafted five years ago, all Rivera wanted was a chance. He got it when Sasser encouraged the Mets to sign him. Now he gets his shot to cash in on it.