T.J. Rivera is certainly now a great admirer of the classics, as in the World Baseball Classic. The Mets’ second-year infielder made quite an impression during his stint in this spring’s Classic as a member of Team Puerto Rico, which again made it all the way to the final, where they lost to the US, 8-0.
On a team that fetured All-Stars such as Carlos Beltran, Carlos Correa, Yadier Molina, Javier Baez, Francisco Lindor, and other great players with familial ties to Puerto Rico, Rivera was called upon to man the all-important position of first base in six of PR’s eight games in the WBC. He also played games at second and third, putting his versatility on display as he also banged out two home runs, a double, and had five RBIs during PR’s run.
The Bronx-born graduate of Lehman High has impressed at each of his stops along the Mets’ minor league system after being signed as a non-drafted free agent in 2011. And last year he finally made it to the big club, where he also excelled in his limited chances (.333, 35 hits, 105 ABs, 3 HRs, 16 RBIs), and was the starting second baseman in the Mets Wild Card game against San Francisco last October.
Recently, we had a chance to catch up with TJ and ask about his WBC and other baseball experiences:
NYSD: How did it feel to finally make the club for the first time out of spring training?
TJ: It was great. To be home with the team I’d been around pretty much all spring other than in the Classic. It’s nice to be with the guys and be a part of it. Opening Day was a blast. I’m just glad to be here and help the team anyway possible.
NYSD: How did you end up on first base so often in the WBC?
TJ: If you look at the talent on that team it was hard to fit in anywhere else. They’re pretty good, a great group of guys, great leadership, great veteran presence. That whole experience was a blast.
NYSD: What specifically did you learn by being around such great young and veteran players?
TJ: I took in how hard they really work. Everybody. Sometimes you see guys with talent and you don’t know how hard they work. These guys put in the time. And they’re very serious about everything they do, watch video. They always talked hitting. How focused they are was a great learning tool.
NYSD: How long do you think it took to come together as a team, with guys coming from many different organizations?
TJ: Right away. All the guys from Puerto Rico stuck together. It was like a family. They knew each other, and either played winter ball or grew up near each other, guys like Yady and Beltran brought everybody in and we had that family presence. Not only us but our families as well.
NYSD: Yady is a great team leader. What makes him so special?
TJ: He’s unbelievable. He really brought the family essence into it.
NYSD: What part of being part of Team Puerto Rico has made you a better ballplayer?
TJ: You learn you’re not playing for yourself. And even here in New York, you know you’re not playing for yourself. It taught you how to play for something else other than a team. You were playing not only for a team but an entire country, in this case the island of Puerto Rico. It brought the island together and for the little bit it was, I hope that the whole concept of playing for the island was really special for the people.
There was a playoff atmosphere to every game and that was really cool, too.
NYSD: And you ended up wearing No. 5, not your “linebacker” number (54) here. How did that come about?
TJ: I gave them a list of numbers I liked, and 5 was actually the number I wore in winter ball playing in Puerto Rico, so that worked out.
NYSD: You grew up a Yankees fan in the Bronx?
TJ: How could you not? But truthfully, I think I actually came to more Mets games than I did Yankees games. I grew up in the area close to Queens near the Throgs Neck and Whitestone Bridge. So it was easy to come to Shea. We made a lot of trips to Shea.
NYSD: What was it like facing teams from other parts of the world, such as Venezuela, Mexico, and Italy?
TJ: That was pretty cool, facing talent from a certain area, and they have their own nationalism. Facing Venezuela, and you see those names coming out of one lineup, and even looking at the bench, it was crazy seeing who was on those teams. Very talented players, and I’m playing first base so I got a chance to talk to a lot of them. I chatted with everybody. Everyone was real friendly.
NYSD: Here’s a big “what if,” hard to answer, but I’ll ask. If you had that Puerto Rico team for all 162 games in one season, how many games would you win?
TJ: Wow! That’s really hard. I think if you made a team like that, there’s really no telling how many. It was such a short time, but we really came together, and had great success. I don’t know how many, but we’d be in the playoffs, for sure. The passion and the talent was unbelievable. And I think we did a lot for the Classic and the sport, brought in a lot of viewers.
NYSD: And is it true that you were on a team that spoke mostly Spanish and that you do not speak Spanish?
TJ: Correct. Both my parents were born there, but most of everything they said, I understood. The baseball terminology and all of that, I’ve been around, even when I was in high school, so everything they did I pretty much understood, the signs, etc.
When they got into other things, like reading off a long list of issues when we traveled, things like that, I was like, okay, I’m going to need a translation here. But other than that, I was good.