Every athlete carries the dream of playing professionally for the team they grew up following as a youngster, but it doesn’t often come to fruition. The list of players who had the rare opportunity includes Derek Jeter, Joe Mauer, and Tony Gwynn. Brooklyn native Manny Rodriguez won’t wait long for the chance to play for his hometown team since the Mets assigned him to the Brooklyn Cyclones shortly after joining the organization as a tenth round selection in June.
“I grew watching a few games,” Rodriguez said. “Watching the ‘Clones was a good experience. We would always come out with my Little League teams and enjoy the stadium, enjoy the view, and enjoy the experience of watching the Cyclones play.”
When the Mets drafted Rodriguez out of Cincinnati, he experienced the feeling of a boyhood aspiration coming to fruition. The excitement beckoned after finding out he’d begin his career on the same field where he attended games as a youngster. Fan support and attention grew when he became the third player in franchise history to reside in the borough. Joining the Mets’ organization was a culmination of his efforts and an opportunity he believes is best for him in the initial stages of his professional career.
“It was a dream come true to be able to play in front of my family and my childhood friends. I can’t ask for a better opportunity. I’m really blessed and I can’t wait for the opportunity.”
Playing in Brooklyn is a return home for Rodriguez, who left the borough to attend high school at Calvert Hall in Baltimore as a 15-year-old, followed by four years at the University of Cincinnati. Having independence as a teenager enabled Rodriguez to develop the mental toughness to handle adversity and establish an identity. Many of today’s athletes spend considerable amounts of time away from home competing in different tournaments or attending schools backed by a deep athletic tradition as teens or young adults.
“It was extremely beneficial,” Rodriguez said about attending school away from home. “This game will eat your lives, so once you branch out and learn about yourself, you will strengthen your mental game. That’s when you begin to have success in this game and you realize most of this game is mental and the physical stuff comes along later.”
The lessons regarding mental toughness had a profound effect on Rodriguez when he struggled mightily during his first three seasons with the Cincinnati Bearcats. Like most middle infielders, the focus was for Rodriguez to hit the ball on the ground and use his speed to reach base.
His baseball future faced serious doubt following his junior season when no team called his name in the draft. Rodriguez decided to alter his approach in the final year of eligibility by changing his swing to incorporate launch angle. Suddenly, he discovered a source of untapped power and experienced career highs in average (.292), home runs (12), and OPS (.963).
“The past three years, I was one of those guys who was trying to hit the ball on the ground and use my speed,” Rodriguez said. “Number-wise, things weren’t working out, so what I did in the offseason was trying to get bigger and stronger. I was also trying to get the right launch angle on a consistent basis and it showed an improvement in the stats. It helped my game a lot.”
While there’s no dispute about the effect that launch angle can have by improving offensive production, pitchers have begun exploiting holes in those swings by throwing down and away or jamming hitters on the hands to limit extension. Rodriguez endured a learning curve at the onset of his professional career learning the tendencies of each pitcher. Additionally, he looks to vary the launch angle of his swing to adapt and drive the ball.
“It’s the same game and the same speed. It’s all about slowing the game down and continue to compete against betting pitching. With pitchers throwing high 90s and triple digits, hitters need to do whatever they can to get an edge. For some people, it’s about staying tight and rotating their back hip. You have to be consistent from different angles.”
Before the start of the season, the Mets organization sought to upgrade their coaching staff, adding Rich Donnelly and Marlon Anderson to join Pitching Coach Royce Ring and Manager Edgardo Alfonzo. Unlike most coaching staffs at the Short-Season level, each member of this quartet has big league experience either as a player or coach. The level of expertise lends credence to the players such as Rodriguez, making him comfortable in his own surroundings and capable of handling the grind of professional baseball.
“These guys have a lot of experience and a lot of intuition,” Rodriguez said. “They know a lot about the game and things that I didn’t think about before like little things in the field, such as baserunning and tells that pitchers have. It’s just another great set of eyes to have in the dugout.”