NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Thursday, March 10, 2016, 11:37 AM
T.J. Rivera, a Bronx product, is in his first big league camp with the Mets this spring.
When Mackey Sasser coached him in junior college, T.J. Rivera was “a blue-collar player” who could really hit. Sasser, the former Mets catcher, believed Rivera could be a pro player, so he was stunned when the 2011 amateur draft came and went and Rivera wasn’t picked.
But then Sasser, who is now in his 19th year coaching at Alabama’s Wallace Community College, got a phone call from Mets scout Tommy Jackson, looking for some insight on Rivera, a Bronx native. Rivera’s stat lines had caught the eye of Ian Levin, the Mets’ director of minor-league operations.
“I told Tommy, ‘I can’t believe nobody drafted T.J. You can’t go wrong with him,'” recalls Sasser, who was a Met from 1988-92. “He’s going to make someone a good player.”
Maybe the Mets, who not long later signed Rivera as an undrafted free agent. Now he’s in his first big-league camp after a minor-league career in which he’s hit at every stop — Rivera carries a .318 lifetime average over five years in the minors, including batting .306 in 54 games at Triple-A last year. Entering play Thursday, Rivera was hitting .267 in camp with four RBI in seven games.
“I think he’s going to be a big-leaguer,” says J.P. Ricciardi, a special assistant to Mets GM Sandy Alderson. “Every year, he keeps getting better and better. He can play second and third, a little bit of short. But the main thing is, he can hit.
“Ian and Tommy, those guys are responsible for signing him, which was a great job of scouting. It’s just another example of, if you give a guy a chance, you just never know.”
Rivera, 27, is looking at his non-roster camp invite the only way he can — as a chance to “show what I’ve got and compete.”
That’s what he did growing up in the Throgs Neck section of the Bronx, playing in Little Leagues there and in Parkchester. The son of Nilsa, an insurance adjuster, and Tommy, a handyman at a Manhattan apartment building, starred at Lehman High School and then headed to Dothan, Ala. and Sasser’s program. Eventually, he earned a scholarship to Troy (Ala.) University and finished there.
In a recent interview in Port St. Lucie, Rivera credited his folks, who still live in the Bronx. “They said I had a bat and ball in my hands as soon as I could,” Rivera said. “They saw that I loved the game and gave me everything I needed to chase my dream. It all goes to them, really.”
Rivera and his wife, Ashton, now spend part of the offseason in Prattville, Alabama, which means Rivera’s Bronx accent now has occasional spells of drawl.
“Can you hear it?” Rivera says, laughing. “I say, ‘y’all’ all the time. I was down there for four years in school and I went down in the offseasons after that the next two years and it’s been like that ever since.”
He didn’t only pick up a different lilt down South — Sasser’s coaching helped his game. “He’s good,” Rivera says. “He made us work hard.”
Rivera impressed Sasser by plunging right into the work. “It’s hard to find kids like that these days,” Sasser says. Rivera even discovered the vital baseball lesson of making adjustments, Sasser says.
“He faced really good pitching there and he struggled a little with the slider, couldn’t lay off it. It took him a year, but he learned,” Sasser says.
Kevin Plawecki, who played with Rivera in the minors, thinks he has the tools to succeed in the big leagues.
Rivera hit a combined .301 in 2011, his first pro year and has notched full-season averages of .320, .289, .349 and .325 since.
“He rakes, it’s as simple as that,” says Mets catcher Kevin Plawecki, who played in the minors with Rivera. “He’s hit everywhere he’s gone and it’s kind of made a lot of us scratch our heads as to why it’s taken so long to climb the ladder for him.
“He never lets that get to him and grinds every day. It’s been fun watching him have success.”
Maybe sometime this season Rivera can help the Mets. Hey, batting average might not be the hippest stat in the game nowadays, though the Royals showed last year what putting the ball in play can do for a team. But the Mets have a clogged roster since they added so much depth in the offseason.
“I think you create your own opportunities,” Ricciardi says. “I think it’s important that Terry (Collins) gets to see him. We’ve been telling Terry about him. It’s the same thing when he first got an opportunity — go show people. I signed Mike Bordick as an undrafted free agent and those guys just have to keep proving themselves.”
Adds Sasser: “I hope he makes it with the Mets. He’s a local boy. That’d be great.”