For a vast majority of major league players, you never know when your next chance at the highest level will be your last.
Nobody understands that better than Padres catcher Rene Rivera, whose journey has criss-crossed the country since getting drafted in the second round by the Seattle Mariners in 2001. He’s seen more minor-league ballparks than Max Patkin.
There’s the Inland Empire 69ers, the San Antonio Missions, the Tacoma Rainiers, the West Tenn Diamond Jaxx, the Jacksonville Suns, Las Vegas 51s, Camden Riversharks and Rochester Red Wings, just to name a few.
Then there was 2010 when, after a stint in the New York Mets organization, Rivera found himself out of the farm system and back in his native Puerto Rico, waiting for the call to get another opportunity.
“I tried to stay in the game,” he said of his time in the Puerto Rican league. “There's a lot of stuff going through your head. I always had hope to go back to the big leagues.”
Fortunately, the call came and he was back in the Yankees’ system, playing for Scranton Wilkes-Barre. A year later, he was back in the bigs with the Minnesota Twins, filling in for injured All-Star Joe Mauer.
“My friends pushed me hard and helped me stay with it,” he said.
Now in his second year with the Padres, Rivera has found himself quite a niche as a sound defensive backstop with a hint of power. In fact, he has already set a career high for home runs this season, even if that number is a mere three.
“You have to see it and react,” he said. “With all the hard work we've been doing, I know if I put hard contact on the ball, it'll go.”
He’s made manager Bud Black’s decision to keep three catchers on the Opening Day roster look like a savvy move. Now, with Nick Hundley traded to the Baltimore Orioles last month, it’s Rivera’s time to shine as he splits time with Yasmandi Grandal.
Black credits Rivera’s hard work and experience as a reason for much of his success this year, although the manager in him is quick to mention Rivera still has room to improve.
“He's done a lot of work with (batting coach) Phil (Plantier),” Black said. “He's got some power. Now for him it's laying off the breaking ball down and away.”
River says he has taken a different approach to hitting as he has matured.
“Being a bit older, I'm more prepared,” he said. “Early in my career, I was trying to hit homers. Now I see and recognize pitches and understand the homers are going to come.”
No matter what he does at the plate, Rivera has cemented his role as a pitcher’s catcher. His work with staff ace Andrew Cashner reflects that. When Cashner threw 10 straight quality starts at the end of last season and start of this one, Rivera was behind the plate for all of them.
The fact that Rivera is getting starts even with Cashner on the disabled list tells how much confidence the rest of the staff has in him calling the pitches.
Rivera takes it all in stride, no matter what his role may be.
“You just gotta be prepared. Come in ready and expect to be in the lineup,” he said. “If not, you learn and take notes and be ready to go in the game.”
If anyone knows how to be prepared for any situation – on any team in any league – it’s definitely Rivera.