Angels catcher Rene Rivera knows a thing or two about perseverance in the big leagues
He’s a catcher, not a runner, though the mileage he covered to reach this destination is impressive.
In the Angels clubhouse this spring, there isn’t a player who arrived from farther away, which is saying something since Shohei Ohtani’s first steps came in Japan.
“He is,” general manager Billy Eppler said, “the quintessential marathon man.”
Rene Rivera is a backup whose unlikely tale of perseverance is worthy of starting in anyone’s lineup of spring training stories.
He is an example, a reason to believe, a guy who is paid to squat in place yet has refused to settle.
“God gives you the strength to play this game, this hard game,” Rivera said. “There’s such a small percent of people who can reach this level. Why do you wanna take your jersey off? Why not wait until they take your jersey off?”
And when they do take your jersey off, why accept your fate? Why not keep pushing, against the wind, the odds, whatever’s trying to halt your progress?
Rivera, 34, signed as a free agent in January, bringing along his stellar defense, occasional power and wonderful will:
He began one season with an independent league team that went out of business long before he did, the Camden Riversharks folding in 2015.
He spent all of the 2012 season — nearly eight years after making his major league debut — buried in the minors.
“Some people will think I took some steps back in life,” Rivera said. “But you learn and you grow. I learned you keep working for your dreams. You never give away your dreams.”
At one point during his meandering journey, after being released by Tampa Bay just four days before the 2016 season opener, Rivera tweeted the following: “My career has been everything but normal.”
As if to accentuate that point, a week after his release, he signed with the New York Mets and, by the midway point of that year, was playing so well that he had become Noah Syndergaard’s personal catcher. A season that began with Rivera unemployed ended with him starting in the National League division series.
“He’s endured and climbed obstacles, a lot of obstacles,” Eppler said. “That lends itself to really trusting a guy’s character and desire.”
The Angels are Rivera’s seventh organization, seven also the number of times he has been granted free agency by teams unconvinced they needed him. He has been traded and selected off waivers, once apiece. He has spent parts of nine seasons in the majors and parts of 10 in Triple-A. He has appeared on 14 minor league teams, including the Las Vegas 51s in 2008 and then again almost nine years later.
“I never give up,” Rivera said. “That’s one thing that I feel has made me a better person. If I believe in myself, if I believe I can still do it, why not give it a shot?”
He has played winter ball in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico and summer ball just about everywhere else, including in the Atlantic, International, Midwest, Northwest, Pacific Coast and Southern leagues.
Those stops, at least, had a direct link to hope as official big league affiliates. The independent Riversharks were linked mostly to desperation, Rivera joining the outfit in 2010 because he was unwanted by the majors, all the majors, every one of its 30 teams.
After a month and immediately after catching both ends of a doubleheader, Rivera signed with the New York Yankees, although it would be another year and another change of organizations — this time to Minnesota — before he was back in the big leagues.
“When they hear about it, I’ve had teammates come up to me and say, ‘Wow, I had no idea where you’ve been,’ ” Rivera said. “They think it’s amazing. I don’t see it that way. It’s just part of my life. It seems normal to me.”
A native of Puerto Rico, Rivera said his family was spared during the hurricanes in September, though he lost communication with his mother for more than two weeks.
Three months later, working with stores in South Florida, where Rivera lives in the offseason, he collected more than 25,000 toys and threw a Christmas party for kids back on his island home.
That also seemed normal, he explained — someone who has had to work for everything appreciating the value of receiving a gift.
“You can learn in life, always,” Rivera said. “I feel good that I can share my story with people. I did it through baseball. But I believe anybody can do whatever they want if they believe in themselves and they work at it.”
Ohtani hits, and misses
Ohtani had a double and a single off Nick Tropeano during a 2-for-8 performance in an intrasquad scrimmage Tuesday at Tempe Diablo Stadium.
He looked more comfortable facing the right-handed Tropeano than the left-handed Tyler Skaggs, against whom Ohtani struck out three times.
“I thought it was pretty good as I was able to square up a few pitches,” Ohtani said via the Angels media relations department. “I’m not sure how that will pan out in games. But I hope to make adjustments in each of my at bats.”
He is scheduled to throw a bullpen session Wednesday morning and, if he feels OK, could start as the designated hitter in the Angels’ Cactus League game at 1:05 p.m. against Cleveland in Goodyear.
Chris Young (calf), Jefry Marte (groin) and Nolan Fontana (shoulder) also batted in the scrimmage and are close to returning. … Skaggs and Tropeano pitched five innings apiece.
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