By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
When Matt Rivera was a baseball player at Holy Spirit High School, he dreamed — like many young men who showed the talent he possesses — of having a great college baseball career that would someday lead to a career where he gets paid to play the game he loves.
But baseball can be a humbling game. So can life. Just go ask any 50-year-old about the what-ifs and all the shoulda, coulda, woulda times in their life.
Rivera never thought the college he chose would suddenly discontinue its baseball program. He never expected to get hit by a car and have his knee torn up. He never would have believed he would end up in Muncie, Indiana — a manufacturing town 50 miles northeast of Indianapolis known for having the high school that lost to tiny Milan High in the 1954 Indiana state championship game chronicled in the movie “Hoosiers.”
He also never thought an at-bat in the South Jersey South Shore Baseball League, playing for his father, Belford, and the Egg Harbor City Knights, would change his life. Last summer, Ball State University head coach Rich Maloney traveled from Indiana to New Jersey to see a big, strong catcher he had heard about from one of his assistant coaches. A day’s worth of travel, by plane and car, had him watching a SJSSBL game, and watching Rivera tank a ball about 400 feet.
That was the moment Maloney knew he wanted Rivera to be a part of his program.
“We were hunting for another catcher in our system and my assistant did all the digging and said, ‘hey, coach, there’s a kid out there who sounds pretty intriguing.’ They had some conversations and there seemed to be some interest, so I went on a journey to go see him play because I thought it was so critical for our program,” Maloney explained. “It was quite a journey to go watch different catchers. I flew into Philadelphia, hopped in a car and drove to the Jersey Shore to watch him play in a (South Jersey South Shore Baseball League) game and the first thing he did was hit one about 400 feet. It was a massive rocket. I’ve been doing this a long time and this kid knew the head coach was coming to see him play. That’s pressure. To Matt’s credit, he answered the bell in a big way. I was very impressed.
“He came in here and he’s still working really hard to be a better defender. Obviously, at that position it’s critically important because defense is paramount. But the thing that spoke the loudest for Matt is his bat,” coach Maloney added. “We had a time when we were struggling as a team hitting-wise, and Matt came in for a period of time, and for about 35 at-bats he was just on fire. He carried our team at a time when we had to have it.”
Rivera graduated from Holy Spirit in 2018 and went on to play at La Salle University in Philadelphia. But his college career got off to a rocky start, as he was injured as a freshman and lost his entire sophomore season due to Covid-19.
“I was just crossing the street after study hall and I was struck by a vehicle. I was sent to the hospital and they said I had a lacerated liver and trauma in my right leg. They didn’t really know what was wrong with it. About a month went by, the swelling went down, I saw a doctor and got an MRI and they said I had torn my PCL and MCL in my right knee, which put me out for the remainder of the season and the majority of the fall,” Rivera said. “It was definitely life changing. That was a hard time because I didn’t have much playing time under my belt to try to find a new school. I was grateful that I was picked up by one of the better junior colleges in the Northeast in Harford (Md.).
So Rivera played junior college baseball last spring, and was hoping a good summer would catch the eye of somebody. The way he swung the bat certainly impressed Maloney, and Rivera ended up at Ball State.
“When he was in that really good streak he got a ton of walks. He did strike out way more than he needs to, but during that stretch when he was on fire he got some really big hits when we had to have them. And he had this uncanny ability during that stretch to lay off tough pitches. It was amazing. So, that potential is there. But he’s adapting to another new place, he comes all the way over here so he has to get used to the teammates, the school, being away from home this far — all these different things. But he’s handled himself well, and I think that will bode well for him moving forward,” Maloney said. “The pop in his bat is there. Winning is consistency, and part of the journey for any player is developing that consistency. Right now he’s kind of like a first-year player. He’s not a first-year player because of his age, but he’s a first-year player for me. He’s working through our system and understanding how we do our business. We’ve been fortunate to have a lot of success for a long period of time, and he’s learning. His challenge will be consistency. If he can hit the ball with the barrel of the bat more consistently, he has a chance to be really good. What he does this summer in his development to continue to progress in that manner is going to be very important. If he can consistently barrel up baseballs, he’ll be in the lineup.”
Rivera had a solid year for Ball State, hitting .255 with three home runs, 26 RBIs, 14 runs scored and 22 walks in 98 at-bats while leading the Cardinals to a 40-19 record that included a berth in the Mid-American Conference championship game.
“In the beginning of last summer I had played about three weeks in the Northwoods League in Wisconsin, and that got Ball State interested in me, and from there I flew back and played in the South Jersey South Shore Baseball League. (Maloney) came to watch me play there. I wasn’t really nervous. I don’t get nervous in those types of situations, I just try to control what I can control, and just play how I’ve always played. Coach flying out to see me play in the summer said a lot about their program and how much he cares about his players and selects the players he really wants,” said Rivera, a criminal justice major who has two years of eligibility remaining. “The guys on the team were very welcoming to me. The relationship everyone has on the team is probably the reason for the success we’ve had.”
Maloney said Rivera will get a chance to compete for more time as a catcher next season, and Rivera wants to continue to get his knee stronger so that he can handle the grind of that position at the college level.
“It’s been a bunch of ups and downs this season. When I got in there I started doing well, then I hit a little bit of a slow patch before getting back in the lineup again. You just have to keep performing any chance you get an opportunity. It’s great to be in a place where you feel appreciated and feel wanted,” Rivera said. “I have good days and bad days (with the knee). It’s been feeling pretty good the past year or so, I haven’t had many problems. There’s been some talk about me moving to the outfield, but that’s all up in the air. I just have to keep performing with the bat and hopefully that takes me where I want to go.”
“He has quite a story, and I think that’s part of the reason he’s had to adapt with the catching position,” Maloney said. “One of the challenges he faces is because of that accident. It definitely has had some affect on his mobility, but he’s worked really, really hard at it, and he’s getting better.
“We have several guys who will be moving on next year and he needs to seize that moment. And we’d love nothing more than for him to do that. I hope he develops that consistency because there is a lot of pop in that bat. Hopefully he can bring that out in a big way because that would be a positive for him and our program,” Maloney added. “One of the things I try to teach him is that sometimes he over-swings. He just has to hit the barrel. He’s so strong that if he just hits the barrel, it’s loud. But when you over-swing your body flies out and you pull off, and you swing and miss. I think when he learns to trust his strength he’ll make more consistent contact. And when he does, his game will be loud. That’s going to be a lot of fun to watch. He has light-tower power. He’s a physical kid who has some juice in his bat, no doubt about it.”
Rivera said that he has come a long way since donning the Navy-and-gold of Holy Spirit. He’s grown not only as a baseball player, but as a student and young man as well.
“I feel like these past two years I’ve learned a lot. I’ve grown my knowledge of the game and I’ve gotten to know myself as a player more. That gives me a lot more confidence in myself. I usually tend to be pretty hard on myself, but you also have to have confidence, and I feel like I have that,” he said. “It’s good to know I’m part of a very good program, a winning program with a coach who has more than 900 wins.”
Maloney said that even though Rivera is a Jersey Shore boy, he seems to fit right in out in the Midwest. And he’s certainly endeared himself to his teammates and the Ball State baseball program.
“My team, I call them ‘dirtbags.’ We have a boatload of guys who carry that moniker and Matt fits right into that because of what he’s been through. He’s been a great teammate. For a period of time he played a significant role, and in other times he’s had to wait in the wings. But he’s kept going forward and has made a tremendous contribution to our success this year. I think that grit and that perseverance that he’s already experienced in his life has been an asset for him, and to our ball club,” Maloney said. “He’s a really funny guy. I enjoy him immensely. He has a quiet swagger to him. I love the kid. He has a super smile and a great personality. I’m learning more about him and I’m enjoying that. He’s a great kid.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays
Matt Rivera has been on quite a baseball journey since graduating from Holy Spirit in 2018
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN