Following the horrific aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which leveled Puerto Rico in late September, destroying homes, the power grid, and leading to a continually rising fatality rate, celebrities and athletes donated their time and wealth to help aid in the rebuilding process for the island.
Understanding the gruesome reality of what had been done to Puerto Rico, former Mets backup catcher Rene Rivera – who was born and raised in Bayamon, part of the metropolitan area of San Juan – knew he needed to take action.
Rivera, 34, along with his wife Mariel Perez, initially started a GoFundMe page to raise money to rebuild homes in Puerto Rico after both Hurricane Irma and Maria left their mark. The Rivera’s raised more than $39,000 from that charity effort, and are working with the Salvation Army and Habitat for Humanity to use those funds to help rebuild homes on the island.
While raising tens of thousands of dollars for the hurricane relief, Rivera and his wife wanted to spread cheer to the children during the holidays. The two were aware that for most of the kids in Puerto Rico, this would be no ordinary Christmas.
The pair joined forces with retailers Sears and K-Mart to collect toys during a holiday drive which began in late November. From there participants could purchase toys and leave them in boxes outside one of the 40-plus participating stores, purchase a package worth $5, $10, or $20 which would be added to the donations, or buy a toy via Amazon.com.
Rivera’s personal hashtag of “No Kid Loses Hope” certainly resonated with generous donators, as Rivera and his wife went to Puerto Rico armed with 25,000 toys to distribute to the children of Puerto Rico. In total, the Rivera’s were able to reach 12 towns, 60 schools, and 100 communities during their week stay on the island, bringing some joy and hope to children who would have otherwise faced a more despondent circumstance during the holiday season.
The Rivera’s act of charity is worthy of commending, illustrating how strong their roots and ties are to the island, where both still have family living. It also came at a time where Rivera was facing free agency, having spent parts of the 2017 season with the New York Mets and Chicago Cubs.
The Los Angeles Angels inked the backup catcher in early January, agreeing to a one-year, $2.8 million deal, with $200,000 in incentives. Rivera joins his ninth organization entering his eighteenth year in professional baseball (10th in the majors).
The defensive-minded backup still holds New York in high regards, allowing him the opportunity to continue his career after the Tampa Bay Rays released him towards the end of spring in 2016. In 59 games behind the plate in ’16, Rivera posted a .632 OPS with 10 extra-base hits in 65 games, though, his value was more evident behind the plate. Rivera threw out 30 percent of would be base stealers and posted 4 defensive runs saved (DRS) in over 480 innings.
Along the way, Rivera paired well with star right-hander Noah Syndergaard, catching 23 of his 31 outings in ’16. Former manager Terry Collins coupled the veteran catcher with the young Syndergaard as a way to help mitigate the running game, as Syndergaard allowed a major league worst 48 stolen bases in ’16. According to a New York Times graphic, Rivera’s average time to second base, which includes catching the ball, transfering to his throwing hand, and throwing it down to second was 1.91 seconds in ’16, with the league average at 1.98.
In total, Rivera caught 28 of Syndergaard’s starts from 2016-17, and while behind the plate Syndergaard posted a line of .246/.287/.361, with a 2.63 ERA. Among catchers who have caught at least 10 of Syndergaard’s starts, only Kevin Plawecki saw a lower ERA (2.54) and OPS (.596) than Rivera.
During his tenure with the Mets, Rivera provided veteran leadership behind the plate, strong pitch framing (placing 14th among catchers with a 6.1 Runs Above Average in ’16), an accurate arm (nabbing 30 & 36 percent of base stealers in ’16 and ’17), and active communication between his pitchers. It’s evident when speaking to Rivera of how much he takes his role seriously, as he notes the key to having sustained success is building a strong rapport with each individual pitcher.
While Rivera has carved out a nice career on the field, the contributions that he and has wife have made off it to help those in immediate need highlight the type of person Rivera is on the baseball diamond. By always placing his pitchers first, Rivera views their success as his success.
The same sentiment can be made for his efforts in Puerto Rico.
I had the privilege of interviewing Rivera in early January, where we discussed his efforts with Puerto Rico, tenure with the Mets, and what made him and Noah Syndergaard click so well.
MMO: How did you originally get involved with the charity work in Puerto Rico, and how did the toy drive come about?
Rene: Every year we’ve been doing something like that, but with a small group – like a family or two – since five years ago. We felt that the needs after the hurricanes would be there and we talked with a couple of our partners on how we can impact the kids, because the kids will be the future of this world. We don’t want them to lose hope; the situation has been tough and with everything going on there. We felt like this would be a great opportunity to give back to the community.
My wife started talking with our partners and we got it done, it was a nice event. It was pretty emotional because we saw how everything is going on right now in the middle of the island where they’re still living without power and without water. It was a nice event, the kids had fun, we brought some smiles to their faces and that’s how it went.
MMO: How long were you and your wife in Puerto Rico for during the toy drive?
Rene: We went for one week. Besides the toy drive we did a baseball academy where I’m from in Bayamon. We did some things with those groups; (we) brought some catching gear, spikes, batting gloves, and some baseball goods. It’s good for the parents to be able to breath in their budget so we did that too in the days we were there. It was nice, it was a lot of work in that week but we made it happen and it was awesome.
MMO: On a personal level, how is your family doing in Puerto Rico?
Rene: They’re doing better, we still have all two families down there. The metro area where the family lives is okay. They’ve got the power and everything running back. The center part of the island is still in bad shape. But our families are good and hopefully they can get that fixed, but for Puerto Rico to be back to the way it was, it might take a long time.
MMO: Are you going to continue your efforts in Puerto Rico? Is there anything coming up that fans can take part in to help with?
Rene: We are probably going to do (something). The first thing we did was the GoFundMe (page), but the GoFundMe is closed because they only give you a certain amount of time. (With) the money we collected from people who donated we are working now with different organizations for building houses (there). We want to help them rebuild and it’s been in the baby step (phase) of the process but I think we’ll make that happen some time this year. But our goal right now is to help the people who lost everything out there. Whenever we get more information and get the go-ahead on things we’ll be sharing and try to get people involved with that.
MMO: The amount of work you and your wife put in to help aid in relief and to put smiles on kids’ faces in Puerto Rico during the holidays should be well commended. There needs to be ongoing discussions on how to help the people of Puerto Rico and get things back up and to somewhat normalcy.
Rene: It is such a great island. If people have the chance to go out there, it’s a beautiful island. You can go for a week, have a vacation and enjoy it, it’s safe. Seeing what happened with this hurricane has hurt us because it’s a great place to visit and that’s what we want to do. Not only myself but my colleagues and baseball teammates including Carlos Beltran and all those guys are trying to help. They know how important for us as Puerto Ricans it is but for the people that go visit and enjoy it, there’s so much good on the island.
MMO: Have you noticed many of your baseball brethren getting involved with the cause?
Rene: Yes. I know some guys like Carlos Beltran are doing a lot of things. Carlos Arroyo is doing his thing too, he’s a former N.B.A. player. J.J. Barea is doing his thing. It’s good that baseball players and athletes are doing our best to help them because as a professional athlete and as a person that God gave the opportunity to make money from playing a game, we have to give back. We have to give back and get involved in the community and right now we as Puerto Ricans are getting together to rebuild the island.
MMO: Growing up, who were some of your favorite players?
Rene: I would always watch (Ivan) “Pudge” Rodriguez. He’s still my idol, and I always enjoyed watching him and I always wanted to be like him. That’s the guy that I always looked up to and learned from. I also grew up watching the Chicago Cubs with my grandfather, so I knew baseball was my thing at a real young age. I really fell in love with it and I still love it.
MMO: Was your grandfather the one who you introduced you to the game?
Rene: Yes, and he didn’t play baseball, he always liked to watch it. When you enjoy something like that you want to go out and do it, and he helped me to do that. He knew how much passion is in the game and he told me, “We want you to play baseball.” And then just step-by-step my mom took me to the games and step-father took me to the games and that’s how I got involved with baseball.
MMO: At what age did you start catching?
Rene: I started playing baseball at four-years-old. Catching wise it was tough at that age, but I think I started catching at around seven-years-old. I put my first catcher gear on and since then I’ve been a catcher. I felt that it was something that I loved from that position.
MMO: What are your memories from being selected 49th overall by the Seattle Mariners in the 2001 MLB Draft?
Rene: You know what, it was interesting, and one thing I tell the kids is, ‘Don’t ever give up on your dreams.’ When I went to high school and going through tenth and eleventh grade, I was a good player. I could see myself getting away from the other guys. But I had people telling me that I wasn’t going to get drafted high, that I was going to be in the middle. I worked hard and I didn’t know what team was going to pick me but I had people saying they expected me to go in the fourth or fifth rounds, or something like that.
The Mariners came through and it was a great moment, one of the best moments of my career. When I got the call, back in the days they used to call you on the phone because it’s nothing like right now with MLB Network and such. So you had to wait for the scout to call you and when I had that call and they told me I was the 49th pick, it was the best moment.
MMO: So you didn’t really have any inclination of where or who was going to select you?
Rene: Yeah, I mean that’s the thing, people were talking like I might go in the third or fourth round. But back in the days you didn’t know, back in 2001 you just hoped that you can go higher and you didn’t know exactly what was going on because there wasn’t as much media about the Draft like right now.
MMO: In 2014 you had a breakout season: Playing in 103 games and posting a .751 OPS with 11 HR and 44 RBI. You also had the 3rd most CS among all catchers behind only Russell Martin & Alex Avila with 33. What was it about that season that you were able to put it all together?
Rene: That year I got the opportunity to play. San Diego gave me the chance to play on a regular basis and I had the opportunity to do what I know I can do. It was a position that I will never forget, and it was one of my best seasons that I’ve had in my career. I think that’s the thing right now; if they give you the opportunity to do what you can do you can take advantage of it and play for it. That’s one year that I played a lot and I performed the way I could perform and I had that year.
MMO: You and Noah Syndergaard paired extremely well together, and you basically became his personal catcher. What was it that made you guys click so well? Can you talk a little about what makes him so dominant on the mound?
Rene: Noah is a great person, first of all. He’s a hard worker and people know that. I think the thing he liked and was comfortable with me is the passion for what I do. I’m so passionate about catching a good game and helping the guy on the mound to do the best he can be that day.
That’s one thing he liked about me being behind the plate, he knew I was going to give one-hundred percent back there and call a great game. So that’s one thing that clicked and the communication was there. We talked a lot and got to know each other real well and I think that’s a big thing. If you communicate and have the opportunity to get to know your pitcher, talk, and get on the same page with him, there’s going to be a lot of success.
MMO: Prior to Syndergaard were you a personal catcher for any other pitcher(s) in your career?
Rene: I’ve been blessed, in San Diego I had two guys that I got to start catching and that’s when everything started turning out well and I started to catch everybody. Andrew Cashner in San Diego, I was catching him every start. And then Tyson Ross and Ian Kennedy. Then I went to the Rays and I started catching Chris Archer every day.
I think it’s something that I really enjoy doing and something that I put a lot into it. I have passion for my guy out there and (want to) have him pitch the best game in that moment, and I think that’s one thing that’s helped me a lot in my career.
MMO: You speak about the passion you have for the game, and how much time you put into your craft. Can you talk a bit about the overall preparation that goes into your daily baseball life as a catcher?
Rene: It’s a lot of work. You have to study, read scouting reports, watch videos, and understand your pitcher because every time you go out there you’re going to have a different guy. You have different pitchers so you can’t pitch the same way to everybody because they don’t have the same pitches. So we would go back in the room and start studying what I have to do against this guy with this pitcher.
I’ll give you an example: When Noah’s pitching I know he’s going to throw his fastball in at 90 plus and the slider is nasty and (he has) the changeup. So I can have three weapons there to help him pitch, and it will be easier because the harder he throws the harder he’s hit. But when you have a Rafael Montero who doesn’t throw as hard, now you have to start playing with the scouting reports of how we’re going to pitch this guy so Montero can have success.
It’s a lot of work but it’s something that if you’re not prepared or you’re not into it, then it’s really hard. But that’s one thing I love; the challenge. I like the baseball challenge and that’s one thing that makes it a little easier for me.
MMO: With all of the advanced statistics out there, including various metrics for catchers including pitch framing, how much do you look at those, if at all?
Rene: To be honest I don’t pay a lot of attention to it. I think that the more attention you pay to your stats the harder it will be to have success because you’re going to try and do more than you can do. So that’s one thing I really don’t pay a lot of attention to. I know how I have to receive the ball and I’ve been working all my career with that. I have to be myself and do what I can do.
With those stats, I’m not a big fan of paying attention to it. I know they’re there and they’re big in the baseball world right now and it means a lot to different positions of this game. But it’s one thing I’ve worked so hard in my career with; I know what I have to do to get a strike that is a little outside of the plate and get a call for my pitcher.
MMO: How would you describe your overall time with the Mets?
Rene: I think it was awesome. It’s a great organization, they have great people there, great coaches, teammates, I enjoyed myself. This is the one team that gave me the chance back in 2016 when I got released from the Rays. They gave me the opportunity to be back in the big leagues and do my thing. It was a great moment, I liked every moment of it and made so many friends. I really appreciate what they did for me.
MMO: You signed a one-year contract with the Angels, and you’ll have the chance to catch the newest pitching/hitting sensation: Shohei Ohtani. You have to be pretty excited to see what he’s all about?
Rene: Oh yeah! I’m ready for my new challenge. The Angels are building a team to win and go far in the season, and having the new star of baseball because he was a good player in Japan. And seeing him in person and what he can do I’m really excited to go out there and excited to meet him. (To) see what his work ethic is and I can’t wait for spring training to start, to have the opportunity to know him and catch him.
MMO: I want to thank you for your time today Mr. Rivera, it was great to speak with you. Best of luck with the Angels in 2018!
Rene: Thank you Mat, I appreciate it.
Follow Rene Rivera on Twitter, @ReneRivera13