Wednesday, January 24, 2018

National preseason honor doesn't faze University of Tampa 2B Laz Rivera

TAMPA — It's a distinction that could be unnerving, flattering, distracting and humbling — all at once.

But when University of Tampa senior second baseman Laz Rivera was named Baseball America's Preseason National Player of the Year for NCAA Division II, he barely changed expression.

"It's always nice to get recognition, but honestly, I try to stay away from thinking about it," Rivera said. "It will not affect me.

"My dad always told me, 'Baseball is baseball.' And that means it doesn't matter who you are, there's always another game to prove yourself. I always want to be better than I was yesterday."

That's no easy task.

Last season, Rivera found a home with the Spartans after originally playing with the University of Miami and spending one year at Chipola Junior College. He hit a team-leading .427 in 50 games to rank 21st nationally in batting average.

"Laz squares everything up and he sprays the ball all over the field," UT coach Joe Urso said. "There aren't a lot of people in the country who can do what he does. Any time you're hitting .400 or better, that's pretty darn special.

"He's soft-spoken. You're not going to get a lot out of him. He's just a ballplayer. He's not going to get off-track by the peripheral things. And he has fit in perfectly for us. Everywhere he has gone, he has been part of a winning program. Winning is his expectation."

Rivera, who was 2 years old when his family was permitted to leave Cuba after meeting requirements for the country's diversity visa "lottery," grew up in Miami and dreamed of playing for the Hurricanes. He originally committed to Florida State, but quickly switched to UM when that school offered a scholarship.

"I told my family all along that I wanted to stay home," Rivera said. "I didn't want to leave. It was perfect. Then it wasn't."

Rivera had limited playing time as a freshman and grudgingly concluded that he needed a new setting. He worried about the culture shock of junior-college ball at Chipola and living in the Panhandle, but the adjustment was easier than expected.

UT has proven to be a perfect final destination.

"I told Laz right from the get-go that I needed him to be a leader, even though he was adjusting to a new situation," Urso said. "He fit right in. The guys love him and he's an easy guy to follow."

Urso said he expects Rivera to play professional baseball, although he wasn't drafted after last season. Part of the reason might have been Rivera's unbending priority for getting his bachelor's degree in sports management.

"Of course, I want to continue with baseball at the highest level," Rivera said. "That's everyone's dream and I'm no different. I think I'll be playing ball until they tear the uniform off me and say I can't play any more.

"But the huge goal in playing college baseball is getting my degree. Most of my friends that I played with (at Miami Columbus High) have stopped playing ball, but they all have their degrees. They all tell me, 'You can't go wrong by getting that degree. No one can take that away from you.' I agree with that. That moment will be the realization of a goal."

Rivera's other long-term goal is helping UT contend for a national championship.

Urso said Rivera's defensive versatility — he's needed at second, but also comfortably plays shortstop and third base — and offensive consistency are among the Spartans' greatest assets.

"The only knock on him — if you can call it a knock — is he doesn't hit for much power," Urso said of Rivera, who had six home runs last season. "He's more of a doubles guy, but he produces runs in a big way.

"I think if you're generally looking at guys who were named National Player of the Year, they usually have a bunch of home runs. That always gets a lot of attention. To me, Laz gets attention by everything he brings to the field and that's a lot of things."

Rivera said he wasn't aware of the Baseball America honor until told by UT athletic officials. He greeted the news with a shrug.

"I like that people know who I am," Rivera said. "But you have to keep producing. If you start thinking about living off the things you've done in the past, that does nothing but slow you down. I want to keep getting better."

He has been honored in the most significant manner.

Instead of beating his chest in a "look-at-me" sort of way, now he wants to show why he was selected. And he intends to do it in typical Laz Rivera fashion — by performing, quietly and efficiently.

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