Rays catcher Rene Rivera a study in perseverance

Rene Rivera, warming up at the Rays’ spring complex, hit 11 home runs, threw out 33.3 percent of attempted basestealers and demonstrated elite pitch framing skills last season.
Rene Rivera, warming up at the Rays’ spring complex, hit 11 home runs, threw out 33.3 percent of attempted basestealers and demonstrated elite pitch framing skills last season.
Published Feb. 23, 2015

PORT CHARLOTTE — Rene Rivera has plenty of reasons to be thankful for the opportunity the Rays are giving him to be their everyday catcher after his breakout season last year in San Diego.

None bigger than the fact that five years ago, he nearly quit playing.

A career that had featured more downs than ups was cratering as Rivera found himself without a team heading into the 2010 season, playing in a semipro league in his native Puerto Rico for a few hundred bucks a game and with no better offer than from the Camden (N.J.) Riversharks in the independent Atlantic League.

"His hopes were very low," his agent and friend Melvin Roman said Sunday from Puerto Rico. "He really was thinking about doing it."

Not that Rivera had any other great plan. And he was still only 26. But it had been more than three long years since he had been in the big leagues with the Mariners. And he wasn't having much fun playing baseball anymore.

The Camden invite, courtesy of manager Von Hayes remembering Rivera from his time in Seattle, got him back playing in the States. A mid May offer to join the Yankees' Double-A team — then some time at Triple A — got him back into a big-league organization.

Then pep talks from Roman and another buddy, Miguel Martinez, got Rivera back in the right frame of mind, convincing him to forget giving up and focus on getting back up to the majors.

"It went through my head a little bit," Rivera said. "But I've got some good friends who stuck with me, were telling me what I have to do and to just enjoy it.

"I gave it another shot, and everything came back. And my life turned around."

Rivera indeed made it back to the big leagues with the Twins in 2011, though he spent 2012 at Triple A. But he was more mature now, had a better understanding of the game and the catcher's role, and he was having fun playing again, and got married, too. He moved on to San Diego, opened at Triple A but spent the second half of the 2013 season in a reserve role with the Padres, and became the father of twin girls.

Then last year, suddenly, somewhat unexpectedly, all the hard work and hard times paid off.

In his 14th pro season, with his sixth organization and into his 30s, Rivera not only got his first real chance to play regularly but took full advantage.

He posted some of the game's best defensive numbers (3.10 catcher's ERA, 33.3 percent caught-stealing rate and an MLB-best 40.3 of his called strikes outside the zone, which speaks to the all-important pitch-framing) in 85 starts while hitting .252 with 11 homers, 44 RBIs and a .751 on-base plus slugging percentage in 103 games overall. (Rays catchers total in 2014 hit .194, 5, 48, .524).

"I was just working to get the opportunity," Rivera said, "and I finally got it."

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The Padres, obviously, were impressed, manager Bud Black noting in September that Rivera had "been a bright spot" all season and well deserving.

And the Rays, obviously, were intrigued, insisting on Rivera as part of the return in the nine-player, three-team deal that sent Wil Myers to San Diego, confident they were getting him at the right time.

"He's grinded it out a little bit throughout his career, so it's kind of neat to see a guy kind of coming into his own," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "And we're very optimistic."

Rivera is aware of the challenges and the skepticism that he was a one-year wonder. He came to St. Petersburg as soon as his winter ball season was over to start getting familiar with his new hurlers, catching their early bullpen sessions and asking about their repertoires and preferences, earning rave reviews for his work and pitcher-first approach.

"I'm 31 years old, but I feel like 25," Rivera said. "I think this is the moment in my career that I feel great, I feel mature, I feel strong physically and mentally to catch every day in the big leagues. I understand everything that's happening in the game."

Contact Marc Topkin at Follow @TBTimes_Rays.