"C.J.! C.J.! C.J.!"
A crowd of about 100 people started developing in the section behind me at Citi Field during the 2013 All-Star Futures Game. It was between innings, and the announcers had just told the crowd that a new pitcher would be entering the game for the U.S. Team.
"C.J.! C.J.! C.J.!"
At the time, I hadn't heard of C.J. Riefenhauser, the left-handed relief pitcher from the Tampa Bay Rays system. His stats on the scoreboard were surely impressive — his Double-A numbers out of the bullpen accounted for a 0.51 ERA, 0.74 WHIP, and 48 strikeouts through 53 innings — but I was still unsure why this reliever was causing such a fuss in the grandstands.
C.J.'s road to the Major Leagues is still ongoing, but it seems like a call to The Show is coming soon.
So, I went over to the crowd and began investigating. Before long, I was speaking with a few people who had quickly informed me that C.J. was a New York native — Mahopac, New York, according to his player page on Baseball-Reference. Many of the people in the crowd were friends and family, and most hadn't seen C.J. pitch since he left to pitch in college.
Luckily for everyone in attendance that day, their experience watching C.J. pitch was absolutely perfect. Here was his final stat line on the day:
One inning, six pitches, six strikes, no hits, no walks.
As pitchers and catchers report and we near the start of Spring Training, C.J.'s story continues. Several days ago, I was able to catch up with C.J. to talk about that day at Citi Field, his experience playing in the Minor Leagues, and his hopes for 2014.
Evan Kendall: What was it like pitching in front of your friends and family at last year’s Futures Game at Citi Field?
C.J. Riefenhauser: It was awesome, especially at that high-caliber of a game, with all of those prospects out there. I had over 100 people there watching, and having all of them there at once was an awesome experience. Best friends, cousins, it was the first time that all of them had seen me pitch. They were as excited as I was, if not more. My biggest thing in that game was remembering to stay calm.
EK: What's the best thing about playing professional baseball?
C.J.: I’m playing with guys that were the best on their teams in high school, junior college, and college, and they all come together as one team. The amount of talent around you from Rookie Ball to Triple-A is always impressive.
Seeing guys like Mike Fontenot and Shelley Duncan and being able to talk with them is great. They gave me pointers and insights about everything: the business side of the game, going out there and just playing, and forgetting about things that can hurt you, you know? Just having tunnel vision and staying within yourself.
EK: What's the worst thing about playing professional baseball?
C.J.: Don't get me wrong: playing pro ball is great. If I had to pick something, maybe being on the road for that long at once. I was always seeing my family and friends throughout summer breaks, winter breaks, etc., but when I started playing pro ball, I was gone for 7 months. The only way I can see them is if they come out to see me play.
EK: What are your goals for 2014?
C.J.: My short term and hard to reach goals are going to big league camp for the first time, looking to make an impact, and really just trying to open some eyes. The chances of me making the team out of Spring Training aren’t as strong as they would be next year, but I want to get up there and do well.
EK: What has been most surprising to you about your career so far?
C.J.: Going into pro baseball, I wasn’t sure if I was going to sign out of junior college coming out of the draft in the 20th round. When I did, I was surprised by all of the time and effort that the Rays coaching staff has given me and all of the other pitchers. They see something in everyone they draft, regardless of what round they draft them in. They take pride in having a good farm system and developing it.
EK: Who is your best friend on the team?
C.J.: Hands down, Kevin Kiermaier. He got called up to play in Game 163 and he played in the Wild Card game. It was really exciting to see him get called up since we’ve played every year together.
EK: Who do you want to face in the big leagues as your first batter?
C.J.: Derek Jeter. Growing up as a Yankees fan, he’s been the face of the Yankees, and he’s one of the best ever. He’s not a lefty, so the matchup won’t be in my favor, but I still want to face him.
C.J.'s road to the Major Leagues is still ongoing, but it seems like a call to The Show is coming soon. He was named to the Rays' 40-Man Roster this offseason, and, with the team poised to make a run at the American League East crown, they might need all the help they can get.
I can see it now: Yankee Stadium on a cold, September night. C.J. Riefenhauser gets the call from the 'pen to pitch the 9th. Lefty, lefty, righty. After two quick outs, the only man standing in his way is Derek Jeter. Staring down one of the greatest players of all time, C.J. wouldn't have it any other way.