From Mahopac To The Majors: CJ Riefehnauser
- Name: CJ Riefenhauser
- Age: 24
- Organization: Tampa Bay Rays, Durham Bulls, Chipola JC, Mahopac High
(Photo: Courtesy Will Vragovic, Tampa Bay Times.)
Author: Patrick Kinas, DNAOfSports.com creator.
Growing up in a town 45 miles from Citi Field, a 10-year-old CJ Riefenhauser always dreamed of playing for the New York Yankees. Fourteen years later, after a midnight phone call from a phone number he didn’t recognize, Riefenhauser’s dream was suddenly a reality. Almost. Instead of playing for the Yankees, CJ would suit up against them.
He thought it was a prank call.
Midnight on an April Friday. CJ’s cell phone rang. The number was unrecognizable to Riefenhauser. He answered, and all he heard was a medley of voices, young and old alike. It was nearly impossible to decipher the gibberish he heard screaming at him through the receiver.
He asked, “Who is this?”
The Montoyo Family. This is Charlie. You’re going to the big leagues.
In a word, Riefenhauser was awash with emotions, but one trumped all of the others.
The call was from his Triple-A manager’s family. Understandable now that the cacophony of voices were from Charlie, his wife and two young sons, all big Riefenhauser fans.
When asked how on earth Riefenhauser didn’t have the cell phone of his manger stored, Riefenhauser chuckled and realized the oddness of the truth.
However, it did make for a much better story twist.
“I don’t know why I didn’t have it stored, but the surprise was even better.”
The Next Of The Mahopacians
The story of Riefenhauser started as a young boy in a town barely over 8,000. Growing up just outside the shadows of New York City, one was either a Yankee fan or a Met fan. There was no middle ground.
Riefenhauser would spend countless hours during his childhood hopping onto the Metro-North to head to the original House that Ruth built. That’s where the dream began.
Riefenhauser walked the same hallways as former major league pitcher Dave Fleming, who finished 3rd in the American League Rookie of the Year voting in 1992 thanks to 17 of his 38 career wins.
He was an all-star high school left under history teacher and Mahopac High School head baseball coach Frank Moloney.
“CJ was one of the best in Mahopac High School history, but as great as he was, he was an even better person,” Moloney said.
“It’s easy coach when your best player is your hardest worker. It was easy to get all of the other kids to work hard when they see someone like him. He is a special person and a special player.”
Even before Moloney had a chance to coach CJ, he knew something special was in the pipeline.
“CJ’s freshman year in high school, he was on the freshman team,” said Moloney, whose varsity team consisted of sophomores through seniors. “I went to go watch the freshmen play and saw this little lefty on the mound. I could tell even then that he had the IT factor. There was a presence about him. He’d rise to the occasion.”
“CJ was the kind of kid who was not going to allow anyone to say that he couldn’t do anything,” said Moloney. “When others were taking off in the off-season, CJ was dedicated to weight room, running and getting better.”
You could say that after CJ came through the Mahopac program, there was nothing left for Moloney to achieve. Moloney stepped down after eight seasons after CJ’s final season in 2008, during which Moloney witnessed CJ throw a no-hitter. The reality was Moloney and his wife had a second child and wanted to spend more time with his growing family, but still the time felt right for him to move on as CJ moved on.
“When people doubt him, that’s when he’s at his best,” Moloney said. “Drafted where he was, and now achieving his goal, that summarizes who he is.”
From there, Riefenhauser took his baseball 19 hours south to the panhandle of Florida to Chipola Junior College, a program that has produced an abundance of major league stars from Toronto Blue Jays home run champion Jose Bautista to Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter. Riefenhauser hoped he would be the next.
However, after his 2010 season, he wasn’t as anxious about the draft as he had hoped.
“I didn’t have a great year,” Riefenhauser said. “I had a little bit of injury here and there. But obviously all of the scouts tell you more things that you want to hear. Things really weren’t going the right way I thought during the draft, so once my name wasn’t called by the 15th (round), that was pretty much it.”
So Riefenhauser tuned out the draft and turned to watching TV with his buddies.
Until he heard his name called. Sort of.
“One of the kids actually heard my name before I did,” Riefenhauser said. “He started yelling. I had no idea. Then 5 minutes later I got a call and once I called my parents. It was awesome. I’m just happy the Rays gave me a chance.”
From there, the rise started quickly. For the lefty from Putnam County, Riefenhauser got his first paycheck for playing the game he loved in the summer of 2010 in Princeton, West Virginia, the Rays’ rookie-level team. He made 25 starts in 2011, flashing a power fastball and racking up innings to hasten his development. In 2012, as the Rays forecast the future for CJ, the transition began. His likely last start of his pro career was in his second Double-A game for the Montgomery Biscuits, and the back-end of the bullpen is as home to him now as Mahopac was as a kid. The velocity increased. The ERA shrunk. By mid-2013, he was one of the top relievers in Double-A, evidenced by an ERA that was barely visible with binoculars (0.51). A promotion to Triple-A Durham ensued, along with a nomination to the 2013 Futures Game, the only one to wear Rays colors.
After being added to the Rays’ 40-man roster and attending major league camp in spring training, hopes were strong for Riefenhauser that he’d get the call this season.
And he was right.
“I got a call, April 19th, at 12 o’clock at night,” Riefenhauser recalled with the precision of the Atomic Clock.
“Honestly, it was like a dream come true. I couldn’t have asked for anything more. I didn’t think it was going to happen this soon, but I’m glad it did.”
No Subways Needed
After all of those quarters spent on the subway to see the Yankees in person as a kid, on this trip, CJ could leave his change in his pocket. A first-class plane ticket awaited his flight to Tampa.
“I didn’t get much sleep that night, that’s for sure,” Riefenhauser said. “I pretty much couldn’t stop thinking about it all the way there. On the way over (to the Trop), I was kind of nervous. I didn’t know how to greet everybody, even though I knew them all through spring training. I didn’t know if I should walk up to everyone and shake their hand. I walked through the door with all my baggage, and it was 10 minutes before stretch and everyone is giving me high fives and hugs.”
“But next thing I know, I hear someone say “hey, stretch in 9 minutes, $20 fine if you’re late.” I had all the media at my locker, so I was like, guys, can we do something during BP, I don’t really want to get banged $20 on my first day, so they all started laughing and I got out there on the field maybe a minute or two late, but they let it slide.”
The wait didn’t last long. Rays starter Chris Archer was throwing a gem and held a 14-1 lead. Rays manager knew the time was right.
It was time to send Charles Joseph Riefenhauser into his first major league game.
“When my name got called in the bullpen (to warm up), that was probably the most nervous I was the entire time. It was a long inning, (the Yankees made) two pitching changes and then I started warming up, and that’s really when it hit me. My first few throws I had to slow down and take a breath. This was a dream come true, and it’s happening right there, right now.”
Two outs into Archer’s seventh, Maddon came out to get him. As Archer left to a standing ovation, Riefenhauser ran in from the bullpen, nearly oblivious to the magnitude of the moment.
“I don’t even remember if they (P.A.) announced my name,” Riefenhauser said. “Once I ran out to the mound, there was two outs and I remember looking real quick up to my parents section. Everyone was standing and everyone giving Archer a standing ovation because he just threw a heck of a game. I remember thinking ‘Ok, let’s just get this first hitter, then I’ll go regroup in the dugout after. Let’s just worry about right now’.”
What was there possibly for him to worry about? The first hitter he was going to face only had 410 career home runs. He was only a seven-time All-Star.
Riefenhauser’s first pitch, a called strike was coyly thrown to the Rays dugout by Ryan Hanigan, the first memento of CJ’s big league career. He proceeded to retire Soriano on a grounder to third, then walked to the dugout for that aforementioned regrouping session.
CJ came out for one more inning, setting down the Yankees in order before his debut was done.
That night, after the media had gone, after a celebratory dinner with his family ended, Riefenhauser lay down in his hotel room bed and reflected on everything in his life that had brought him to this moment.
“My heart was still racing 100mph. I don’t know if it was any easier to sleep that night. I remember looking at the ceiling going over the past years and thinking about how much I worked for this.”
Riefenhauser was expectedly sent down after the next game against the Yankees, in which he pitched and took the loss in a tight, extra inning contest.
As he returned to Durham, Riefenhauser finally saved his manager’s phone number into his cell. Another call will be coming.Tweet