MadFriars' Interview: River Stevens

EUGENE - Coming into professional baseball, things aren’t always going to go as planned.

River Stevens, 22, a ninth round draft pick of the Padres in 2012 by way of Mission Hills High School in San Marcos and Allan Hancock Junior College in Santa Maria, California is a testament to that; but then again most of River’s baseball career and life have been unconventional.

Undrafted after finishing his high school career at Mission Hills despite hitting .450 each of his two varsity years, Stevens was able to make the Palomar College squad but ended up breaking his ankle and missing the season. Adding more problems to his future career, his father had been battling cancer since River was 16. Both he and his father decided that the best thing might be to play for his uncle Chris Stevens at Allan Hancock Junior College in Santa Maria, California - which is in central California - and it worked out pretty well.

For the Bulldogs he posted a .449 batting average, the best in the school history and was second in the state junior college ranks with an on-base percentage of .530.

When the hometown Padres picked him, he decided to go and hit .241/.303/.242 while his father was battling cancer in short-season Eugene. Unfortunately, during the season his dad passed when he was just twenty years old.

To top off the season, he had a potentially career ending injury by tearing out his labrum that cost him a full year in 2013.

But in 2014 he’s returned. After bouncing between Fort Wayne and Lake Elsinore as a utility infielder, San Diego sent him back where he’s been the everyday second baseman hitting .267/.333/.314 in 23 games.

The left-handed hitting Stevens profiles best as a second baseman and we should see better numbers out of him next season in Fort Wayne when he will have a full, healthy off-season in behind him.

Throughout all of his personal adversity, Stevens has maintained his upbeat outlook of remembering his past but not being consumed by it. More than anything else he embodies the philosophy that the future is what you make of it.

Which makes him a winner in anyone’s book.

You have been bounced up and down this year between three different teams. How do you keep all of your stuff together?

River Stevens: I got about two big bags worth of stuff. I was in San Jose with the Storm when they sent me to Eugene and the clubby for the Storm, Terrence, who is really great, sent me all of my stuff when they got back to Lake Elsinore.

When I left from Fort Wayne to Lake Elsinore I was at home, so it was a little easier.

So when you get moved, you just find your way to the open apartment spot?

River Stevens: Pretty much. Sometimes I will be in a hotel for a few nights before everything gets situated.

I know you would rather be up in Lake Elsinore, but you are also coming off a pretty serious injury. So one advantage of being in Eugene is that you are getting a chance to play everyday.

River Stevens: True, it is nice. Everyone wants to be up higher, but I am grateful to be given this opportunity.

How has your arm strength been coming back from surgery?

River Stevens: It feels great. I was telling someone this earlier that they really did a great job with my rehab back at the training facility in Arizona. Feels better than ever.

What was the injury that kept you out of all of 2013?

River Stevens: I tore my labrum at the end of 2012 in Eugene and went into surgery that February. It was completely torn off of the bone.

How did you rehab that?

River Stevens: It was a long process and took around seven months. Ryan Fitzel was my physical therapist in Arizona and he really helped me out a lot.

We did some light weights and then arm movements, which led to light throwing, more throwing and finally hitting. It was really a long process.

You are a middle infielder and have to do a lot of diving. How long did it take you to feel comfortable diving for a ball?

River Stevens: I never thought about it once. I just went out there and played. Before I had surgery they told me I had a tear in it and one day when I was taking ground balls I dove and got yelled at.[laughs} I just wasn’t thinking about it. In many ways if you are out there you can’t be thinking about it. If you do, you shouldn’t be out there in the first place.

You played high school baseball in San Marcos at Mission Hills and then went to Palomar. How did you end up there?

River Stevens: I wanted to continue to play baseball and had some talks with the coaches at Palomar. I ended up making the team but broke my ankle in April and was out for the rest of the year.

So then you went to Allan Hancock JC in Santa Maria, California.

River Stevens: My Dad was sick, he had multiple myeloma, and he thought it was best for me to get out of the house while he was going through it. It was a really tough decision for both of us.

My uncle was the head coach there and it might take my mind off of my Dad being sick.

I was able to work hard up there and really hit well. So it did take my mind off of what was going on. I got a job and was in the cage almost everyday trying to get to a D1 school and then professional baseball became an option for me and I decided to go.

What went into the choice between going to Cal State-Fullerton or going to the Padres?

River Stevens: I decided to go because I wanted to get started towards a professional career. I did have a good opportunity, but was twenty years old and the quicker I could start the better.

Isn’t most of the time it’s a no-brainer for you guys because the major league team will also offer to pay for college.

River Stevens: If you ask for it to be included in your contract, they usually will. I plan on taking a few classes in the off-season and plan on getting a degree down the road.

Was getting used to wood bats a big adjustment for you?

River Stevens: No, because I grew up swinging wood bats with my Dad all the time so it wasn’t too difficult. It can wear on your hands a little.

Why is that?

River Stevens: You just feel it a little more when you hit with wood and I didn’t use batting gloves either when I first started. I was never a batting gloves guy when I first started and now I have to have batting gloves. [laughs].

Why did your Dad push you to wood. Was he a big baseball fan?

River Stevens: [laughs] He was a huge baseball fanatic. He would get me up at one or two in the morning - get me out of bed on a school night - because he had an idea for a new swing. He loved the game and wanted to try everything.

He loved Ted Williams and Rod Carew.

You throw right and bat left-handed. How did that happen?

River Stevens: I was never forced to do it one way or another, I just happened to pick the bat up left-handed and he really liked that. He always told me that he wanted to keep things natural and he knew that was a good thing.

I did a little bit of switch-hitting when I was little, but my Dad said I had to learn to hit left-handed before I could hit from the right side. I screw around a little bit with it in the off-season, but I’ve never done it in a game.

You play so many different positions. How did you learn so many? Most of the guys here that play middle infield like yourself have only played short growing up.

River Stevens: I played second almost all of my life growing up. When I got to high school they moved me to short and I played a little bit of third base now and then in summer ball leagues.

This year they actually put me in the outfield a little - hey, anything to get me in the lineup so I can hit.

What is the biggest thing you are going to work on in the off-season?

River Stevens: This year I’m just trying to focus on doing whatever I can to help my teammates. Get the hits to bring in guys and make the plays to prevent them from coming in.

There is too much going on during the season to really make any big plans.

You never really know what is going to happen in the future.

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