Greg Cote

Bronx cheer: Nine-year baseball odyssey through minors leads to debut with Yankees

Yankees pitcher Richard Bleier of Davie: ‘They open the gate, you look out. I’ll never forget that feeling. It’s what I worked my whole life for.’
Yankees pitcher Richard Bleier of Davie: ‘They open the gate, you look out. I’ll never forget that feeling. It’s what I worked my whole life for.’ AP

It was the phone call the son had dreamed of making for so long, for so many years. He had begun to doubt he would ever get the chance.

It was the call the father prayed he’d finally get one day, but wondering more and more if he ever would.

The phone rang in the house in Davie, Florida. It was late. Just after 11 at night. But nothing was wrong. Everything was right.

“Dad, how’s it going?”

“Getting ready for bed. What’s up.”

“Are you sitting down?”

The son needed say no more.

“You got called up!” said the father.

They call them transactions, a very business-like word for the roster moves of a team. There are dozens in sports every day, and most never get mentioned on ESPN SportsCenter. In the newspaper they appear in the small agate type you can barely see.

This transaction read:

New York Yankees selected contract of LHP Richard Bleier from Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

It wasn’t big news in the sports world, or even in baseball. Probably didn’t mean much even to most Yankees fans.

But to one young man who’d been hoping and climbing and dreaming for a dozen years, it meant everything. To one South Florida family, the news was seismic.

Richard Bleier, the kid who played ball at South Plantation High, after a career’s minor-league odyssey that saw him toiling in obscurity and pitching almost a thousand innings you didn’t see, had made the big leagues at last, at age 29.

This isn’t a sports story. It’s a tale of perseverance.

“It’s the Journey, Not the Destination” may work as bumper-sticker philosophy, but in the real world, if you’re really good at sports, the destination is the point.

Bleier finally reached his when the Yankees promoted him from their Triple A Scranton-Wilkes Barre (Pennsylvania) team on May 26, making him a major leaguer for the first time. He made his MLB debut Monday, out of the bullpen in Toronto.

The outfield wall slid open and there was Richard Bleier, staring at everything he’d dreamed of. He started trotting into his dream, the pitchers’ mound drawing nearer, getting bigger, with every step.

His 956 innings in the minor leagues had prepared him. But this was different.

“You think you’re ready for something like that, and you’re just not,” he said afterward, calling from Toronto. “They open the gate, you look out. I’ll never forget that feeling. It’s what I worked my whole life for. I felt just pure excitement. It had been a long time coming.”

Yankees manager Joe Girardi handed him the ball, said, “Let’s do this.”

Then the dream became a baseball game. It had to.

“Last thing I want to do is be nervous and walk guys, do stuff I don’t do,” Bleier said later.

He faced two batters. Three pitches, all strikes, two groundouts. A brief — and perfect — major-league debut.

That is what Bleier does, why he finally made it. He is not a power pitcher. His fastball is south of 90 mph. What he does is not walk anybody. What he does is keep the ball low and coax groundouts.

He ran from the mound to the dugout, bill of his cap down, trying not to look as thrilled as he was.

The first teammate on the top step of the dugout to greet him?

“Alex Rodriguez,” Bleier said, “saying he’s proud of me and ‘good job.’ ”

Later, a trainer handed him the baseball he had thrown to get his first big-league out, marked with the date, opponent and batter (Michael Saunders).

He had been in the big leagues four games before he first appeared in one. He began thinking like a career minor leaguer.

“I hope they don’t send me down and then I never pitch in a game,” he recalls thinking. “I don’t have any stats but I sat in the bullpen for four days.”

Three of those games were at Tampa Bay. His father, Lawrence, mother, Kathy, brother and sister, wife, in-laws and a few old high school teammates from South Plantation all were there.

His dad and mom posed for photos with Richard on the field after his first game in Tampa. Richard hung around for 30 minutes to sign autographs for Yankees fans — something veteran players would avoid, but to Bleier it was a new delight, another sign he finally had made it.

His parents were back home in Davie watching on TV when Bleier got in his first game Monday night in Toronto.

“Seeing him run in from the bullpen was like a dream,” said Lawrence, 63. “I hear the announcer say, ‘Richard Bleier is making his major-league debut.’ Is this my son out there? It didn’t seem real. My wife said, ‘Calm down, you’re going to have a heart attack’ I am absolutely thrilled. He’s living it. It’s his dream. I’m just tagging along.”

Magnifying a father’s joy: Lawrence grew up playing stickball in Brownsville, Brooklyn. He was a Yankees fan, a Roger Maris guy. Remembers getting a Bobby Richardson bat on bat day in 1965.

Now his son is in pinstripes, in a clubhouse with CC Sabathia nearby and A-Rod across the way.

During his days at South Plantation, you could always see Richard’s parents sitting in the home bleachers. Except when Richard pitched. Then his mom would be in the bleachers and his dad at field level, close to directly behind home plate, peering through the chain link.

Richard was hard on himself. You saw it in his body language when he’d walk a batter, when a teammate made a costly error, or when an umpire wasn’t treating him right.

“I was pretty immature in high school,” he says now. “I was very tough on myself. I still am.”

He was not a high school star, not even a prominent starter until his senior year, and was undrafted out of South Plantation. College scholarship offers were not coming, so Lawrence Bleier wrote letters to a bunch of small colleges. Because of that, Richard got a partial ride to Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers.

“He wasn’t a phenom,” his father admits. “He’s been plugging away. His perseverance has rewarded him.”

The 6-3 lefty shined at Florida Gulf Coast, where he was Atlantic Sun Conference pitcher of the year as a junior.

That led to him being drafted in the sixth round in 2008 by the Texas Rangers.

The long odyssey — Richard Bleier’s slow-motion dream — was just beginning.

The Rangers, Toronto Blue Jays and Washington Nationals all had him and released him before the Yankees signed him.

While you were living your lives the past eight years, Bleier was pitching for the Spokane (Washington) Indians, Hickory (North Carolina) Crawdads, Bakersfield (California) Blaze, Frisco (Texas) Roughriders, Round Rock (Texas) Express, New Hampshire Fisher Cats, Buffalo (New York) Bisons, Estrellas de Oriente (Dominican Winter League), Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) Senators, Syracuse (New York) Chiefs and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (Pennsylvania) Railriders.

That’s four MLB franchises and 11 different team uniforms in seven states and eight different leagues at every level of the minors before that phone call he had dreamed about ever came.

The family would plan summer vacations to watch Richard pitch in the minors — plans aborted or changed more than once by a last-second transfer to a different team.

“We’ve seen a lot of the country,” Lawrence said.

Was Bleier frustrated along the way? Absolutely. He was a married man looking at 30 wondering whether to pull the plug on his dream and get a real job.

“You get to a certain point where you feel you’re no longer viewed as a potential major-league player,” he said. “Like I’m just pitching so their prospect can pitch every fifth day.”

Eight years of paying and paying and paying dues makes a man a realist. Bleier knows that finally making the majors doesn’t mean it’s permanent.

In his second appearance, Wednesday night, he pitched one scoreless inning, allowing one single. So that’s two games,  1 2/3 innings, 13 pitches, 10 strikes and a 0.00 ERA. Still, he could be sent down at any time.

“I’m not buying a house in New York or anything,” as Richard put it.

Still, “If it ends right now, he’s tied for the best ERA in baseball history,” Lawrence noted with a smile.

Perseverance is its own reward.

His stay in the big leagues might be short and it might be as long as the climb it took to get there.

Either way, Richard Bleier did it.

He made the major leagues.

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