One Man’s Journey to Find the Promised Land
by UFSocial contributor Jennifer Bate
John Richy, 24, Golden, Colo., is a self-proclaimed nomad. He’s learned to live with not much more than the worldly possessions he can take with him on a moment’s notice.
He enjoys packing up his Ford F-150, grabbing his camera and dog, Yeti, and camping out in his “house truck” during the offseason. He’ll also bring a guitar and a fly rod—life’s simple pleasures. It’s a glimpse into the peaceful beauty of the world outside of the chaotic schedule that is his job.
“I just love playing the game. I love the competition. I love all the people that you meet,” says Richy.
The lifestyle doesn’t faze the 6-foot-4 right-handed pitcher. He’s taken to it quite well. He spends six to seven months of the year away from home, much of it on the road. The journey takes him all over the United States from small town to small town, on a bus full of baseball guys just hoping to make it to the Promised Land any way they can—even if that means spending enough time on buses that they could have driven cross country several times; less than glamorous accommodations; months away from family and friends; making a wage of sometimes $1,100 or less a month; and facing the mental beast that is the game of baseball.
For some of these guys, like his roommate he calls “Munoz”, baseball is a way out of an impoverished country. For others, it’s an undying passion and a childhood dream. Either way, they share a common goal: the Big Leagues.
GROWING UP RICHY
When Richy was younger, the natural question was, as it is for all children, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” His answer was always that he wanted to play baseball. They would smile, he recalls, probably thinking about other occupations like doctor or policeman, and they would ask again.
“But what do you really want to do?”
He would respond unfazed, “I’m going to play baseball.”
And play baseball he would.
Richy started playing on his first team when he was 4 years old.
“[Baseball] was always my thing. I didn’t play any other sports until high school golf,” says Richy. “We traveled the country going to New York, Florida, and Nebraska—all over the place just playin’.”
He credits his grandfather with getting him into the sport. Even before Richy joined his first team, grandpa was always available to play catch.
It was in kindergarten, though, that he met Jerry Dipoto, a pitcher for the Rockies, now the GM of the Seattle Mariners, and he had a mentor.
Dipoto taught Richy a few things over the years. Most importantly, he made him realize he could pursue baseball as a career if he really wanted to.
Brent Hermanussen, Golden, Colo., Richy’s best friend, was his catcher in high school. “[Richy] actually hit his spots and took the game seriously,” says Hermanussen. He remembers Richy as the team’s “ace”, saying he was the best pitcher of any of the schools they played.
The two have an enduring bond that has survived the test of time, the kind of support that makes them brothers. In fact, their families are so close that Richy’s family calls Brent their fourth son.
What’s the best word to describe Richy? Hermanussen says, “stubborn.”
What’s going to help Richy make it to the Majors? Again, Hermanussen brings up his dogged determination, “stubbornness.”
“Stubbornness usually is considered a negative; but I think that trait has been a positive for me.”– Cal Ripken Jr.
“In his basement they have a pitching range that he could pitch in as a kid, and when, if, he hit the strike zone they had this thing that brought the ball back to him. If he missed the strike zone, then he had to go all the way down there to get the ball. You can imagine stubborn little John down there not wanting to have to go get the ball,” says Hermanussen.
THE ROCKIES SCOUT
Richy’s grandfather has been at every single start that he has ever made in his life. He hasn’t missed one. He always sits behind the backstop with his radar gun. He even tracks every single pitch for both teams.
“Growing up, he still had the same tradition and people would always see a guy in the stands with his radar gun in his hands,” Richy laughs. “Being in Colorado, he’s a diehard Rockies fan so he wears his Rockies hat everywhere. Naturally, people think that this guy in the stands is here to watch me and he’s a Rockies scout.”
JUST ONE OF THOSE THINGS
Richy wasn’t really concerned with the high school draft all that much because he didn’t feel he would have gone anyway, just wouldn’t have been picked high enough to choose it. In college, not getting drafted never crossed his mind. He says he knew he was going to play for three years and get drafted.
“It was just one of those things I just knew I could always do,” says Richy. “I just need a little more time to kind of develop and get stronger. I knew I was obviously in control of putting in all the work I needed to do. It was basically up to me.”
WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS STAYS IN VEGAS
It’s certainly an odd thought, college in Las Vegas. What’s even stranger is the idea of college baseball in Vegas, right? However, when Richy was recruited to play at Division-I University of Nevada-Las Vegas, that’s exactly where life took him.
Richy and his teammates were part of a rebuilding phase of UNLV’s baseball program. Together, in Richy’s junior year, they made it to the school’s first regionals in more than 10 years. A bittersweet memory, as their junior year would be the last year playing together once the draft would take some of their friends to different places. But the memories and friendships, they last a lifetime—as will the mustache tattoo a group of them acquired to honor their mascot, the Rebels.
Richy’s also got a legacy for himself—a third-round pick after a solid year, but more than that, he has a younger brother, Paul, 19, who is following in his footsteps at UNLV, and hopefully, beyond.
“It’s incredible to have the opportunity to follow in my brother’s footsteps,” says the younger Richy. “We share common goals, and playing ball at UNLV gets me one step closer to it.”
John has been someone Paul has looked up to his entire life, sharing with him the path to the success he has had so far.
“Of course there is competition between us,” he says. “But not in the way you would expect. John guides me in a way that maximizes my success, no matter if that success is greater or less than his accomplishments. Since we are working towards a common goal, we work side by side, to better each other.”
THE DODGERS SCOUT
Richy’s college roommate, Erick Fedde, Las Vegas, Nev., was projected to be a high pick in the 2014 draft. He ended up being a first-rounder, going as the 18th pick to the Washington Nationals.
What was a stroke of bad luck for Fedde when he tore his UCL in their junior season ended up being good luck for Richy. On a day where Fedde was supposed to pitch, Richy threw instead. One of the special assistants with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Rafael Chavez, was there to see Fedde and instead got a glimpse of Richy. Chavez later drafted him to the Dodgers organization as the 98th pick in the 3rd round of the 2014 Major League Baseball draft.
THERE’S ANOTHER JOHN RICHY?
When Richy and his family were watching the MLB draft on television, he didn’t even get a phone call.
“I was just watching the draft and we saw it pop up, and I was like, ‘There’s another John Richy?! Who is this guy?’” recalls Richy.
The third-rounder didn’t talk to the Dodgers until about an hour after the draft was done that day, or maybe it was his agent that talked to them, he doesn’t remember.
Richy says, “[My agent] called me and just… I don’t know. I don’t even remember what he said. That whole day is like a blur to me.”
The draft brings transition and with it the many changes and differences between college ball and professional ball. Richy says it was tough to get used to how long the season is. The travel is pretty brutal too, he says, going to small towns and playing for basically nothing.
Richy says players will lie on the ground of the bus to sleep. One time, the bus toilet broke.
“It leaked blue water all over the floor of the bus and got a whole bunch of people wet,” he says.
Sometimes they don’t get in to their destination until 6am after a night on the bus and have to go play that day. On bus trips, people gamble to pass the time and make conversation. It’s usually poker, Blackjack, or Rummy.
In college, Richy says they only had one bus trip. They flew everywhere else. They stayed in only Marriotts.
Now, he stays in wherever the team puts him up and it’s not always great.
“I remember we stayed in this hotel in Great Falls, Mont., and just, like, I don’t even know how to describe it. It was just the dirtiest most run-down hotel I’ve ever been in,” he says. “The televisions didn’t work. There was a room that actually was a storage room for all of the garbage, like leftover pieces from different hotel rooms, and one of the guys ended up with a key to that room. It was obviously a mix up.”
Richy didn’t get to stay in the hotel for his team in Ogden, Utah because it was his home team, but he says the hotel is actually supposed to be haunted.
“There are a lot of people on edge there, a lot of sleepy baseball players on the away side,” he laughs.
The teams in minor league baseball are located all over and have names that go with them. Richy has played for the Great Lakes Loons, Ogden Raptors, Rancho Cucamonga Quakes, Clearwater Threshers, and Reading Fightin’ Phils. Some of the team names are so odd you may not be able to tell the real ones from the fictitious.
His favorite team mascots were Tremor and Aftershock of the Quakes. He says the Loons’ facility wasn’t for the birds, “it’s actually a really nice place, one of the best stadiums in that league.”
FRUSTRATIONS AND FURNITURE OF LAWN CHAIRS
The glitz and glamour of the dream is no match for reality. Hermanussen knows it almost as well as Richy, the two talk on the phone and Hermanussen goes to visit when he can. He also drives him down to spring training in Clearwater, Fla.
“There are a lot more downs than you would imagine and it’s a lot more of a grind than it seems to be from an outsider’s point of view. He’ll call me at night and be like, ‘God damn it, dude. This sucks. I can’t stand this. I’ve been throwing so good, doing this, doing that, but everything above me is full. There’s nowhere to go for me right now.’ You just try to not let the negative thoughts get in his head, like “yeah, you are good enough.”
Patience is key in baseball. The game is a beast that can eat away at a player’s mental wellbeing. The best prospects don’t always make it in professional baseball, but the doggedly determined often do. It’s the promise of a dream and the passion that goes with it that allows them to push through the difficult times.
“All of us have the end goal of being in the Big Leagues, it helps get you through it,” says Richy. “You’re playing 140-some games a season making, I don’t know, some people are making $1,100 a month.
A lot of times you end up with eight roommates just to try to save money, living on an air mattress in the living room, with furniture of lawn chairs and fold-down tables, but when you get to the field and you get to play a game for a living, it’s kind of the best thing ever.”
“When you want to succeed as bad as you want to breathe then you’ll be successful.” –Eric Thomas
Richy doesn’t talk to anyone before games. He likes to get in his zone and focus. He even puts his phone on airplane mode. It’s a mental game and he’s not messing around.
He listens to Eric Thomas’s “How Bad Do You Want It?” speech and focuses on the game ahead. Every player has his thing.
With a diverse team culture made of international players, there are all kinds of rituals. Some borderline on worship.
“Because we’re together all the time sometimes you have to mix things up. This year, we had a shrine to a god that we had made up. This god’s name is Tuda Tree because the hitters wanted to hit the ball over the fence and ‘to da trees’. It’s a small statue of a little tree that you can light incense in—which we did, every single home game.”
Richy was faced with a challenge when he was traded from the LA Dodgers to the Philadelphia Phillies in 2015. Chavez, the special assistant to the Dodgers who drafted Richy, took a job as a pitching coordinator for the Phillies, and with him John Richy. Later that season, Chavez played a role in negotiating a deal that brought Richy and another player to Philly in exchange for the Phillies’ veteran second baseman, Chase Utley.
It was a complete shock, he says. One night he was in California and the next day he was in Florida. He went from being completely comfortable to having nobody else. It taught him a lot about how to adjust to where you are and get to know the people around you.
It wasn’t long before he found out that he knew a couple people there that he had met through the Dodgers. They helped him branch out, but he says everybody was pretty nice and helped him adjust to the change. A lot of those guys are among his very close friends now. But he hasn’t lost touch with the guys that were with him when he made it to professional baseball.
This past season, Richy had a day off the same day that one of his friends from the Dodgers, a Puerto Rican pitcher by the name of José De León, was making a start in the Big Leagues at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, a few hours away. Richy hopped in his truck and made the trek to see his friend do what they both dreamed of for so long.
“Seeing one of your friends accomplish his lifelong dream is amazing,” Richy says of watching his brother take the mound. “And also going through all of the times in the minor leagues together, you know you’ll always have that bond of being brothers forever.”
Hermanussen says Richy’s biggest fan is his grandpa. He hasn’t missed a game in college or professional baseball. He flies out to watch Richy start every five days, no matter where he is.
Richy recognizes the importance of family and friendship.
“I think the support that I’ve gotten just from my family and friends through baseball has been unbelievable, they’ve been with me through everything; being traded, being drafted, and being moved all across the country on a moment’s notice. Those are the people that are always going to be there for me no matter what. I think it’s brought all of us a lot closer together.”
It’s a family affair that’s far from over, Richy hopes to finish this next season in Triple-A and to see his brother drafted in 2018. One day, he hopes they both make it to baseball’s Promised Land: the Majors.
Even the younger Richy is unfazed by the road he watches his brother travel while he enjoys the last years of his college career.
“There are not a lot of people that look forward to eight-hour bus trips and living with just as many roommates. But when you are side by side with your brothers, none of that matters,” says Paul. “Through the suffering and struggle comes something so incredible, words truly cannot describe it. It is not something you learn. There is a burning passion that drives us all to strive for greatness.”
And what about that brotherly competition? Well, the Richy brothers hope to bring that competition to the field in the Big Leagues.
“I’ve thought about how incredible it would be to play with or against John someday, and I hope we get the chance,” says Paul.
WHAT LIES AHEAD
“What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson
“My goal is obviously to make it to the Big Leagues,” says Richy, “but I want to look back and know that I did everything I could to take my baseball career as far as I could.”