JT Riddle knew he’d have a couple of days off this month, and the first place he thought of was home.
The Miami Marlins starting shortstop and the pride of Frankfort’s Western Hills High School offered a Facebook invitation to the community that has supported him since youth baseball to come out and see him go through his paces and maybe get an autograph or two.
“I was just thinking I wanted to do something for the fans and the community here back home,” Riddle said as he prepared for a public workout Tuesday during his first real visit home since becoming an everyday major league player. It’s the All-Star break. “The community’s been awesome in Frankfort, even around Frankfort.”
Dozens were on hand, forming a line around the concession stand for autographs and, maybe, a photo. The gathering included youth teams and many of his coaches over the years. They came to see that hard work pays off and that just because you make it big doesn’t mean you forget where you’re from.
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Riddle, Kentucky’s Mr. Baseball in 2010 and a three-year starter at the University of Kentucky, didn’t expect to be in the majors this soon.
Sure, he’d been added to the Marlins’ 40-man roster last November, but he hadn’t played a full season in Triple-A, yet. His goal was just to get promoted every year. He’d accomplished that. He was drafted in the 13th round by Miami in 2013.
“You get into pro ball and you’re like ‘Oh, man, there’s a lot of good players here,’” he said of his early days. “There’s a lot of levels I’ve got to go through to eventually get to that final step where I want to be.”
So, after some time with the big club in spring training, he began this season with the New Orleans Baby Cakes in Triple-A.
Buddy Ritchie, his stepfather, and his mother, Laketa, came down to watch the opening series. He went 3 for 4 with a double, an RBI and two runs scored in the third game, a Saturday matinee. His parents said goodbye with a hug in the parking lot and began the long drive back to Frankfort.
About 10:30 p.m., Buddy’s phone rang.
“(Riddle) called and said, ‘Where are y’all?’” Buddy said, his voice cracking a little.
“Just passing Cullman, Ala.,” Buddy answered. … “And he said ‘Well, drive on to New York.’
“I said ‘do what?’ And he said ‘just keep driving to New York. I just got the call.’
The Ritchies then called everyone they knew and spent about two hours trying to figure out how to possibly make it to New York the next day to see their son’s first major league game. But Buddy doesn’t like to fly, and the turnaround on the road was too difficult.
Luckily, Riddle didn’t get into the action that day. They’d missed only his first game on the bench.
The drive to Miami for that Tuesday’s home opener proved worth it. Riddle started at shortstop. And even though he went 0 for 4, it was hard to believe that it could have been more special.
“It was a moment that I’ll never forget,” Laketa Ritchie said.
The big blast
The next day, Riddle got his first hit, an “excuse-me” check-swing dribbler that rolled outside the foul line and back in for an infield single.
“I was just like ‘Man, I’m never going to live that one down,’” Riddle said.
The next few nights, he subbed in during late pitching changes, getting a few at-bats but no hits.
On April 16, the Marlins blew a combined no-hit bid in the ninth inning and let a 2-0 lead slip into a 2-2 tie. Riddle came on at shortstop as a defensive substitution.
He stepped to the plate in the bottom of the ninth with a runner on second and two out. The potential winning run had just been thrown out at home.
Riddle hit a one-strike pitch over the heart of the plate to deep center field for a walk-off two-run homer. He was mobbed by his teammates at the plate.
“I don’t remember much of it, to be honest,” Riddle said. “I remember rounding third and going home and seeing everybody.”
Some Marlins players don Halloween masks whenever they have cause to celebrate. A somewhat creepy gorilla mask greeted Riddle during his postgame interview.
“I got a nice pie in the face by the monkey and then ended up with a couple more pies in the face when I came back up from the monkey,” he said. “It’s never a bad thing when you’re getting pies in the face. That’s for sure.”
The big break
Two days later, Miami sent Riddle back to New Orleans when five-year veteran shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria came off the disabled list.
Riddle wouldn’t stay down long. The Marlins suffered a rash of injuries to infielders in early May, including Hechavarria, whose oblique strain from April returned.
“It was a lot more comfortable for me coming back up the second time around,” Riddle said. “I kind of knew what to expect. Of course, with everybody that was hurt, I knew I was going to be playing every day, which is also a good thing.”
Riddle hit .302 in May, giving the Marlins something to think about.
Rumors swirled, and Riddle began hearing that Hechavarria might be traded. But he also worried thqat when “Hech” completed his rehab stint, he would be sent back down. He went 1 for 26 in the middle of June.
“(Not knowing) what was going to happen, I might have put a little more pressure on myself,” Riddle said.
Despite the slump, the Marlins did trade Hechavarria on June 26, making Riddle their shortstop of the present.
“The front office of the Marlins has been great giving me the confidence that ‘Hey, we’re going to trade Hech and you’re our guy now,’” Riddle said.
Riddle responded by going 2 for 3 at the plate the next day. He entered the All-Star break on an eight-game hit streak, including four two-hit games.
The next step
Buddy Ritchie spent countless hours with his stepson on the ball field. He coached him as a youth player and helped with his high school team as his talent blossomed. A parent always hopes but never really knows whether dreams will pan out, he said.
“It was always fun for me and him to go to the field,” Ritchie said. “You never had to ask him if he wanted to go. He was always ready to go to the park. He just loved the game of baseball.”
Now that he has what he has always wanted, Riddle knows that keeping it will be a challenge.
“It’s going to be tough to stay there,” he said. “There’s always goals. There’s MVP goals. There’s making the All-Star game. There’s all kinds of goals. But the only thing I want to do right now is be successful, play one game at a time, and (ask) myself at the end of the day: ‘Was I a great player that day?’”
Riddle at the Reds
Miami Marlins at Cincinnati Reds
What: JT Riddle, 2010 Mr. Baseball for Western Hills and a three-year starter at the University of Kentucky, will be with Miami when the Marlins make their only visit to Great American Ball Park this season.
When: July 21-23 (7:10, 7:10, 1:10 p.m.)
TV: Fox Sports Ohio