Sometimes, things aren’t as easy as crossing the street. Sometimes, even crossing the street isn’t easy.
It’s March 2019.
It’s around 9:30 p.m. at La Salle University in Philadelphia. Then-freshman Matthew Rivera exits the building where his study hall just finished. A few moments later, Rivera finds himself on the hood of a vehicle.
Rivera was crossing the street on the way back to his dorm room when he was hit by a car. Rivera was rushed to the hospital and spent three to four nights there with a lacerated liver. A couple weeks after leaving the hospital, he was diagnosed with a torn MCL and PCL. Rivera said he’s fortunate to be alive and credited his survival to divine intervention.
“I feel like I had someone watching over me, it’s truly a blessing,” Rivera said. “When the car struck me, it was probably going 50 mph and I don’t know how it happened but I grabbed onto the bumper on the front of the vehicle, which flipped me up onto the hood. If I didn’t hold on to that bumper, I probably wouldn’t be here today.”
Rivera said faith kept him positive during the recovery process and has kept him motivated since.
“Once something like that happens, you want to start blaming people or someone, like, ‘Why me?’ But, it honestly helped me stay closer in my faith,” Rivera said. “I took it as, this is a minor setback for a major comeback.”
Instead of focusing on his pain, Rivera said he remembers lying in the back of the ambulance thinking about the uncertainty of him playing baseball for La Salle.
After playing 22 games at La Salle in 2019 before the accident, Rivera returned for his sophomore season and played three games for the Explorers during the shortened 2020 season due to COVID-19. Rivera transferred to Harford Community College in Hartford, Connecticut for the 2021 season.
Hartford head coach Josh Houser and his coaching staff try to prepare players for the Division I and II level after one or two years in the program and said they “definitely knew it was going to happen last year,” with Rivera.
Ball State Baseball head coach Rich Maloney needed a catcher when former Cardinals catcher Chase Sebby graduated in 2021. Maloney flew to Philadelphia, drove to New Jersey and was immediately drawn to Rivera after traveling over 500 miles.
“The first at-bat Matt had, he hit one so far they didn’t have a fence for how far he hit it,” Maloney said. “He made a giant impression right off the bat with a mammoth shot. He knew I was there and he answered.”
Rivera said he knew of Ball State before Maloney scouted him, and appreciated the culture the Cardinals had established. After meeting Maloney, Rivera said he realized Ball State was where he wanted to go.
“I had always heard it was a blue-collar program and everything was done the right way,” Rivera said. “The fact that coach Maloney flew out to watch me play really said something. He was the only coach to do that.”
Maloney said it’s important to have a strong recruiting presence as a head coach. He can’t go see all recruits but when there is a strong positional need, he does everything he can to make the trip.
“When the head coach flies out and goes out of his way, you know you’re putting strong importance on a position,” Maloney said. “I’ve always taken recruiting personally because it’s the lifeblood of our program.”
Rivera said in high school and early in his college career, he didn’t have strong relationships with his coaches. In his search to transfer from Harford, Rivera wanted to find a program where he could form a lasting bond with his coach.
Rivera instantly connected with Maloney during his recruiting visit, but it strengthened once Rivera showed Maloney his comedic chops at a postgame dinner.
“Matt’s a funny guy,” Maloney said. “He has a lot of personality and one day he started mimicking Batman. I laughed so hard, I started calling him Batman.”
Rivera said his Dark Knight moniker transfers to the diamond and is deeper than a nickname.
“On the field, I’ll hear ‘Batman’ and it’ll give me a boost of confidence,” Rivera said. “It lets me know [Maloney’s] got my back.”
Fifth-year catcher Adam Christianson and Rivera both play catcher, came from junior colleges and have struggled to find playing time. Christianson and Rivera compete in drills together and watch film to critique each other’s swings and find improvements.
Christianson has stepped into the role of starting catcher this season, meaning Rivera has transitioned to designated hitter (DH). Christianson said he knows it’s been a difficult transition for Rivera.
“As a catcher, you have to wash off your bad at-bats, because your position on defense is honestly more important,” Christianson said. “Being a DH, without being able to wash it off on defense, that’s a tough adjustment.”
When he was catching, Rivera used the time in between innings while catching the pitcher's warm-up to clear his mind after a bad at-bat. Now, Rivera said he's taking a different approach.
“When I get back to the dugout after a bad at-bat, I give myself five-to-10 seconds,” Rivera said. “It’ll be all in my head and I’ll let myself have it and then I’ll be fine.”
Earlier this season, Rivera had limited opportunities as a pinch hitter and recorded two hits with six strikeouts in his first nine at-bats. However, in Ball State’s first Mid-American Conference (MAC) game against Eastern Michigan March 13, Rivera capitalized on his opportunity.
With two outs in the bottom of the fifth inning, Rivera entered the game as a pinch hitter and hit a two RBI single to give the Cardinals their 2-1 win. Christianson said Rivera’s hit gave Ball State a boost after starting the season 5-7.
“We were kind of down at the beginning of the season, we were losing a lot of tough games,” Christianson said. “Then in our first conference game, when he came up with that big hit, it showed us we could do it and everything loosened up. It’s a lot of him putting a lot less pressure on himself — he was trying to make it happen rather than just letting it happen.” During his early-season struggles, aside from reaching out to Christianson and Houser for advice, Rivera said he used several methods to help him through his mental slump. Rivera said he began manifesting, trying to will things into existence by telling himself they would come true.
Rivera said he realized baseball is a mental game, reminding himself he could break out of his slump if he believed he could. Lastly, Rivera said he turned to faith, the same thing that helped him through his struggles during and after the accident at La Salle.
“I’ve always been religious and I’ve met a couple teammates who share the same beliefs,” Rivera said. “Zach Cole (junior outfielder) and Amir Wright (fifth-year outfielder) brought me under their wing in that respect. We started doing bible study and praying before games. I feel like if you keep praying, good things will happen.”
Maloney said he relies on faith to get him through difficult periods in his life and is glad his players are following their own path, whatever that may be.
“This game isn’t easy, and different people have different coping mechanisms,” Maloney said. “Matty found his faith and that’s a beautiful thing. Each person has to figure out their own path and it’s great that those guys have connected and have been able to help each other grow.”
Since his game-winning hit March 13, Rivera has started 20 of 22 games he has appeared in. Maloney said the Cardinals wouldn’t be 15-3 in MAC play without Rivera.
“He’s given the team a great lift and I’m really happy for him and proud of him,” Maloney said. “He had to learn patience and work through failure, and he’s contributed greatly. He has worked his way through a process and to do that and have success is special.”
Ever since he was struck by a vehicle at La Salle, life wasn’t easy for Rivera.
He dealt with the aftermath of the accident physically by waiting for his lacerated liver to heal and rehabbing his torn MCL and PCL, which still bothers him three years later. Additionally, Rivera endured the mental challenges of taking a reduced role behind the plate and shifting into a designated hitting role.
Even so, Rivera is still here.
Rivera has been hit by everything life could throw at him, including a vehicle moving 50 mph. Through it all, Rivera has kept holding that front bumper.
Contact Kyle Smedley with comments via email at email@example.com or on Twitter @smedley1932.