I had a chance to interview a former player I coached in college, catcher Nick Derba, who’s in his sixth year with the St. Louis Cardinals organization. He’s always had tremendous work ethic, been a natural leader, and is admittedly stubborn – but it’s all paid off. From short-season rookie ball on up to Triple-A, he’s had his ups and down, but the one thing that remains constant for Nick is his family and faith. He’s living every young boy’s dream of playing baseball for a living (as meager as it may be).
RD: When you heard your name called in the 30th round by the St. Louis Cardinals, was there any hesitation to sign and play pro ball or did you ever think just to pursue a career in medicine? (Nick was pre-med at Manhattan)
ND: Being a late round draft pick I didn’t expect much more than a chance but I decided that it was an opportunity that I needed to take advantage of. At least give it a shot. I had no expectations, so going into my first season, I was ready to return to school and pursue a higher degree in the medical field. I had nothing to lose by trying.
|Image via pbase.com|
ND: I would have to say that just getting to the Triple-A level alone is my single greatest achievement. I have been here for parts of 3 years while getting a few Big League camp invites. I have been among the Minor League leaders in throwing runners out runners a few times as well, so those are some accomplishments I certainly pride myself on.
RD: Following a very successful college career, what was the biggest adjustment you had to make in pro ball, besides not being in Queens or the Bronx anymore?
ND: The biggest adjustment has been the lifestyle in and of itself. Even though the season is only 6 months, the remainder of the year is still dedicated to baseball. The travel can be very hard and you are almost always away from family. Living in hotel rooms and different apartments throughout the year can be taxing on the mind at first. You never get totally used to it, but it does get easier. The competition is also a big adjustment. Getting acclimated to the speed of the game and the high performance of every day is tough, no matter how long you’ve been playing. This is the hardest game in the world and it proves it to you every day. Making the adjustment to different geographic parts of the world wasn’t that difficult.
RD: What player do you model yourself after? Who’s helped you the most throughout your minor league career?
ND: Craig Biggio (a native Long Islander) has always been my favorite player that I have seen while Yogi Berra is my favorite legend. I would say that they both embody what I find to be my greatest asset as a player, grit. Neither one of those guys has been lauded for having an overwhelming amount of tools, but they both got the job done in Hall of Fame fashion.
RD: Who do you call for peace of mind, when shit really starts hitting the fan?
ND: My family and my girlfriend have helped me through this journey. I have endured my fair share of struggles and heartbreaks, and without those people in my life I may have caved in. Their support may not have been in the conventional sense of ” I know you can do it, so keep on,” but their words have helped me make the decisions that I feel is right. For me this is the best support I can get. My girlfriend Megan, as cliché as it may sound, has been my crutch for the last four seasons. She gets to hear the worst of the worst, but she manages to put a positive spin on many things. When things get bad I go to her, luckily, things haven’t been that bad and I don’t plan on them being so.
RD: What is the main difference you’ve noticed between rookie ball, A, AA, AAA?
ND: The levels don’t differ that much as far as talent, but savvy. At the higher levels you see guys that have both talent and a baseball mind. They know how to play the game, period. The pitchers command better off-speed more often, hitters miss less pitches and make you pay for the mistakes you made with an extra base hit. The 8-hole hitter in a AAA lineup isn’t an automatic out like in A ball. Everyone can play in minor league baseball. It is actually pretty absurd how many good ballplayers there are that never make it to the big leagues.
RD: You’re in your sixth year of minor league ball – what’s life like in the minor leagues? It’s got to be pretty cool seeing different cities every week. Any favorite park or city you’ve played in?
ND: My favorite place to play is probably Springfield or Oklahoma City. Nice parks, good fans, nice town. Can’t beat it.
RD: Not to be inconsiderate, but you’ve had your share of struggles at the plate, like plenty do. What do you do to keep a positive mental attitude? Also, I know you pride yourself on your defense. What’s your mindset defensively?
ND: Struggles and success mirror each other so closely in this game that it sometimes can be tough to decipher what you are experiencing. My offensive game historically has been my weakness, but over the last year I have closed the gap.
My mindset defensively and offensively is very similar. I simply believe I am the best. I believe it, and whether or not I succeed in the exact moment, I will always believe it. If the day comes that I don’t believe that I am the best at what I do, I will know that it’s time to retire. When I was in Chatham for the Cape Cod League, my coach John Schiffner (HS coach in Plainfield, CT) always spoke about “even keel”. I was never the calmest person, I wore it on my sleeve, was prone to outbursts and tirades, so naturally it was difficult for me to buy in. Not until two years ago after miserable offensive campaigns did I start to let it go and I saw immediate results. I wound up hitting in the mid .300’s for the last month of the season in AAA. Baseball is as much of a game as you make it. I always try to play the game like I am in school yard with my buddies, or having a Green/White scrimmage at Van Cortlandt Park (home field of the Jaspers). Have fun, play hard and success will define itself.
RD: Toughest pitcher you’ve faced?
ND: Best pitcher was Clayton Kershaw although I saw Tim Lincecum throw once in the Cape, but Kershaw was really nasty.
RD: Any idea if you’ll ever get that late-season call-up?
ND: I sure hope so but what will be will be.
RD: Thanks Nick. Good luck the rest of the way.
Work ethic and believing in your abilities. Two things that will help get you through life regardless of what your profession is. Will Nick ever get to the big leagues? Stay tuned.
Nick is currently hitting .200 with 3 doubles and 3 RBI in 55 at-bats with the Memphis Redbirds, the Triple-A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals.