By Hunter Sabbers
Ryan Cardona sat in his Livingston, New Jersey home surrounded by friends and family on July 13, 2021. He was anxious.
The only people typically watching the 19th round of the MLB draft are baseball superfans, looking for deep-cut prospects. For Cardona, he’s hoping to hear his name called. As his anticipation rose hearing each name go off the board that wasn’t his, he began to question if the hard work he put in since he was five years old would pay off.
It’s pick No. 590, and the Cincinnati Reds are on the clock; Cardona gets a call with an area code he doesn’t recognize. Is this the call he’s been expecting? Or will he return for his senior season at a small, mid-major school in Poughkeepsie, New York?
Cardona began his baseball career at five, playing for a t-ball league in his hometown.
“I was playing t-ball, and I thought it was kind of boring, so I asked to move up to coach pitch,” said Cardona. “[There] I realized how fun the sport was and knew it was something I wanted to play for a long time.”
Cardona grew up a three-sport athlete, playing baseball, football and basketball. In high school, he dropped basketball to focus on football and baseball. Cardona played third base and pitcher while also playing wide receiver and safety for the Livingston Highlanders, earning a varsity letter in all four years for both sports.
As Cardona entered his junior year of high school, he was put into an uncomfortable situation: having to choose between two sports he loved.
“I loved both so much, and I also knew I could play both at the Division I level,” said Cardona. “I attended a Prep Baseball Report showcase in the summer of my junior year. After that, I received a lot of calls from colleges that were interested in me playing for them, and then knew I was going to play baseball in college.”
Prep Baseball Report is one of the two largest organizations where high school baseball players can show off their talents in front of college coaches hoping to be recruited. Cardona had offers from numerous schools, including Saint John’s University, Rutgers University, Sacred Heart University, and Monmouth University. He decided to sign with Marist, a mid-major school that plays in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
“I chose Marist because of the mix of athletics, academics and family atmosphere,” said Cardona. “I went on a campus visit with my family and instantly fell in love with the school.”
Cardona started his Marist career in the bullpen as a long reliever, earning a few starts in midweek games.
“I didn’t know what the competition would be like when I got there,” said Cardona. “Right when I got on the field, I realized that all these guys were talented; I was going to have to earn my role.”
In his freshman year at Marist, Cardona appeared in 21 games for the Red Foxes, posting a 5.05 ERA, striking out 51 batters and earning five saves. A promising freshman year earned him All-MAAC rookie honors.
Cardona played summer ball for the Amsterdam Mohawks in the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League after his first season for Marist. Summer ball is an intricate part of the college baseball world for developing players to get noticed by major league clubs.
That summer, Cardona showed his professional caliber talent, pitching 21 innings, striking out 35 batters while only walking eight and posting a 1.28 ERA.
“I pitched well that summer, and my velocity was up to 94 mph,” said Cardona. “When I came back to Marist after that summer, coach Tracz had told me that some major league clubs were interested in me.”
This was the turning point for Cardona; he now knew he had a real shot at achieving his dream of getting drafted into the MLB.
Expectations were high for Cardona heading into his sophomore year. To start the 2020 season, the Red Foxes were off to a slow start, with a 3-9 record, and Cardona had 21 innings with a 3.00 ERA. Then, Marist’s season was canceled in early March due to the COVID-19 pandemic ending his sophomore season.
“It threw our whole world off,” said Cardona. “We were in the airport about to board a flight to Florida when our coach got a call telling us the rest of our season was canceled.” Cardona headed home for the rest of the school year and summer, hoping to return to a junior year without COVID.
Luckily, we did have a season, and I was able to pitch one last season with my friends and teammates,” said Cardona.
In the summer of 2021, Cardona had an opportunity to show off his talents by playing for the Brewster Whitecaps in the Cape Cod League, the most prestigious summer baseball league in the country.
“It was a surreal experience. There were sold-out crowds every night, and when you walked around town, people would notice you and ask for pictures; it felt like you were a pro already,” said Cardona.
After his stint in Brewster, it was draft time. Cardona’s advisor projected him to be selected in the 15th round. He began to worry when the 15th round had passed, and he hadn’t heard his name.
“I never got a call; I got nervous. I had put so much effort into the past year, and I wasn’t sure if it was enough.”
Then, his dream happened; Cardona was eventually selected in the 19th round by the Cincinnati Reds.
Cardona landed in Daytona, Florida, playing for the Reds’ single-A affiliate Daytona Tortugas. His first full season in an MLB farm system was a success, making seven starts, posting a 3.36 ERA and striking out 92 batters. In one start against the Port Saint Lucie Mets, Cardona faced former Cy Young winner Jacob DeGrom, who was doing a rehab stint.
“I couldn’t believe it but I was also excited to go up against him; he’s one of the best in the game, if not the best,” said Cardona. “He pitched phenomenal, and it was awesome to watch him pitch in a competitive environment.”
Cardona’s impressive development earned him a move up the ladder to the high-A Dayton Dragons, where he made two appearances at the tail end of his second professional season.
Living his dream, he still has one more goal to accomplish: pitching in the majors.
“I just have to get better every day; it’s a long process. I look at it as taking one good outing and bringing it into my next one and just continuing that process, and I believe I’ll make it one day.”
Cardona has the chance to become the second Marist player to appear in the MLB and fulfill his lifelong dream. He hopes–as most pitchers do–that another showdown with DeGrom is in his future.
Edited by Dan Aulbach and Sam Murphy
Photo Credit: Marist Athletics