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Conversations with the Herd: Riley Tirotta

By: Brian Frank

Bisons infielder Riley Tirotta grew up in South Bend, Indiana, so naturally he’s a life-long Notre Dame football fan.

“I grew up going to games,” he said of his Fighting Irish fandom in a recent interview with The Herd Chronicles. “I still go and tailgate for the games. I get excited for the fall every year. I’m a big Irish football fan, for sure.”

“I wanted to play ball there a little bit in high school, but it didn’t really work out that way.”

Baseball or football?

“Baseball,” he said with a chuckle. “I wish I played Notre Dame football.”

Tirotta’s calling was on the baseball diamond rather than the gridiron. One of his earliest childhood memories is playing on a tee-ball team coached and sponsored by his father.

“He was my first coach,” Tirotta said. “Our team was Mike’s Painting, which is still his business that he owns. I grew up watching him play slow-pitch softball. He was number two – Derek Jeter was his guy. The whole number thing was big for us as a family. My brother playing ball was two. I’d say tee-ball and being coached by him for the first probably five to six years of baseball is one of the first things I can remember.”

Tirotta currently has a 1.051 OPS with the Bisons. Photo courtesy of the Buffalo Bisons Baseball Club.

Tirotta was a four-year starter at Marian High School in Mishawaka, Indiana, where he put up huge numbers, hitting .535 during his senior season and setting a school record for career extra-base hits.

“My freshman year of high school, we were playing the number one team in the state in a sectional,” he remembered. “It was actually the other Catholic High School in my area, St. Joe. I was a freshman, we were playing in a sectional game – it’s like the first round of the state playoffs. Big moment for me. I was on varsity and I hit a go-ahead home run to take the lead. That was probably my favorite high school baseball memory was doing that as a freshman. Also, we won a sectional championship my junior year.”

After high school, he attended the University of Dayton, where he starred on the baseball field for four seasons.  

“I got a baseball offer that was good for my family and they gave me a chance to play Division I baseball,” he explained of his decision to attend Dayton. “It was my only offer coming out of high school. Pretty much everything lined up for it to be a great environment – with the basketball program there and the chance to build something as a freshman playing a lot with (head coach) Jayson King – we came in together freshman year and he ended up just going to Vanderbilt. He made that program really great and I was happy to be a part of it for four years.”

“Once you go to Dayton as a freshman, you hear the word community about 500 times,” he continued. “When you go there and walk around campus, you feel safe at all times. Everybody is welcoming. Every house that you walk by, if there’s people there hanging out on the porch, you’re more than welcome to join them most of the time. I think it’s just really cool. My parents always harped on education and it’s a good school academically. I got a finance degree from there.”

According to the school’s website, Tirotta started 37 games during his freshman season. His sophomore year, he led the Flyers in hits (59), stolen bases (18) and tied for the team lead in RBI (41).

“Playing in the A-10 Tournament in 2019 – one of my teammates hit one of the biggest home runs I think I’ve ever seen.” Tirotta said. “It was bottom of the ninth, two outs, we were down one, and he tied it up on our last strike, with a draft arm (Kyle Martin) on the mound for Fordham. We didn’t end up winning the tournament but those are the things you never forget.” He added with a chuckle, “I wouldn’t have remembered that if we dog piled, so at least I can say I remember that home run by my buddy Alex Brickman.”

In the summer between his sophomore and junior year, Tirotta was invited to play in the prestigious Cape Cod League.

“It was hard,” he remembered. “I went there as an A-10, mid-major guy. I was one of the only guys on my team who wasn’t from the west coast or from the south, or a power-five conference. I got tore up all summer by the pitching – but I think struggling there and working through temp. contracts and staying from day one through the end of the season – playing in the championship with Harwich was fun. We played against a lot of good players – Nick Gonzalez, Kyle Nicolas, they were teammates (on the Contuit Kettleers) and now they’re teammates with Pittsburgh. It was cool. Just seeing that level of talent at that particular time was awesome and definitely helped me to get to where I am now for sure.”

Tirotta’s junior season at Dayton was cut short when most of the college baseball season was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“As soon as COVID ended the season, I went home for a few weeks,” he remembered. “My agent actually has a facility in Cleveland. We were full-go in there with a bunch of pro guys who were in the agency. We all stayed ready.”

“Then I ended up playing in a tournament. It was the first organized baseball since COVID started. I played in that in July in Texas. We were getting live at-bats and running and doing all sorts of things to stay in shape, because we just had no idea what was going to happen.”

“The draft was coming up later that year, it was my first draft year,” he continued. “I ended up not getting drafted.”

After not being selected in what was an abbreviated five-round major-league draft in 2020 because of the pandemic, he returned to Dayton for his senior year. He slashed .337/.451/.696 with 16 home runs and 58 RBIs during his final college season and helped lead the Flyers into the Atlantic-10 Tournament.

“We didn’t win any championships, but you would have thought we did a few times,” he said with a laugh. “Playing George Washington at home to clinch and go to the A-10 Tournament my senior year was special. We clinched the number one seed, actually. We played out at Day Air Ballpark which is the High-A stadium for the Reds (Dayton Dragons). We had a good crowd, I hit a homer, did a bunch of good things – but to clinch on senior day, it was awesome.”

Following his big senior season, the Toronto Blue Jays selected Tirotta in the 12th round of the 2021 Major League Baseball June Amateur Draft.

“The year before I had the same thing and I didn’t end up getting drafted, so it was an unbelievably stressful time,” he said. “Then the Blue Jays called my agent in the 11th round and I ended up going in the 12th. I was with my family at home sitting around on the couch when I got the call. Next thing you know it was up on the screen and they called my name. I got the video on my phone, somebody was videoing in the room. It was awesome. It was a stressful time, but great to be surrounded by those people.”

Running the bases at Sahlen Field. Photo courtesy of the Buffalo Bisons Baseball Club.

He reported to the Dunedin Blue Jays, Toronto’s Low-A affiliate in the Florida State League, for his first professional season.

“Just going out, going to a new place and meeting a bunch of new guys – it was awesome,” he said. “All the cultural differences in professional baseball. You’re playing with guys from all over the world. Going there (to Dunedin) for the first time was awesome. Meeting (Steward) Berroa and a lot of these guys down there and seeing how they play the game and getting things from them and learning.”

“Also, just seeing how professional baseball operates – because I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I played 30 games in Dunedin in ’21 and I played well, but I had no idea what a full season was like. Playing 30 games is a lot different than playing 130. It was cool, going down to Dunedin and playing for (manager Luis) Hurtado, who’s with the big-league team now. It was a lot of fun and I think I had a good group to welcome me into pro ball – the staff included.”

In 2022, Tirotta was promoted to High-A Vancouver, where he slashed .219/.315/.368 during an injury riddled season.

“I loved playing in Vancouver,” he said. “(My first year there) was an up and down year. I got hurt a few times. I had never really missed time in my career in college. I missed a little bit, like three weeks during my freshman year for a hand injury. Missing a month or a month and a half (with Vancouver) early in the season with a hand injury – battling back from that while also facing the best pitchers I’d ever seen in my life to that point. It was tough. Then going down with another oblique injury at the end of the year – it was a welcome to pro-ball type of thing. Welcome to your first full season. Not that I wasn’t working right, but I learned what I needed to do for myself, and I think that’s all you can ask for – learning and getting better from it.”

He returned to Vancouver to begin the 2023 season and slashed. 303/.411/.539 in 27 games before being promoted to Double-A New Hampshire.

“I pretty much stayed on the field all year,” he said of the ’23 season. “I started in Vancouver again and proved to myself that I could make it out of there and got up to Double-A. Last year in Double-A I was up and down. I struggled at times, but at the end of the year I was really doing a lot better. Just getting your feet wet is huge. I think being in Double-A after working my way out of Vancouver was a lot of fun – and challenging. Everybody talks about Double-A as being one of the separators, and to go there and to really get it put on you is eye opening. You’ve got to figure out how to get better and how to succeed at that level. I think that’s all you can ask for in this game is to just have an idea of what we need to do in order to get better and know there is a possibility of a chance to get better – and to continue to improve is everything.”

Drafted as a third baseman, Tirotta has been playing all over the field the last few seasons – including third base, first base, second base, and even some outfield.

“You see a lot of guys in the big leagues with the term ‘super utility’ and utility guys,” he explained. “We’ve got four or five of them on our big-league team, like (Isiah) Kiner-Falefa and (Davis) Schneider and (Spencer) Horwitz plays all over the field, and (Addison) Barger now. So it’s necessary. I think playing third base is a tough position. Playing third in college and working there kind of gave me a head start at getting my mind right as a defender and being able to be versatile. It’s still a work in progress every day. I never really played much first base, let alone the outfield. But the fact that I can go out there is a lot of fun. I really enjoy working through that.”

Playing first base for the Herd. Photo courtesy of the Buffalo Bisons Baseball Club.

Tirotta believes he’s grown tremendously as a player since joining the Blue Jays organization.

“I think I just know myself a lot better than I did as a college kid,” he said. “I always worked out a lot and things like that but I didn’t necessarily know what I needed from my body. Now I know if I don’t take care of certain things with my body, those will end up breaking down later in the year. Just fine-tuning things every year is important. I would say my approach is more refined. When I got drafted I was swinging at everything. I think mechanically I’m a little more sound too, from the time I was drafted until now.”

“You can’t play three years of professional baseball every single day and not get better, especially with the group that we have with the Blue Jays,” he continued. “The player development staff that we have up and down the organization – I’ve been at every level pretty much, other than the big leagues, so I’ve seen every staff and how much work they put into each staff. Yesterday we were in the dugout and I think we had like a one-to-one staff to player ratio. So there’s no reason not to get better every single year – and every day, honestly.”

After beginning this season at New Hampshire – where he slashed .286/.438/.464 in 18 games, he was promoted to Buffalo in late May. His bat hasn’t cooled off. He won the Bisons’ Player of the Week award in early June, when he slashed .421/.500/.947 with three home runs in five games at Lehigh Valley. In 26 games with Buffalo, he’s slashing .296/.426/.625 with eight home runs and 19 RBIs.

“It’s special,” he said of playing in the Queen City. “I’ve had a lot of family come out to the games. We’re a little closer to home. It’s a lot of fun to come out here and let your work show and just try to play with confidence. We’ve got a good group of guys here. It’s easy to show up every day with this group that we have here and want to work and want to play well and want to be here every day. I think that’s half the battle. It’s been special. I’m really thankful for the opportunity to be here.”


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