Recently, every baseball fan alive was glued to the television to watch the Major League Baseball Home Run Derby. Considering it was held at CitiField as a prelude to the annual All-Star Game classic, maybe several were fortunate enough to be in attendance.
It’s certain that one local teen, Jersey City’s Josh Witherspoon, was there. In fact, Witherspoon, the talented pitcher/first baseman who will be a senior at Marist High School in September, was a major part of the Home Run Derby.
Witherspoon was selected by Major League Baseball to represent the Jackie Robinson RBI program at the Home Run Derby.
Eight participants in MLB’s RBI (Rebuilding Baseball in the Inner-Cities) program were selected, one coinciding with each player in the Home Run Derby. Witherspoon was selected by Jackie Robinson president Brian Mills to represent their league. Witherspoon was paired with Oakland A’s slugger Yoenis Cespedes, the second-year outfielder who was once a Cuban defector.
Since Jackie Robinson won the RBI World Series last year in Minneapolis, the league was selected to have a representative in the Home Run Derby. Each league automatically received $10,000 for participating in the Home Run Derby and the winner would receive an additional $50,000.
“When I was picked, I was in shock,” Witherspoon said. “It was one of the greatest experiences of my life.”
Witherspoon was on the field as the Home Run Derby took place. He was asked if he even knew who Cespedes was.
“I knew who he was,” Witherspoon said. “I knew he could play baseball, but I never knew he had that kind of power. I thought we had a shot to win.”
After the first round, Witherspoon liked Cespedes’ chances, because Cespedes launched 17 homers into the bleachers at CitiField. Some were blasted high into the night. Some landed in the third deck, almost thought to be impossible.
“It was amazing,” Witherspoon said. “After the first round, I knew he had it in the bag.”
Cespedes did go on to defeat Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals in the final round, earning the $60,000 for the Jackie Robinson baseball program.
After the contest was over, Witherspoon posed for pictures with Cespedes and his Home Run Derby trophy.
“I’m going to keep that forever,” Witherspoon said. “It was a great feeling to be able to bring that check back to the Jackie Robinson baseball. It’s going to help the league and the organization and God, we certainly need it.”
Witherspoon was asked if his friends and family were watching the Home Run Derby.
“I got a lot of texts,” Witherspoon said. “They were all shocked to see me on television. People who I hadn’t seen in years contacted me. It was great. People were offering me congratulations. I didn’t do anything. Cespedes did everything. He was amazing to watch.”
Cespedes, who speaks very little English, said few words to Witherspoon.
“He just said, ‘Thank you,’ and ‘Keep working hard,’” Witherspoon said. “I’ll make sure to live by that.”
Ron Hayward, the Marist head baseball coach and athletic director, helps out with the Jackie Robinson baseball program. Hayward coached the Jackie Robinson All-Stars to the World Series title last year and was the coach again recently for the team that lost in the Northeast Regional final.
“We picked Josh to represent our RBI program,” Hayward said. “They didn’t know who they would get paired with before the contest. Josh looked like a big kid out there compared to the rest.”
Hayward had no idea who to root for.
“I saw Josh was holding the Oakland A’s hat, but I didn’t know who he was with,” Hayward said. “All I knew about Cespedes was that he was from Cuba and he was strong. I don’t think anyone knew that he had that kind of power.”
Hayward said that he was happy that Cespedes won, especially for the Jackie Robinson baseball program.
“I know that they all work hard in that league,” Hayward said. “Brian Mills does a lot of great things for the kids. A lot of what they get comes out of his own pocket, so this money will go a long way. It’s special and the league deserves it.”
Hayward pointed out that it was truly a special summer for his ace lefty, who along with Marist teammate Matt Littrell, was selected to participate in the Team USA trials in Cary, North Carolina in June.
“Josh is a great kid and he deserves to have something like this happen,” Hayward said.
Needless to say, it was a chance of a lifetime for Witherspoon, who was right there as a part of the Home Run Derby and had the opportunity to root for the champion.
“It’s great that it all turned out better than expected,” Witherspoon said. “It was a truly amazing experience, one that I’ll remember forever.”
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.