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Bad luck.

When you're Lee University seventh-year senior Andy Rivera — that's right, seventh-year senior, but more on that in a minute — having your injury-riddled baseball career chalked up to bad luck would be an upgrade.

Try buzzard's luck. Try worst luck in the history of the sport for someone younger than 25. Or better yet, just cue up these lyrics from Roy Clark and Buck Owens singing "Gloom, Despair and Agony on Me" from their "Hee Haw" TV show days: "Deep, dark depression, excessive misery. If it weren't for bad luck, I'd have no luck at all."

That's what five surgeries in five years could do to a young man's pysche. To his hope. To his once realistic dreams of reaching the major leagues.

Or as Lee coach Mark Brew said Thursday night of the team's closer, "With a cleaner health history, he's a professional somewhere down the line."

But the health history is what it is. A screw inserted into the right-hander's pitching elbow as a freshman at Wabash Valley, a community college in Mount Carmel, Illinois. A knee surgery a year later after transferring to Chattanooga State. Then, after performing well enough during his second year with the Tigers to sign with Middle Tennessee State University, Rivera had to have a blood clot removed from his right arm after one start in February 2018. An almost identical surgery was again performed at Vanderbilt in October of that year.

Five years removed from his standout prep days at Westwood Christian in Miami, Rivera now needed something of a miracle to salvage his luckless college career.

"Every kid's dream is to make it to the bigs," he said before the season in a feature on the official website for Lee athletics. "But sometimes things don't go as planned. Coming out of high school, I had the chance to sign as a free agent with the (Miami) Marlins. But I also knew it would be a great achievement to receive a college degree. Especially since my brother and I would have been the first in our family tree to do so. I took the college route."

The NCAA typically allows an athlete five years to complete four seasons of athletic competition, which Rivera had exhausted during his final season at MTSU. Six years are rarely granted, and he would need the NCAA's grace and understanding to get that sixth year at Lee, a Division II school.

Thankfully, the NCAA granted the waiver. Unfortunately, Rivera's bad luck again surfaced before fall 2019 could roll into spring 2020. During a conditioning day at Lee in November, he tore his Achilles' tendon, an injury that often takes up to a year to heal.

It's at this point that 99.99% of us, if we hadn't already given up, would call it quits, curse the baseball gods and move on. Instead, Rivera said this to Brew before he was helped off the field: "Coach, I just want one year."

If there is a single good thing that's come from the coronavirus pandemic, it's Rivera's seventh season of college baseball. Because he was somehow able to rehab his Achilles' well enough to take the field for one inning against Young Harris right before COVID-19 canceled the 2020 season, he got that seventh season, this season, almost by default.

"Every player that participated in a game automatically got the year back, per the NCAA," Brewer said. "If (Rivera) had not pitched in that one game, our compliance office would have had to request a seventh year, and I am not sure if it would have been granted."

Instead, this season has become something of a seventh heaven for the 24-year-old Rivera, who, amazingly, isn't even the oldest player on Lee's roster. That distinction goes to 25-year-old Michael Hendricks, a fellow pitcher.

"Andy's been tremendous," Brew said of the 6-foot-1, 210-pounder with a 94 mph fastball and a wicked slider. "When he's at the top of his game, he's dominant."

How dominant? Through Saturday's 10-8 win at West Georgia, Rivera had six saves in six attempts with zero walks and 19 strikeouts in 16 1/3 innings for a 1.10 ERA this season. Such dominance has helped the Flames rise to No. 6 in the Division II rankings, and they were 21-2 overall and 19-1 in Gulf South Conference play after sweeping the three-game series with the Wolves.

"We mess around with Andy, call him Grandpa and stuff," said Flames infielder/pitcher Thomas Zarraro, a redshirt junior. "He just laughs. But we all respect him so much. Just his work ethic, how he's responded to all those surgeries."

Nor is Rivera above laughing at his own history. He's been known to ask trainer trainer Dan Heinbaugh to stand by him during the national anthem because "If anything happens, I need you right there."

He's also been excused from wind sprints by coaches who said "We can't risk you getting injured."

Having already earned a psychology degree at MTSU and now working on a business administration degree at Lee, Rivera said he would one day like to "help kids avoid injuries and deal with them when they happen. A lot of coaches are good at helping with the physical part of rehab, but the mental and emotional side has a lot to do with recovery, too."

His own recovery may be the feel-good story of the year in college baseball. From his current good health to the joy he brings to the mound at Lee's Larry Carpenter Stadium at Olympic Field each time he trots in from the bullpen to the tune of Bad Bunny's "La Romana," Rivera has become, in Brew's words, "an awesome piece to our puzzle."

As for the puzzle that remains regarding his pro baseball chances, Rivera is refreshingly realistic.

"Two years ago, I might have said I still had a 50-50 shot," he said. "Ask me now and I'm not sure. Right now I just want to help this team win a (national) championship, bring home the gold. As for the rest of it, I'm at a point where I'm content. I'll he happy with how (my career) ends, however it ends."

However it one day ends, in the words of Flames radio broadcaster George Starr, "It's an amazing story about an amazing young man."

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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