How undrafted Mike Ford became the latest out-of-nowhere Yankees surprise

NEW YORK – Before Mike Ford became the latest member of the, ‘wait, who?’ collection of unheralded Yankees reserves that have kept this 92-win juggernaut clicking, the Yankees twice were willing to let Ford play for another team.

They passed him on the 2013 draft, selecting 40 other players.

Four years later, they did not protect him from the Rule 5 Draft, and he landed in Seattle for a minute.

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Finally, in 2019, the Yankees turned to Ford while needing a first baseman with Luke Voit, Edwin Encarnacion, and yes, Greg Bird, all on the injured list, three of the record 29 players the Yankees have placed on the IL this year.

And Ford, hoping for that one chance that most Ivy League standouts are not afforded, made the most of it. He hit eight homers and posting an .888 OPS in his extended stretch as the team’s everyday first baseman.

This past Sunday, he provided the biggest hit of his career, a pinch-hit, walk-off homer off Oakland Athletics All-Star closer Liam Hendriks.

Perhaps it’s luck that Ford remained a Yankee. Perhaps it was fate that a New Jersey native who grew up a Yankees fan would finally get his chance in the Bronx.

Regardless, Ford persevered against the odds stacked against an undrafted player and became a useful contributor to a potential title team.

“It’s been crazy, honestly. Lots of ups and downs through the journey, it was a long one,” Ford told Yahoo Sports. “Definitely all worth it at this point.”

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 01: Mike Ford #36 of the New York Yankees reacts after his ninth inning pinch hit game winning home run against the Oakland Athletics at Yankee Stadium on September 01, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 01: Mike Ford #36 of the New York Yankees reacts after his ninth inning pinch hit game winning home run against the Oakland Athletics at Yankee Stadium on September 01, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Passed Over by the Yankees

The Yankees did not have Ford on their draft board in 2013.

Ford had certainly done his part in his junior season, winning the Ivy League’s pitcher and player of the year awards, but sometimes the big fish in a small pond can get lost in the shuffle. Teams are going to spend more resources scouting the power conferences and areas of the country that are overflowing with talent.

“It was just a case of Princeton is not one of the hot beds to go scout and the weather (didn’t cooperate),” Yankees VP of amateur scouting Damon Oppenheimer said during a telephone interview. “He was not on our list to draft that spring.”

Ford had the chance to attend one of those larger schools and receive more exposure, but the Belle Mead, N.J., native opted to attend Princeton, right down the road. He passed on attending Duke or Stanford, among others, to play for Princeton since the Tigers would allow him to be a two-way player.

“He told me, ‘coach, I want to do both,” Princeton coach Scott Bradley recalled.

Ford established himself from the moment he stepped foot on campus, lacing a single off LSU ace Kevin Gausman in one of his first career at-bats.

In his junior season, Ford hit .320 with a .443 on-base percentage and a .503 slugging percentage, and went 6-0 with a 0.98 ERA in nine starts.

His two-way abilities made him a finalist for the John Olerud Award — along with current Reds two-way sensation Michael Lorenzen — but the award instead went to Marco Gonzales, who is 14-11 with the Mariners this season.

While Ford’s stats may seem impressive, he didn’t stand out to teams.

As a pitcher, Ford did not have a frontline arsenal that would succeed at the next level with fastball sitting around 88-91 mph. Even Bradley acknowledged Ford’s best trait as a pitcher was how “competitive” he was.

While he hit for average, he didn’t post prolific numbers.

Bradley noted that some teams told him they weren’t sure what Ford projected to be at the next level, resulting in 1,216 other players being chosen over Ford.

“It was a little bit embarrassing at times,” Ford said of being passed over in the draft. “I did well at school at both, but I didn’t have good 95-mph fastball or I didn’t put up 20 homers. I was just a good player. I don’t think anything 100 percent necessarily stuck out. I think with the Ivy League, a lot of times a lot of those guys kind of fall since they will be seniors, that’s what I’ve heard from a few teams since then. We passed because we thought we could get you next year.”

Mike Ford during his collegiate days with Princeton. Photo credit: Beverly Schaefer.
Mike Ford during his collegiate days with Princeton. Photo credit: Beverly Schaefer.

Impressing in the Cape Cod League

Bradley kept hearing the same report from his son, Kevin.

“My son would call up and say (what Mike is doing) is ridiculous,” Bradley recalled during the 2013 summer while Ford and Kevin played in the Cape Cod League. “He’s facing Vanderbilt and LSU guys and hitting line drives and home runs.”

While Ford admitted that being passed on in the draft hit his ego, that bruise did not last that long as his time in the Cape Cod League ultimately changed his life.

Playing against some of the premier college talent in the country, Ford emerged as a top player, hitting .407 (35 for 86) with five homers.

Suddenly, Ford became a wanted man.

Even though he went undrafted, Ford remained eligible to sign with teams. Offers started to role in, which Ford described as a “little nerve-wrecking.”

The Yankees, Mariners and Mets were among those who offered.

“He was doing it against the best of the best with a wood bat,” Oppenheimer said. “The comfort level to make a decision — you put him in a professional setting, and it was easy. You’re seeing it on a daily basis with a wood bat.”

The Yankees ultimately made the best offer, but they had other factors in their favor.

The idea of playing close to home appealed to Ford, and while he wasn’t a die-hard fan, Ford rooted for the Yankees as a youngster.

Bradley, a Yankees draft pick in 1981, also vouched for the organization.

One month after being passed over, Ford joined the Yankees.

“I trust (Bradley) a lot,” Ford said. “It came down to the best offer and where I wanted to be.”

Princeton University baseball vs. Yale, Princeton, NJ, April 3, 2011. Photo by Beverly Schaefer
Princeton University baseball vs. Yale, Princeton, NJ, April 3, 2011. Photo by Beverly Schaefer

A Fresh Start That Never Was

The chance for a fresh s tart appealed to Ford in the winter of 2017.

That’s not to say Ford hadn’t enjoyed his time with the Yankees, but to achieve his dream of being a major leaguer, he knew he probably needed to head elsewhere.

The Yankees had Bird as their potential first baseman of the future, and it did not seem they were in a rush to give Ford his shot.

That winter, they left Ford eligible to claim from Rule 5 Draft, which opened his door to head elsewhere. Ford heard some rumblings that he might get picked, and, sure enough, the Mariners, who tried to sign him in 2013, selected him.

“Once I got picked, it was awesome,” Ford said.

Only, things didn’t work out the way Ford or the Mariners envisioned.

The Mariners also had a lefty first baseman in Daniel Vogelbach, and Ford didn’t have the versatility to play elsewhere. Seattle explained to Ford that they wouldn’t be able to keep him on the roster for entire year, and just three months after they selected him, the Mariners returned Ford to the Yankees.

For Ford, the return east was “definitely tough.”

He had come close to making the majors, but was now back with the Yankees and still had the same questions about his future. They had been willing to let him go elsewhere, and he still had no clear path to the majors.

With his future weighing on him, Ford struggled to start the season before rebounding. He did not receive a promotion in September.

“He learned a huge lesson when he came back from Seattle,” Bradley said. “He moped a little bit and let it bother him, and struggled.”

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 01: Mike Ford #36 of the New York Yankees celebrates his ninth inning pinch hit game winning home run against the Oakland Athletics with teammate Aaron Judge #99 and manager Aaron Boone at Yankee Stadium on September 01, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 01: Mike Ford #36 of the New York Yankees celebrates his ninth inning pinch hit game winning home run against the Oakland Athletics with teammate Aaron Judge #99 and manager Aaron Boone at Yankee Stadium on September 01, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Living the Dream

In a tie game in the ninth inning last Sunday, Hendriks fired Ford a 98-mph pitch that Ford squared up, depositing the ball into the Yankees’ bullpen in right-center. He even unknowingly added a bat flip to celebrate the moment.

“I don’t think it’s set in yet,” Ford said, “but definitely I dreamed about it.”

Ford has moved on from that initial disappointment of being sent back to the Yankees, and the Yankees finally called his number this year.

While Ford didn’t do much with his initial call-up in early April, he rose to the occasion in August while filling in for Voit and Encarnacion.

Ford mirrored those sluggers by hitting eight homers in their absences, including two in one game against Seattle, which he said was “nice to do.”

The 27-year-old also surprisingly handled lefties well with seven of his homers coming against southpaws, including one off future Hall-of-Famer Clayton Kershaw.

“He’s comfortable in the box, and confident in the box for good reason. He knows the strike zone, and has the ability to make contact with power,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said before a recent game. That’s a nice thing to have as a hitter.”

For Oppenheimer and his staff, there’s extra satisfaction in seeing a player like Ford emerge considering nothing is given for that type of players.

“It gives everybody involved a real sense of accomplishment,” Oppenheimer said. “The odds are so much different compared to a first-round pick. When the [first rounders] gets there, it’s like, great, they’re supposed to be there. A guy like this it’s, hey, we did nice job identifying things in multiple ways between the statistical side and the scouts watching him. It’s a real nice accomplishment acknowledging how far he came and how much he put into it. All the credit goes to him.”

Ford said he doesn’t think much about his unlikely path to the majors, but believes his story is a testament to the players who tough it out, year after year, even if the odds are against them, and then finally take advantage of their opportunity.

For Ford, that opportunity could have him in the championship DVD should the Yankees win it all this postseason.

Not bad for a player who hasn’t always been coveted, even by his own team.

“It’s been awesome. Exactly what I was looking to do,” Ford said at his locker. “I was confident I could do it.”

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