RailRiders defensive whiz Rumfield making waves with bat

MOOSIC — Last month, representatives from Minor League Baseball arrived at PNC Field with one of the sport’s most blinged-out trophies, looking for one of the RailRiders’ least-flashy players.

There’s something about the Gold Glove, though, that perfectly suits T.J. Rumfield. Something about it that made that 15½-pound trophy seem weightless once he finally got to lift it.

“It has always been in the back of my head,” Scranton/Wilkes-Barre’s slick first baseman said. “Like, ‘I want to win the Gold Glove. I want to win the Gold Glove. That would be really cool, to win one of those.’”

In fact he did, claiming the Rawlings Minor League Gold Glove for his work at first base with Double-A Somerset and High-A Hudson Valley last season. He made just a pair of errors in 598 chances at those two stops, and the reward turned out to be the award he always dreamed he’d hold.

The award on which he spent most of his post-high school career fixated.

How that all started goes quite a way toward explaining much of what makes Rumfield one of the RailRiders’ breakthrough stars nearly two months into the 2024 season. He remains one of the top defensive first basemen in the minors, but he is also now a force in the middle of the RailRiders lineup, too.

Just 23 games into his Triple-A career after being promoted from Somerset, Rumfield is hitting .318 with eight doubles, two homers and 19 RBIs, and he’s getting some attention as the potential first baseman of the future for a Yankees franchise that has always appreciated the steady, silent types at the position.

Asked what led to the success at the plate, Rumfield practically shrugged. It has less to do with adjustments at the plate and the confidence of getting good swings off of the minors’ top pitchers, he insisted, than it does an off-the-field approach that set him up for that success.

It’s lifting weights every day, taking care of his body in the gym and outside of it. Getting enough sleep. Being healthy enough to get the steady at-bats he needs to make himself the best hitter he can be.

“My focus is not results-based,” Rumfield said. “It’s more process-based, and making sure I take care of what I need to take care of every day. If I do that, results should follow.”

That’s why Rumfield makes sure his routine is every bit as in tune with his goals as a player as his swing and mitt.

At some point in the last few decades, first base became a position where defense mattered less analytically. It’s a place to stick a solid hitter with lesser defensive skills, or an outfielder who needs some time in the lineup to get some swings.

As a result, there are fewer and fewer true first basemen, and less players getting consistent reps around the bag as a defensive focus pregame.

Rumfield is a bit of an outlier there, though. He started his college days at Texas Tech, where he worked with a former Big 12 Player of the Year and defensive whiz, Eric Gutierrez, who also won the Gold Glove for collegiate first baseman during his playing days. When he transferred to Virginia Tech, he played for another coach, Hokies head coach John Szefc , known for producing strong defensive infielders.

A lot of being among the most adept defensively at first has to do with mentality and feel. Rumfield said staying in the game mentally is a key, because pitch to pitch, even balls hit to the opposite side of the field put a first baseman in the line of action. They have to understand when to go for a ball, and when not to. Have to understand when to stretch for a ball, or when it’s best to stay back.

“You need intuition, you need instincts, you need situational awareness. But you also need physical dexterity,” he said. “There are a lot of things that go into playing first base.

“A lot of the times, it’s OK to just go over there and play first. Anybody can do it, essentially. But, can you do it well? You have to do the small things well.”

As the small things accumulate into a big start for Rumfield in 2024, he’s showing he can do just about everything well, and he has the trophy he always wanted to prove that the start is no fluke.