photo: C.J. Picerni in Washington Squrae Park

C.J. Picerni spent the first hectic day of the 2016 MLB draft working as a sports management intern in the “war room” of the offices of the Arizona Diamondbacks in Phoenix as the organization strategized and made its picks. In the midst of the whirlwind, his boss thought he deserved some time off. So C.J. started June 11—the third day of the draft—with a workout before heading back to his apartment to relax. He was lying on the couch with the TV on, absentmindedly scrolling the MLB Draft Tracker on Twitter, when he spotted his own name.

In the 31st round, he’d been drafted—as the 934th pick overall—to the Washington Nationals.

“I freaked out,” C.J. recalls. “I didn’t think it was real.” That’s when the phone started ringing. “My mom, my dad, everyone—I was getting calls left and right,” he says, “but it took me a good 15 to 20 minutes to even comprehend what had happened.”

It was the daydream of every kid who ever picked up a bat in a sandlot and heard a stadium’s roar in his ears suddenly coming true for the NYU catcher who’d feared his career ended months earlier, the moment he left the field after the final game of his senior season.

Disbelief gnawed at C.J. until that evening, when he finally got the phone call he’d been waiting for—the one from the Nationals. The message? “Congratulations—and how soon can you leave?” 

Growing up in Calabasas, California, C.J. started playing baseball at age 5, but it wasn’t until late middle school that he got serious about the game. “Little League you just did because you did it,” he laughs. “It’s later that you develop a real passion—and for me that came when I began to find my niche behind the plate.”  

photo of a Little League game, with CJ Picerni catching a ball

C.J. at about 12, playing for the Dukes club team in Cooperstown, New York.

The affinity might’ve been in his genes. The son of athletic parents—his mother had been a cheerleader for the L.A. Rams and Raiders and his father played high school football—C.J. also had an uncle who’d been a catcher for the Detroit Tigers. Other role models included catchers Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez and Mike Piazza, who after being drafted in the 62nd round (the 1,390th player overall) went on to become a 12-time All Star and 10-time Silver Slugger Award winner.

For high school, C.J. attended Montclair Prep—then known as a baseball powerhouse that had produced major-leaguers Torey Lovullo, Brad Fullmer, and Russ Ortiz—serving as team captain his senior year, which turned out to be the last season before the school shut down its athletics program in 2011. He also played for two years on the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs scout teams in the area. When the goal of a Division I college career didn’t come together, C.J. landed at Division III California Lutheran University, but after two years wasn’t receiving much playing time.

By the fall of his junior year, C.J. says, “it just wasn’t feeling right.” He decided to quit and look for somewhere else to play.

That’s where fate intervened: Just when he was in need of a new home, C.J. heard that NYU, which hadn’t fielded a varsity baseball team since a brutal 0-14 season in 1974, was re-starting its program in 2014-15 under Coach Doug Kimbler (formerly of NYU-Poly). “I came to NYU and fell in love with the campus and everything about it,” C.J. remembers. “It was perfect timing.”

And in at least one sense, he wasn’t the only new guy. “Normally when you join a program they have traditions, things that everybody goes through, and the upperclassmen kind of show you around,” he reflects. “Here we didn’t have that, so we kind of had to start our own.”

As team captain, C.J. played a role in setting the tone. “I’m not the most outspoken person in the world,” he demurs, “but I did talk to the guys, try to support them no matter what, and lead by example.” The most pressure he remembers feeling was during an away game—the second in a double-header at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta—that would become the team’s first win since 1973. NYU had lost 18-3 in the first game of the double header, but in the next one freshman Michael Vokulich pitched six shutout innings, with C.J. catching. “As we got into the seventh inning, and it was like, alright, we’re about to have the first win in 40 years, my nerves were the craziest they’ve ever been.” After two outs in the seventh, pitcher Matthew Millus relieved Vokulich, getting the final out with a single pitch. The Violets won 2-0. (C.J. had also made NYU’s first extra base hit of the season—a double—in the fourth inning.) “There are these crazy moments in baseball that have this almost spiritual quality to them,” C.J. says. “Like, did that really just happen?” 

photo: historic baseball

Days after that fateful call from the Nationals, C.J. was on a plane to Florida. From about June 20 to August 31, he lived in a hotel near the Nationals training center in Viera, settling into the focused routine of a professional athlete. Breakfast at the clubhouse started at 7 a.m. Then there was a workout lasting until around 10:45, followed by lunch and then a game—every day for about 60 games.

Whereas collegiate sports are all about rooting for the team, C.J. says being a pro means focusing on personal discipline—“acting like a pro, being under control, working on yourself while still being a good teammate, because they could send you down at any time.” After games he keeps to himself, often putting on music as he reflects on his performance.

And as for the game itself? “It's way faster,” C.J. laughs, comparing rookie ball in the Gulfcoast League with his previous experiences in college and high school. “Guys are throwing harder, guys are faster. And the velocity I’m facing—everything speeds up, so you have to react. But once you keep playing games over and over, you develop more confidence.”

When that first summer league season ended, C.J. headed back to NYU in the fall to finish up one last semester’s worth of courses toward his sports management degree. It was a funny and somewhat surreal homecoming. “When I had to introduce myself in classes, you know, answering a question about what jobs or internships I’d had, I’d have to say, ‘Oh, I play for the Washington Nationals,’” C.J. says with a bashful laugh. “Sometimes I feel almost bad saying it—I don’t want to brag or anything. But people are often like, ‘no way!’ Or ‘what are you doing here?’ And then sometimes if they’re into baseball, we end up having a conversation. It’s definitely an awesome feeling.”

When C.J. stopped by the NYU News offices between final exams in December, he didn’t yet know where he’d be headed next. In that way, being drafted—in addition to representing the culmination of years of work toward a single goal—has also marked the start of a whole new emotional roller coaster. C.J. hopes come spring he’ll be sent to Auburn, New York, with the Doubledays, or Hagerstwon, Maryland, with the Suns—both low-A Nationals affiliates that would be a step up from the GCL. “It’s really important that you move up at a steady pace and not get caught in the same league for too long,” he says, mentioning friends who eventually left the sport after languishing at the lower levels for years.

But for January there wasn’t much to do but stay fit and wait. After the new year, C.J. was headed back to home to the L.A. area to work out with a handful of buddies who are also pros— Lucas Giolito of the White Sox, Max Fried of the Atlanta Braves, and Ryon Healy of the Oakland A’s—while they all pass the time until spring training.

For now, C.J. says, he’s trying not to let uncertainty about the future rattle him. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that he didn’t expect to be where he is today. “I remember my last game with NYU at MCU Park, and on what I thought would be the last pitch I’d ever see, I popped out at first,” he recalls. “After I hit first base I sprinted to the dugout and just lost it, because I thought that it was over for me. It was the most horrible thing.”

Just about a month later he saw the tweet that changed everything.

“It was an insane moment,” C.J. marvels. “It just shows you that you never know what can happen if you put in the hard work and never lose the dream of playing. Never give up.”