Hobbled by injuries all season, the New York Yankees are nonetheless the best team in baseball right now, thanks to a group of unlikely contributors — including former Princeton standout Mike Ford ’15.
The opportunity to play first base for the team he grew up rooting for was a long time coming for the 27-year-old, a native of Belle Mead, N.J., just north of Princeton.
After graduating from high school in 2010, Ford opted to stay close to home, intrigued by Princeton coach Scott Bradley’s promise that he’d get to both hit and pitch for the Tigers.
“At the higher-level baseball schools, it was one or the other,” says Ford, recalling offers to pitch at the University of Miami and to play the field at Stanford and Duke.
But Ford excelled at hitting and pitching, and says the opportunity to hone both crafts aided in his development. Whether in the batter’s box or on the pitcher’s mound, Ford was able to use his experience as a two-way player to better understand his opponent’s mindset and plan accordingly, he says.
During his junior year at Princeton in 2013, Ford hit .320 with six home runs and pitched to a 6-0 record with a 0.98 ERA, earning him both Ivy League Player of the Year and Pitcher of the Year awards, the first player in Ivy League history to win both in the same season.
And yet, Ford went undrafted at the end of that season. Despite the snub, Bradley says Ford continued to display the same quiet confidence he had exhibited dating back to his teenage years.
“He’s got that aura; he’s got that swagger,” says Bradley, who watched Ford as a high schooler play against his son Kevin. “The way he puts his helmet on, the way he stands at the plate. It was the same thing when he was 13 years old.”
Ford decided to spend the summer of 2013 in the Cape Cod League, a top summer league for college players, where he performed well enough to earn a free agent contract with the Yankees.
The team encouraged Ford to finish his Princeton degree even as he embarked on what would be a years-long slog through the minor leagues. For Ford, a history major, that meant writing a senior thesis.
With the help of Professor Sean Wilentz, a longtime Yankees fan, Ford devised a thesis that explored the rise of baseball in the Dominican Republic since the 1960s. (The Athletic’s Rustin Dodd wrote about Ford’s thesis in a feature story last week.)
Ford describes the Yankees’ cooperation on his thesis research as nothing short of “amazing.”
“They basically gave me free access to anyone for interviews down in the Dominican Republic complex,” he recalls.
Surprisingly, Ford isn’t the only Yankee with a Princeton thesis to his name. David Hale ’11 is a relief pitcher for the 2019 Yankees, though he is currently on the team’s injured list. An operations research and financial engineering major, Hale’s thesis examined which baseball statistics could be used as indicators of arm injury.
Ford slowly worked his way up through the minors and seemed poised to finally break into the majors last year, after the Seattle Mariners claimed him from the Yankees as their so-called “Rule 5” pick.
The rule is designed to allow players tucked away in a team’s minor league system to be snapped up by other teams who could use the player in the majors. Ford was selected by Seattle in December 2017, after playing more than four seasons in the minors. But in a devastating blow, the Mariners changed their mind after spring training, opting to send him back to the Yankees rather than add him to their major-league roster.
“Probably the toughest thing for me to get through was getting sent back by Seattle,” Ford recalls.
The disappointment was briefly reflected in Ford’s performance on the field, Bradley says.
“He got off to a slow start last year, and then kind of regrouped, and had a great second half, so they invited him to major league camp this year,” Bradley says. “He took things into his own hands and went to Scranton this year and was arguably the best hitter in all of triple-A baseball.”
Finally, on April 18, Ford got his first call to the majors.
“I think I looked down and there were 400 text messages,” Ford says. “The amount of support was crazy.”
In August, Ford was called up again, quickly swatting three home runs, including a late tie-breaking blast against the Orioles on Aug. 5. He’s even had a chance to pitch, tossing two innings as New York tried keep its bullpen rested in a lopsided loss to Cleveland Aug. 15.
“It’s tough for me to put into words still,” Ford says of his time with the Yankees this season. “It’s been a dream come true, honestly.”