As Nick Hernandez ’17 winds down his career with the Princeton baseball team, he feels luckier than most.
Five years ago, he was wearing a suit and tie and sitting in a cubicle during the week doing data entry. It’s how he spent his days during a gap year, the result of an extremely late start to his Princeton recruitment.
“It was kind of brutal,” Hernandez said of the job. “It was worth it. … It made me put things in perspective and made me realize I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life.”
Hernandez found out early in his gap year that he wouldn’t have to, that he had been accepted at Princeton and could enroll and join the baseball team in the fall of 2013. Not bad for a player with no Division-I suitors only six months earlier.
The Miami native was groomed as a left-handed pitcher in his first three years at Belen Jesuit Preparatory. Hernandez, however, had average velocity and only small-college interest when his father suggested that he go back to hitting his senior year.
“I hadn’t picked up a bat in three years,” said Hernandez, who regarded the advice skeptically. His dad figured it was his last chance to play baseball.
Hernandez ended up being one of the top hitters in Dade County, and he sent video to Princeton coach Scott Bradley. The coach liked what he saw, watched Hernandez in person, and after talking to him liked Hernandez even more. But there was a major issue.
“It was June,” Bradley said. “Our admissions had closed six months before.”
By the time the two met face-to-face, Hernandez had already walked in his high school graduation and was eyeing staying closer to home for college. But the invitation to Princeton thrilled him, and he decided to take a gap year. Bradley had only had one other player in 20 years take a gap year, pitcher Brian Biegen ’04; another one is set to join the Tigers next fall. Hernandez worked in an office during the days, trained at night, and once a week played in a men’s league to keep his hitting sharp.
“The gap year is really interesting,” Bradley said. “You get kids a little more mature and ready for school. He’s come in and it’s amazing how he’s evolved, not only as a player, but as a leader. He’s really become a top-notch hitter for us.”
Hernandez was always a late bloomer, and he has shown steady progress from a pretty promising start. His batting average has improved each season. He started 31 games as a freshman and hit .250, made 32 more starts as a sophomore and hit .288, and was one of three Tigers to play all 45 games when he hit .304 last year. His second four-hit game of the season, against Rider on Wednesday, raised his average to .325 in 31 games this year, second highest for Princeton.
“As a junior and senior, the biggest thing that changed was I was trying to do everything I could to help our team win,” Hernandez said. “If that meant to lay down bunt or hit the ball to the right side of the field or a fly ball in that situation, that was going to my objective and I was going to do everything I could to execute on that. I think that has really been the biggest thing in my development: Just not so much worrying about ourselves, but what can we do to help our team win and what does the situation call for now to give ourselves the best chance to win?”
Hernandez is hoping to deliver critical wins as the Tigers host Columbia in a 1 p.m. doubleheader today and another doubleheader starting at noon Saturday at Clarke Field. Princeton and Columbia are each 5-7 in the Gehrig Division, tied for third and three games behind division leader Penn, which plays Cornell in four games this weekend. Princeton is the defending Ivy League champion.
“This year has been a learning experience,” Hernandez said. “We’ve got a lot of young guys in the mix. We also have a lot of veterans. I think back to my freshman and sophomore years and some of the things our older guys told me. It’s been a neat experience to pass that wisdom along to our younger guys. As a team, just learning is the biggest thing.”
Hernandez has learned plenty over his unique journey to Princeton. He found opportunity in an untapped hitting skill that opened the door to the Tigers.
“I’m so pleased and excited how it worked out for him,” Bradley said.
Barring a shot at professional baseball, Hernandez will begin a career in finance in Dallas. As he counts down his final games, he is grateful for a terrific time at Princeton.
“Being a senior, you start to reflect a little bit on how much it means to you and what it means to be in this situation,” Hernandez said. “We’re very, very lucky.”