From Brother Rice to the Bronx: Yankees’ DJ LeMahieu has Detroit roots top of mind

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TROY, Mich. — About 500 feet from the runway at Oakland/Troy Airport in suburban Detroit, elegant beige-brick columns mark one entrance to the Stevens Family Baseball Complex. The four-acre site is home to the Birmingham Brother Rice High School baseball team, with commemorations of 1992, 1994, and 2008 state titles emblazoned on the outfield fence.

DJ LeMahieu, the only player to win batting titles in the American and National leagues, is the program’s most famous alumnus. Around here, though, he is much more than the three-time All-Star: LeMahieu, 33, owns the ballpark itself.

As such, you might expect LeMahieu’s legacy to be celebrated prominently on the grandstand, atop the scoreboard, or within the state-of-the-art players’ locker room. Not so.

Ostensibly, his name is nowhere. In reality, his presence is everywhere.

“He wants it that way,” said Bob Riker, the Brother Rice head coach since 1998. “That’s how he is. He’s very competitive and wants to give back to the program, but he’s not interested in getting credit for all that he’s done.”

Brother Rice has played at the complex on Equity Drive in Troy since 2011; stadium seating was added, from dugout to dugout, in 2015. The playing surface is NCAA-caliber, with FieldTurf to manage the wet spring weather. Local businessmen Derek Stevens and Van Conway were primary donors on the $4 million project, through a fundraising effort organized by Riker and fellow coach Brian Kalczynski.

LeMahieu quietly purchased the complex in 2020, in order to help Brother Rice’s financial wellbeing during the pandemic and eliminate the school’s operational obligation.

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Today, the Brother Rice baseball team leases the site from a nonprofit that includes LeMahieu.

Their rent payment: $1 per year.

“Since I’ve been in the league now for a little while, I’ve always tried to look for an opportunity to give back that I really felt passionate about,” said LeMahieu, who will face his hometown Detroit Tigers this weekend at Yankee Stadium on MLB Sunday Leadoff. “Certain things come up, and the timing wasn’t right. (With) this, and the vision of everybody, it was the right time to give back and make the place special.”

LeMahieu’s support is key in the next phase of development, which includes synthetic turf for the complex’s Little League-sized field and installation of six indoor batting cages; the latter will be a game-changer for the program, Riker said, because of how often the team works out indoors during Michigan winters (and springs).

Years later, Riker remembers the sound of LeMahieu’s swings echoing down the hallway after indoor practices had ended — for everyone else.

“If an area of his game was lacking at any given time, that’s where his focus went,” Riker said. “That’s rare for a young player. Kids typically like to do the things they’re already good at. If they like to hit, they hit. That’s not how DJ was. It was a constant grind with him. His mental toughness is unmatched.

“He knew what he needed to do, and he also knew that he didn’t know everything.”

Brother Rice, an all-boys Catholic school, didn’t always have one of the top amateur baseball complexes in the Midwest. During LeMahieu’s career, the team played home games on a local YMCA field — where, ironically, the rocky infield developed LeMahieu’s aptitude for handling ground balls.

“All-dirt infield, no fence, and the playground in center field was in play,” LeMahieu said, laughing. “I hit one into the play structure. Other guys did, too. It was funny. You’d hit it over the center fielder, and there would be kids playing out there. The center fielder was having to jump through a bunch of equipment to go get the ball. Usually, it was an inside-the-parker.”

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Born in Visalia, Calif., LeMahieu and his family relocated to Wisconsin before ultimately settling in suburban Detroit. Despite a scholarship offer from the University of Michigan, he enrolled at LSU because he wanted to play in warm weather and challenge himself in the rugged SEC. His second and final season in Baton Rouge ended with an NCAA championship, including a legendary performance in Game 1 of the College World Series Finals.

With every move, LeMahieu felt he needed to prove himself. He’s never lost that instinct — even after three Gold Gloves, two Silver Slugger awards, and 10 years of Major League service.

“Early in my career, nothing was ever handed to me, and I take a lot of pride in that.” said LeMahieu, a 2009 second-round pick by the Chicago Cubs. “I feel like I was always passed up or overlooked. I was given opportunities, but I never felt like it was ever handed to me. I carry that with me every day.”

Now LeMahieu stars on the world’s most famous baseball team and is a favorite of Yankees manager Aaron Boone, who has written him into the starting lineup at three different infield positions already this year. LeMahieu has been the Yankees’ primary leadoff hitter, and he’s also batted fourth and fifth. “His versatility just helps so much,” Boone said earlier this year.

Boone smiles when he recalls a favorite story from 2019, LeMahieu’s first season in New York. Boone decided to rest LeMahieu for one afternoon game in the midsummer heat. When Boone arrived in the dugout, 20 minutes or so before the first pitch, only one player was there: LeMahieu, batting gloves on, bat in his hands, ready to go.

When Boone describes LeMahieu as “beloved” in the Yankees clubhouse, it’s because of moments like that. Big hits have a way of boosting one’s popularity, too, and LeMahieu’s teammates have grown familiar with an intensely competitive streak that belies his understated demeanor. Riker said LeMahieu always has had the ability to steady his emotions in the game’s biggest moments, citing his game-tying home run in the ninth inning of Game 6 in the 2019 ALCS.

LeMahieu explained that one key to his focus in clutch situations is that he likes to remind himself of how much he loves the game, and that those at-bats offer the best opportunity to affect the outcome.

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“I’m not as calm as I look, let’s put it that way,” LeMahieu acknowledged with a grin.

Those closest to LeMahieu know the motivations that transcend the six-year, $90 million contract he signed with the Yankees before last season. As a husband and father, he smiles proudly when asked about his daughter’s first birthday. As a professional, he’s driven by the pursuit of his first World Series ring. As a community member, he’s intent on creating a “baseball heaven” for Michigan kids through his alma mater.

And when he’s recognized for all that he does, LeMahieu is quick to credit the initial donors and coaches who began the project, the staff that operates the complex while he’s away, and the school that prepared him for the career of his dreams.

“He’s a way better person than he is a player,” Riker said, “and he’s a darned good player.”

How to Watch Tigers vs Yankees on Peacock

Aaron Judge and the first-place New York Yankees host Miguel Cabrera and the Detroit Tigers from Yankee Stadium on MLB Sunday Leadoff live this Sunday, June 5 at 11:30 a.m. ET on Peacock. This week’s MLB Sunday Leadoff coverage begins with the pregame show at 11 a.m. ET on Peacock. NBC Sports’

CC Sabathia, the 2007 Cy Young Award-winner and 19-year MLB veteran, including 11 seasons with the Yankees, will join Ahmed Fareed as an analyst on the MLB Sunday Leadoff pre- and postgame shows. Sabathia, who won the 2009 World Series with the Yankees, was a six-time All-Star, earned 251 career wins, and is one of three left-handed pitchers in Major League history with at least 3,000 strikeouts (Steve Carlton and Randy Johnson). Sabathia currently co-hosts the R2C2 podcast.

How to Watch:

Date Show Time (ET) Platform
Sun., June 5 MLB Sunday Leadoff Pregame 11 a.m. Peacock
Sun., June 5 Tigers vs. Yankees 11:30 a.m. Peacock