The substitute teacher who throws 100 mph

He was overseeing classes in Florida. Now he's employed by the Yankees

August 28th, 2021
Art by Tom Forget

We've all had substitute teachers.

Maybe it was your friend's mom filling in for your second grade English class. Perhaps it was some recent, floundering alum of the school, trying out the trade in a familiar setting. But have you ever had a sub who was a professional baseball player? One who has a 100 mph fastball?

"Yeah, I mean I'd go to work, proctor for the day," Stephen Ridings told me in a recent Zoom call. "Then I'd show up to the gym, dressed up in my polo and khakis. I'd change in the bathroom quick, go throw, get a workout in and be done before they closed."


Stephen Ridings burst onto the MLB scene at Yankee Stadium this August, firing triple-digit fastballs and striking out the side in his big league debut. He seemingly arrived out of nowhere.

But it wasn't out of nowhere. Ridings, 26, was a few months removed from Palm Beach Maritime Academy in the little, seaside town of Lantana, Fla.

A Minor Leaguer for the Royals in 2019, Ridings took on a role as a part-time teacher, or, as he said, "proctor," after COVID prevented the 2020 season from happening. Hailing from Haverford -- the tiny D-III school that has a robust fraternity of baseball execs (the Dodgers' Josh Byrnes, the Twins' Thad Levine) -- Ridings subbed at Maritime from October 2020 to early March 2021. He downplayed his role -- saying he mostly just took attendance, distributed lesson plans and kept the kids in line (probably not too hard when you're 6-foot-8, 220 pounds). But the head of human resources, Anthony Andrepont, told me it involved a bit more.

"We have two campuses: elementary, which is K-5, and then the middle-high campus, which is 6-12," Andrepont said over the phone. "He substituted at both campuses. He got the work done, and it could've been in any subject area. I think one of the last classrooms I remember seeing him in was in a science classroom. He kept order and made sure students complied with all the rules."

As Ridings made his way around the school grounds, students and faculty began to pick up that this new person might be, um, a pro athlete (again, he's 6-foot-8).

"The younger kids had no idea," Ridings told me. "Some of the older ones I talked to about it, they thought it was cool. I don't know if they heard it through the grapevine, but they would ask me what I do other than this and I would say, 'I'm a professional baseball player.' They tried to Google me. There were a couple kids who had a solid grasp on it."

Stephen Ridings with the Eugene Emeralds in 2018.

"He was a nice guy, humble, didn't talk too much about baseball, but eventually we found out he was playing in the Minor Leagues," Andrepont said.

One of the most excited members of Maritime's staff was physical education teacher Harold Lesser -- or, as he said everyone refers to him, Coach Hal.

"I'm a gigantic baseball fan," Lesser said over the phone. "I travel all over the country going to baseball stadiums. That's my thing. So, when he came into the school, my principal said, 'Hey, we got this substitute teacher and he's a baseball pitcher.' I looked him up first and I saw that he played out in the rookie league in Idaho and I had gone to a stadium there. I knew what it was like, so we just started talking a little bit about that."

Meanwhile, as Ridings, a Royals Minor Leaguer, was teaching and working out for a potential 2021 season, Kansas City released him in November 2020. Fortunately, the gym where Ridings was working out in Florida is run by Eric Cressey, who is also the Yankees' director of player health and performance. Cressey sent some video of Ridings to the front office, prompting a Yankees scout to attend a workout at the facility. That led to a contract in January.

"After he got signed by the Yankees, I ran [into the teacher's lounge] and said, 'I heard you got signed by the Yankees!'" Lesser remembered. "He was very quiet, just a one-word answer: 'Yeah, yeah.' I said, 'No kidding, I see your strikeout-to-inning percentage is fantastic!'"

"Yeah, I told [the teachers], 'I just got signed by the Yankees the other day,' and one of them nearly had a heart attack," Ridings laughed. "She was like, 'Oh my god, that's so exciting!'"

Photo via Palm Beach Maritime Academy's Facebook

Ridings left the school in early 2021 to join the Yanks, and the right-hander put up some electrifying numbers at Double- and Triple-A. He was called up to make his Major League debut at Yankee Stadium in early August and did not disappoint: He's struck out seven of the 20 batters he's faced, giving up just four hits and one run. Fans on Twitter (there's even a Twitter account named after him now), loved every second of his performances. Even his teammates couldn't get enough of his story.

So, what does the school think about the level their former coworker's reached?

"Once we found out about his current situation, I overheard some of them say, 'Darn it, I wish I would've gotten a baseball and had him sign it when he was here,'" Andrepont laughed. "There's been a lot of chatter about the [100 mph pitches]."

"Oh, I went and announced it to everybody," Lesser said. "First thing I did, when he got called up, I went to the principal and told her, 'Hey, you just lost a substitute teacher. He just got called up by the Yankees, I don't think he's gonna come back here and make $120 a day.' I have MLB.TV on my computer and I watched every pitch that he made."

Lesser told me a handful of the teachers have been following his exploits on the mound and talk about it amongst themselves.

"There are a couple of other people who got friendly with him, and one of them is our Spanish teacher, whose father is from Cuba," Lesser told me. "He's a big, big baseball fan and he can hardly speak English, but all he knows is, 'Stephen Ridings, Stephen Ridings.' He was excited."

"The whole year has been absolutely wild," Ridings, who's been sent down to Triple-A recently but will likely be back up Sept. 1 for the Yanks' stretch run, said. "It feels like just yesterday I was excited to have made the Double-A roster. ... It's crazy to see where I came from at the beginning of this year, thinking I hopefully even get a chance to play baseball and then being on the mound at Yankee Stadium."

It is pretty wild. Instead of gearing up for the fall and a substitute teaching gig at a small school in a town with a population of just over 10,000, Ridings will be trying to take one of the sports world's most famous franchises to its 28th World Series title. No doubt Coach Hal, Andrepont and most of the Palm Beach Maritime Academy student body will be watching.