Iget emotional every time I recall the night that changed my life forever. I felt like I was 10 feet tall and that there wasn’t anyone with more of an edge. Other people could not see what I felt and what I knew. I flat-out felt sexy. I’d dreamed for years about getting the chance to participate in the Home Run Derby. This was it. And there was only one option: to win the damn thing.
When the final round began, I could taste victory. The opportunity to be forever a champion was in my hands and I wasn’t going to let this golden opportunity slip through my fingers. Once I got in that groove, nothing was going to get in the way. That feeling of the ball exploding off the sweet spot of my bat, pitch after pitch, was the most incredible feeling. Seeing the final ball go over the wall at Progressive Field was euphoric. The world stood still. Sharing that moment with my cousin (Derek), my teammates (Jake and Jeff), my fiancée, my family, and my best friends was beyond special. My mind was numb and my body was on cloud 15. There were flashing lights, a ton of microphones, and people everywhere.
I was on autopilot during all the interviews after I won, just trying to comprehend what had happened. During one interview, I was asked, “You’re a rookie who has 30 homers at the break, you have been named an All-Star, and you just won the Home Run Derby — how could this year possibly get any better?”
Without any hesitation I blurted out, “My year would be perfect if I could go hunting with Steve Rinella.”
I am a huge fan of the show, MeatEater. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the show, MeatEater is dedicated to sourcing, butchering, preparing and cooking your own food. In short, it blends my two favorite things: delicious food and the outdoors. Steve is the modern-day equivalent of Teddy Roosevelt or Daniel Boone. He’s witty, resourceful, and has this moxy about him. He’s also a human encyclopedia about anything related to the outdoors. He has the highest and utmost respect for the ingredients he uses to cook, as well as for every single habitat in which he hunts. Food harvested from the wild is something that has to be worked for and respected. And most important, it also has to be prepared the right way.
Thankfully, some of the people who work with Steve saw my interview and lobbied him to take me hunting. Steve reached out and introduced himself a couple of days after the All-Star Game. He eventually invited me out to go on a hunt for mule deer and elk in southwest Colorado. Of course I accepted his invitation and couldn’t wait for this dream come true.
After a grind of a season, it felt so good to get out West and see breathtaking scenery, breathe some of the cleanest air on earth, and hunt with one of the best outdoorsmen in the world. I learned so much from Steve and the other guys at the hunting camp. I felt like a sponge, soaking up as much information as I could during the whole trip. I just feel so blessed for that entire experience, and the hunt could not have taken a more dramatic turn. No one in Hollywood could’ve predicted the outcome.
Steve and I see eye to eye on a lot of things. He is a role model for me because of his dedication to the outdoors, conservation, and cooking. He also isn’t afraid to push boundaries with recipes by trying new, outside-the-box ingredients. I would say Steve and I have a very similar outlook on food: If you don’t like what you ate, chances are someone either cooked it poorly or prepared it wrong. From a young age, I ate everything — and I was willing to try almost anything. I am very happy that my parents were O.K. with me not ordering off of the kids menu. Ever since I’ve been able to, I’ve eaten raw oysters and mussels, liked my steak medium rare, and eaten venison and any kind of fish, lamb, squirrel — and basically anything else that came off of Noah’s ark. My family has always bonded over meals.
My parents always cooked in the kitchen or on the grill. I am so happy that my mom and dad would let me try to prepare my own meals from a young age. Some of my best memories from growing up were in the kitchen. In addition to my parents supporting my passion for cooking and food, my grandparents also had a huge influence on me. On my dad’s side, my grandpa had been born in Spain, and my grandma was 124% Italian. My grandpa had an elevated sense of European cuisine. When he whipped anything up in the kitchen, it was always so suave. It was almost like magic. My grandpa on my mom’s side was Ohio through and through. My mom’s side of the family has been in the U.S. since the American Revolution. They were blue-collar and spent a lot of time on the farm. My grandpa and grandma specialized in country-style, home-cooked meals. My Grandpa Morgan was also a hell of an outdoorsman. We spent a ton of time in the woods and fishing together when I was younger. He sparked and supported my love for the outdoors. He taught me how to tie and bait a hook, how to row a boat, how to shoot a gun and a bow and arrow, how to clean a turtle, and how to scale and clean a fish.
But most important, the lesson that I learned from both of my grandpas was: Have respect for your ingredients and do them justice. What does that mean? Don’t waste the damn food by making it taste bad. Spend the time to prepare everything right so you can enjoy a tasty meal with friends and family.
Thank you guys for letting me share with you my perspectives on food, baseball and the outdoors. As a reward for reading this article, I am going to share with you one of my favorite recipes. In it, I use some of the backstrap from my Colorado hunt with Steve. The backstrap is the filet mignon of a deer. The cut of meat should be tender and juicy. I made a special marinade for the meat to sit in overnight before hitting the grill the next day. As you’ll see, the recipe for the marinade is simple, but the flavor of the meal will be elevated. In the kitchen, my philosophy is that simple is better. It is a delicate balance of using everyday ingredients to come together to give the finished product an elevated taste. When I grill, I love using cherry, apple, pecan or maple pellets. Using different pellets just adds a whole other dynamic to the taste of the meat, and also gives an extra sweet, smoky taste to the flavor profile.
I look at cooking and grilling as an art form, and food is my canvas. I find it so therapeutic — it is just another way to express myself. There is something special about preparing and cooking incredible meals. There is nothing I love more than balling out and doing my thing between the lines. I live for the rush I get when I play baseball. But by actually creating something — and then having someone else experience and appreciate it — is uniquely gratifying. I love the feeling I get when I know someone is enjoying my cooking, because I cook with my heart. I always put my best efforts into a meal. I love to cook, and most of all, I love the taste of great food.