Jeff Pearlman

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Phil Nevin

#11
He was a Major League slugger who rose from disappointment to superstar. Now he's back in the minors, working his way up as a manager. It ain't easy. POSTED June 2, 2011

 

When he was a ballplayer, Phil Nevin was always one of those guys I didn’t feel comfortable approaching. Was he at an Albert Belle or Barry Bonds level of intimidation? Well, no. But his reputation was that of an unstable dude with a hot temper. So, mostly, I stayed away.

Now, however, it’s 2011. The No. 1 pick of the 1992 June Draft (ahead of a certain kid named Jeter) has been retired for five years. He’s, shockingly, the manager of the Triple A Toledo Mud Hens. He’s also, shockingly, mellowed in a major way. And when I sent him an e-mail, asking for Quaz time, he was as gracious as one can be.

Here, Nevin, owned of 208 home runs, talks all things Jeter, steroids, the wisdom of Kirk Gibson and how he feels having a 21-year-old daughter.

Phil Nevin, welcome to The Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: I covered baseball for a long time at Sports Illustrated, and …

PHIL NEVIN: The Rocker guy, right?

J.P.: What?

P.N.: You were the John Rocker guy, right?

J.P.: Ugh. I was.

P.N.: I remember … I remember. Absolutely. I’ve met you before. I didn’t mean it in a bad way. Fuck, everybody knows him.

J.P.: When I was covering baseball, if you had told me 10 years from now Phil Nevin will be managing Triple A, I never would have seen it coming. Because you were known as a guy with a really bad temper and sort of unstable … kind of out there. Could you have seen this coming 10 years ago?

P.N.: Yeah, it was something I thought a lot of while I played. It might have been one reason why I acted out the way I did. It took a while for me to grow up within the game, I think. I got a lot of good advice when I first started in professional baseball, from some great people. Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio … guys I played with when I was young … went to Detroit with Trammel and Whitaker and Travis Fryman and I think i took all this advice in. It just took a long time for it to register and get through to me. It all made sense. You know, I had—and I still have—a passion for this game. I probably let it get to me in certain ways that I shouldn’t have. But hell, it was all a learning experience. I don’t regret anything I ever did as a player at all. I think it’s helping me in this part of my career. People would be surprised—people always ask, ‘How many games have you been kicked out?’ No more than any normal manager would be. I had four last year and one this year. It’s not like I lead the league. Normal stuff—protecting your players and doing what’s right for your team. I don’t go out there just to get kicked out of a game, acting like an idiot. You’re not gonna see any YouTube highlights of me. I say that—I don’t think. Sometimes it’s part of the game … you respect your players … you don’t go out there to get ejected.

J.P.: Of all the guys you played for, is there a manager you picked up the most from?

P.N.: You know, I played for a lot of good ones. You like to think you have your own style and personality. To name some guys I probably took some bits and pieces from—starting with Sparky Anderson, when I first got to the Tigers, and Buddy Bell, who i have a lot of respect for. Obviously Bruce Boche, and my last year I played for three guys who were all great in their own way—Dusty Baker, Ron Gardenhire and Buck Showalter. They all had a lot of great qualities, and I learned a lot from each one. And I think, toward the end of my career … what was one of my downfalls was I was probably half manager, half player in my own mind … the last few years thinking I knew a lot more than I did. I’d think along with the managers, thinking I knew a lot more than I did. I kind of put myself in that seat a little bit too much. It might have impacted the way I played. But being in that mind-frame, I think it’s helped me make this transition now.

J.P.: Is it harder than one would think, being a manager?

P.N.: You know, baseball is baseball. The Xs and Os, the intricacies of it—if you love the game and you’ve been around the game, to me there are a lot of guys who could do that. The relationships part of it—the everyday dealing with the guys in this room, is I think what separates the good ones. How they perceive you, the respect you get from the players. Because, at the end of the day, it is a reflection on you. How a club does. Not necessarily in the minor leagues, because of the development and personnel you have, and it’s not first and foremost about winning. But I think, the good ones, it’s a little bit of the psychological side; how you prepare them to play every day. And I think at this level and the Major League level, they should know how to prepare themselves every day. But some things have to be monitored, I guess.

J.P.: I read somewhere that when you were drafted out of El Dorado High School by the Dodgers in 1989, you visited Dodger Stadium and Kirk Gibson told you to go to college. True?

P.N.: I wouldn’t say he told me to, but he definitely made sure to tell me that he had the time of his life playing two sports in college, and that he would make the same decision again; that those were valuable years to him. I’m sure the Dodgers didn’t like hearing that. Gibby had a big influence on my decision. I grew up a Dodger fan. I was at Dodger Stadium all the time with my dad. When I was drafted by the Dodgers I said, ‘Oh, this is it. I’m going to Dodger Stadium.’ But I was an ignorant college kid, and i didn’t know the whole deal of it. I wanted to sign right away. The decision really came down to my parents, and I think I made a pretty decent one.

J.P.: When you were in college did you ever think, ‘Crap, I could be at Dodger Stadium right now?’

P.N.: Ha, I’m sure those thoughts came into my head. I’m sure they did. But I’ll tell you the same thing Kirk told me—those three years I spent at Fullerton were great times. A lot of great friends, a lot of great relationships. Playing football … playing baseball.

J.P.: Whenever I see kids skipping college I always think, ‘You’re missing out on something irreplaceable.”

P.N.: I agree with you. Now, it’s not for everybody. I have a son who’s 13, and if he’s … you never know. They’re giving $3 million, $4 million to first-round picks these days. You may never get that back. But you’ll never get your college days back ever.

J.P.: I know you’ve been asked about this 8 trillion times, but were you ever haunted by being drafted ahead of Derek Jeter? Sam Bowie had a terrible career and you had a good career, but in the same way he was picked ahead of a legend. Jeter is that sort of player for this generation.

P.N.: I get asked that every year around draft time. I get called all the time about that draft, and the fact Derek was in that draft. Haunted? No. Shit, I’m very proud of the career I had and the things I did. Derek is a friend of mine. I couldn’t be happier for him. Jason Giambi and I grew up together, and he was drafted later in the first round. There were a lot of guys in that draft. The baseball draft is so messed up and complex. The projections for baseball—Major League scouts have the toughest job in the world. They may go in and see a cliff once or twice. For example, we had a guy in the big leagues a couple of years ago who was up there for two months, hit .300 and he comes into Spring Training fighting for a job and we don’t know if he’s a quality big leaguer or not. And somebody goes in and sees a 17-year-old high school kid and you need to make a decision whether to pick him in the first round and give him $3.5 million. It’s all on this scout who’s seen him one fucking time. And you have a Big League staff that’s seen this guy for two months hit .300 at the big league level, and you still don’t know whether he’s a decent player. I mean, c’mon.

J.P.: Here in New York there’s a lot of discussion about Jeter. He’s having a very bad year, he just signed a big contract, he’s 36. I think your career ended at 35 or 36. A. Is there something that happens to the body around that age; B. You’re a manager—what do you do if you have a guy with that kind of legacy, that kind of career and he’s struggling like this?

P.N.: Yeah, it’s a pretty delicate situation. I had a pretty bad injury. So, yeah, at a certain age my body felt a lot different because of the injury I had to my shoulder. I broke the humorous bone, dislocated and tore the rotator cuff and basically blew up my shoulder diving for a ball. i can assure you this—Derek Jeter took a helluva lot better care of his body than I did. I watched the Yankee game the other day and I watched Derek Jeter play the other day. As a fan of baseball, I wanna watch Derek Jeter play shortstop for the New York Yankees. He’s an amazingly talented human being and he’s gonna go down as one of the best players in the history of the game. Everybody talks about his range—whatever. I want a guy who’s gonna catch it and throw it to first, and he does that. Range to me, especially on the infield, is extremely overrated. I’ll take him. I’ll take him.

J.P.: I was covering Spring Training when Mike Darr died, and I recall how sad it was. He was a friend of yours. Tragedy in sports are always covered the same way. We go in, write about it for a day or two, the team wears a patch for the season, and then everybody kind of moves on. I was wondering A. How you dealt about it at the time; B. What you remember about it and how it impacted you.

P.N.: I see young players come up all the time … let’s face it, Mike was out there. Mike enjoyed life and had a good time. And in the end that’s what happened. He was out one night drinking and he got into a car accident. So, yeah, it pops in my head a lot when you see a young talented player who might make poor decisions. I get Christmas cards from his wife every year; check in on the kids from time to time. So, yeah, it’s not something that’s left me. The memory of him was always there. It’s really a life lesson—you don’t forget those things.

How do I say this? First of all, he loved the game. He was a heck of an athlete. He loved life. He didn’t get short changed … I’ll say that. He was out there. He was always the life of the room, but a polite guy. Said hello to everyone when he walked in. Was the first guy to say, ‘Let’s go to this place tonight.’ He was a team guy, he just enjoyed hanging out with his teammates. He liked to party a little bit. Nothing wrong with that, but …

He would have played a long time. He was a prototypical right fielder. He was developing power, and he would have figured out how to keep being good. He could hit. He wasn’t a power guy yet, but he was developing that. He was a bigger guy—complete athlete’s body. Tattoos all over him.

J.P.: You have a daughter who turns 21 in June. That strikes me as weird. Weren’t you just 25?

P.N.: Uh … well, no. I wouldn’t say weird. Because she’s been my daughter for 21 years. I don’t look at it as weird. That’s what it was. She’s awesome, she’s incredible. The best part of it is she can hop on and airplane and come see me by herself. She’s still my little girl, but to see her growing up and doing the things she’s done in her life. She goes to Cal State Fullerton, she’s in the athletic training program as a Kinesiology major, and she wants to run her own sports rehabilitation facility some day. She’s 4.0 and flying through college and working her tail off. But she comes to visit me and we go to college and people look at us a little weird sometimes.

J.P.: You’re famous for the temper. How are you with guys wanting to date your daughter?

P.N.: She’s got a boyfriend—a great guy. It’s funny, people ask me all the time about my temper and situations and life. I like to think I was a different guy on the field. There are other things in life, and I don’t handle them by screaming. Like on the golf course, I don’t throw clubs and snap so to speak. I also don’t like to be known as the guy with the bad temper. I like to think I was a decent player as well.

J.P.: You only played in the postseason one time—with the Twins in 2006. Does that go down as a disappointment at all?

P.N.: I don’t regret how I did anything or the things I accomplish or didn’t. But yeah, you look back and you wish you could have played in a World Series or had a World Series ring. Sure, I wish that would have happened. But that part of—the beauty of what I’m doing now is that part’s still in front of me. I still have dreams and aspirations of being able to do that. Whether it’s as a manager or a coach. I heard Joe Torre say that to him it was probably more gratifying to be able to do it as a manager, because he felt like he had a hand in helping 25 guys and letting them have that opportunity. You played a role in that many other people’s lives in getting that. I don’t know—hopefully that day will come, and I’ll be able to tell you.

J.P.: Did you have a moment, post-retirement, when you thought, ‘What the heck am I gonna do now?’

P.N.: I guess not. I never looked back. I wanted to play in 2007. I definitely wanted to play, but I didn’t have an opportunity. I felt like I had a decent enough year in 2006 to get an opportunity and I stayed in shape through Spring Training. I had a chance to go to Spring Training with the Washington Nationals as a non-roster guy, and this was right as Spring Training was starting. And I declined it. I probably got spoiled playing at home for so long. Uh, and then the year away was difficult, with my kids and stuff. I didn’t wanna do it. I basically knew I didn’t wanna head to Florida for spring and I didn’t want to be gone for an entire season. I kind of was hoping something would come up closer to home, but it didn’t. Then in June I was doing some radio stuff for the Padres, I was playing golf in some of these celebrity event tours, and I was having a good time. I never looked back and I never had regrets. Life decisions, you can never look back and say, ‘What if I did this?’ You beat yourself up too much. And you’re not able to fulfill the decision you made. That’s the case in any aspect in life—the only way to go forward is to go 100 percent with the decision you made.

J.P.: What was the greatest moment in your career?

P.N.: The day I got called up to the big leagues. I was drafted by Houston and I went straight to Triple A, so I only had one city and one manager. Rick Sweet. It was just a normal call up. I looked at the lineup and I wasn’t playing, and me being the cocky, arrogant kid I was, I stormed into the manager’s office and wanted to know why I wasn’t playing. Probably ruined his whole thing about me getting called up. Basically called me down and told me I was going to the big leagues. The funny thing is, the first game I managed in Triple A this year, we played the Louisville Bats and the manager was Rick Sweet. We had lunch one day and just laughed and shared some experiences. He let me know he was proud of me.

When I see guys like Buddy Bell and Boch and Rick Sweet and Gardenhire this spring and Dusty Baker called me when I got the job—they call and tell me they’re proud of me. All of them talked to me and told me I’d do well. That makes you feel good. Those are people I looked up to a lot, and take a lot of them with you.

J.P.: I’m glad I’m not in front of you because you’d probably hit me with a bat. But you did play in the steroid era. Like every offensive player from the era, there will be suspicions about you. Did you ever use PED as a player?

P.N.: It doesn’t bother me if you ask, because it was real. That’s not something I ever … I don’t have any regrets about what I did, how I did it, because I know I did everything right and I know I did things the right way when I played. If that helps your answer, that’s how it goes.

J.P.: Do you think we damn that era too much?

P.N.: Yes.

QUAZ EXPRESS WITH PHIL NEVIN

• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash?: No. You know, I don’t think … I know the numbers. There’s never been a baseball team that’s gone down. It can’t happen. It sounds weird, but how many planes fly every day. You’re safer than in a car.

• Best and worst Major League uniforms: Let me just say this—there are probably four teams that have had the same uniforms for decades: The Yankees, the Red Sox, the Tigers and the Dodgers. Home uniforms, don’t change. I love that. The worst were, without a doubt, the old Astros uniforms with the rainbows around them. Those were awful. We had the rainbow down the sleeve when I started, with the big white shoes. Those were terrible. We talked about me being a moron coming out of college—I even made the comment when I was drafted how awful the uniforms were. It was dumb to say then. But now I can.

• Would you take a $50,000 bet that you can make, right now, a 40-yard field goal in one try?: Do I get to warm up?

Five minutes.

No, I wouldn’t take that. I’ve got a lot of money but I don’t hate my money.

Twenty yarder?

Twenty I’d do in a second. Without warming up.

• Best pitcher you ever faced?: The guy that absolutely wore me out was Pedro Astacio. Remember that name? He just wore me out. The guy I hit the best? Brian Bohanon.

• Celine Dion or Tupac?: Celine Dion. Beautiful voice. Good to look at, too [Writer's note: Uh ... what?].

• Tenure of Bud Selig—good, bad?: I think he’s done a good job. Interleague play is on him. I like interleague. I like the fact the collective bargaining hasn’t been an issue for the most part. It’s gone as smoothly as it can. We haven’t had words of lockout or strike in a long time. I think the economy has been tough, but baseball is still up there. And if the stuff happens with football and basketball, we look even better. All in all, I think he’s done a good job. A really good job.

  • http://friarsoncardboard.blogspot.com Joseph Lanek

    His demeanor and responses- and the fact that he even agreed to do this- surprised me. On a side note, another person who doesn’t seem like he should have a daughter who can buy booze is Dexter Holland. That blew my mind.

  • Kirk

    Thanks for this- interesting interview. Nevin was always one of those guys that, as a casual observer, should have been huge, but outside of a couple seasons in his prime, never quite made it as big as he could have.

    And is it just me, or does it feel like he never really answered the steroid question? Plus, based on previous postings you’ve made here, Jeff, I’d venture to guess that you are skeptical as well?

  • Ted

    Nice dodge on the PED question. Not a lot of revelations in all. Good questions, but responses seemed cliched.

  • George

    Jeff, this was great especially since I knew Nevin quite well throughout most of his career. I could tell you some really cool and funny stories. I can honestly say he was always cool with me and I am sure he would remember me if I ever get the chance to catch up with him. He once played for the Mud Hens as well. Another interesting fact is that he was one of the first college players to wear the Oakley sunglasses and had nasty confrontation with Terry Collins, then the Astros manager, which led to his heading back to the minors and eventually traded to Tigers. One day hope to catch up with you and tell you my Nevin stories.

  • DB Cooper

    I have several Nevin stories too. Not good ones. He acts like his only flaw was “being a hothead on the field.” It wasn’t. By a long shot.

  • Sean

    I met Phil in a baseball class at CSUF. He once stated how much Ron Cey sucked. Turns out he was both arrogant and ignorant. Cey’s stats blew his away. I hope he learned a valuable life lesson. Pride comes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life