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If you ask Mud Hens manager Phil Nevin what bothers him most about the modern game of baseball, his answer is quick and direct.
“To be around it, like I have, you develop a lot of respect for the game,” he said. “It gets under my skin when players don’t respect the game.”
That may not always have been the case for Nevin, a former college player of the year and first overall draft pick.
But the full life Nevin has lived in the game — a roller-coaster ride filled with ups and downs — has taught him to both love and respect the game.
“Baseball has brought me so many great experiences,” he said. “I played in Dodger Stadium when I was in high school. I played in Japan. I shook Fidel Castro’s hand. I played in the Olympics. I played in the majors.
“Right until the end [of my playing career], it was something I cherished. So many things go into baseball being a special game for me.
“I fell in love with baseball as a young boy, and that hasn’t changed.”
Nevin was an outstanding high school player at El Dorado High School in Placentia, Calif. He was ready to sign with the Dodgers when Los Angeles picked him in the third round of the 1989 first-year player draft, but instead went to college at nearby Cal State-Fullerton.
■ Full name: Phillip Joseph Nevin
■ Age: 40 (born Jan. 19, 1971)
■ Family: Wife, Kristin; daughter, Koral (20) who attends Cal State-Fullerton; sons, Tyler (13) and Kyle (9).
■ Hometown: Fullerton, Calif.
■ Managing career: Erie (Detroit, Double-A), 2010; Orange County (independent, Golden League), 2009
■ Playing career: 12 seasons in the major leagues with Houston (1995), Detroit (1995-97), Anaheim (1998), San Diego (1999-2005), Texas (2005-06), Chicago Cubs (2006) and Minnesota (2006).
■ Notes: First overall pick in the 1992 draft out of Cal State-Fullerton. ... Won 1992 Golden Spikes Award, the top honor in college baseball, after hitting .402 with 22 homers and 86 RBIs for the Titans. ... Named MVP of the 1992 College World Series even though Fullerton lost the championship game. ... Attended El Dorado High School in Placentia, Calif., where he was a teammate of former big leaguer Bret Boone. ... National League All-Star in 2001 while with San Diego, a year in which he batted .306 with 41 homers and 126
RBIs, both career highs.
“To be competely honest with you, it was my parent’s decision,” Nevin admitted. “Being young and naïve, I wanted to sign. But I wasn’t ready — I wasn’t old enough or mature enough. It was a great decision."
Nevin was a standout for the Titans, eventually earning the Golden Spikes Award as a junior. He earned that honor, given annually to the top player in college baseball, by hitting .402 with 22 homers and 86 RBIs in just 61 games.
He led Cal State-Fullerton to the championship game of the 1992 College World Series and was named the tournament’s most outstanding player even though the Titans lost in the finals.
But Nevin said the college experience helped him develop as much off the field as it did on the field.
“My daughter was born while I was there, and I was playing two sports — football and baseball,” Nevin explained. “And I was trying to keep my academics up. It was a huge growing-up process.”
Nevin gave much of the credit for his development to baseball coach Augie Garrido as well as football coach Gene Murphy. Nevin was a kicker and punter for CSF and was good enough to earn freshman All-American honors from the Sporting News after making 15-of-21 field goals.
“They both taught me a lot that helped me to grow up and be a man,” Nevin said of his two coaches. “They helped to get my intensity channeled in a better direction.
“Playing college sports was about more than just playing the game. It was about the relationships you build and the people you meet.”
Nevin said his performance in the 1992 College World Series remains one of his best baseball memories.
“It was the first time I felt like a major league player,” he said. “I was asked to sign autographs by fans, I was on TV — it was just an awesome feeling. And that team was a special group of guys, so that made it even more special.”
Then Houston made Nevin the first pick in the 1992 draft.
“I knew beforehand I would be [the first pick] — I had agreed to terms before the draft,” Nevin said. “Looking back, it was a special thing, but I wasn’t mature enough to know what it meant.”
One thing it did not mean was that Nevin would automatically become a star.
He struggled with the Astros and was traded to Detroit in 1995. He spent three seasons with the Tigers — and played briefly for the Mud Hens in both ’95 and ’97 — before he was traded to Anaheim in 1998.
“It took me a while to grasp what it took to become a successful player,” Nevin said. “You have to come to the field every day ready to learn something.
“When you think you have this game all figured out, it will grab you. Every day, something different happens, and the player that applies themselves 24-7 will be successful.
“Everyone has talent at this level. It’s the ones who apply themselves who will be successful.”
Before the 2000 season Nevin was traded to San Diego, where he saw Hall-of-Famer Tony Gwynn perform.
“His approach to hitting was phenominal,” Nevin said of Gwynn. “Every day he worked to try and get better, and that’s why he’s going to the Hall of Fame.
“His success was all about ‘prep and reps’ — he would prepare himself to be successful, and he would get the (repetitions) he needed to stay successful.”
Watching Gwynn seemed to trigger a switch in Nevin, who hit 24 homers and had 85 RBIs with the Padres in 1999. Nevin topped 100 RBIs in three different seasons with San Diego and had a career-high 41 homers in 2001.
Eventually the Padres traded him to Texas in Nevin eventually played with the Chicago Cubs and Minnesota before hanging up his spikes following the 2006 season.
It didn’t take long before Nevin wanted to return to the game.
“I don’t know why more players don’t become managers or coaches,” he said. “It’s a chance to give back to the game.
“I hear guys all the time complain about how the game is changing, about how kids don’t know how to act or how to play. This is a way to teach them, to give back to the game.”
In 2008 Nevin served as manager for the Orange County Flyers in the now-defunct Golden League, an independent league with teams based primarily in California.
Last season he joined the Tigers as manager of Detroit’s Double-A team in Erie, Pa., and when former Hens manager Larry Parrish left to become hitting coach for the Atlanta Braves, Nevin was promoted to take his place.
Nevin said taking over the Tigers’ Triple-A club gives him a chance to learn from one of baseball’s top managers.
“I’m watching and working with one of the best managers in the game in Jim Leyland,” Nevin said. “If you’re around him for a while, you see that he’s one of the great leaders in the game.
“He understands the game, but he also understands personnel and how to get the best out of people.”
Does Nevin has aspirations of managing in the majors?
“I don’t have long-term goals,” Nevin said. “If you asked me, ‘Do you want to be a major league manager?’ I’d say, ‘Absolutely.’ But it’s not for me to think about the future.
“Right now my job is to the help the players here in Toledo become better players.”
Contact John Wagner at: email@example.com or 419-724-6481.