Commentary

Juan Nieves' New England journey

Avon Old Farms star, ex-Brewers phenom comes full circle as Sox pitching coach

Updated: February 21, 2013, 9:16 AM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The ball went up in the air on a chilly April night in Baltimore, so cold, he said at the time, it made him feel like "a pregnant lady." Juan Nieves knew that regardless of how hard Eddie Murray hit it, center fielder Robin Yount would run it down and the no-hitter would be his, the first and still the only no-hitter in Milwaukee Brewers' history.

"You're 22 years old," Nieves said, "and you're thinking you're going to pitch in the big leagues for the next 20 years, because you've been playing since you were 5. The kids don't realize that you're here for only a certain amount of time. The lucky ones play for a long time. The unlucky ones play three years and they're done.

"You're 22 years old," he repeated, "the time is flying, and you're having a great time. And then it's over, in a flash."

[+] EnlargeNieves
AP Photo/Joe GizaIn 1987, 22-year-old Juan Nieves threw the only no-hitter in Brewers history, but he pitched just one more season in the bigs.

A spring morning in Tampa, three shoulder surgeries later. Juan Nieves is summoned to an office in Tampa for a meeting with Mark Newman, the New York Yankees' farm director, and general manager Gene Michael. The Yankees had represented a last chance. The shoulder wasn't responding, even after more than a year of arduous rehabbing. Nieves had last pitched in the majors in 1988, the year after the no-no. This was 1992.

"When you lose that flexibility and whip," Nieves said, "it's over."

The Yankees were releasing him, Newman told Nieves. But we'd like to keep you on as a coach, Newman said. We'll start you in rookie ball. Think about it.

Another spring morning, this week in Fort Myers. It is 21 years later, and new Boston Red Sox pitching coach Juan Nieves is smiling, thinking about how great it will be to return to New England. It is a place this son of Puerto Rico considers his second home, having spent his teenage years attending Avon Old Farms, the all-boys prep school about 10 miles outside of Hartford, Conn. That's why he loved pitching in Fenway Park, he said, even though that's where he hung a curveball one night that Dwight Evans hit over the Monster, making him a 2-1 loser to Roger Clemens.

Going back to Boston, he said, always meant the chance to catch up with old friends, teammates and his former coach, Peter Evans, now retired. His Old Farms catcher? That would be Brian Conroy, now a top executive at a major financial investment firm. Not the typical company kept by a man whose father, Juan, raised cocks for cockfighting back home in San Juan, and whose mother, Iris, was a postal service worker for 30 years before dying of cancer.

Yes, that was worlds colliding. Old Farms had sent its baseball team to play on the island, and Vic Power, the former big league first baseman who was a pied piper of sorts for aspiring baseball players on the island, had told the Old Farms coaches that he had a skinny, left-handed, 15-year-old pitcher who was equal to the challenge of moving to foreign climes and into the rarefied air of New England prepdom, and by the way, will win a few games for you, too.

"He put his reputation on the line for me," Nieves said.

"He'd say, 'You never let me down,'" Nieves said, adopting the deep, stern voice with which Power spoke to him. "He talked like that. 'You never let me down.'"

It was anything but easy, but Nieves thrived at Old Farms. "Seamless," Conroy said of the transition. "Even in high school, he had an 'old soul' about him. Very mature, and he understood his talent and the obligations that came with it."

He was the head senior dorm monitor, the captain of the baseball and basketball teams, and the Toast Man, as Conroy called him, because as a senior his job (everyone had one) was to make the morning toast. He also was the captain of the cross country team, a sport he'd never participated in until he got here. "When you were the captain," Nieves said, "you didn't just finish first in your meets, you finished every day in practice. Seven miles."

He held his own academically, and socially. "I didn't try to be anyone else," Nieves said. "I knew I was humble. I always will be. No need to be something different from who you are."

He went 19-1 with a 1.05 ERA on the diamond, and scouts flocked from all over to see him. One Phillies scout told Sports Illustrated he was one of the best pitching prospects he'd ever seen. The Brewers signed him to a $115,000 signing bonus, big money at the time.

"He was spectacular," Conroy said. "I had the good fortune to go on to Dartmouth, where [ex-big leaguer] Mike Remlinger was one of our pitchers. I remember the coach saying, 'he's one in a million,' and I told him I caught another guy just like him.

"Juan threw in the mid-90s, good change, good curve, very good athlete, super teammate. I don't think he hit below .500 his three years there. He played first base, ran the bases well. By far he was the best player on the team. But he was anything but aloof or detached. He did all the drills everyone else did."

Maybe Nieves was too good, too fast. Big league teams didn't exercise the caution with young pitchers they do now. Pitch counts, conditioning programs, gradual buildup of innings just didn't happen in those days. And maybe it wouldn't have made a difference if they had. Pitching a baseball, even under optimum circumstances, is a perilous undertaking.

[+] EnlargeJuan Nieves
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsJuan Nieves, the pride of Avon Old Farms, is back in New England as Red Sox pitching coach.

By the time he was 20, Nieves was in the big leagues, and threw three shutouts. The next year, the no-no. The third year, on a spring training outing in Arizona on an unseasonably cool day, Nieves heard something pop in his shoulder.

"It wasn't easy," Nieves said of having to accept he'd be pitching no more. "I was a little rebellious, wondering what happened. After a few years, I learned to cope. I learned to give back to the game. But I missed the competition between the lines."

He actually gave it one more shot, in 1998, signing with the independent Sioux Fall Canaries of the Northern League as a player-coach. He went 0-3 with an 8.06 ERA in five starts. That was enough.

The same year, the White Sox hired him to be a minor league pitching coach, and he made his way up the ladder from A ball to Triple-A, until after the 2007 season, when he was named Chicago's bullpen coach.

Nieves was back in the big leagues. He became close with White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper, sharing an apartment with him in Chicago during the season, riding back and forth from the ballpark, hanging out together on the road.

"I've been blessed to have a guy like him, not only as a mentor, but as a friend," Nieves said. "We knew we had each other's backs. He had great wisdom."

And then it all came full circle. Last October, John Farrell called. The two had pitched together in winter ball, and had known each other professionally over the years. Can you fly up to Boston? Farrell said. I want you to analyze some video, talk to the people here. We're looking for a pitching coach.

Nieves spent a full day in Boston. When he returned home, he told his wife, Marilia, that he had a good feeling about his interview. A week or so later, Farrell called again, this time with congratulations.

"We have very similar ideas," Nieves said. "I respect John not only as my boss, but as my friend, too. He's a very respectful man."

The pride of Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, and Avon Old Farms was making a triumphant return.

He comes to the Red Sox, the fifth pitching coach in the past three years, with a sophisticated education in pitching, but a simple message. Throw every pitch with conviction, and aggressively. Be confident, because that is at the core of who you are. And always aim for the glove, regardless of the hitter.

"We coaches sometimes don't realize," he said, "because we've seen the game more, we think it's a little easier. We often forget how hard it is."

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

SPONSORED HEADLINES

EDITORS' PICKS

MORE MLB HEADLINES