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Trying To Get In the Swim


It's a late spring day in western Oregon, and a chill gray seems to color everything in Civic Stadium—from the sky, which threatens rain, to the uniforms of the Portland Beavers, who are lazing in the home dugout, to the enormous wooden swimmer lashed to the leftfield fence. "All right, I'll admit it," says Jamie Nelson, who is sitting in the Beaver bullpen. "I never expected this. Nobody ever expects to be a backup catcher in Triple A—not after 13 years in pro ball."

Since the New York Mets signed him in 1978, Nelson has bounced around the bushes like a Baltimore chop on artificial turf. He has played for 13 minor league teams in nine major league organizations. The Nelson Local has made stops in Wausau, Wis.; Bakersfield, Calif.; Lynchburg, Va.; Lynn, Mass.; Albany, N.Y.; Midland, Texas; and Vancouver. He has been bought, sold and optioned more times than a tankerful of spot-market oil. "I'll tell you how long I've been down here," he says. "I'm only 30, but for years my teammates have called me Pops."

You get to be 30 in the minors, guys start calling you Grandpa pretty soon. You pack your suitcase an awful lot of times. You ride an awful lot of buses. And you eat an awful lot of hamburgers on the team's $14-a-day meal allowance. Big-time sportswriters tag you a "career minor leaguer." Everyone else asks, "When are you going to make the pros?"

"I'm already a pro," Nelson says patiently. "You think I'm doing this for free?"

But nothing stings as much as being called Crash Davis, the name of the journeyman catcher in Bull Durham. Nelson went to see the movie, but walked out of the theater halfway through it. "It hit home pretty hard," he says in a voice that is creased with wisdom and rue. "It didn't have anything to do with me, but then again, it did."

Like Crash, Nelson has the brains, but not the talent, to be a star. He's a wry and somewhat cynical man, with a knowing manner that could be mistaken for nonchalance. Nelson finds a certain dignity in honest mediocrity. "Lots of reserve catchers in the majors are mediocre," he says. "I'm just as mediocre as they are. The difference is, I've had major injuries, so I'm considered damaged goods."

Nelson played 72 days in the bigs, all with the Seattle Mariners in 1983. "Once you've been to The Show, you're never again happy being down on the farm," he says. Which doesn't mean he has been brooding these last seven years.

"The guy stays enthusiastic, no matter what," says Portland manager Jim Shellenback, a former pitcher who logged eight years in Triple A. Nelson is the sort of sparky vet that minor league skippers love to have around the clubhouse. "Nellie can't wait to get to the ballpark," says Shellenback. "You should have seen the way he hustled after one of his drives hit the swimmer in the butt. We all laughed when he got thrown out at third base. He did, too. He's got a great sense of humor."

Nelson needs one. The Beavers lost 18 of their first 20 games this year and at week's end had the worst record (30-62) in the Pacific Coast League. You would have to trek the Iditarod to find a mangier team. "Down here you need the Jamie Nelsons of the world," says Doug Baker, a Portland infielder. Baker has had so many cups of coffee with the Beavers' parent team, the Minnesota Twins, that he needs to be decaffeinated. "In the bigs, time goes by real quick," he says. "Here, it's twice as long."

"Nellie keeps us loose," says Pete Delkus, a young Portland reliever. "He's been through so much stuff that he knows how to get through the tough times."

Nelson unclogs the frustrations of his fellow Beavers by goading them on the field, baiting them in the locker room and hectoring them in kangaroo court, over which he presides as judge.

On this soggy day, court convenes in lieu of batting practice. The first case on the docket is The People v. Delkus. "Delkus," says Nelson, reading from a torn sheet of note paper. "The charge is wearing pink mittens during a game."

"They weren't pink!" says Delkus.

"Do you want to fight the charge?" Nelson asks. If a player fights and loses, he has to pay double.

"No," says Delkus sheepishly.

"Guilty," says Nelson. He bangs his gavel—a Louisville Slugger—and fines Delkus 50 cents for each mitten.

The next defendant, pitcher Mike Dyer, is on trial for being stupid. "I'm going to have to throw this case out of court," says Nelson. "It's legitimate, but it's based on personal ability."

On and on the judgments come. Nelson fines one Beaver for slipping on home plate after a grand slam. He fines another for letting his underwear hang out. He reads aloud from another piece of paper. "Delkus," he says. "Your offense is throwing fruit at a teammate, causing possible injury. How do you plead?"

"Not guilty," says Delkus.

Nelson mulls over the plea and says, "I'm inclined to agree with you, Delkus. You don't throw hard enough to hurt anybody. Case dismissed."

The final defendant is Nelson himself, who is accused of launching water balloons at spectators from the bullpen. "Should we bring out exhibit number one?" says Delkus. He's referring to the slingshot hanging in Nelson's locker.

"No, I'm guilty," says Nelson. He's fined two bucks.

"What can you say about a 30-year-old who slings water balloons?" says Delkus, Nelson's road roomie and sometime accomplice. "You've got to be a terminal adolescent to play this game."

A "situational grown-up" is how Nelson describes himself. "I mean, think about it," he says. "I'm playing a game for a living, a game measured in failure. I try my damnedest to keep my teammates loose. If launching balloons is immature, then I'm immature with the best of them."

Nelson's youth was misspent in Garden Grove, Calif. Young Jamie hurled darts to develop his arm—until one lodged in his sister Vicki's calf. After that he switched to oranges, which he fired at pedestrians from car windows. Eventually, he moved to olives, and his aim was good. Too good. He beaned a classmate during boys' cooking class at Bolsa Grande High, but the pimiento squirted out and struck the instructor. Jamie would have been suspended if his father, Vern, hadn't been the shop teacher. "Right then I knew I had the stuff to be a pitcher," he says.

As a high school senior he had a 1.04 ERA and made all-state, yet no one drafted him. The Mets plucked him out of Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, Calif., and signed him to a $500-a-month contract. A scout told him the fastest route to the bigs began behind the plate. Nelson had never caught, but he was game. He was also terrified. The spring training pitching staff included future big leaguers Mike Scott, Jeff Reardon, Juan Berenguer and Neil Allen.

"Those guys all threw cheese," says Nelson. Hard cheese. "I didn't know what the hell I was doing," he says. "I struggled, big-time."

New York finally dumped him on April 3, 1981. The Mariners picked him up five days later. In two seasons of Double A ball, he fielded well and hit .272 and .285, respectively. He moved up to Triple A in 1983, but nobody seemed to notice until Seattle called him up in late July. He savors his brief fling with the Mariners as if it were a Proustian madeleine, recalling not only at bats but pitches and ball-and-strike counts as well.

His first time up, Bob Ojeda, then with the Boston Red Sox, threw three straight fastballs at him. Numbers one and two were balls. Nelson popped up the third to the first baseman. The next time up, Nelson lined the first pitch into the center-field bleachers. "You always remember your first home run," he says—especially when it's your only one.

In his next at bat, Red Sox reliever Mark Clear struck him out looking. The pitch just missed the batter's box. "What happened?" Nelson asked Frank Funk, Seattle's pitching coach, in disbelief that a pitch so far inside was called a strike.

"That was a case of, he's Mark Clear and you're Jamie Nelson," said Funk. "He's got five years in the majors, and you've got 10 hours."

Ten hours stretched to two months. In 40 games, Nelson batted .219. Seattle released him after the season. He found out by reading the agate in USA Today. "I felt like I'd died," he says. "I hadn't set the world on fire, but I thought I'd done enough to stay on the roster."

Nelson hooked up with the Milwaukee Brewers as a free agent. After a year with the Triple A Vancouver Canadians, he was sold to the Chicago Cubs, who tried to alter his catching stance. But something snapped in his throwing arm, and by the end of spring training he couldn't lift it. The Cubs sent him back to the Brewers, who sent him to Dr. Frank Jobe in Los Angeles for elbow surgery. Nelson sat out the rest of the '85 season and all of '86. "I was really depressed." he says.

Nelson was tired of the endless bus rides, of playing in empty stadiums, of getting passed by players he had once passed himself. "Not just kids," he says. "Teams would go with older guys who had even less to offer than I did." Going nowhere slowly had always been tedious, but now it seemed almost pointless.

During the long layoff, Nelson put on 20 pounds and drank heavily. "I met Carrie just in time," he says.

Carrie isn't some baseball priestess, like the one Susan Sarandon played in Bull Durham. She didn't teach Jamie about his chakra or show him how to breathe through his eyelids. "She could care less about baseball," he says. She did, however, buy him his water-balloon launcher and persuade him to make the contacts that led him to sign on with the Kansas City Royals organization in 1986.

Three months into Nelson's comeback, he broke his left leg in a collision with a base runner at home plate. He missed the rest of that season, too. "I thought nobody would want me after that," he says.

Catchers, however, are always in demand, even slightly bent ones. Like a secondhand umbrella, Nelson passed from the Royals to the Baltimore Orioles to the New York Yankees. He hit .151 in 28 games in 1988 for the Columbus Clippers, the Yankees' team in the International League. Nelson never thought of retiring until New York dropped him to the Double A Albany Yankees to help them make that year's Eastern League playoffs. "The last thing I wanted to do was play Crash Davis and go from Triple A to AA," he says. "That's not exactly a progression."

The California Angels grabbed Nelson for the 1989 campaign. But they, too, sent him down to Double A, to season prospects destined to move up. "I got tired of baby-sitting," he says. "It was time to start reading the want ads."

He was cleaning rugs for Best Quality Carpets in Orange County, Calif., last December when Minnesota dangled another Triple A contract. "I won't be Crash again," he says. "If they say Double A, I'll say, 'See you later.' "

The Beavers are paying Nelson $30,000 to back up 21-year-old Derek Parks. To the Twins' brass, Parks is promising but unpolished. Although he was hitting a measly .167 as of Sunday, and he catches hell more often than fastballs in the dirt, Minnesota wants Parks in there every day. "I just came off a road trip in which I went 5 for 11," says Nelson. Even if he'd gone 11 for 11, he would still be on the bench.

All this bench-sitting means Nelson can never work his way out of a slump, assuming he can bat often enough to get into one. He can't even DH—the Beavers only have two catchers. "It's 10 times easier being an every-day player," says Nelson. "But what can I do? My strings are tied."

Somewhere in Nelson's mind there struggles a puny thought that he still has a shot at The Show. Shellenback thinks he has a slight chance. "Nellie has two important attributes," he says. "He can catch and he can throw."

Nelson knows he could be a backup in the majors. He insists that it's all a matter of opportunity. "I can't control opportunity, but I can control my effort toward it once it comes," he says. "If something opens up and I'm cleaning carpets in Southern California, there's a good chance my number won't get called."

Realistically, for Nelson to get back to the bigs, the Metrodome would have to implode, forcing Minnesota to begin all over again with a new team. "I'd need a domino effect of injuries for sure," he says. "I'd never root for another player to get hurt, but if it happened and I got the call, I wouldn't be disappointed. I might even send the guy flowers."

Until then, he'll just have to hang in and hope the Twins don't rip the uniform off his back. "I tell you," he says wistfully. "If I were back in the bigs for just two weeks, all I've gone through would seem worthwhile."