A calm came over Melvin Nieves when he saw his name, scribbled
in black ink, on the lineup sheet taped to the wall in the
visitors' clubhouse at Three Rivers Stadium. He was going to
make his first start with the Cincinnati Reds, batting cleanup
and playing rightfield. While he would have had butterflies a
year earlier, the only thing Nieves felt last Saturday was an
"It felt good to see it," Nieves said, after driving in the
Reds' lone run with a sacrifice fly in their 6-1 loss to the
Pirates that day. "That's what I need--to play, to get back to
normal, to concentrate on baseball."
It had been almost a year since the 26-year-old Nieves could
focus on the game, and even now his priorities in life aren't
what they once were. In May 1997 doctors told him and his wife,
Wendy, that one of the twin boys she was expecting would be born
with a heart condition. Brandon and Jacob arrived on Aug. 1, and
Brandon, afflicted with hypoplastic left heart syndrome,
underwent the first of three open-heart surgeries. "Brandon made
me take a closer look at myself," says Nieves, who averaged 22
home runs and 62 RBIs over the past two years as a
switch-hitting outfielder-DH with the Tigers. "I was taking
everything too seriously, getting mad at things that were out of
my control. My son, who wasn't even born yet, was struggling to
stay alive. That changed things for me."
After the twins were born, Nieves went on the disabled list for
two weeks to be with Wendy. When he returned to the Tigers he
struggled, hitting .119 down the stretch. That didn't stop Reds
general manager Jim Bowden from trading for Nieves last Nov. 11.
Bowden's second son, Tyler, was born with his lungs not
functioning properly on July 7, 1991. The Bowdens were told to
make burial plans, so Bowden understood what Nieves was going
through. "I made it clear to him that he needed to take care of
his family first," Bowden says, "and not worry about this game,
or work. We wanted him to come back when he was ready. You
cannot misconstrue the priorities of life."
Brandon had a second heart operation in December, then Nieves
underwent hernia surgery himself a month later. With Bowden's
blessing, a hobbled Nieves missed parts of spring training to be
with his family when Brandon had his third open-heart surgery
and a subsequent operation to help him breathe. Brandon took a
turn for the worse in mid-March and died two weeks later.
"We felt that God was on our side the whole time," Nieves says.
"Taking Brandon back was His decision, so it's a matter of us
accepting that and going on. Brandon's always going to be in our
hearts." Nieves switched numbers with rookie pitcher Scott
Winchester and now wears 46 to mark the day of Brandon's
"My family keeps me going by giving me the strength to play day
in and day out," says Nieves. Wendy and their two surviving
sons, Alex, 5, and Jacob, joined him for his two-week rehab
stint at Triple A Indianapolis in April, and they were expected
to be at Cinergy Field for his Cincinnati debut on Monday.
"No matter what, my family is going to love me," says Nieves. "I
just feel more at peace with myself. I'm a better person, father
and player. It's all because of Brandon."
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLE [Melvin Nieves]