Publish date:

The Education of Phil Nevin The first player taken in the 1992 draft has finally learned how to excel

Phil Nevin, the Padres' 29-year-old third baseman, saw his life
flash before his eyes last year, and he didn't like the view.
"Anaheim told me if I hadn't been traded, I would've gone back to
the minors," says Nevin, whom the Angels dealt to San Diego
before the 1999 season. "I was afraid of being a career Triple A
guy. I'd seen a lot of them, and it frightened me."

So Nevin, spooked by the specter of becoming a real-life Crash
Davis, shifted his sights. Rather than try to attain the star
status that seemed his destiny when the Astros made him the first
pick of the 1992 draft, Nevin resigned himself to the role of
rank-and-file major leaguer. "I thought, So what if I'm a utility
player--I'm in the big leagues," he says. "If I was going to be a
bench player, I was going to accept it."

As has usually been the case in Nevin's career, things didn't
work out according to plan: A year later he's San Diego's cleanup
hitter, and through Sunday he was batting .323, was tied for the
team lead in home runs (six) and was second in RBIs (16). After
years of drifting around the diamond looking for work, he has his
first every-day job at his original position--third base. "This is
a guy we acquired to help us do some catching," says San Diego
manager Bruce Bochy. "It shows you we don't know everything."

Nevin, a righthanded hitter who was drafted ahead of Derek Jeter,
Jason Kendall and Charles Johnson--and has never heard the end of
it--is proving to be a late bloomer. After beginning his
professional career in Triple A, Nevin had a disastrous (.117,
one RBI) 18-game major league baptism with Houston in '95; before
the end of that season the Astros shipped him to the Tigers, for
whom he spent two years bouncing back and forth from the minors
while being converted into a catcher. "If I hadn't done that, I
don't think I'd be here now," says Nevin. "I learned so much
about the game having to play a new position."

Those years were also a dose of humility for Nevin, who still
carried himself as the bonus baby he once was, throwing tantrums
after unsuccessful at bats and acting petulantly in and out of
the clubhouse. "I remember thinking that if Phil wanted to stay
up here, he had to get it," says former Tiger Alan Trammell, now
the Padres' first base coach. "If he continued to put up a front,
he wasn't going to be any good."

"In Houston I was surrounded by Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio,"
says Nevin. "In Detroit there was Trammell and [Lou] Whitaker and
[Kirk] Gibson. I never talked baseball with them. I was the first
guy out of here after a game, looking for the best nightlife."

Nevin--who last season nearly matched his previous career totals
with 24 homers and 85 RBIs--has made up for lost time in San
Diego, immersing himself more in the game and less in
extracurricular activities. "I've got a built-in hitting coach a
few lockers away," he says, referring to Tony Gywnn. "He's showed
me how to use the whole field, not to always try to hit the
800-foot home run."

Indeed, three of Nevin's six homers this year have been hit to
center or right. On April 13, after whiffing on a slider from
the Diamondbacks' Brian Anderson in his first at bat, Nevin
swatted a changeup into the rightfield seats in his second trip.
His next time up Anderson attacked with a slider, and Nevin
ripped it to left for another homer. "There are things I think
about at the plate, certain keys that I never had before," Nevin
says. "Maybe it's maturity, but I had to learn to be a major