It was late in the 2009 season and the Orange County Flyers were in trouble. The independent league baseball team was led by Phil Nevin, who was only two years away from retirement as a player.
Independent baseball teams are often a conglomeration of all types of sports people. Young players. The guys cut the upper levels of the miners in hopes of getting another hit. Former big leaguers who just can’t say goodbye to the game.
Scott Spiezio, a former Angels World Series hero, likely fell into the latter two categories when he joined the Flyers in mid-2009. Just two years younger than Nevin, he often served as a friend and cashier of resonance for the first -time manager. And with the team on the skids, Spiezio recalled a game in Victoria, BC.
Before it started, Spiezio said Nevin told him that if the team lost again he would “blow his top off”. Make it a show. It was all just a plan. There was an inner calm. But away, he would make it very clear that he was unhappy with his team.
Spiezio said Nevin told him to be sure to provide an honest review.
“We end up losing, and we go into the clubhouse and it’s like breaking stuff and throwing stuff,” Spiezio recalled. “Scream and scream. Pick up the beer and break it. Everyone is kind of sitting there.
“Then we come back to the hotel and he says, ‘What do you think? Good enough?'”
“Scott’s not supposed to tell these stories,” a Today’s Nevin said with a chuckle.
Nevin was named interim Angels coach last week in place of Joe Maddon, who was fired 12 games into the team’s 14-game losing streak. This is the former No. 1’s first experience as an MLB manager.
Nevin’s stint as a freelance league manager at Fullerton may have only been five miles away, but it marked the start of 13 years of work separating him from the pinnacle of the profession – years of management in the minors, training in the big leagues and hoping for a chance like the one he won last week.
Nevin was loved by his Flyers players. He was the kind of manager who, yes, could get carried away. But these types of shows served the same purpose as everything else – to keep a unified team who knew their manager was behind the club.
“I don’t think I’ve had as much fun playing baseball since maybe Little League or high school as I’ve had playing for him,” said Travis Becktel, an outfielder on that team. . “He knew the right way to turn things up or cool things down.”
Nevin played his last MLB game in 2006 and officially announced his retirement from the game in May 2007. He did some television work, but was convinced to take over as Flyers manager in December 2008 by team owner Alan Mintz after initial reluctance.
So far in his post-playing career, Nevin said the most formulated plan he had for his life was to play golf with his friends. His wife and children kept telling him that he needed to find something to do. Managing the Orange County Flyers was the solution.
Nevin wanted his team to have all the attributes of a major league experience, even though that league was light years away from that. He instituted dress codes for road trips. He also personally funded aspects of the team that just weren’t in the budget for a little league like that. There have been some really long bus rides in the Golden Baseball League. Nevin, as a result, sometimes bought a plane ticket for the pitcher leaving the next day to allow them more rest.
He brought in a masseuse. He bought additional equipment. He once surprised the whole team with a night in Las Vegas while the club was on their way to play a game in St. George, Utah.
There were constant reminders that it wasn’t the big leagues. Nevin having to take care of the pitch was as stark a reminder as any. But he had amassed a lot of money as the No. 1 draft pick and 12-year MLB veteran, and he wanted it to feel as close to The Show as possible. He went from the uncertainty of wanting to become a coach to financially financing the pleasure of each player.
“I just felt like it was the right thing to do,” Nevin said. “I told them from the start, when I came to the team, ‘I’m going to treat you like big leaguers as long as you act like this. Understand that I’m also trying to help you achieve a goal.
Former Flyers outfielder Fernando Pacheco remembers he was once in the middle of a bad pass when Nevin took him to the side. Pacheco had been one of the team’s best hitters, hitting 17 home runs in 83 games the previous year. The Flyers were playing a game in Chico, Calif., and showed up early on the field for work well before the game. Pacheco did some work off a tee at bat and with soft balls from Nevin to the side. Then Nevin decided that Pacheco needed a pep talk. A reminder.
“He kinda got into my head and gave me a good talk about how to bounce back. It was a stroke of luck. It was a mistake,” Pacheco said. “He was trying to figure it out and break it down. He was trying to put himself in my place.
“We just had a heart to heart. Honestly, it was more mental, and that was what I needed. Because baseball is tough. When you’re down, it really hurts. He feels weak. And you don’t know how to get out of it sometimes. You just need the coaches and your manager to tell you they believe in you.
For a man, that’s how the players perceived Nevin. A player like Spiezio – at first trying to get sober amid addiction issues – had a shot at Nevin. He got Nevin’s respect. It was important because Spiezio was trying to come out of a dark period in his life.
Nevin brought in other major leaguers such as Damian Jackson and Robert Fick to play for the team. He got Jim Edmonds to work with the outfielders and be around the group from time to time.
More importantly, he communicated with the players about their roles, their skills, their struggles. He was going to “fight for his guys, 10 times out of 10,” former Flyers pitcher Mike Koons said. He had a way of making every player on the roster feel seen and respected.
“I’m sure Mike Trout and (Shohei) Ohtani are loving playing for this guy right now,” Koons said. “Because I know I did. And I was nobody.
Nevin certainly doesn’t train anyone anymore. He may still be in Orange County, but that’s a whole different world than managing the Flyers. The roots of his work with the Angels go back to that Flyers team. It has evolved a bit, that’s for sure. But how he worked there will inform what he does now.
Jimmy Rohan, a former Flyers second baseman, made a big group post on Facebook after Nevin was hired. At first he thought he’d message a few guys he’s remained friends with. Then he pulled up the old list, looking for every member of that team he could find.
Hiring Nevin allowed the group to come together. Rohan thought it would be fun to get as large a group as possible to cheer on Nevin from Angel Stadium. Maybe even drop by to say hello.
Because all these years later they remember him as a manager who cared about them. He could have shown it through pre-planned post-game tantrums when a medicine ball would shatter a glass mirror. He also showed it in his ability to have an empathetic conversation with a plummeting hitter.
The team finished 37-39. It was not a storybook season on the pitch. But it was memorable. For Nevin, a first-time professional baseball coach. And for the players, to have the impression of having lived one of the most pleasant seasons of their career.
“We had camaraderie. We had good players,” Rohan said. “Our record doesn’t show it, but we played well together. And that was largely because of Phil.
(Top photo: Orange County Flyers)