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Turning The Corner

Padres' Nevin Finally Has a a Handle on His Life and Career

June 07, 2000|ROSS NEWHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Maybe the best measure of how far Phil Nevin has rebounded as a person and a player isn't the lineup card that lists him as the San Diego Padres' regular third baseman or the statistics illustrating he is one of the major leagues' most productive hitters.

No, maybe the best measure of how far he has rallied when all the promise and potential seemed to be evaporating is the tears he doesn't try to hide as he sits in the clubhouse and talks about what he almost lost before adjusting his focus.

It's a Sunday morning and this former college player of the year at Cal State Fullerton and first selection in the 1992 draft, this macho guy who had just arrived at Qualcomm Stadium on his silver and black Harley-Davidson motorcycle, is fighting his emotions and saying, "I hate to even admit this, but for a long time my priorities were baseball, having fun, wondering what bar I'd hit when the game was over, and only then my family.

"It took almost losing that . . . I mean, sure, the game's important, it's my livelihood, it's what I've always loved, but almost losing my family, not seeing my kids grow up, not being with the person who had stood behind me even before I was a professional player . . . "

Phil and his wife, Kristin, met in college, were married in 1994 and separated for a year and a half in the late '90s as Nevin--distracted at times by temper and temptation, his home life marred by the demands of the job and his own frustrations--spiraled toward a career on the bench, shuttling between the majors and the minors, traded from the Houston Astros to the Detroit Tigers to the Angels to the Padres, a third baseman turned outfielder turned catcher until . . .

In one career-turning--career-salvaging, perhaps--weekend last summer, Nevin talked Padre Manager Bruce Bochy into a shot at his original position of third base and generated a second-half performance that still prompts Tony Gwynn to shake his head and say he had "never seen anyone do what he did in those last two months."

Nevin batted .288, slugged 12 home runs and drove in 47 runs in 59 games.

He is still producing as the Padre cleanup hitter--batting .314 with 14 homers and 43 RBIs, a recent player of the week in the National League and among league leaders in several offensive categories.

At 29, he has a new contract, a new home in Scripps Ranch, a new perspective.

He and Kristin reconciled even before that second-half epiphany. They have a 3-year-old son, Tyler, and Nevin's emergence in San Diego allows him to spend considerable time with his daughter, Korel, 10, who lives in the area and is the product of a previous college relationship.

"How could life be any better?" he asks, knowing it was not long ago he was thinking it couldn't be any worse.

"I know that I'll never be able to make up for that year and a half [separation], but it made us stronger as a couple and it made me come to realize that if I didn't have baseball, my life still wouldn't be over," Nevin said. "Maybe if I hadn't gone through the adversity, done all the stupid things I have, I wouldn't be where I am now and wouldn't be the person and player I am.

"It's unbelievable. I've been given a second opportunity on and off the field."

The maturation process is never-ending. There's the chance to learn something new every day, says Nevin, who once thought he had it all figured out.

He was a third-round selection of the Dodgers out of Placentia El Dorado High but chose to attend Cal State Fullerton so he could continue his football career as a punter.

Kirk Gibson, then with the Dodgers and a former football star at Michigan State, told Nevin on a visit to Dodger Stadium that no one could put a price tag on his college years and he shouldn't let the Dodgers twist his arm.

Nevin was probably going to follow his parents' wishes and go to college anyway, but Gibson's advice was the clincher.

"Who knows how it would have played out if I had signed?" he said.

How it played out at Fullerton is that Nevin was The Man, this Southern California dude in his blond hair and wraparound sunglasses responding to the scouting microscope as the college player of the year in 1992, strutting on the stage of the College World Series in such a way that Gwynn remembers wondering, "Who does this aluminum bat guy think he is?"

The Astros, with the first pick in the amateur draft, thought he was a can't-miss. They selected him ahead of Derek Jeter, Jason Kendall and Charles Johnson, among others, and even started him at triple A.

"I was given an opportunity that a lower-round draft choice might not have and didn't take advantage of it," Nevin said. "I figured everything else had come easily in my baseball career, why wouldn't this? I figured that I'd be in the big leagues within a year or two, a superstar. My first one for 30 was a huge reality check."

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