LAST CHANCE: The Comeback of Jamie Nelson
Jamie Nelson, once a free-spirited catcher in the Seattle Mariners’ organization, is now a free-spirited shortstop for the Raiders of the Orange County Amateur Baseball Assn. The transition is not something Nelson is particularly pleased about, but it wasn’t a matter of choice.
“This league is better than no league,” he said.
Nelson didn’t choose to have the ligaments in his right elbow betray him one summer afternoon in 1984. But when they did, he found there was little demand in professional baseball for a catcher who couldn’t throw a pebble across a stream.
The throwing arm that Nelson had hoped would carry him to a major league career came apart like a cheap suit that day. Cortisone treatments and rest didn’t make the pain go away. In September of 1984, Nelson underwent surgery to put the pieces of his career back together. Dr. Frank Jobe, the same orthopedic surgeon who had rebuilt Tommy John’s pitching arm, performed the surgery.
“Dr. Jobe told me they had originally thought it was just a calcium deposit, because that was all they could see,” Nelson said. “He went in there and found out that the ligament was detached from the elbow, so they had to do the Tommy John reconstruct.”
Nelson only hopes that he can reconstruct his career the way John did his. That is what has prompted him to become a Raider and play in a league comprising mostly former high school and college players not yet ready to give up organized baseball, albeit loosely organized.
Some of Nelson’s buddies from Bolsa Grande High School play for the Raiders. He joined them this season so that he could face human instead of mechanical pitching and carefully work on rehabilitating his throwing arm. The emphasis is on the word carefully . “If I blow this out again, I’m looking at picking up an application at the Texaco or something,” he said.
Nelson insists that there is good competition to be found in the league. The pitching is not the caliber he was used to facing in pro ball, but he’s in no position to be picky. “Good God, I’ve been out of the game for a year,” he said. “Anything right now is good for me.” Another advantage: “If I take an O-fer here, I’m not gonna get a decrease in salary.”
The flip side is that the modest facilities and sometimes shabby play serve as reminders of how far he is from where he would like to be.
“A field like La Palma . . . that’s a good ballfield,” Nelson said. “But some of these fields we play on are just unbelievably brutal. I just think, ‘God, a couple of years ago, I was playing on the cream of the crop.’
“But it makes you think. You look at that kind of stuff and use it as incentive. The bottom line is that I want to get back bad . There’s nowhere else to be but the big leagues.”
Nelson’s is the voice of limited experience. In July of 1983, he was called up from the Seattle Mariners’ Triple-A affiliate in Salt Lake City. He appeared in 40 major league games and hit .219 in 96 at-bats.
But that was the extent of Nelson’s big league career. During the off-season, the Mariners sent him back to Triple-A, then sold him to the Milwaukee Brewers. He lost to Bill Schroeder in the fight for the Brewers’ backup catcher spot, and was sent to Triple-A in Vancouver. He hit .285 there and had a successful season of winter ball in Puerto Rico.
Before spring training the following year, the Chicago Cubs had expressed interest in Nelson as a backup catcher. They invited him to spring training and were prepared to make a deal with the Brewers on the condition that Nelson made the major league roster.
Then, his arm troubles began, and the Cubs sent him back to the Brewers. He received cortisone treatments and rested his arm for about two months before trying to test it in a Triple-A game in May. It failed when he attempted to throw out a runner at second.
“Right when I threw it, it felt like a knife went into my arm and cut everything up. I knew it was over.”
Inactivity began. Nelson said he was envious of former teammates and opponents whose names appeared in major league box scores every day. He wasn’t there long, but he remembers being overwhelmed by the treatment players were accorded in the big leagues.
“After my first game in the Kingdome, I went back into the clubhouse and there was a big spread with turkey and dressing waiting for us,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it. After a game down in A or Double-A, you get yourself a microwave burrito at 7-11 and you’re happy as a lark.
“I said, ‘God, no wonder everybody talks about getting here.’ ”
Now, Nelson is hoping for a chance to get back. He estimates his arm is about 70% healthy. He has been undergoing an extensive rehabilitation program and is pointing toward a comeback attempt next spring. He said a scout from the St. Louis Cardinals watched him throw in June and told Nelson he would recommend him for a spot in the Cardinal organization.
“If I come back full strength, I don’t see why someone wouldn’t take a chance,” Nelson said. “It’s just a matter of who’s going to give me that chance. Right now, St. Louis says they’ll do it. What happens between now and the next time they call, who knows?”
Nelson realizes that his next spring training could be his last. He will be 27 in September. “At my age, I’ve got to produce right off the bat or it’s, ‘See ya later,’ ” he said, “whereas before it was, ‘He’s got potential.’ If I was younger, they’d be more patient.
“But with the shape I’m in now, I’ll be ready when the bell rings. If I don’t make it, then it just wasn’t meant to be.”