Rob Nelson, a first base prospect for the Padres, had just livened up an intrasquad game by powering a ball about 425 feet over a right field fence and into a parking lot.
“Did you get all of it?” someone jokingly asked him after he crossed home plate.
“If you saw it come down,” he said with a shrug, “then I didn’t get all of it.”
Such has been the attitude Nelson has taken toward a six-year pro career that has yet to stop in the big leagues for more than a couple of hours at a time. Nelson has learned that for him to be a given a steady chance, he must prove himself beyond a trace of doubt, darn near hitting balls so far they are never seen again.
Some may say that’s just baseball. But Nelson sometimes wonders if it has more to do with a learning disability that baseball people do not understand.
Nelson has dyslexia, which affects processing of the written or spoken word. In Nelson’s case, he has difficulty reading, sometimes seeing the letters reversed, sometimes missing letters and words entirely. He does not read books because the process is so painstaking and frustrating. But he has learned to read magazines and newspapers.
“And I can read a lineup card,” Nelson said. “In this game, isn’t that enough?”
He wonders if baseball people believe that.
He says he was denied an appropriate signing bonus out of Mt. San Antonio College when “an Atlanta Braves scout told me that because I had dyslexia, I could never get the kind of money I wanted.”
He then signed with Oakland. After hitting double figures in home runs in the minor leagues for four consecutive seasons, he opened the 1987 season as the A’s starting first baseman. But he lasted just seven games. With a .167 average, he was replaced by Mark McGwire, sent to triple-A Tacoma and later traded to the Padres.
Said Karl Kuehl, A’s director of player development: “We feel his disability had nothing to do with his baseball ability . . . but we knew we had to treat Robbie a little differently.”
Last year for the Padres’ triple-A Las Vegas farm team, Nelson hit 23 homers with 77 RBIs, but he made the major leagues for just seven more games and struggled again with a .190 average. This winter in contract negotiations, Tom Romenesko, Padre farm director, brought up the disability again.
“We feel dyslexia affects him like another player is affected by a muscle pull or sore finger,” Romenesko said. “We believe it’s an eye muscle problem that can affect his swing. If you look at his scouting reports, there is a certain pitch he can’t hit, and we wonder if it’s because he can’t properly track the ball as it comes from the pitcher.
“If he works on it, it’s no big deal, just like the guy with the pulled muscle. He is major-league caliber player who will probably play a lot of years in the big leagues. We are very high on him. He just has to keep working on his problem.”
Nelson and experts from the Hillside Development and Learning Center in La Canada--where he was tutored as a youngster--strongly disagree with this assessment. It’s not that they feel Nelson doesn’t need to keep working on his hitting. They simply say dyslexia has nothing to do with hitting.
“That is absolutely ludicrous, that is dangerous talk,” said Bob Dannenhold, executive director of the Hillside Center. “Rob had problems reading, but reading is a language process while baseball is a motor skill. And Rob was always a whiz at motor skills.
“And Rob’s reading problems have nothing to do with his eyes. You don’t read with your eyes, you read with your brain.”
Nelson, 24, hit the Padres’ first two homers of the spring Thursday in a 7-7 tie with Cleveland that was called after 10 innings. It probably won’t do him any good. He understands he is the club’s fourth first baseman behind Jack Clark, Carmelo Martinez and John Kruk. He understands he will probably return to triple-A and knows that in this instance, it has nothing to do with what anybody thinks about his ability to read.
He knows he needs work. In 65 big league at-bats he has 11 hits (.169 average) with 33 strikeouts and just four walks.
“But it’s not because I see the ball backward or anything,” he said. “I don’t see the rotation wrong. It’s not like a slider looks like a screwball.
“OK, so I can’t read Bill White’s signature on a fastball going 90 m.p.h. Who can? And who has to?”
Otherwise quiet and subdued, Nelson’s voice raises and his face reddens when talking about what Dannenhold calls, “The curse of being labeled.”
“If teams are holding being dyslexic against me,” Nelson said, “then why am I even here? Why am I even trying? If anybody would ever ask me about this--and they never really have--I would love to sit down and honestly tell them just what it’s like.”
Start in the seventh grade, when Nelson’s teacher phoned his parents to discuss his poor grades. He was taken to Hillside for testing, where he and his family first heard the word “dyslexia.”
“We didn’t understand it,” recalled his father, David.
“I just saw things differently,” Rob said. “I would read something real fast and not be able to tell you what I read. Words and letters would be missing or turned around.”
Nelson was sent to Hillside for tutoring twice a week. And his father added another brand of therapy.
“I would bring him the morning sports section and get him to read it,” David Nelson said. “I would ask him what happened that day, talk about what he read. It got so, if he took his time, he was having no problems with it.”
Experts say that often, dyslexics have a fear of failure. The Nelsons combated this through another unique therapy--baseball. Rob began spending the majority of his time on fields, moving up through youth baseball and on to the South Pasadena High varsity as a sophomore.
“As soon as a person is labeled as dysfunctional, sometimes he loses his self confidence, he becomes afraid to risk anything in social situations,” explained Jeff Spencer, Nelson’s tutor at Hillside and an Olympic cyclist in 1972. “That’s why sports was so good for Rob. It was different. He could compete there. There is no telling what toll this labeling would have had on him if he had not been so good in sports.”
“It’s what I tell people today,” Nelson said. “If anything, my dyslexia is an advantage in baseball because all my life I’ve had to learn verbally and through what I see. I’m a great listener and watcher. And that’s how you learn in baseball.”
If only it had been so easy in the other parts of his life.
His therapy at Hillside ended in ninth grade because, “They told me they couldn’t help me anymore, that I had advanced as far as I could,” Nelson said. But it wasn’t far enough.
He did poorly throughout high school, collecting mostly Cs, mostly because he never read the material.
“I’ll never forget the size of my biology book,” Nelson recalled. “To me, it was so thick, I didn’t have a chance. I worked so hard, and still pulled a ‘D’. “
Then there were the difficult classes--"The ones that made us read aloud,” Nelson said. “Anytime they would ask us to read, I would slump lower and lower in my chair. There were always a couple of kids who could talk real good, real fast, great speech. I was always so envious.”
He attached himself increasingly to baseball, where with his bat and glove, he was the fast learner.
“As a sophomore I first realized, hey, baseball is the way I can go to college,” he said. “Baseball is how I can make my career. This was my opportunity. Compared to everything else, this was like, easy.”
At least he thought so. During his senior year of high school, a season that would be good enough to get him drafted by Houston, he applied to UCLA. He was so excited that he drove over and handed his application to the athletic department himself.
He never heard from them until five years later, in 1987, when a UCLA athletic official he won’t identify saw him playing with the Padres in Dodger Stadium.
“This guy walked up to a friend of mine and said, ‘Oh look, there’s Rob Nelson, I’m so glad he overcame his learning disability,’ ” Nelson said. “Man, did that burn me.”
Snubbed by UCLA after he graduated from high school in 1982, he enrolled in Mt. San Antonio College. But six months later, he felt burned again by what he felt was a misconception.
He was taken in the first round of the secondary phase of the January 1983 draft by Atlanta. Soon thereafter, the Braves scout walked into the Nelson’s living room and offered a $25,000 bonus, about $30,000 less than Nelson’s opening demand. Then, according to Nelson, the scout said there would be no negotiations.
“He told me I wouldn’t get any more of that because of my dyslexia,” Nelson said.
That talk might have worked if the scout was just speaking to a then-impressionable Rob. But unfortunately for the scout, Nelson’s mother Jacquie was also sitting there.
“She jumped all over him,” Nelson recalled. “Told him he had not done his homework, that he did not know what he was talking about. The guy left in a huff and said I would never get another chance.”
He hit 17 homers in 35 games for the junior college that spring and ensured that he would get another chance, this time with Oakland. The A’s, according to Karl Kuehl, understood.
“We realized we had to verbalize things more with him,” the A’s farm director said. “We had to check and make sure he understood things. With him, in teaching, we always took his disability into consideration.”
And not once, Kuehl said, did they look at it as a baseball ailment.
“Sure, he may have holes in his swing, but look at all the guys who have been successful in the major leagues who have holes in their swing,” Kuehl said. “We did not think that was a factor in his disability.”
“Funny,” Nelson said, “but I never even knew the A’s knew about my dyslexia.”
He may have tipped them off when, while playing for double-A Huntsville (Ala.) in 1985, Nelson was asked to do a television commercial promoting the team. Unwilling to tell anybody of his problem, it took him 10 takes to read the cue cards before finally, in frustration, he jokingly shouted, “I’m dyslexic, so why don’t you just write it backward?”
He later memorized the lines and read them without a hitch.
“I won’t go out of my way to do that kind of public speaking again,” he said.
While he departed the A’s thinking they never knew of his problem, he was aware early on that the Padres knew. Romenesko used to work with dyslexics as as high school teacher and mentioned some exercises to Nelson during contract negotiations.
“I’m a believer in eye muscle exercises for everybody,” Romenesko said. “I don’t think pro athletes can afford to waver one bit in any category, particularly the eyes. Again, we aren’t treating him any different than we’d treat a guy with an injured toenail. This won’t stop him from getting to the big leagues. “
Indeed, the Padres showed their belief in Nelson this winter when they decided to keep him and traded their other top first base prospect, Brad Pounders.
Said former tutor Spencer: “I can completely understand the Padres being cautious about an investment like Rob. But believe me, their worries are just not justified in his case.”
And Nelson continues to fight the label.
A couple of years ago at a winter league game in Pasadena, a scout noticed Nelson and announced, “Isn’t that the boy with the speech problem? Did he ever get over that?” The same thing happened recently while Nelson was playing for triple-A Las Vegas.
“It is so totally unfair to bring this up after how hard he has worked to get here,” David Nelson said.
While Rob Nelson doesn’t read books these days--and worries about what he’s missing--he did make an exception a couple of years ago. His hero had always been Steve Garvey, so he bought the book and set down to finish it.
“And I did, I finished it,” he said. “Took my wife four hours, took me five days, but yeah, I handled it.”
It is these little triumphs that keep him swinging, harder still, hoping not to end his career until he can hear people say, That Rob Nelson, he got all of it.
Said Nelson: “If dyslexia had this much effect on me, I wouldn’t be where I am, would I? There’s a difference between a chance and a fair chance. All I want is a fair chance.”
Padre Manager Jack McKeon didn’t want Thursday’s tie game to end, particularly since his team had come back from a 7-4 deficit after five innings. But the Indians claimed they were out of pitchers, which made McKeon wonder. “Here we are, the visiting team, and we have enough pitchers to go more innings, while the home team runs out?” he asked. “I guess it makes sense, the Indians only have, what, 30 pitchers in their camp? Just say this game ended against our will.”