Phil Nevin is a baseball player caught in the middle of the longest strike in sports history.
Nevin has appeared on the verge of reaching the major leagues the last two seasons with Houston. When the Astros traded third baseman Ken Caminiti to San Diego, the door appeared to swing open for Nevin, the first player selected in the 1992 draft.
But Nevin, a former Cal State Fullerton and El Dorado High player, says he will refuse to play Friday when the Astros begin their exhibition season against Florida with minor leaguers and replacement players. That decision leaves him a bit pained and frustrated, but he says he believes it's the right thing to do.
General Manager Bob Watson has posted a letter in the Astro clubhouse in Florida that says anyone who refuses to play will be in breach of contract. Watson has said that balking players will be regarded as sympathy strikers and will be told to leave camp.
"It's really an unusual circumstance," Nevin said Wednesday. "As a minor league player, I have to come to camp, but I hope to be on the major league roster this season. It's tough enough coming into a major league clubhouse as a rookie without having something like that hanging over your head. . . . The social aspect of the game is important to me, and I don't want to be looked upon as a scab player."
Nevin believes he is one of only a few players with a minor league contract who is a sure-fire prospect to play in the majors immediately after the strike ends. So Nevin faces added pressure.
"For me, refusing to play is the right thing to do," Nevin said. "The major league players are striking for the future of the game, and I plan to be a part of that future. I know I'm going to be in the major leagues, whether it's this April or July 1 or April of next year."
Nevin said he's hopeful his stand won't delay his progress with the Astros when an agreement is reached.
Watson said he thinks Nevin probably has been feeling more pressure from the union because of his status as a former No. 1 draft choice. Watson, however, doesn't think Nevin's situation is any more difficult than some other players in the Astros' camp.
"Everybody here thinks they can play in the major leagues," said Watson, who also indicated the club has given Nevin no assurances.
"What we told Nevin is that in a normal situation he would be in the running for the third base position," Watson said. "Is that going to change? Who knows what the situation will be later? All I know is that it's not automatic."
At Fullerton, Nevin was college baseball's player of the year in 1992, most valuable player in the College World Series, and a member of the U.S. Olympic team in Barcelona.
In 1993, Nevin hit .286 with 93 runs batted and 10 home runs for triple-A Tucson. Last season, he hit .263, but he had 10 of his 12 home runs and the bulk of his 79 RBIs during the final 67 games of the season.
Nevin says if told to leave camp Friday, he probably will join former El Dorado High teammate, Bret Boone, at Boone's home in Florida to work out with a group of major leaguers who live in the area.
"I spent a month in Houston working out and lost 15 pounds and was back to my college weight while adding muscle," he said. "I'm in the best playing shape I've ever been in. What I really need now, though, is the actual on-the-field work with the coaches. The one thing that makes all this even more frustrating is that I feel I'm really ready now."