Turning The Corner

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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."

An 18-game big league debut in 1995 produced one RBI, a .118 average and a major tantrum when he was returned to the minors, including a verbal blowout with then-Houston manager Terry Collins and a clubhouse demolition.

It wasn't the demotion that teed off Nevin as much as the fact that he had opened the season in the minors, a punishment, he felt, for refusing the Astros' invitation to replace striking union members as a replacement player.

Nevin, however, acknowledged that he handled the situation badly and said, "It's easy to sit and blame someone else, but I have only myself to blame for a lot of the things that happened. I didn't control my temper and I had the tendency to take the game for granted."

In Houston, he said, he seldom hung around the clubhouse or picked the brains of players such as Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio. In Detroit, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Kirk Gibson and Sparky Anderson might as well have not been there. "I was the first guy to leave after a game," Nevin said. "I couldn't wait to check out the night life."

Nevin's mother, Terry, watched a recent game at Qualcomm and said she didn't think it was a matter of her son taking the game for granted as much as "he regarded it as a right instead of a privilege and didn't realize it would take the amount of work it did.

"I don't think any one of us, including Phil, ever doubted his ability to get here and stay here, but the game had come so easily for him that what some people saw as petulance and temper when he failed was more frustration at himself."

By any name, Nevin had to learn how to control it and deal with it, and how to accept humility.

Even with the Tigers, to whom he was traded at the end of the 1995 season, he wore a T-shirt that screamed "Bad Boys Always Win--Get Used To It," and Trammell, then a teammate and now a coach with the Padres and a boyhood idol of Nevin's (he chose Trammell's No. 3 for his first uniform), reflected and said, "There's no question, Phil's temper was a detriment.

"I told him it's all right to lose it once in a while, that's going to happen, but you have to control it. As a No. 1 draft choice it's easy to buy into how good you're supposed to be. There's a lot of pressure, but I remember thinking that if Phil continued to put up a front, he wasn't going to make it. There's a night-and-day difference now. The fire's still there, which is what you want, but he's mellowed enough to let his talent come through."

Nevin spent two years with the Tigers, up and down, learning to catch, an important step in his development because it expanded his knowledge of the game and gave him greater appreciation for the mental aspect--to the extent that he says, "I don't think I'd be here now if I hadn't been forced to learn a new position."

He came home to the Angels--a throw-in basically--in a deal that also netted Matt Walbeck after the 1997 season, but he batted only .228 in 75 games as a backup catcher while healing his relations with Collins, then the Angel manager, and developing a meaningful rapport with coach Joe Maddon, with whom he often shared his deepest thoughts.

Maddon, like others, could only hope that Nevin didn't waste his skills, that at some point "a light would go on for Phil and an opportunity develop," but in the spring of '99 he was moving again. The Angels, having lost injured shortstop Gary DiSarcina, needed another infielder and acquired Andy Sheets from the Padres, who needed Nevin as a backup catcher because of the season-ending injury to Carlos Hernandez.

"The Angels basically told me that if I hadn't been traded I was going back to the minors," Nevin said. "I had seen a lot of career triple-A players and I was afraid of becoming one, so I decided that if I was going to be a bench player, I would accept it and work as hard as I could at it."

By July, however, the Padres had tried George Arias, Dave Magadan, Carlos Garcia, Carlos Baerga and even Jim Leyritz at third base without lasting success, and Nevin, responding to his internal flame, went to Bochy on the night of a July 31 series opening with Houston and asked for an opportunity at his original position. Bochy, with basically nothing to lose, gave it to him the next night, but then lifted Nevin for a pinch-hitter in the late innings.

A similar move at another time and place might have prompted Nevin to tear up the clubhouse, but instead of storming into the manager's office after the game, the manager came to him.

"I went with my gut there," Bochy said of the pinch-hitter, "but you're my cleanup hitter."

Nevin checked the lineup the next day and found his name where the manager had said it would be. He had three hits, including a homer against Jose Lima, and has had no reason to check the lineup since, although he still does, to guard against complacency.

He is also now among the first to arrive and the last to leave, and, feeding off the missed opportunities in Houston and Detroit, he spends hours with Gwynn, who has improved Nevin's ability to hit to the opposite field with power.

Said Bochy, of having hit an unexpected jackpot: "Here's a guy we acquired to do some backup catching. Shows how much we know."

Nevin has taken a circuitous route, but he could soon be the all-star many long thought he could be.

Although the temper is still there--he left half his uniform on the field in April after being called out on strikes in St. Louis, and his recent ejection from a game in Seattle drew a lecture from Bochy, who did not like the idea of losing his cleanup hitter--but he has better control of it, as he does his view of the future. He has learned humility, just as he has learned to hit in the majors.

"I don't want to look too far ahead," he said. "I did too much of that when I first signed. I figured I'd play in so many All-Star games, hit so many home runs, be this or that.

"Right now, if I were to script anything, it would be to win a world championship in San Diego. If I'm the third baseman for this team and hitting fourth and we're playing in a World Series, then I've done my job, regardless of my numbers. I couldn't imagine anything better than that."

Except for going home at night to his family.

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