It was late in the 2009 season, and the Orange County Flyers were struggling. The independent league baseball team was led by Phil Nevin, who was just two years removed from retiring as a player.
Indie baseball teams are often a conglomeration of all types of people from the sport. Young players. Guys cut from the upper levels of the minors hoping to get another shot. Former big leagues who just can’t say goodbye to the game.
Scott Spiezio, a former Angels World Series hero, probably fit as a mix of the latter two categories when he joined the Flyers in the middle of 2009. Just two years younger than Nevin, he often served as a friend and sounding board for the first -time manager. And as the team was in the throes of a skid, Spiezio recalled a game in Victoria, British Columbia.
Before it began, Spiezio said Nevin told him if the team lost again, he would “blow his top off.” Make a show of it. It was all a plan. There was an internal calmness. But on the exterior, he would make it known he was unhappy with his team in a very clear way.
Spiezio said Nevin told him to make sure to provide an honest review.
“We end up losing, and we go in the clubhouse and he’s like breaking stuff and throwing stuff,” Spiezio recalled. “Yelling and screaming. Pick up the beer and break it. Everybody kind of sits there.
“Then we get back to the hotel, and he goes, ‘What did you think about that? Pretty good?’”
“Scott’s not supposed to tell those stories,” a present-day Nevin said with a chuckle.
Nevin was named the interim manager of the Angels last week in place of Joe Maddon, who was fired 12 games into the team’s 14-game losing streak. It’s the former no. 1 overall pick’s first experience as an MLB manager.
Nevin’s stint as an independent league manager at Fullerton might have been just five miles away, but it marked the beginning of 13 years’ worth of work separating him from the pinnacle of the profession — years of managing in the minors, coaching in the big leagues and hoping to get a chance like the one he earned last week.
Nevin was beloved by his Flyers players. He was the kind of manager who, yes, might lose his temper. But those types of shows served the same purpose as everything else — keeping a unified team that knew its manager supported the club.
“I don’t think I’d had as much fun playing baseball since maybe Little League or high school than I did playing for him,” said Travis Becktel, an outfielder on that team. “He knew the right way to turn things up or cool things down.”
Nevin played his last MLB game in 2006 and officially announced his retirement from playing in May 2007. He did a little TV work, but was talked into taking over as the Flyers manager in December 2008 by team owner Alan Mintz after an initial reluctance.
Up until that point in his post-playing career, Nevin said the most formulated plan he had for his life was to golf with his friends. His wife and kids continually told him he needed to find something to do. Managing the Orange County Flyers was the solution.
Nevin wanted his team to have all the trappings of a major league experience, even though this league was light years away from that. He instituted dress codes for road trips. He also personally funded aspects of the team that were simply not in the budget for a small league like that. There were some very long bus trips in the Golden Baseball League. Nevin, as a result, would sometimes purchase a plane ticket for the next day’s starting pitcher to allow them more rest.
He brought in a masseuse. He purchased extra equipment. He once surprised the entire team with an overnight off-day stay in Las Vegas as the club was en route to play a game in St. George, Utah.
There were constant reminders that this wasn’t the big leagues. Nevin having to tend to the field was as strong a reminder as any. But he’d amassed a lot of money as a top draft pick and 12-year MLB veteran, and he wanted it to feel as close to The Show as possible. He went from being uncertain about ever wanting to coach to financially funding the enjoyment of every player.
“I just felt like it was the right thing to do,” Nevin said. “I told them from the beginning, when I got to the team, ‘I’m going to treat you like big leaguers as long as you guys act like it. Understand that I’m also trying to help you attain a goal.”
Former Flyers outfielder Fernando Pacheco remembers he was once in the middle of a bad slump when Nevin took him to the side. Pacheco had been one of the team’s best hitters, blasting 17 homers in 83 games the year prior. The Flyers were playing a game in Chico, Calif., and had shown up to the field early to get some work in well ahead of the game. Pacheco did some work off a batting tee and with Nevin soft-tossing balls from the side. Then, Nevin decided Pacheco needed a pep talk. A reminder.
“He got a little bit in my head and gave me a good speech of how to bounce back. It was a fluke. It was a mistake,” Pacheco said. “He was trying to figure it out and break it down. He was trying to put himself in my shoes.
“We just had a heart to heart. Honestly, it was more mental, and it was what I needed. Because baseball is hard. When you’re down, it feels really bad. It feels low. And you don’t know how to snap out of it sometimes. You just need the coaches and your manager to tell you that they believe in you.”
To a man, this is how players perceived Nevin. A player like Spiezio — in the beginning stages of trying to get sober amid addiction issues — got a chance from Nevin. He got respect from Nevin. It mattered as Spiezio tried to come out of a dark period in his life.
Nevin brought in other major leagues such as Damian Jackson and Robert Fick to play for the team. He got Jim Edmonds to work with outfielders and just be around the group every once in a while.
Most importantly, he communicated with players about their roles, their skills, their struggles. He’d “go to battle for his guys, 10 times out of 10,” former Flyers pitcher Mike Koons said. He had a way of making every player on the roster feel seen and respected.
“I’m sure Mike Trout and (Shohei) Ohtani are loving playing for that dude right now,” Koons said. “Because I know I did. And I was nobody.”
Nevin is certainly no longer coaching nobodies. He might still be in Orange County, but it’s a completely different world than managing the Flyers. The roots of his work with the Angels go back to that Flyers team. He’s evolved a bit, sure. But the way he worked there will inform what he does now.
Jimmy Rohan, a former second baseman for the Flyers, started a large group message on Facebook after Nevin was hired. At first, he thought of messaging just a couple of guys with whom he stayed friends. Then he pulled up the old roster, seeking out everyone from that team he could find.
Nevin’s hiring allowed the group a chance to reunite. Rohan thought it would be fun to get together as large a group as possible to cheer on Nevin from Angel Stadium. Maybe even stop by to say hello.
Because all these years later, they remember him as a manager who cared about them. He might have shown it through pre-planned postgame tantrums when a medicine ball would break a glass mirror. He also showed it in his ability to have an empathetic conversation with a slumping hitter.
The team finished 37-39. It wasn’t a storybook season on the field. But it was a memorable one. For Nevin, to coach pro baseball for the first time. And for the players, to feel like they had one of the most enjoyable seasons of their career.
“We had the camaraderie. We had good players,” Rohan said. “Our record doesn’t show it, but we did play well together. And a lot of that was because of Phil.”
(Top photo: Orange County Flyers)