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Erstwhile Brewer Juan Nieves Looks Back on His Playing Days

Erstwhile Brewer Juan Nieves Looks Back on His Playing Days

Junfu Han through Imagn Content Services, LLC

Juan Nieves had an appealing profession interrupted by a shoulder injury. A 21-year-old when he debuted with the Milwaukee Brewers in April 1986, the southpaw from Santurce, Puerto Rico pitched simply 3 major league seasons before a tear in his rotator cuff was found. With 490.2 innings, 32 wins, and a no-hitter currently under his belt, Nieves tossed his last pitch at baseball’s greatest level prior to commemorating his 24th birthday.

He signed up with the training ranks shortly afterwards. Nieves has actually been tutoring hurlers considering that 1992, most just recently as the assistant pitching coach for the Detroit Tigers, a position he’s held considering that November 2020. He recalled at his playing days when the Tigers gone to Fenway Park previously this season.

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David Laurila: You dealt with some fantastic players throughout your reasonably brief stint in the majors. How did you see those matches at the time?

Juan Nieves: “It’s amusing. Coming from Puerto Rico, I matured enjoying the Pirates since of Roberto Clemente, and since of Turner Broadcasting we saw a great deal of the Braves. It was more National League, and I wound up in the American League [the Brewers joined the senior circuit in 1998].

“I was actually just talking to the kids in the bullpen and mentioned how I came to the big leagues at a young age, and how it seems like there were five or six Hall of Famers on every team. Fortunately, I never thought of it that way, because they were still playing. But looking back at some of the guys I had the honor of playing with — Rollie Fingers, Don Sutton, Robin Yount, Paul Molitor — I appreciate it more now, after the fact, than I did at the moment. The same goes for some of the guys that I faced.”

Laurila: What do you keep in mind about dealing with Kirby Puckett and Dave Winfield?

Nieves: “Puckett was a nightmare for me. He hit me really well.”

Laurila: Both Puckett [13-for-21 with one home run] and Winfield [7-for-11, two home runs] had excellent numbers versus you. Not that they didn’t have excellent numbers versus a great deal of pitchers.

Nieves: “Right, right. Not just me. And they squashed lefties. I believe I was a bit on the irregular side of it — it was a bit of an inequality — since they understood that I was tossing fastballs. It’s not like they had other pitches to fret about. I was a fastball guy, since I was so young. I never ever actually had an opportunity to end up being a total pitcher; I never ever had an opportunity to groom myself into having extraordinary secondary pitches. I wouldn’t state that I was hurried, however I got to the major leagues fast, and it was essentially since of the fastball.

“Now that I can look back at what a complete pitcher is… Anybody who asks me, ‘What does it take to pitch in the big leagues?’ — well, it takes good stuff. You need to have velocity and a good breaking ball. But being a complete pitcher, at any point in history, is the ability to throw any pitch in any count. Behind in the count, ahead in the count, wherever it is. The inability to do that was a disadvantage for me. And those guys certainly hit the ball hard against me.”

Laurila: For a very long time, individuals thought that Fenway Park was a particularly tough place for left-handers. You in fact pitched quite well here, specifically in your very first number of chances.

Nieves: “Very well. I loved pitching here. I don’t know why. I do know that I never looked at the Monster, because my power was pitching inside. But again, I loved pitching here at Fenway. It felt like I was at home, I guess.”

Laurila: The Red Sox had some fantastic players at the time. Wade Boggs, Jim Rice…

Nieves: “Oh, man. Dewey Evans, Don Baylor. A lot of guys. But I felt really, really good here. There was also knowing that you could always match up with Roger [Clemens].”

Laurila: There was one match, on September 16, 1986, where Clemens won his 23rd video game of the season, with the Red Sox beating you 2-1.

Nieves: “Yes. We likewise pitched well versus each other in another video game. It remained in Milwaukee [on July 30, 1988]. I believe Joey Meyer struck a crowning achievement versus him in the ninth inning to win it for us.

“One of the most interesting games I ever saw was Teddy Higuera against Roger, in Boston [on April 24, 1988]. I think they were both waiting for the other to hand them the ball between innings. I couldn’t believe it. It was a really fast game [2:10]. You know how good Teddy was.”

Laurila: Higuera and Clemens were extremely various pitchers.

Nieves: “They were, but do you know what? Teddy didn’t throw as hard as Roger, but he was 93-94 [mph] and commanding it, along with a great breaking ball. He was an impressive pitcher. When he came here as a rookie [in 1985], he was already seasoned, having pitched in the Mexican League. It’s a shame he never played in California.”

Laurila: Like Fernando Valenzuela…

Nieves: “Oh yeah. He would have been unbelievable.”

Laurila: How hard did you toss?

Nieves: “I’m not sure. Back then, people weren’t really talking about how hard you threw, but I’m going to say 92-94. Somewhere around there. But it was a little different game. It was also a different clock with how they measured. Now, as soon as the ball is out of the hand, they measure it. Back then, it was a radar gun and I think it was when the ball was getting to the plate.”

Laurila: Going back to players you dealt with, what do you keep in mind about Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker?

Nieves: “Oh, those Detroit teams were a nightmare. They were really good. I did a little better against Whitaker [3-for-18], but Tram was a tough out [5-for-17 with a home run and six walks]. I didn’t match up very well with him. He was a little more of a high-ball hitter and I threw the ball high. I wasn’t really good down in the zone. He also had Kirk Gibson behind him, so I didn’t mind navigating around Trammell to get to Kirk. Lefty-on-lefty was better for me.”

Laurila: You just got to deal with major league players for 3 years.

Nieves: “Yes, and my first two years were like a blur. It was almost learning on the fly. It was an older league, and you didn’t really spend a lot of time talking to the veterans. It was a different era. It’s a younger game now. My third year was probably the most fun I had. Right before I got hurt, I started really being able to throw secondary pitches in any count. One thing I remember about that year was a save, and then I started and threw a complete game [shutout]. I was like, ‘Oh my god.’ And it was easy. It was, ‘Pitching is actually easy.’ Unfortunately, I went back home to Puerto Rico, didn’t throw in winter ball, and when I came back I broke down.”

Laurila: As quickly as it got enjoyable, it ended?

Nieves: “It ended, yes. But I’ve been blessed. I’m very grateful that I’m still in the game. I’ve been coaching a lot longer than I played, and I’m very honored and grateful for this game. I’ve been able to meet a lot of great people. I’ve also seen a lot of young men become not only very good players, but do things like become parents. I’ve seen them become good human beings.”

Laurila: There is more to life than baseball…

Nieves: “Absolutely. There is more to life than baseball.”

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