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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Jim Neidlinger Interview Part 3: Nothing More Exciting

Middlebury College pitching coach returns to the bench after visiting the mound during a recent game at Amherst College.

Part 1: No Power Pitcher | Part 2: In The Majors | Part 3: Nothing More Exciting

After a rough fifth inning, Jim Neidlinger was pulled from the game, his fourth major league start. He'd given up five runs to the Expos at Dodger Stadium, but he still had the lead. Neidlinger, however, couldn't stick around to see if his lead held up.

He had a plane to catch.

His wife Ann was back in Albuquerque, ready to have their first child.

"A lot of things in that time period of time were happening pretty well for Jim Neidlinger and his family," Neidlinger recalled to The Greatest 21 Days recently.

And he made it back to Albuquerque to see that family expand by one, the same number his major league win total expanded by.

Neidlinger made the majors in late July, finally getting the call up in his seventh professional season. By then, he'd met and married his wife while in AA ball in New England and made the jump to the Dodgers organization and AAA ball at Albuquerque.

He'd made his major league debut Aug. 1. After three starts, he was 1-1, but had a stellar ERA of 1.31. The five runs he gave up against the Expos that night Aug. 17 that he had to rush to the airport, took that ERA to a still impressive 2.81.

Neidlinger credited that early success to his catchers Mike Scioscia and Rick Dempsey, along with the rookie advantage of simply being a pitcher hitters hadn't seen.

His catchers understood him, and the lineups they were facing, Neidlinger said.

"Then it's just your ability to execute and make pitches," Neidlinger said. "And I happened to be in one of those situations, and one of those roles where I was executing very well."

Middlebury College pitching coach Jim Neidlinger helps with fielding practice at Amherst College

That early success came with his wife back in Albuquerque. But she still could follow his success life, from a bar near their apartment. The bar had the games on satellite. They'd decided, despite his big promotion, she would stay behind. Her doctor was there. And her mother had come to help.

It was from that bar that she watched her husband's outing with the Expos, getting the message through to get on the late flight and get home. She was having the baby. Still, Neidlinger recalled, she held out in the bar until his outing was done.

Neidlinger made it back for the birth. Soon after, the new family was together in Los Angeles.

Neidlinger ended up finishing out the year, going 5-3, with a 3.28 ERA. He'd pitched well enough, he'd thought, for another look at Los Angeles in 1991.

It was that belief, though, Neidlinger said, that helped lead to him not coming back. He wouldn't describe himself that off season as being lazy, but he just didn't prepare himself as well as he could have going into spring training 1991.

Middlebury College pitching coach Jim Neidlinger watches over sophomore Mike Joseph as Joseph warms up at Amherst College

He'd also pitched a lot of innings over the previous two seasons, plus winter ball. All that combined to Neidlinger starting 1991 back at AAA Albuquerque.

"I maybe took a few things for granted at that point in time, after throwing well," Neidlinger said. "But it was a very good life lesson for me to learn.

"The troublesome part of that was, after as well as I did, I just didn't get the opportunity to pitch my way out of the big leagues."

His confidence shaken, Neidlinger went on to spend the full year at Albuquerque, going 7-7 with a 4.75 ERA. Going into 1992, Neidlinger tried to learn from his mistakes of the year before, but the results were the same, another year at Albuquerque.

Middlebury College pitching coach Jim Neidlinger, center, on the bench at Amherst College

He also started thinking the Dodgers were looking past him, bringing up younger pitchers to AAA, to see if they wanted to protect them for the upcoming expansion draft.

By 1993, Neidlinger was with the Twins system, at AAA Portland. Without a call-up, he went into spring training 1994 with the Cardinals. Losing out on a roster spot with them, Neidlinger recalled speaking with the Cardinals then-manager Joe Torre.

Torre, Neidlinger recalled, told him the team just didn't have room for him then. But Torre also told Neidlinger that he believed Neidlinger could still pitch in the big leagues.

So Neidlinger went back to AAA. But it was only a brief trip. After seven starts, Neidlinger decided it was time to go.

It came after a Saturday start, Neidlinger recalled. He threw well, but still mediocre.

"I sat in front of my locker, and it was one of those things, the decision just came, it's time to go," Neidlinger said.

Middlebury College pitcher Mike Joseph delivers to the plate at a recent game against Amherst College.

He didn't want to hang on just to hang on. Also, he said, the game had become like a job.

"I never played this game as a job, not one day in my life. I knew there was work that had to be done, but this was not my job," Neidlinger said. "This was a privilege for me to put a uniform on and try to become one of the best players in the United States."

Neidlinger walked into his manager's office the next day and retired.

Neidlinger has since settled in his wife's home state of Vermont. He coached at the University of Vermont, and currently serves as pitching coach at Middlebury College.

He also teaches younger players the game in a state where children often gravitate to hockey or lacrosse.

"I like to see young people play the game well," Neidlinger said. "Whether they're superstars or not, has no bearing on the situation."

He noted he spent his time professionally absorbing information from some of the best baseball minds he could, believing some day he'd be teaching the game himself.

Now he's trying to pass that on through his own baseball school.

"If I can relay a little bit of that to some young players, that's, i feel like I'm doing justice to the game," Neidlinger said. "I love the game very much. I don't like to see it played poorly. I don't like to see it played without intelligence, as far as the baseball side of things. And I love to watch athletes play the game well.

"There's nothing more exciting than watching a pitcher work the hitter and set hitters up and then being able to finalize the execution to get a hitter out, because of the work and the thought process and the athleticism it took to get there."

Part 1: No Power Pitcher | Part 2: In The Majors | Part 3: Nothing More Exciting 

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