A calm came over Melvin Nieves when he saw his name, scribbled in black ink, on the lineup sheet taped to the wall in the visitors' clubhouse at Three Rivers Stadium. He was going to make his first start with the Cincinnati Reds, batting cleanup and playing right-field. While he would have had butterflies a year earlier, the only thing Nieves felt last Saturday was an inner peace.
"It felt good to see it," Nieves said, after driving in the Reds' lone run with a sacrifice fly in their 6-1 loss to the Pirates that day. "That's what I need—to play, to get back to normal, to concentrate on baseball."
It had been almost a year since the 26-year-old Nieves could focus on the game, and even now his priorities in life aren't what they once were. In May 1997 doctors told him and his wife, Wendy, that one of the twin boys she was expecting would be born with a heart condition. Brandon and Jacob arrived on Aug. 1, and Brandon, afflicted with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, underwent the first of three open-heart surgeries. "Brandon made me take a closer look at myself," says Nieves, who averaged 22 home runs and 62 RBIs over the past two years as a switch-hitting outfielder-DH with the Tigers. "I was taking everything too seriously, getting mad at things that were out of my control. My son, who wasn't even born yet, was struggling to stay alive. That changed things for me."
After the twins were born, Nieves went on the disabled list for two weeks to be with Wendy. When he returned to the Tigers he struggled, hitting .119 down the stretch. That didn't stop Reds general manager Jim Bowden from trading for Nieves last Nov. 11. Bowden's second son, Tyler, was born with his lungs not functioning properly on July 7, 1991. The Bow-dens were told to make burial plans, so Bowden understood what Nieves was going through. "I made it clear to him that he needed to take care of his family first," Bowden says, "and not worry about this game, or work. We wanted him to come back when he was ready. You cannot misconstrue the priorities of life."
Brandon had a second heart operation in December, then Nieves underwent hernia surgery himself a month later. With Bowden's blessing, a hobbled Nieves missed parts of spring training to be with his family when Brandon had his third open-heart surgery and a subsequent operation to help him breathe. Brandon took a turn for the worse in mid-March and died two weeks later.
"We felt mat God was on our side the whole time," Nieves says. "Taking Brandon back was His decision, so it's a matter of us accepting that and going on. Brandon's always going to be in our hearts." Nieves switched numbers with rookie pitcher Scott Winchester and now wears 46 to mark the day of Brandon's passing—April 6.
"My family keeps me going by giving me the strength to play day in and day out," says Nieves. Wendy and their two surviving sons, Alex, 5, and Jacob, joined him for his two-week rehab stint at Triple A Indianapolis in April, and they were expected to be at Cinergy Field for his Cincinnati debut on Monday.
"No matter what, my family is going to love me," says Nieves. "I just feel more at peace with myself. I'm a better person, father and player. It's all because of Brandon."