One move that wouldn't make him too popular over here would be a deal for next year that would allow him to abandon his big league team in early September, when the Olympics commence. For his part, Nilsson insists he wouldn't even ask. "There are 24 other guys in the clubhouse, and I could never look them in the eye and tell them that come crunch time, I'm leaving," he says.
A proven hitter who could help a contender, Nilsson says there are two simple explanations for his added production this season: When he arrived at spring training in February, he was completely healthy, and he knew what position he would be playing. Before this season Nilsson had made six trips to the disabled list in his Brewers career, including one to start the 1995 season while he recovered from Ross River fever, a rare affliction that he contracted from a mosquito bite in Australia. The illness, which caused fatigue and pain in his joints, limited him to only 81 games. "I probably should have taken the year off," he says.
Nilsson bounced back in '96. In 123 games, including 40 as a designated hitter, he put up career highs in average (.331) and RBIs (84) and batted an American League-best .359 against righthanded pitchers. After the '97 season, though, Milwaukee switched to the National League, a move that affected Nilsson more than any other Brewer. No longer could Milwaukee manager Phil Garner try to keep him off the DL by putting him at DH.
Last year Nilsson had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee during spring training. When he returned in May, he caught in only six games, splitting time between first base and leftfield while hitting .269 with 12 homers and 56 RBIs. Coming into the '99 season, the catching-thin Brewers decided to stick him behind the plate and take their chances. Nilsson, who hadn't caught full time since '95, welcomed the move because, he says, "it was just nice to know what position I was playing for a change."
Always a streaky hitter, Nilsson this season settled into a groove early and stayed there. No longer is he content to just slap a single up the middle when his team needs extra bases. "I think he is finally realizing what he is capable of doing," says Brewers hitting coach Jim Lefebvre. "He's a bright guy who goes up to the plate with a plan. He's become a great situational hitter." Under the direction of Lefebvre, who joined the Milwaukee staff last August, Nilsson began to pull nearly every pitch in batting practice, a habit that helped him become a more instinctive power hitter. "Normally, the hitting coach tells you the exact opposite—go the other way, use the whole field—but Jim wanted me to get used to pulling everything," says Nilsson.
As for Nilsson's defense, Garner says "the best part of his game is his offense." The manager does rate Nilsson "a smart catcher who knows how to work with a pitching staff." Moreover, though at week's end Nilsson had thrown out just 17.1% of runners attempting to steal this season (fifth worst in the league), Garner says his pitchers are as responsible for the spotty results as the catcher. The ever-intense Garner says he is fond of his laid-back backstop, even if Nilsson is not likely to steal his manager's nickname, Scrap Iron.
"Nillie's a negotiator, not a fighter," says Garner. "He's a cerebral guy, very intelligent, with great instincts. He doesn't relish contact, but there's nothing wrong with that. Yogi Berra didn't like contact. He always thought it was smarter to step out of the way and tag you as you were running by. Nothing wrong with that."
Nilsson says his baseball upbringing was not too far removed from that of his American counterparts. Tim Nilsson raised his four sons to play the game. David got his first bat and glove for Christmas when he was four, played tee-ball and Little League, and watched games on TV whenever he could. "Of course, we would only get the World Series, and it would be at, like, three in the morning," he says. "My brothers and I played all sports, but baseball just grabbed us." Two of Nilsson's three older brothers, Bob and Gary, pitched professionally in the U.S., but never made it out of the minor leagues. David was just the third player from his country to make the big leagues, following Joe Quinn (who played from 1894 to 1901) and Craig Shipley, a utilityman who made his debut in 1986 and retired before this season.
"When I signed my first contract I was 17 years old, and I felt like I was moving to a different planet," says Nilsson, who began his career with the Helena (Mont.) Brewers of the Pioneer League. "The possibility of actually making it to the major leagues was almost inconceivable to me."
Now he is thinking about walking away from the major leagues, a possibility that's almost inconceivable to everyone else.