Before he made his major league debut in 1995, the Padres' Phil Nevin was already well-known because of his accomplishments three years earlier: Baseball America college player of the year, College World Series MVP, first pick in the draft (by the Astros) and third baseman for the U.S. Olympic team. He even started his pro career, in 1993, at Triple A Tucson. Once in the big leagues
Nevin became infamous for not living up to the expectations born of that lofty resume—before this season he had a career average of .230 with 27 homers in 253 games with the Astros, Tigers and Angels—and for throwing bat-rack-rattling tantrums on those frequent occasions when things weren't going well.
This season his new teammates took to calling this dark side of him Bill. "Wally Joyner was the first to do it," says Nevin, whom San Diego acquired to provide catching depth after Carlos Hernandez suffered a season-ending left Achilles tendon injury in March. "Now they all do it."
For the most part Bill has been out of sight this season (though he did trash the visitors' dugout commode in Philadelphia after a bad at bat in May), especially in the past six weeks after Phil became San Diego's regular third baseman. Through Sunday, Nevin was hitting .314 with 12 home runs and 41 RBIs in 42 games since taking over for the struggling George Arias. For the season he had 24 homers and 79 RBIs, career highs in both categories.
To give Nevin his due, this is his first extended gig as an every-day major leaguer. He played only 18 games with the Astros before being dealt to the Tigers in August 1995. He spent the next two years yo-yoing between Detroit and the minors, trying to reinvent himself as a catcher. Before the '98 season he was sent to Anaheim, where he hit .228 in 75 games and solidified his reputation for being more dangerous to clubhouse furniture than to opposing pitchers. "Part of it was my fault," he says. "I had to learn to be a big leaguer on and off the field."
In July, with the Padres searching for a replacement for Arias, Nevin appealed to manager Bruce Bochy for the chance to return to the hot corner, where he last played regularly in 1996. Since July 31 Nevin had made only three errors through Sunday and had given the power-starved Padres much-needed pop. "I don't know if I'd hit 40 homers and drive in 130 runs over a full year," he says, "but I'd sure like to find out."
Good Players on Bad Teams
Seasons of Distinction
By Sunday 19 teams either had been eliminated from postseason contention or were only mathematically alive—meaning that more than half the major leaguers were just playing out the schedule. Here are six players who, despite their teams' also-ran performance, have had MVP-caliber years that will go virtually unrecognized in balloting for 1999 awards. (Listed in order of most surprising season.)
Brian Giles, Pirates. After four years of part-time duty with the Indians, the 28-year-old Giles became yet another young hitter to flourish upon leaving Cleveland, along with the Marlins' Bruce Aven and the Reds' Sean Casey. Through Sunday, Giles had hit .312 with career highs in homers (36) and RBIs (108)—the best season in those categories by a Pirates outfielder since Barry Bonds in 1992. Giles was also a surprise in the field, gracefully making a midseason switch from rightfield to center. "If we were still in contention, Brian would have to get serious consideration for the MVP award," says Pittsburgh manager Gene Lamont.
Magglio Ordñoez, White Sox. Ordoñez, Chicago's 25-year-old rightfielder, continued his ascent toward stardom, a climb that began last year when he tied for fifth in Rookie of the Year voting. After a slow start this season, he took off when he was moved from the number-five hole to the cleanup spot on April 15; through Sunday he was hitting .302 and led Chicago in homers (28) and RBIs (109). He was also the team's lone representative at the Ail-Star Game. "For him to come together this quickly? says Ken Williams, Chicago's vice president of player development, "I don't think any of us can say with a straight face that we expected it."
Mike Sweeney, Royals. Talk about a breakout. In his four major league seasons before this one Sweeney, a catcher turned DH-first baseman, had a total of 36 doubles, 19 homers and 90 RBIs. This season, through Sunday he had 38 doubles, 21 homers and 96 RBIs, in addition to having hit a career-high .314.'