Phil Nevin, the Padres' 29-year-old third baseman, saw his life flash before his eyes last year, and he didn't like the view. " Anaheim told me if I hadn't been traded, I would've gone back to the minors," says Nevin, whom the Angels dealt to San Diego before the 1999 season. "I was afraid of being a career Triple A guy. I'd seen a lot of them, and it frightened me."
So Nevin, spooked by the specter of becoming a real-life Crash Davis, shifted his sights. Rather than try to attain the star status that seemed his destiny when the Astros made him the first pick of the 1992 draft, Nevin resigned himself to the role of rank-and-file major leaguer. "I thought, So what if I'm a utility player—I'm in the big leagues," he says. "If I was going to be a bench player, I was going to accept it."
As has usually been the case in Nevin's career, things didn't work out according to plan: A year later he's San Diego's cleanup hitter, and through Sunday he was batting .323, was tied for the team lead in home runs (six) and was second in RBIs (16). After years of drifting around the diamond looking for work, he has his first everyday job at his original position—third base. "This is a guy we acquired to help us do some catching," says San Diego manager Bruce Bochy. "It shows you we don't know everything."
Nevin, a righthanded hitter who was drafted ahead of Derek Jeter, Jason Kendall and Charles Johnson—and has never heard the end of it—is proving to be a late bloomer. After beginning his professional career in Triple A, Nevin had a disastrous (.117, one RBI) 18-game major league baptism with Houston in '95; before the end of that season the Astros shipped him to the Tigers, for whom he spent two years bouncing back and forth from the minors while being converted into a catcher. "If I hadn't done that, I don't think I'd be here now," says Nevin. "I learned so much about the game having to play a new position."
Those years were also a dose of humility for Nevin, who still carried himself as the bonus baby he once was, throwing tantrums after unsuccessful at bats and acting petulantly in and out of the clubhouse. "I remember thinking that if Phil wanted to stay up here, he had to get it," says former Tiger Alan Trammell, now the Padres' first base coach. "If he continued to put up a front, he wasn't going to be any good."
"In Houston I was surrounded by Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio," says Nevin. "In Detroit there was Trammell and [Lou] Whitaker and [Kirk] Gibson. I never talked baseball with them. I was the first guy out of here after a game, looking for the best nightlife."
Nevin—who last season nearly matched his previous career totals with 24 homers and 85 RBIs—has made up for lost time in San Diego, immersing himself more in the game and less in extracurricular activities. "I've got a built-in hitting coach a few lockers away," he says, referring to Tony Gywnn. "He's showed me how to use the whole field, not to always try to hit the 800-foot home run."
Indeed, three of Nevin's six homers this year have been hit to center or right. On April 13, after whiffing on a slider from the Diamondbacks' Brian Anderson in his first at bat, Nevin swatted a changeup into the rightfield seats in his second trip. His next time up Anderson attacked with a slider, and Nevin ripped it to left for another homer. "There are things I think about at the plate, certain keys that I never had before," Nevin says. "Maybe it's maturity, but I had to learn to be a major leaguer."