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Rick Wolff
April 09, 1990
Rob Nelson's career is in extra innings thanks to a sweet idea
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April 09, 1990

By Gum! Still Pitching At 40

Rob Nelson's career is in extra innings thanks to a sweet idea

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Nothing happened right then, but during the off-season Bouton tracked down Nelson and said, "I can't stop thinking about Big League Chew." The two eventually trademarked the name and sold it to Amurol, a subsidiary of Wm. Wrigley Jr. Company, and the rest, as they say, is dental history. The gum grosses about $12 to $14 million each year, from which Nelson and Bouton split a royalty.

Meanwhile, Lord Nelson had new continents to conquer. By the early 1980s he was scheduled to pitch for a team in the Netherlands: "But they sent me a contract that was written in Dutch, and when they wouldn't translate it for me, I balked and didn't sign." Talk about your tough negotiators. "So in the fall of 1983, I went back to South Africa, where I was named the head baseball coach at the University of Witswatersrand in Johannesburg. I also named myself the team's top pitcher." Wits, as everyone calls it, wound up with a .500 record for a 26-game season, with Nelson sporting the team's best pitching statistics. "I wonder if the NCAA would have a problem with that—me being the head coach and top pitcher, too?" he asks.

By now, though, Nelson had entered his 30's. "I still had the baseball bug," he says. And thanks to Big League Chew, Nellie had the wherewithal to keep his dream alive—on another continent, if need be. The next stop on his magical mystery tour was Sydney and the Ku-ring-gai Club of the New South Wales Baseball League.

"Baseball in Australia and South Africa are very similar, in the sense that there are no baseball fields in either place," Nelson says. "You play on a lot of makeshift fields, soccer fields, with either flat pitching mounds or portable wooden ones. And the bench jockeying in both places is pretty limited; the most you ever hear from these people is something like, 'Oh come now, Mr. Umpire, your glasses must be askew.' Of course it's all done in a clipped British accent. Like I say, it's a bit different."

Since 1985, Nelson has been spending his winters in Australia, pitching and occasionally finding talented Aussies who want to pursue baseball careers in the U.S. "Baseball in Australia is what rugby is here in the States," says Nellie. "That is, it's not that big a sport, but for those who are into it, they'rereally into it." After the season ends Down Under, Nelson can usually be found back in Portland, where he works as a marketing consultant for JUGS, the manufacturer of pitching and timing machines.

Nelson says, " Jim Bouton once said to me about my life-style, 'Y'know, Nellie, on a week-to-week basis, playing baseball around the world at your age makes no sense at all. But then, when you take a step back and consider the alternatives, your life-style makes all the sense in the world.' "

Bouton's version of that conversation is a bit different: "What I said was 'When you take a step back and consider the alternatives, your life-style makes even less sense.' But considering it's Nellie, it's close enough."

Will the crafty veteran lefthander ever call it quits and hang up his spikes and passport for good?

"I once asked him the same question," says Bouton. "Nellie told me that he'd keep on pitching as long as he could find more foreign countries where the natives couldn't hit a curveball.

"You know something?" says Bouton. "I don't think he was kidding."

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