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On first reflection, you might feel that life has not been kind to Rob Nelson—Class of '71, Cornell University, where, among other things, he was a member of the baseball team and a philosophy major. After all, when Nelson looks around at his friends from his college days, he sees wealthy and respected business executives, corporate lawyers and doctors. For himself, Nelson acknowledges that, no, he doesn't own a condo or a house, and that, no. he doesn't own a nice suit. For that matter, he's often not certain what day of the week it is.
"Wait a minute," Nelson says. "That's not entirely true. I know when it's Sunday because the comics in the paper are in color."
Nelson is also eager to come to his own defense regarding his appearance. "Yeah, well, I may not own a suit, but I do own a pair of good shoes," he says. That comment, however, is followed with a laugh. "But honestly, most of the shoes I wear have writing on them."
But don't shed tears for Nellie, as he's known throughout the baseball community. Not many people have been able to spend most of their adult life playing baseball, and playing it all over the world, for the sheer fun of it.
In the 18 years since he finished his brief (22-day) professional career in the St. Louis organization under the name Dave Raymond, Nelson—a lefthanded pitcher (no surprise in that)—has served up hanging curves on three continents. He has been able to make this hardball odyssey because of the annual six-figure income he receives from Big League Chew, a bubble gum product that he and Jim Bouton came up with in the mid-1970s at a time when both were in the bullpen for an obscure Oregon team. "As far as the nation's dentists are concerned, Jim and I are perhaps the most popular people in America," he says with a grin.
That's why Nelson doesn't own a condo or a suit: "I'm always on the road, usually spending four months of the year in Portland, Ore., four months in Australia or South Africa and four months someplace else. And I'm always either playing ball or coaching little kids. Most of the time, though, I'm pitching."
There are a lot of people who say, borrowing the line about the British Empire, that the sun never sets on Nellie's baseball career. "Yeah, but there are a lot more baseball people who say that the sun never rose," says Nelson. "Let's face it, in college I was nothing more than a fringe pitcher. Then again, I wasn't much of a student, either. I guess I was a fringe player and a fringe philosopher, too."
Truth is, in his senior year at Cornell, Nelson finished with a record of 6-2, the losses being to Michigan State, which won the Big Ten title that season, and Harvard, which won the Eastern Intercollegiate Baseball League crown. And he did it, he says, "with nothing more than a big sweeping curveball, no fastball at all and so-so control. But I do have an excellent move to first...."