Recalling '92, Astros ready to nail top pick
Twenty years ago, Houston selected Nevin No. 1 over Jeter
HOUSTON -- Phil Nevin watched the Astros play in the 2005 World Series and couldn't help but wish he could have been there alongside Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, a pair of longtime teammates who were getting their one and only chance to play in the Fall Classic.
Maybe if things had gone differently, Nevin could have shared the moment. Maybe if he would have listened to their advice about how to carry himself on and off the field, he could have been considered as much a part of Houston's baseball fabric as the iconic pair of Killer B's.
"I'm still buddies with Craig and Jeff and talk to them quite a bit, and it would have been pretty neat to have been their teammates for a long time and learn from them, especially early on in my career," Nevin said.
Nevin wound up appearing in just 18 games with Houston, which invested a lot of money and even more faith in taking the slugging third baseman from Cal State Fullerton with the No. 1 pick in the 1992 Draft. The Astros -- and four other teams -- passed up a lanky high school shortstop named Derek Jeter, whom the Yankees drafted with the No. 6 overall pick.
Twenty years later, the Astros again have the No. 1 pick in the First-Year Player Draft and only have to look at their own history to see how much of an impact making the right choice can have on the future of a franchise. None of the teams that passed on Jeter 20 years ago has since won a World Series.
Jeter has anchored five World Series champions for the Yankees and will go down as one of baseball's greatest players. While Nevin wound up having a productive big league career -- he hit 208 homers for seven teams in 12 seasons -- he can't help but wonder if he would have had a better career had he fell in line in Houston.
"Everybody looks back and wishes something here and there would be different, but I really don't do that," said Nevin, the 41-year-old manager of the Detroit Tigers' Triple-A affiliate in Toledo, Ohio. "What I do say is, 'Gosh darn it, if I would have just listened to these guys a little earlier, it might have set in a little sooner and I would have been successful for a longer period of time.'"
Nevin's maturity problems, which included anger outbursts and run-ins with Astros management, played a part in his being dealt to the Tigers as the player to be named in exchange for pitcher Mike Henneman. Less than two years later, with Biggio and Bagwell anchoring the lineup, the Astros began a run of reaching the playoffs five times in a nine-year span, capped by their only National League pennant in '05.
"I was just somebody that was immature at the time," said Nevin, whose postseason experience was limited to three American League Division Series at-bats with the Twins in 2006. "You think you've got something figured out, and clearly I didn't. There's a big part of me that still looks back on that time and wonders what I was thinking. I made a lot of friends along the way and I learned a lot, but it really wasn't applied for me personally as a player until much later on.
"The things I learned from Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio and Darryl Kile -- the guys that were there when I came up -- those weren't things that just sunk in. I was a stupid kid that thought he had it all figured out."
The decision to take Nevin in the Draft was one that divided the Astros' baseball operations department. The team was coming off a 97-loss season in 1991 and was eager to get a player who was closer to being Major League-ready than Jeter, who was a favorite of Astros scout Hal Newhouser.
"We had come off that bad year in 1991 and had a .500 record that year in '92, and we felt like we were an improving ballclub and looking for players that would get to the big leagues more quickly," said Bill Wood, who served as the Astros' general manager for the 1988-93 seasons. "That was part of our thinking. We jammed him in there, and as a result, he struggled and the frustration probably overtook him."
Former Tigers Hall of Famer Newhouser, who passed away in 1998, was so upset the Astros passed on Jeter that he wound up quitting.
"Hal fell in love with [Jeter]," Wood said. "I think all of our scouts loved Jeter, but he was a high school player, and even with his talent we felt it would take some time before he got to the big leagues. That's the reason the scales tipped in Phil's favor. I'm suspecting some of the other teams between us and Yankees were thinking the same way."
Indeed. The Indians took University of North Carolina pitcher Paul Shuey at No. 2, the Expos selected Mississippi State's B.J. Wallace, a pitcher, at No. 3, the Orioles took Stanford outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds with the fourth pick and the Reds tabbed Central Florida outfielder Chad Mottola at No. 5.
"Looking back, the ballclub and organization would have been better off had we listened to Hal Newhouser, not succumbed to the pressure to get over the hump, and had taken Jeter," Wood said.
Fred Nelson was the Astros' director of player development in 1992, and is once again serving in that role after wearing different hats in the Houston organization for 27 years. He and Nevin cross paths quite a bit, and Nevin still reminds him how things could have been different.
"Phil was a good player and obviously turned out to be a pretty solid Major League player," Nelson said. "I think he was immature. He didn't really listen, and that's not an unusual case for a guy that was as good as he was. There were a lot of things people had to offer, not only in the Minor Leagues but also in the big leagues, and I think he resisted some of that."
The game can chew up players who don't have the maturity to handle everything that's thrown their way. If Nevin could offer some advice to this year's eventual No. 1 pick, it would be simple: Listen. Listen to the coaches, managers and veteran players you meet along the way.
"It's just a matter of respecting the game, [learning] how to handle yourself and go about things," Nevin said. "The physical stuff, that will take care of itself. There's so many things off the field that impact what you do on the field, whether it's in the clubhouse or how you go about your business. It just took me a long time to understand how hard the game was, how hard you've got to work at it and the respect you have to give it."