By Thaddeus Krzus
Hundreds of players from all over the world gather at the California Winter League to showcase their talents in an effort to sign a professional contract. In the case of Evan Neiser, the 34-year old is looking to jump back into the game.
Since first playing whiffle ball around the age of three, baseball has been a major piece of Neiser’s life.
“Anytime I wasn’t doing something that I had to do, I was playing baseball,” Neiser said. “I loved it right from the beginning and I always wanted to be around the game.”
Neiser started his professional career in 2004, signing with the New Jersey Jackals of the Northeast League. The southpaw put up solid numbers in 36 games, going 5-1 with a 2.75 ERA in his first full season.
Neiser took a year off after the 2005 season to be with his wife, Celeste, and newborn daughter, Lily, and went back to work for the El Paso Diablos of the American Association in 2007. Just 10 games into that season, the then 25-year old received news that would take him away from the game he loved.
“My mother-in-law, Karen, got sick and we ended up having to leave. I left halfway through the ’07 season to go back.”
Evan, his wife, and daughter uprooted their lives in Denver, Colo. and traveled the roughly 800 miles to Eureka Springs, Ark.
Having to step away from the game he had been playing his entire life was not an easy adjustment.
“When I talk to friends that have been in the service, like the Marines or the Air Force, and we talk about being deployed and being enlisted, and then coming back to the civilian world… that’s what it felt like for me,” Neiser said. “Baseball is like my center, and if my mind is not engaged in something, it will come back to baseball. It was really hard for me to fill that void.
“I couldn’t find a way to both expend the energy and the adrenaline you get from facing really good hitters, and also the feeling you get from being a part of a great team full of people that want to work hard for a common goal. I was missing that.
“I tried lots of things. I tried fishing, I tried playing soccer again, I tried doing some other hobbies that I would mess around with. Nothing came close to what I get out of baseball.”
It was during his time caring for his mother-in-law that Neiser received a nudge in the direction of a new career path.
“My mother-in-law – who is a nurse practitioner – actually suggested it. She said, ‘Hey! You have a really good personality and a really good mind for nursing. You should think about nursing.
“Of course, I laughed at her and said, ‘Yeah, right!’ Then a few months later, I was in nursing school.”
Neiser enrolled at Northwest Arkansas Community College in the spring of 2008 to begin his journey. Working various sales jobs while in school, his hard work paid off with a scholarship and an internship. He graduated in August of 2009.
Neiser went eight years without pitching at the professional level, but had the itch to get back into the game.
He credits his wife for finding the opportunity of the CWL for him.
“My wife found the CWL and she found that Chris Carminucci was associated with it, and that was somebody that I knew.”
Now the Independent League scouting coordinator for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Carminucci managed Neiser in 2005 with the Can-Am Greys, and is currently an instructor at the CWL.
“This is something that they didn’t have nearly as much of when I was playing professionally. I didn’t even know that the winter leagues were an option for me, so that was news to me. I thought it was going to be a matter of making phone calls, getting myself some workouts with some teams, and seeing what I could do from that side of things.
“The winter league is really great for guys like me because I’m not an obvious high-ceiling guy. I don’t throw 95 [mph] and I’m not 6’10”. This is a chance for me to show that, even though my stuff doesn’t necessarily look exciting, it works. I can come here and prove it over-and-over again.”
At just 5-foot-9-inches and 165 pounds, the lefty knows he may have to do a little extra to get the attention of the scouts in Palm Springs.
“For guys like me that maybe don’t have the electric stuff, we have to prove it before we get a chance, and this is that opportunity. That’s why it’s such a great organization and a great opportunity out here in the CWL.”
Though Neiser continued to play in men’s leagues and semi-professional baseball while with his family, he took nothing for granted and kept himself in condition to play if an opportunity like the CWL came his way.
“Physically, it’s basically just doing what you need to do,” Neiser said. “The nice thing for me, it wasn’t a big adjustment, because I’m such a competitive person. I kept myself in good shape.
“Maybe I pumped it up just a little bit more in the offseason, knowing that I’m going to be coming out here.”
Being an athlete entails more than just physical skills, however. As a veteran, Neiser knew he had to keep his mind in good shape as well.
“Mentally, it’s really about trusting the process, and it’s about not confusing results with good process.
“In men’s league, a lot of times you get away with bad pitches, and you have to know that. You have to know that this isn’t going to work when I face good hitters, or professional hitters. You have to make sure that you’re not content with being mediocre even if you have good results.
“As far as you know, when you’re doing your work on the side, or when you’re doing your work in the [bullpen], you make sure that you’re visualizing a good hitter up there and not being able to get away with mistakes, and just holding yourself accountable, and that’s really what it boils down to.”
What drives the man who had played the game of baseball his whole life who suddenly had to remove himself from the game? Is it more of wanting to prove he can still keep up with the younger athletes, or to continue to chase the dream?
“Those go hand-in-hand,” Neiser explained. “For me, I had been playing in men’s leagues, which can be competitive in it’s own right, but it’s not the same level of baseball that I was used to.
“I figured, I want to play professionally again, and what better way than to prove that I can still get guys out. Because, that’s a hard sell if you’ve been out of the game for a while. To tell people, ‘Oh, yeah. I’ve been out of the game. But, guess what. I stayed in great shape, I’ve still been throwing, I can still get guys out.’ Anybody can say that, but coming out here gives you the opportunity to prove that.
“That’s why I’m out here – to show I can do it and to get a job in the process.”
Now with three daughters – Lily, 9, Cecilia, 5, and Maggie Jo, 1 – Neiser feels he has plenty of baseball left in him, but still has a plan in place as insurance.
“I definitely feel that I have a lot of playing career left. But, once I am done pitching professionally, or even concurrently, I would like to make the move into a more permanent baseball career – managing or scouting, or both.
“I really enjoy sharing my knowledge of the game. I’ve coached at different levels, and I know that I have a lot to offer – both in teaching mechanics and the mental game. I’ll keep my RN license current, just because medicine is very interesting for me (I’d considered medical school…who knows, I might do that someday, too).”