Marlins Star Shines for Island

SJND alum worked hard to get into the Major Leagues

Part 1 of 2 Parts

"Joseph George Nelson (born October 25, 1974, in Alameda, California) is a relief pitcher in Major League Baseball for the Florida Marlins." That's the official line on the ballplayer many remember and admire in the Island City. The story of this tenacious man runs so much deeper than the stark 21-word description could ever portray, however. It involves obstacles tempered with determination and angst tempered with love and support.

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Courtesy Larry and Paula Rodriguez Joe Nelson takes a moment with mother, Paula, and stepdad, Larry Rodriguez, at Junction City, Colo. Nelson was playing ball for the Seminole State Trojans when this photo was taken.

Joe Nelson transferred to St. Joseph Notre Dame from Chico High School (Chico); he graduated from SJND in 1993. At St. Joe's, he started as shortstop on the California State Division I Baseball Championship team. He also played basketball at St. Joe's on the 1992 California State Championship team with NBA star Jason Kidd.

Kidd is the all-time prep leader in assists (a pass to a player that sets up a shot to basket) with 1,155. "He broke the record with a pass to Joe," Nelson's mother, Paula, remembers. "Joe made the basket; so Jason got the record and his record-breaking assist led to a score."

"I watch, or listen to, every pitch he makes," she said, sitting next to Wrigley, the 16-year-old dog, in the family's Leonardville home. But she does more than that. "I have a written record of all those pitches," she added.

Nelson's stepfather, Larry Rodriguez, is a local baseball legend himself. You can see his name engraved on the rock in Krusi Park. A plaque there celebrates him and his fellow Babe Ruth teammates — Ted Langowski, Sam Flores, J.C. Rider and Steve Wong among them — who played ball with the 14- to 15-year-old All-Stars and made it all the way to the 1985 Babe Ruth World Series in Jamestown, New York.

Larry and Co. came back to Alameda as world champions.

Remarkably, that same core group of kids made it back to the World Series in 1988 as 16- to 18-year-olds and nearly repeated; they returned as the World Series runners-up.

As he spoke about his stepson, Rodriguez enthusiastically demonstrated Nelson's "Vulcan Pitch." He explained that when a pitcher throws a split-finger fastball, he traditionally holds the ball between his index and middle finger. When Leonard Nimoy played the Vulcan Mr. Spock in StarTrek, he admonished others to, "Live long and prosper." When doing so he held up his right hand with the middle and ring finger separated.

"When Joe throws his split-finger, he holds the ball between the middle and ring finger, just where Mr. Spock separates his hand when he salutes, so he started calling it the "Vulcan Pitch," Rodriguez explained.

"He trained his hands for the pitch using first a tennis ball, then a softball," Paula Rodriguez remembered.

And just what does Nelson's Vulcan Pitch do? It does what any pitcher hopes his pitches will do: it deceives the batter. Just before the ball reaches the plate, it drops, causes the batter to "chase" the ball and, Nelson hopes, swing and miss.

After high school, the Toronto Blue Jays selected Nelson in both the 1993 and 1994 amateur drafts. He attended Seminole State College in Seminole, Ok., on full scholarship from 1994 to 1995. "They ate, slept and breathed nothing but baseball," Nelson's mother said.

Nelson was in good company at Seminole State. He's among 160 of the school's baseball players who have gone on to sign professional contracts in the last 28 years.

But Nelson did not pitch when he took the field for the Seminole State Trojans. He played third base. While at Seminole State, Nelson played under the tutelage of Larry Simmons. In his 27 seasons with the Seminole State baseball program, Simmons amassed an impressive record of 1,643 wins against just 312 losses, a national record for any college coach.

After attending Seminole State for two years, Nelson transferred to the University of San Francisco, and it was there that he started his pitching career. He went undefeated at USF, recording five saves. He also played shortstop. And he began attracting some pretty important attention.

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Courtesy Major League Baseball Today Joe Nelson is a "closer" for the Florida Marlins. He has an earned run average that other professional pitchers envy.

"The Cubs, the Blue Jays, every Major League baseball team came to our house," Rodriguez said with a proud smile.

Then it happened. Paula Rodriguez remembers the phone call it as though it had come just moments earlier. "We were watching the movie Convoy with Kris Kristofferson," she recalled. "The phone rang."

Nelson was too nervous to answer the phone, so Paula picked up the receiver. The Atlanta Braves were calling. Nelson had made the Big Time: the Braves drafted him as a fourth-round pick.

No one could have seen the clouds on the horizon, however. In his first outing with Atlanta's farm team, the Richmond Braves, Nelson felt a twinge in his arm. He wasn't the only one to notice. "Something's wrong," one of the scouts reported.

And indeed there was something wrong, but Nelson's tenacity and his family's support saw him through the pain. He survived setbacks and surgeries and emerged as a top-notch pitcher. Today he boasts an earned run average that other Major Leaguer pitchers only dream of.

Part 2 will run next week. Contact Dennis Evanosky at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

 

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