Spring brings memories for former major leaguer

Williston resident recalls stint with Dodgers

By Tom Gresham
Observer staff

Jim Neidlinger always begins to feel a tingling this time of year. The hair on the back of his neck stands on end, and he starts to get antsy. He senses a call to get to back to work.

Neidlinger’s symptoms can be traced to a particular strain of spring fever familiar to current and former professional baseball players. In a sweatshirt and hat, the 6-foot-4 Neidlinger still appears fit and capable of throwing a 90 mph fastball.

However, Neidlinger has not worn a professional uniform in about a decade. His relationship with the game today is as a coach and teacher for young players.

Neidlinger, a Williston resident, spent 11 years in pro baseball, including two heady months on the roster of the Los Angeles Dodgers. He now helps coach the baseball team at Williston Central School and will coach an American Legion team this summer. He also serves as the director of baseball at Sports & Fitness Edge, providing individual lessons to burgeoning talents.

His students know Neidlinger played major league baseball. However, few probably know the unusual arc of his career. The brevity of his stay on a big league roster is not atypical, but the fact that he thrived at the major league level without receiving a further opportunity makes him an unusual case.

Neidlinger was called up to the Dodgers on Aug. 1, 1990. He was a 25-year-old unknown rookie with six years in the minors already under his belt. The Dodgers hoped Neidlinger could help patch a hole in a starting pitching rotation depleted by injuries.

He produced beyond their expectations, compiling a 5-3 record and a stellar 3.28 ERA in 12 starts. The Dodgers, who had been lagging in the National League West standings, suddenly caught fire, playing torrid baseball in the season’s final two months and offering a stiff challenge to the first-place Cincinnati Reds.

Although the Reds ultimately captured the division, Neidlinger had made his mark and realized his childhood dream. He had pitched in front of 55,000 faithful at Dodger Stadium in the midst of a pennant race and had excelled, receiving a standing ovation as he walked off the mound after one particularly stirring outing. Suddenly thrust onto the big stage, he had performed admirably.

“It really was a great ride,” Neidlinger said. “Because I was a rookie, I started with the idea of just trying to keep my job and not embarrass myself. Then, I started to pitch some of the best ball of my life and I started to feel like I was a part of the team. I was giving them a chance to win. It was an unbelievable feeling.”

However, that would signal the abrupt end of Neidlinger’s major league career. The Dodgers signed a pair of pricey free agents in the off-season, Bob Ojeda and Kevin Gross, and Neidlinger struggled in spring training and was shipped to Triple-A Albuquerque.

Neidlinger spent his subsequent summers in the minor league systems of the Dodgers, Colorado Rockies, Minnesota Twins and St. Louis Cardinals, fighting for a place in a major league clubhouse, but never making the leap again.

“I got the chance to pitch my way into the big leagues, but I never got the chance to pitch my way out,” Neidlinger said. “I never got the opportunity to fail. It was very frustrating to deal with for a while.”

However, any lingering bitterness seems to have fallen away over the years. Ask Neidlinger about his career and he extols the thrills of professional baseball, and, particularly, of taking the mound for a team in a pennant race.

“It would have been great to have made millions of dollars, but I had a great time and I’m proud of what I accomplished,” Neidlinger said. “I’m content with my career.”

Today, Neidlinger has vivid memories of the players he played alongside at the pinnacle of the sport. Early in his career, at Single-A Prince William ( Va.), Neidlinger was teammates with a young Barry Bonds, who was in his first season of professional baseball. During his time in L.A., Neidlinger played with such luminaries as Eddie Murray, Orel Hershiser, Fernando Valenzuela, Willie Randolph, Mike Scioscia and John Wetteland. The manager was the legendary Tommy Lasorda.

There was also Kirk Gibson, the MVP and two-time World Series champion. Neidlinger became friendly with Gibson during his tenure with the Dodgers, partly because both shared a love of hunting and fishing.

Neidlinger remembers Gibson sprinting from home to first over and over again on an empty practice field one year at spring training in Florida. The team workout was over, and no one else was around, but there was Gibson practicing the most basic aspect of the game.

“The teaching I do with the kids is not just all about hitting and throwing and catching and running,” Neidlinger said. “I want them to understand and respect the game. I want them not only to enjoy it, but to play it right. That’s the important thing.”

Neidlinger has lived in Vermont since he married his wife, Ann, in 1986. The couple met in Burlington when Neidlinger’s minor league team visited for a series at Centennial Field. They have two daughters, Ally, 14, and Erica, 12.

Neidlinger said Ann held the family together during his professional baseball career, serving as a de facto single parent while the season was in progress. The salaries in minor league baseball were tiny compared to major league paychecks, and the challenges of managing a household often fell on Ann.

“She was just a rock,” Neidlinger said. “The wife of a minor league baseball player is a tough job.”

Neidlinger said when he retired from baseball he turned down offers to coach in the minor leagues. At the time, he wanted to step away from the professional side of the sport and be at home more. Now, with his daughters edging closer to college, he’s ready to return.

He applied for a position with the Washington Nationals this winter and plans to continue to send off resumes and aim for the major leagues again.

“I think I’ve got something to offer,” Neidlinger said. “I’m ready to go back now.”