The seventh manager in Dayton Dragons history is the first born outside the United States.
Jose Nieves, who made his first visit to Dayton on Friday for a press conference, was born in Guacara, Venezuela, a city a couple hours southwest of the capital of Caracas. His route to the big leagues, where he played for five seasons with the Cubs and Angels, was long and difficult, especially for a 17-year-old who had never been away from home.
Q: How did your journey begin?
A: “It wasn’t easy. I had a tryout with the Brewers (in 1992) in a city about seven hours away in Venezuela. I had to get permission to leave school. My mom wasn’t there. The director gave me permission. I had a weekend tryout with almost 60 players on a Saturday, and I got the privilege to be in the next tryout on Sunday with 10 players. They cut 50.
“They signed me, but I didn’t know. A friend of mine who took me called me the next day and said, ‘They’ll send you a contract, and you’ll sign.’ We didn’t know anything. My dad didn’t know anything. We said, ‘How much are you going to give us?’ They said, ‘We’re going to sign you for $4,000, and you’ll get $1,500 up front.’ I wanted to play ball, so I did that. I traveled to the Dominican Republic to play summer ball that year.”
Q: Was it scary leaving home?
A: “It was the first time I had traveled away from my country, the first time I had taken an airplane, and I got sick for two weeks. I didn’t play good. I played three seasons in the Dominican Republic. In 1994, my dad came to me and said, ‘Do you want to continue to play baseball, or are we going to support you and help you out so you can go to college?’
“I did my best to try to come back. I didn’t want to go to school. I wanted to take a shot. Maybe I tried out 15 times for different organizations. Then I signed with the Cubs, and I went back to the Dominican Republic. I did pretty good. They brought me to the states. I said, ‘From now on, nobody’s going to take my job.’ ”
Q: Tell us about your big league debut with the Cubs in 1998?
A: “It was a game against the Cardinals at Busch Stadium. I remember (Cubs manager) Jim Riggleman told the bench coach, ‘Jose’s going to bat.’ I couldn’t find my batting gloves and helmet, and Scott Servais, the catcher, who has a huge head, I grabbed his helmet and batting glove, and I used his stuff because they looked like mine. The first pitch, I hit a groundball to short, so that relieved the pressure a little bit. But when I was in the field, my legs were shaking. It was a sell-out. It was almost 60,000 people. That was the year that Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa had the big home run chase.”
Q: When did you know you wanted to get into coaching?
A: “That was after my last surgery, and I say last surgery because I had around seven surgeries on different body parts. My right shoulder had been bothering me since 2002. The Angels knew I had a labrum tear, but they said it was minor and I just had to work with weights in order to get better. I never had surgery.
“Later on in 2006, I had surgery after my second year playing in Mexico, and I never came back the same. It made me realize maybe it’s time to retire. I started to see the game from the bench when I was sitting, not so much as a player because as a player you have to worry about yourself, but as a coach, thinking, ‘What would you do this situation?’ ”