Friday, June 26, 2009

Wil Nieves--ESPN Zone--Part One

His infectious smile always draws attention to him. And whether or not Wil Nieves was a Major League Baseball player for Our Washington Nationals--he would be the same outgoing and friendly fellow. This past Wednesday afternoon, June 23rd, before the second game of the three game set between Washington and The Boston Red Sox at Nationals Park, Nieves joined Radio Broadcaster Charlie Slowes at The ESPN Zone in downtown Washington, DC as the guest of honor for the monthly in-season lunch time Meet & Greet.

For nearly 50 minutes--Wil and Charlie entertained a rather large gathering--telling stories, sharing information and showing some fine humor. The transcript is so long--I am breaking it into two parts. Wil Nieves is quite the interesting fellow. And his Mom has been a big influence in his life.

With that--here we go with Part One of Wil Nieves at The ESPN Zone.

Charlie: “Hi everybody. We see some familiar faces today. And we see some new faces and that’s good. A lot of folks with school out, so we will see some more youngsters here. This is number two of our five lunchtime Q & A’s this season here at the ESPN Zone. And our special guest today is Nationals Catcher Wil Nieves!! (Applause) Come on up Wil. This is sometimes known as the hot seat. But it’s never too hot here. We are also going to be giving away tickets to the Friday July 3rd game against The Atlanta Braves. Well Wil, good game last night (Tuesday June 22nd) for a while there into the 8th inning, huh?”

Wil: “Yeah, it was. It was a real good game. We are playing a great team (Boston). So, hopefully we can come back tonight and beat them.”

Charlie: “What was the reaction with the players to see Nationals Park filled with the largest crowd in the history of the ballpark going back to last year?”

Wil: “I think we have some of the best fans in baseball. Even though we are not playing too good, they keep following us. And just seeing the ballpark last night like it was—it was great. Every time there are fans in the stands—even if we are tired—the adrenaline gets us going and we play with a lot of energy. But we appreciate your support and every time we see you guys in the stadium—that is our motivation to play with a lot of energy.”

Charlie: “I will say our fans tonight may need to do a little bit more to drown out the cheers of those Red Sox Fans. There are far too many of them.”

Wil: “Yeah, we got to get loud tonight. We have got to get louder than them.”

Charlie: “They travel (Red Sox Fans) and you know from your time with The Yankees it’s pretty much the same thing. They have the following that travels all over the country. The fans have the long history in all the cities. You were a part of that during your time with The Yankees against The Red Sox. And know what it likes when The Yankees travel all over the country—fans camped out at the hotels. It’s a crazy scene.”

Wil: “When I was with The Yankees, it was weird. Even those days when we were playing on the road, you felt like we were at home. So many fans that follow The Yankees and it always feels good when you are playing and you see a lot of fans supporting you (on the road).”

Charlie: “I was talking last night before the game with Rocco Baldelli, now with The Red Sox. He had previously played his entire career with Tampa Bay and is, of course, from Rhode Island and grew up a Red Sox Fans. I said to him: ‘What’s it like now? Everything being a member of The Red Sox is so over the top.’ He said that if he is introduced to somebody, they get to meet him, the reaction of the fan is: ‘This is the greatest moment of my life!!’ It’s crazy, that‘s what it is.”

Question: What is you favorite thing to do when you are not playing baseball?

Wil: “My favorite thing to do is—I love to eat. (laughter). I love to eat. So, I am always looking for different restaurants. And I just like to try everything. That is what I do in my free time. I go out and try to find a new restaurant where I can try their food.”

Question: Can you talk a little bit about the game plan that you do with pitchers—like how much input you have? What the pitching coach says? And how does that relate to the new pitching coach (Steve McCatty)?

Wil: “First game of every series, we sit down with all the pitchers and the catchers and the pitching coach and we talk about the guy going against us. We got stats. We have videos—a bunch of stuff that helps us make the pitching plan. We usually combine that pitching plan with what (our) pitcher has. Sometimes, you might have a guy that can’t hit a breaking ball, a curveball. But our pitcher doesn’t have one. It’s hard. When we are playing good teams, we just try to follow the plan. And if it doesn’t work, we try to change it later on. But we just try to combine what our pitcher, their stuff, with the plan (of the opposing batter). We combine those things and hopefully we call a good game off of that.

Charlie: “I know that when you are calling a game that plan is to just start the game. And then you see what types of swings and misses hitters are taking. Or, what pitch is most effective for your starter. And I know in the last couple of weeks, with the success of all of the young starters with dominate pitches—the fastball, the sinking fastball—keeping the ball down—is that the success level they have reached or a combination of what Steve McCatty, the new Pitching Coach has wanted to see—guys throwing their fastball more?”

Wil: “I think he (McCatty) has been the guy to give them a little bit more freedom in pitching. But it’s a combination. You can have a good plan, but if the pitcher cannot follow that plan, you have got to go with their strengths. Whatever is working better that day—maybe a guy can’t get his fastball outside—but that day he is—so we have to make adjustments during the game because if we do it the next day it will be too late and we end up losing that game. It’s a feeling when you see their swing. You have got to adjust with the hitters.”

Charlie: “Now, when you work with a relief pitcher. They come into a game. They don’t have the luxury the starter has to maybe work it out if they are a little off in the first inning. Or has a spot where he loses command or concentration in a situation like that. In maybe five pitches, the whole game can change if a relief pitcher doesn’t have their best stuff.”

Wil: “Relievers need to concentrate from the beginning. They have got to come into the game throwing strikes. We’ve had a lot of problems this year with the bullpen coming in and just falling behind the hitters. Then, they end up throwing a fastball, or breaking ball, up in the strike zone and we get hurt. As a reliever, you have got to concentrate from the beginning and make good pitches. Like you said, you are probably going to have one hitter and you have got to do your job.”

Question: What’s your impression of seeing all the starting pitchers being so young this year? And then with the relief pitchers—why are we having so much trouble with the experienced relievers? What the problem there?

Wil: “This pitching staff reminds me of The Tampa Bay (Rays) pitching staff two years ago. They were young. They lost a lot of games and they came back last year and had the season they did (AL Champs). We have a great group of starters. They have great stuff and I know they are going to be good. If they stay healthy, you guys are going to see a good pitching staff next year. I think that is a good thing. And the relievers—in the beginning we hit a bump. We were giving up so many runs. It was because we were falling behind and we were afraid of being hit. I don’t know. We have veteran guys that were probably trying to do too much. And they were getting hit. So, they are humans and I think that was the big key. We are doing a better job now. We are getting ahead (of the hitters) and making out pitches. And that was the key, in the beginning (of the season) we were not doing.”

Question: What is a typical game day for you—getting to the ballpark, pitchers meetings, etc.?

Wil: “Actually, I try to get to the ballpark early and work out.”

Charlie: “What is early for you?”

Wil: “1:30PM (for a night game). So I try to work out. At 4pm, we have got to be outside taking batting practice, stretching and doing our stuff. Then, after batting practice, we go to the pitchers meeting. After the pitchers meeting, we have our hitters meeting—talking about their pitching. And then we have an hour, hour and one-half just to get ready for the game. I have got to be out at least one-half hour before the game to start to get ready with the (starting pitcher). And whenever we don’t have the meetings, same thing, get there at 1:30PM—workout, play some cards. I like to get there early to the ballpark. I don’t like to rush.”

Charlie: “And extra early Batting Practice is?”

Wil: “3 O’clock.”

Charlie: 3 O’clock on the road too, right?”

Wil: “Yes, but 1:45PM or 2PM sometimes also. When we are on the road and you want to be there early, we are there about 1PM. So we spend almost the whole day at the ballpark.”

Charlie: “And then some guys are even hitting after BP in the cage?”

Wil: “Yes. But I have a wife that waits for me. So I try to hurry up after the game.”

Charlie: “I am talking about before the game after BP.”

Wil: “Yes, they do. Then, after the game too. Sometimes after the game they do stay and do flips (underhand tosses from a coach behind a screen 10 feet away). But after BP if you don’t feel good, you stay a little longer in the cages—so you can feel right for the game.”

Charlie: “If you are not starting behind the plate, is you routine a little different than what you might do between that time from the end of BP and the start of the game?”

Wil: “Yes, it gives me a little bit more time. But I have to be outside for The National Anthem (a team rule that all players, coaches and staff in the game dugout must be present for the presentation of the colors). So after BP, I go inside and rest.”

Charlie: “And that’s when you eat too, correct?”

Wil: “Yes, we eat and stretch and just get ready for the game.”

Charlie: “And the routine is a little bit different on the road because you guys hit last—you don’t have a lot of time between BP as you almost turn around in 30 minutes to play.”

Wil: “Tampa was kind of hard. In BP (there), the last group we only had a half-hour to get ready. It was tough. It was a little bit hard for us to get ready for the games. So it is a little bit more rushed.”

Question: Wil, when you hit your walk off (home run) against The Cubs, what was going through you head?

Wil: “That was a great feeling. That was a great feeling. When I hit it out, I didn’t know it was gone. (Applause) Thank you. Thank you. I have got to do it again this year. I am trying.”

Charlie: “You nearly had one to right field at the fence recently.”

Wil “Two actually. I know. But, I will get them. But it was a great feeling like I said. I didn’t know it was gone until I stepped on first base and I looked into our bullpen and they were jumping up and down and clapping. And I got all excited. It really was a great feeling. And being a walk-off (game winner) rounding third base, seeing your teammates at home plate just waiting for you. I just took my helmet off because I knew they would hit me hard if I kept it on (laughter). It was a great feeling. Thank you.”

Charlie: “I got a question for you. You just hit this walk-off home run that has won the game. Are you thinking that you just won the game or that it was your first big league home run?”

Wil: “At the moment, it was that we won. I wasn’t thinking that that was my first home run in The Big Leagues. After that, I did, it was my first one and a walk off. But, in the moment, we won. We were playing a team (The Chicago Cubs) that was hot. They had a great year last year. But in that moment, I was just thinking that we had just won the game.”

Question: What made you want to play catcher?

“When I was younger, I used to play every single position but catcher. When I was 14 years old our catchers were all hurt on our team. And they (the coaches) told me ‘you got a good arm and you are going to be tall’—but the tall part they missed it (laughter). And you should catch.’ I started to catch. In the beginning, I hated it. I was afraid of the ball. But God has his plan and I became a catcher and I love it. I am real quick behind the plate because I was a shortstop and I am not a tall guy or heavy guy. That’s the main reason—we ran out of catchers and they told me to do it and I did.”

Charlie: “Now before you signed with The Nationals, you had the chance to go back to The Yankees. I think you were vacationing in Hawaii when the phone call came. Tell us about that?”

Wil “Last year I was a free agent. The year before (2007-2008 off season) I was a free agent. I kept talking to my agent asking him what were the teams that were interested in signing me. He kept telling me The Yankees. And I told him I was not going to go back to The Yankees. They have Jorge Posada. They have Jose Molina—both with guaranteed contracts. And I told him, I was not going back. Every time I talked to him he said Yankees, Yankees, Yankees. And I said No, No, No!! So, I went to Hawaii with Carlos Pena. He is my best friend. The 1st Baseman for Tampa Bay (Rays). We went on a cruise and when I was there a call came from The Dominican Republic. That is where Manny Acta was coaching Winter Ball. They (DR) needed a catcher (in winter ball)--someone who has been around for a while.”

“And when I came back from the cruise—I went to The Dominican Republic. I hit .300 and that is where Manny Acta saw me. Manny and Jose Rijo. They saw me and brought me here. In the beginning, when I arrived with The Nationals, they only had Paul LoDuca and Jesus Flores. So, I said—you know what—I have a chance. Then, LoDuca got hurt. They signed (Johnny) Estrada. And it was tough. I said, I should have signed with The Yankees. But God has his plan. I was only in the Minor Leagues for a week and a half, two weeks. And you guys saw the year in which I had last year. So whenever you see me—I am a real positive guy. I don’t care what I see around me. I am always thinking positive. I am a big believer if you think positive, positive things are going to come to you. If you think negative things, negative things are going to come to you. I am real positive. If something else happens—it’s not because I brought it into my life. So, I am here now and thankful for the opportunity given by The Washington Nationals.”

Charlie: “You say how things can happen in a strange way. The Nationals open with three catchers again this year with Josh Bard and Jesus Flores. And during the first few weeks of the season when Jesus didn’t play—Josh Bard was getting most of the starts. I think you went two to three weeks between starts. And on the day you were on the lineup card, I happened to be standing there copying it down and you said: ‘I hope I remember how to do that!!’ (Laughter)”

Wil: “It’s always tough. It’s always tough. I had never been in that position. But that helped me appreciate what I have. I am in The Big Leagues and I appreciate every day. I don’t take it for granted. And like I said, it’s always tough. It’s always tough. But you try to do your work and hopefully they (coaches/management) see something in you and keep you around.”

Question: What was your favorite team as a kid?

Wil: “I didn’t follow baseball that much. But I remember The Mets when Gary Carter was their catcher. Keith Hernandez was the first baseman—Darryl Strawberry. I remember that team—so I have got to say The Mets with those guys. But I loved the game, but I never followed it. My Mom was the one who took me to every single game. I didn’t grow up with my Dad. She is the one who took me to every practice, every game. She didn’t know anything about baseball. She knows about boxing.”

“My Mom, (Dommys Delgado) is the first lady in the world to be President of a Boxing Commission (Puerto Rico Professional Boxing Commission). So, she is The President of The Boxing Commission in Puerto Rico. So she knows about boxing. But when I was young, I used to take a stick and swing at everything. So she took me to a therapist to see if there was something wrong with me (laughter). And he said there was nothing wrong with (me). Just put him in a sport where he can do that. And that’s when she took me to a baseball stadium.”

Charlie: “Were you around boxers a lot when you were young?”

Wil: “All my life. I know Felix Trinidad before he was the champion. Miguel Cotto—all those guys. I met Don King (famous promoter). I met Don King and Oscar De La Hoya—all those guys because of my mom.”

Charlie: “That had to be pretty exciting?”

Wil: “It was. It was exciting. I went to The Trinidad/De La Hoya fight in Las Vegas—I think in ’99. And I am real proud of my mom. She is tough. It is a man’s sport and to have a woman in a man’s sport is very impressive. And they respect her.”

Charlie: “You would have been a middleweight—right?”

Wil: “I would have been a champion because they would have put some bad boxers against me so I could be a champion!! (Joking—but cracking everybody up).”

With that answer--Part One of Wil Nieves at The ESPN Zone in Washington, DC comes to an end. Part Two coming later.

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