Nied’s Chain by Tom Ley

Tom Ley writes at Word’s Finest. He contributed to 1990s First Basemen Week with The Big Cat and the Water, about Andres Galarraga. You can email him at leyt345(at)gmail(dot)com.

I once sat in a hot tub with David Nied on a crisp Arizona night.. I was just a kid at the time, and so my recollection of the evening in question animates itself in my head as more of a half-remembered dream, clouded by the passage of time and the thick haze of over-chlorinated steam.

There are a few things, however, that stick out from that night. The first being that Nied was wearing a hideous gold chain, not unlike the one that is featured so prominently in this un-grok, cringe-inducing photograph. The second thing I remember is that there was a palpable sadness hanging over David Nied while he sat alone in that hot tub. His face was wet and his hair was slicked back, as if he had just finished splashing water onto his face and head the way that the gritty police detectives from the movies do when they are trying to wash away the filth of a day spent picking through the gristle of a crime scene. He was doing that thing where you drape your arms over the edge of the hot tub and slouch the rest of your body into the hot water, a pose that lent itself perfectly to the wistful sadness that was on his face.

I was in the hot tub with my brother and another friend, and despite our youth we were smart enough to figure out that David Nied did not want to be bothered on this night, and so we all boiled slowly in awkward silence together. I remember that I spent most of my time in the hot tub staring at Nied’s gold chain, all glistening and tangled in his thick patch of chest hair. I stared at the chain to prevent myself from meeting Nied’s own gaze, which was fixed on something that was just as harrowing as it was invisible. He was staring the end of his career dead in the eye.

For those of you who don’t know (most of you, I imagine) who David Nied is, allow me to pause and give you a little bit of background info.

David Nied was the first overall pick of the 1992 MLB expansion draft. He was selected by the Colorado Rockies, who had won the first overall pick thanks to a fortuitous coin flip. At the time, it had appeared that the Rockies had just won the lottery.

It’s important to understand that selecting David Nied had a lot more impact on the Rockies organization than any first overall pick from the amateur draft would have. The fanfare and pomp surrounding a top amateur draft pick is usually tempered by the knowledge that it will be a few years before that player is seen in the majors. Even players like Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, who are otherworldly talents, have to spend time toiling away in the minors. So it’s understandable when fans have a hard time getting overly excited about a player who they know won’t be making a serious impact at the major league level for a few years.

Nied was different, though. He gave Rockies fans plenty to be excited about because he wasn’t some prep star who needed a few years of seasoning. He was a major league ready prospect who had been lighting it up on the Braves AAA affiliate and briefly as a major leaguer at the end of the 1992 season. The Braves had decided not to protect David Nied from the expansion draft, giving the Rockies the opportunity to steal him.

The Braves decision not to protect Nied seemed foolish at the time because of numbers like these:

Those are the statistics for the Braves AAA pitching staff from the 1992 season. The first three names on that list would go on to help from one of the most formidable pitching staffs in history. The fourth name would eventually enjoy a few dominant seasons as the ace of the San Francisco Giants’ pitching staff. At the time, David Nied was these men’s equal.

“I thought I was going to be protected. Frankly, I’m shocked I wasn’t protected,” Neid told the AP following the expansion draft.

In less than five years, Nied would be retired from baseball.

David Nied started the first game in Rockies history. He lasted five innings, gave up two runs, and walked six batters. I imagine he was pretty nervous. Two starts later, Nied went up against Dwight Gooden and the New York Mets. He ended up throwing the Rockies first ever complete game shutout. He didn’t walk anybody in this game, and 83 of his 114 pitches were thrown for strikes, and at one point in the game he retired 20 of 21 straight batters.

Nied was impressive enough to compel Tom Friend, who was covering the game for the New York Times, to write the following sentence:

“David Nied, sort of the Shaquille O’Neal of major league baseball, silenced the New York Mets here.”

As far as I can tell, Friend is comparing Nied to Shaquille O’Neal without irony. In order to give the analogy some context, let me remind you that at the time this article was written, O’Neal was in the midst of his rookie season with Orlando Magic. This was a season in which he averaged 23 points and 14 rebounds a game while doing things like this. O’Neal was an absolute force of nature who was not to be fucked with, and Friend’s willingness to compare him with David Nied says a great deal about the potential that lived inside of Nied.

Unfortunately for Nied, outdueling Dwight Gooden in his third start as a Rockie would prove to be the high point of his career. Sidelined by a series of injuries and a labor strike, Nied never became what so many thought he could have been. Nied retired quietly in March of 1997, after being traded to the Reds and optioned to the team’s AA affiliate. He had joined the Rockies as a potential force of nature, waiting to be unleashed. He left them like a gentle, almost imperceptible breeze.

The true sadness of David Nied’s story is that it doesn’t even qualify as a tragedy. You won’t ever hear Rockies fans grumble about David Nied and what could have been. Nobody will talk about the lost empire that Nied could have helped build with Todd Helton. Whenever a Rockies prospect struggles, you won’t read any “I hope this guy isn’t the next David Nied” columns in the local sports section. David Nied is a ghost. He may as well have evaporated right before my eyes along with the steam from the hot tub on that night in Arizona.

The un-tragedy of Nied’s career illuminates one of the crueler aspects of baseball. Unlike other sports, the game never slows down long enough for us to properly mourn those who left it before their time.

I have only recently become a serious fan of the NBA, and yet I can tell you all about the tragic falls of Sam Bowie, Kwame Brown, Penny Hardaway, Derrick Coleman and Len Bias. NBA fan bases are often defined by the ethereal monuments that they build in honor of those who should have been but never were. There is no doubt that Portland fans will still be talking about Greg Oden ten years from now. Christ, the greatest basketball blog of all time is named after one of these aborted superstars.

Some may call this tendency counterproductive and perhaps even a bit masochistic, but I find it to be rather beautiful. Each misty-eyed recollection of lost potential reminds us that the game is ultimately about the players, because they are what compels us to watch. We form personal connections with them as we become invested in their successes and failures, and when they flame out too soon it feels like an occasion for mourning. It’s this mourning that reminds us that our connection with them and others ever existed in the first place.

Baseball, however, has no time for eulogies and funeral pyres. A game that is so often defined by failure leaves no room to contemplate its impact. When someone like Nied fails so completely we have a hard time finding much to say about it because, well, failure is essentially what the game is designed to produce. Every day players are chewed up and spit out by the incredible degree of difficulty that the parameters of the game present, and then they are expected to wake up in the morning and do it all over again. Baseball is hard, and it’s supposed to do what it did to David Nied. His failure was nothing special.

I asked my brother if he remembered anything from that night in the hot tub with David Nied. His recollection was much different but just as hazy as mine. All we really agreed on was the fact that Nied was wearing that hideous gold chain.

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