Thursday, July 30, 2015

Dan Neville: The Man Who Got Close to His Dream But Couldn't Touch It

Ray Kinsella: "You came this close. It would kill some men to get so close to their dream and not touch it. God, they'd consider it a tragedy."

Moonlight Graham: "We just don't recognize life's most significant moments while they're happening. Back then I thought, 'Well, there'll be other days.' I didn't realize that that was the only day."
----Field of Dreams

Dan Neville was once one of the more promising pitching prospects in the Reds system and a man who lived out the dream of his childhood--almost. I had a chance to speak with him in 2009. When I called, fittingly, he was watching a baseball game on TV.

Dan Neville grew up across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, in Covington, Kentucky. He loved baseball from as early as he could remember. He loved everything about the game. He spent hours as a youth collecting baseball cards and throwing a rubber ball against a wall and fielding it, dreaming of one day playing for his beloved Cincinnati Reds. He spent many days at Crosley Field, walking across a suspension bridge to watch his idols Ted Kluzewski, Wally Post, Joe Nuxhall and Gus Bell.

Dan developed into a good baseball player--a right-handed pitcher with heat. The summer after his junior year at Covington Catholic High School, he played for Eagle Savings Bank, a top traveling amateur team that included future major league shortstop Ed Brinkman and a skinny hustler from west Cincinnati named Pete Rose.

Dan signed with the Reds in 1960 and played in the rookie league at Geneva, New York with Rose, Tony Perez and Art Shamsky. He blazed his way to a 15-4 record with a 1.94 ERA in 1961 and his future looked bright. While at Tampa the next season, however, a shoulder injury almost ended his career. When the Reds' brass wanted to cut him loose, he convinced Tampa's manager, Johnny Vander Meer (yes, that Johnny Vander Meer) that he would do anything to hang around. He agreed to essentially be the clubhouse boy for the 1962 Tampa team. For five months, Neville washed uniforms, shined shoes and picked up for teammates who were lucky enough to still be playing baseball.

Then, toward the end of the season, he started tossing a ball against the side of the dugout and noticed that his arm didn't hurt anymore. He was able to get back in uniform and did well: 13-9 with a 2.70 ERA at Macon in 1963.

Neville attended spring training with the Reds in Tampa in 1964. He still remembers the thrill of being in the same locker room as Joe Nuxhall, a player he had idolized as a youth, and how Nuxie treated everyone the same--like a king. He also recounted a story of a spring road trip in which his roommate procured female companionship for the evening and locked him out of their room. Neville was rescued from the lobby sofa by veteran Vada Pinson, who allowed him to sleep in the extra bed in his room for the night.

Neville pitched well that spring but, unusually, the Reds were loaded with pitchers that year: Joe Jay, Jim Maloney and Bob Purkey had all won 20 games in the previous one or two seasons and lefty Jim O'Toole had averaged 17 wins over the previous three years. Neville was one of the last pitchers cut and was sent to San Diego.

As the Reds fought for the 1964 pennant, Neville and several others were called up from San Diego in September. It was a talented bunch that included future Big Red Machine mainstays Tony Perez and Tommy Helms.

With the pennant race so tight, the newcomers didn't get much playing time. Neville dressed in a
Reds uniform but only got to warm up twice. He did not get in a game.

So close he could smell the coffee, but didn't get a taste. Although Neville didn't get to play, he didn't feel too bad. He was sure he would be back. He was only 23 years old. There was plenty of time.

But then, there wasn't.

In 1965, Neville was once again in AAA San Diego, once again doing well. The Reds announced that Neville would be called up after San Diego's weekend series in Indianapolis. He pitched poorly in relief that weekend and the call-up never happened. The second near-miss was crushing. "I just lost it," he said in 2014. "I was defeated. To this day I wish somebody would have dragged me aside and given me a heart to heart."

Neville began to drink heavily. When the Reds tried to call him up at the end of the season, he refused to go. He was traded to the White Sox and his career quickly unraveled.

"It's nobody's fault but my own," he said.

After baseball, Neville returned to the Cincinnati area and worked for Procter and Gamble for 29 years.

So what's it like to get so close to your dream that you can taste it and then lose it? What if you thought you had lost it, got it back again and then lost it again forever? Would you be bitter? Would you hate everything about your dream?

Neville said that he has remained a baseball fan and still watches the Reds whenever he can. He still loves the game.

"I don't have any regrets," he said of his time on the Reds bench at the end of the 1964 season, even though he didn't get to play. "It was the best two weeks of my life."

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