Thursday, May 31, 2018

Ex-Cub Pitcher Rich Nye and the Coolest Post-baseball Career Ever

It's always interesting to hear about the post-baseball careers of former major league players. Once upon a time, pro baseball players weren't millionaires, they were regular guys who just happened to be bigger, stronger, faster and have much better hand-eye coordination than the rest of us. Alot of them played for $10,000 to $20,000 a year and when they finished playing, most of them needed to look for real honest employment. Some were more prepared than others. I recently had the chance to talk to one of those guys: Cubs pitcher Rich Nye.

Rich Nye was always an inquisitive sort. A 6-5 left-handed pitcher, he graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in civil engineering. While studying engineering, he also pitched for the school's baseball team--well enough to get himself drafted by the Chicago Cubs in 1966 in the 14th round, the 265th player taken.

Rich was sent to Rookie ball, then quickly promoted to Class A. He impressed enough in those two stops that he was called up for a cup of coffee at the end of his first year and compiled a 2.12 ERA over 3 games, warranting a closer look in the spring of 1967.

Nye made the team coming out of spring training and was installed into the starting rotation. He had a live arm, a devastating change up and one of the best pickoff moves around. He went on to a 13-10 record with a 3.20 ERA in 30 starts for the Cubs that year, earning the Cubs' Rookie of the Year Award. He pitched his way into team lore with a 6-3 win over the Reds at Wrigley Field July 1, 1967, putting the Cubs into position to take over first place the next day--the first time the team had held first place past June in 32 years. "That was my favorite moment in the majors," Nye says. "It was just such a great atmosphere at Wrigley. The year before, we lost all the time and nobody came to the games--in some of the games in September it looked like there were more vendors at Wrigley than fans. But in 1967, everything was different. The more we won, the more fans came out. The day we took over first place the people in the stands wouldn't leave until they raised the flag on the scoreboard that showed we were in first. It was like a World Series atmosphere. I'll never forget it."
Nye was only 23 years old. His future in baseball looked bright. But it wasn't to be. He slumped in 1968 and fell off manager Leo Durocher's radar the next season. Durocher was old school and did not exactly sit around discussing his philosophy with the college-educated players. "If Leo had something to say to you, you'd read about it in the paper," is how Nye describes his relationship with the manager. "He really didn't make you feel like you were part of the team if you were on the bench."

Many have blamed the Cubs' 1969 collapse on Leo's misuse of his bullpen. Nye, along with Don Nottebart, Ted Abernathy and Hank Aguire became part of the Dead Man's Brigade, a rarely-used bunch that could have given the other pitchers much-needed rest. Nye was traded to the Cardinals in 1970, but his career was soon over courtesy of a torn rotator cuff.

As Nye plunged into the next phase of his life, he quickly realized that civil engineering held little appeal. "Taking soil samples 60 feet deep in the middle of a Chicago winter was not exactly fun."

He used his smarts to become a commodities trader at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and soon entered the Veterinarian Program at the University of Illinois, graduating in 1976. He had always held a love and fascination with animals. As a player, he had frequented zoos in each city while teammates found other pursuits on the road.
Nye's life course was further changed when he did an externship before his senior year with a well known expert in birds. "I always loved birds," he says. "It was just natural that I gravitated in that direction." He became one of those lucky guys who are able to combine his passion with full-time employment.

At the time, the specialty of avian medicine did not exist in the veterinarian world; there were no boards or extra training available. But that didn't deter Nye. With exotic birds being imported by the millions at the time, he went to pet shops and performed free exams on birds, learning while building a reputation as the go-to guy for all problems avian. Soon, word got around the midwest: your parrot feeling poorly? Cockatiel have a cough? Toucan with a tummy-ache? Dr. Nye is your guy.

Rich joined another like-minded vet and used the dough from his trading gig to bankroll a different kind of practice--one of the first exotic-only animal clinics in the country. He became a charter member of the Association of Avian Veterinarians in 1980. He later served on the board for more than a decade and also served as president of the organization. In addition, he authored several book chapters on the subject.

Although birds are his main thing, Nye treats all sorts of exotic patients. A typical day at the office for Dr. Nye might include cleaning the teeth of a chinchilla, incising and draining a turtle's abscess, fixing up an iguana and operating on a blue cockatiel. And loving it.

The hands that once hurled baseballs proved quite adept at maneuvering surgical instruments in tiny places. He became renowned for performing hysterectomies on exotic birds.

Question: bird hysterectomies?

Visions of winged creatures crowding in to his waiting room complaining of painful menstrual cramps comes to mind (had he suggested this as a life's work while in Berkeley, one of his classmates might have justifiably asked what he had been smoking).
"It's actually more of an oviductectomy," he explains casually, only partially clearing up the confusion. "Pet birds have no way to control egg laying. That becomes a problem. So the procedure takes care of that." The 45-minute operation is performed with a hot wire and forceps while Nye sits down at the operating table wearing magnifying loops and a head lamp. The bird is anesthetized as a human would be--using monitors and positive pressure ventilation.
Nye is semi-retired now, but still practices one day a week, lending his expertise and serving as a mentor to the younger doctors in the busy practice. "I've been a vet for more than 40 years and I still love it."

Nye remains proud of his baseball career, particularly the part he played in the resurgence of modern Cub Nation. And he never lost the love of the game. He continued to play senior league, over-40 and over-50 baseball for decades, mostly playing outfield to spare his ailing wing.

"Playing baseball was not for the money for most of us back then" he says of his major league days. "It was a passion." He regularly gets together with several former Cubs for charity appearances and enjoys discussing his career. Looking back, a particular major league thrill was the first time he faced his idol Willie Mays. "I grew up in the bay area and he was my hero. It was a spring training game. I had retired eight batters in a row and he came up. Standing on top of the mound, I remember thinking, 'I thought he'd be bigger.' In Phoenix Stadium there was a green wall in center field that was about 30 or 40 feet tall and 430 feet from home plate. I get two strikes on him. The count's two-and-two. I've seen other guys go up the ladder with high fastballs and get him out, so I throw my best fastball and he hits it off the top of the fence. But at least I held him to a triple. It was so great just being on the field with him, though, watching him do his thing. He rounded first and second, then, without slowing, turned and backpedaled into third, never taking his eye off the ball. You knew if they'd bobbled the relay, he would have spun and went home."

"1967 was exciting. The whole atmosphere changed. We bred a whole bunch of Cub fans in those years."

Rich Nye: a lucky guy who got to earn a living while living out his passion--twice.