Kevin Nicholson is the new Director of Baseball Operations for Whalley Chiefs of the B.C. Premier Baseball League. (Photo: whalleychiefs.pointstreaksites.com)

Whalley homecoming for baseball pro Kevin Nicholson

Former San Diego Padres player remembers the ‘surreal’ summer of 2000 and the one home run he hit

Whalley Chiefs general manager Paul Hargreaves is happy that his three teams are playing baseball again, even if it has been in a “bubble.”

The B.C. Premier Baseball League club’s Senior, Junior and Bantam squads are back on local diamonds during a modified summer schedule of games.

“It’s good news that we’re going here, and hopefully things continue and we’ll be able to expand our bubble beyond a few teams,” Hargreaves said.

Some big news for the Chiefs is the addition of Kevin Nicholson to the coaching ranks.

The former Chief player returns to his old stomping grounds as Director of Baseball Operations, 23 years after being picked in the first round, 27th overall, by the San Diego Pandres in the 1997 Major League Baseball draft.

“He’s a local kid, played in our league, grew up in the area, went off to college and was a first-round pick. He’s got the pedigree, for sure,” Hargreaves said. “His son (Markus) is coming over as a 16-year-old, and (Kevin) will help tweak things, help the coaches and the boys. It’s huge for sure, it really is. I’m glad Kevin is here, and he’s already attracted kids and coaches, too.”

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Nicholson, who lives in Walnut Grove, will split his time this fall between the Chiefs and his duties with the Yale baseball academy in Abbotsford.

“I’d always talked to Paul and chatted about the possibility of coaching in Whalley,” Nicholson told the Now-Leader. “The timing was right, and with my son coming here too. I talked to Paul again and asked if there was a spot for me to kind of fit in here, and got things rolling.

“I will be involved with all three teams, because I didn’t want to take over coaching duties from anyone, it’s more about a supplementary way of helping. That’s the plan,” he added. “I’ll be focusing on overall player development and also helping the coaches.”

As a kid, Nicholson started out with Surrey Canadian Baseball Association.

“My mom was working at the TD Bank right beside the café, the Round Up, and (diner owner) Orest Springenatic told her that I should come play where the real baseball is, so I came over when I was 12 and played Whalley Little League. That’s how it started and I worked my way through. And as I got older, it was all about wanting to play for the Chiefs, so I played with them when I was 16, 17, 18. It went from there.”

As a right-throwing shortstop, Nicholson was drafted by the California Angels in the 43rd round (1,182nd overall) of the 1994 MLB draft, but did not sign. Instead, he went to Stetson University in Florida to hone his game, with the dream of playing in the bigs one day.

With the Padres, Nicholson got his chance in the spring and summer of 2000.

“I spent a few years in their minor system and then got called up at the end of June,” Nicholson recalled. “I had a good 100 at-bats that summer, at least. I wish I was up there a little bit longer, and I got hurt at the end of the year, broke my hand, but it was a great experience. Feels like it was just yesterday, actually.”

Nicholson’s only home run in the MLB was the result of his very first big-league hit.

“That was in my second game,” he explained. “We were playing in Cincinnati when I got called up, and so my family, a couple of friends and my wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, they were there to watch my debut. I went 0-for-3 the first game and three-for-four the second game, and I managed to get that first homer, my first hit. (Reds star Ken) Griffey went and got the ball for me, so that was pretty cool, and then being back at the hotel later and watching the highlights and seeing it on there – kind of surreal.”

• RELATED STORY: ‘Modified’ games, limited competitive play return as B.C.’s local sports enter Phase 3.

This month, Nicholson has been travelling to the baseball diamond for games during a COVID-shortened season, with his son Markus along for the trip with the Chiefs.

“He’s an infielder, the same kind of player as me,” Nicholson noted. “With Whalley, we’re going to fall ball and he’ll want to be with the senior team and I might be with the junior team, so that’ll be a nice change for him, to play for someone else, because I’ve always coached him. He loves it, but he knows that he doesn’t have to play baseball if he doesn’t to, no pressure from me about that.”

Baseball B.C.’s return-to-play guidelines have included sanitized balls and equipment, closed dugouts, social distancing on the diamond other than “quick gameplay,” and a maximum of 50 people at games, including players, coaches and spectators.

“It all looks a little different,” Hargreaves said. “And with fall ball, each organization is different. We’ll run our current season for the month of August and then Labour Day, the next season starts. All the graduating kids, that’s when they move up to the next division. So the games are happening but it’s a lot different for everybody.”

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Nicholson said he’s excited to be part of the Chiefs again.

“The plan here is not a one-year thing,” he said. “Let’s be honest, we have one of the best facilities around (at Whalley Athletic Park), and the history is there, we just need to get back on the map and be competitive again. It’s been a tough go for Whalley over the past couple of years, but wearing the black and orange when I played, it was a privilege, lots of pride in how we played the game. We’d love nothing more to get that back a little bit…. It’s all about development, not always wins and losses.”

On that subject, Nicholson is passionate.

“I tell my players, if they have aspirations to play in college or maybe pro one day, this is where they’re going to learn the foundational things that’ll help them get there, those survival skills to go compete later on. So right now, it doesn’t matter if I keep playing only the best players to get the wins and be able to post that on Instagram or whatever, that does nobody any good. That just stunts the kids’ development and really, I just want to give those players a chance to do what I did. I honestly don’t care about the wins and losses, I try to focus on good, solid practices and teaching them how to be good players on and off the field, character-wise, and that’s how they end up winning. They end up seeing their hard work pay off.”



tom.zillich@surreynowleader.com

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