The Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers have had a string of legendary pitchers during their existence, earning accolades, World Series victories, and Hall of Fame enshrinements. Many young hurlers have imagined themselves being part of that group upon signing with the Dodgers’ organization, but few have accomplished such lofty goals. During the summer of 1990, Jim Neidlinger arrived in Los Angeles to see if he could become the next great Dodgers pitcher and for a time it looked like he was well on his way.
Neidlinger, a right-handed starter out of California, was originally signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1984 as an amateur free agent. Despite his lack of reputation as a prospect, he quickly emerged in the minors. He produced win totals of 14 in 1986 and 11 in 1987, while posting impressive ERAs and rarely giving up home runs. In 1988 he was turned into a swingman, pitching in Double-A and Triple-A, continuing to flourish, as evidenced by his 2.93 ERA.
Following the 1988 season, Neidlinger, who wasn’t able to break through with Pittsburgh, was traded straight up to the Dodgers for left-handed veteran Bill Krueger. With a staff headlined by pitchers like Orel Hershiser and Fernando Valenzuela, Neidlinger’s prospects of making the majors initially looked even bleaker than when he was in the Pittsburgh system, but he continued to plug away, hoping to get a chance.
Neidlinger’s perseverance paid off in 1990 when Hershiser suffered an injury causing him miss all but 4 starts on the season. The Dodgers trotted out several young pitchers as his replacement, with none sticking until they decided to give Neidlinger a chance. He made his debut on August 1st and went on to make 12 starts, acquitting himself admirably, going 5-3 with a 3.28 ERA. In 74 innings, he only struck out 46, but the 4 home runs allowed showed his ability to keep the ball in the park, making him one of the most effective pitchers on the Dodgers staff.
Despite his excellent rookie season, the Dodgers were unable to find a roster spot for him in 1991. Making a push for the playoffs, the Dodgers welcomed back Hershiser and loaded their pitching staff with veteran additions like Kevin Gross, Bob Ojeda, and John Candelaria. While the team won 93 games, the strategy didn’t pay off, as they finished in second place in the NL West.
Neidlinger continued to pitch in the Dodgers system through 1992, and then put in a year each in the minors for the Minnesota Twins and the St. Louis Cardinals. He decided to retire following the 1994 season, never having made it back to the majors. For a young pitcher who threw as well as he did during his brief stint in the big leagues, it seems a shame that Neidlinger never got more opportunity. For him it was a numbers crunch, as teams often prefer to go with known veterans instead of gambling that youngsters can be consistent producers. While he may always wonder if he was capable of having done more, Neidlinger will always be able to look back to the summer of 1990 and recall the two months where he was one of the best pitchers in the major leagues. More information on his career statistics is available at http://www.baseball-reference.com/minors/player.cgi?id=neidli001jam.
Jim Neidlinger Interview:
How did you first become interested in baseball?: As a kid it was in my family, with my uncles and grandfathers and things like that. It’s kind of an easy situation when you’re born, and all of a sudden your grandpa is playing catch with you and your dad playing catch with you. That’s how it all started.
When I got to professional ball the real passion and love for it started.
Did you have a favorite team or player when you were growing up?: I always liked the Pirates because I liked their hats. Then I turned around and that was the first team that I actually signed with, so that was funny. But yeah, I thought their hats were cool. They had the old train conductor style.
What was the process of being scouted and signed like?: It is a process that you go through. As a young boy you have a dream to become one of those people. You don’t really realize until you are in those later stages of high school whether you will get a chance or not. Then, the reality never really hits you until somebody calls you and tells you they would like to sign you to a contract.
The process is just really playing as hard as you can possibly play and hopefully somebody takes notice of what you are doing, or you are good enough to get there.
What is your favorite moment from your career?: I think it was when I got called up to the Dodgers in ’90. That’s the year that the Reds had led it wire to wire. I took the mound against them in September and we were three games back. After 8.1 innings I walked off the mound and the entire crowd gave me a standing ovation. We beat them 3-0 I think.
As a player, when fans give you that kind of respect, and respect something that you’ve just done; it’s pretty special.
What was Tommy Lasorda like as a manager?: Tommy was a good motivator and a very funny man. At that point in time Tommy was getting near the end of his career. He was still managing just as hard and his mind was just as good, but physically he wasn’t able to do the same things. He was a very smart baseball man. He did a lot of things by motivation, and that is just the way he was.
If you could do anything differently about your career, what would that be?: It’s hard to say. I wish I had stayed in the big leagues a little bit longer. Things like that, that’s not something I would change. I think I did everything and played the game as hard as I could play. I don’t think I would change anything. I think I would have followed up, knowing what I know now, on a college education because I pretty much came right out after junior college.
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