The stinging sound of balls hitting mitts reverberates in Evans Diamond.
Often the most robust pops come from the arm of the man wearing No. 11 on his back. But sometimes, Mike Neu’s power-packed throws are not accompanied by the smack of the glove.
The 33-year-old Neu fires the ball over 250 feet toward his throwing partner, who can only watch as the raging ball sails over his head.
“I can still throw,” says Cal’s first-year pitching coach. “I don’t know how long that’s going to last — gotta take advantage of it while I can.”
For the Bears’ pitching staff, it has become a point of pride to outdo the former Major Leaguer, who is just seven years removed from his playing days. And Neu’s up for the challenge of keeping pace with his collegiate pitchers nearing their prime.
“He plays catch a lot, and you can just see he still has it,” says Cal’s lefty starter Justin Jones. “He just has a natural arm motion.”
Neu isn’t solely using his title as a former professional baseball player to one-up his pitchers and win their respect. He wants to use that experience to help develop his squad — more immediately for a playoff run, but ultimately for a career playing the game they all love.
The Napa, Calif., native saw a six-year professional career span every level of baseball. After transferring from Sacramento City College to Miami, Neu reached the pinnacle of the college game, winning the 1999 College World Series. The 5-foot-10 Hurricane closer was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds that same year and broke into the big leagues with the Oakland A’s in 2003.
That season marked his longest tour in Major League Baseball, earning a 3.64 ERA over 42 innings of work. After stints in the Marlins and Dodgers’ organizations, Neu’s career was cut short by a rotator cuff and labrum injury in 2005.
Neu was hardly a household name during his abbreviated MLB service and didn’t make much of a splash in the top ranks. Neu’s journey mirrored those of many players in the system, a constant grind in pursuit of a dream that doesn’t end in stardom or a hefty contract.
“I think bigger than anything, I had a lot of success but I also had a lot of failures and was able to learn from that,” Neu says. “If I can help (my pitchers) skip a couple of steps on the failure part of it from my experience, then that’s good.”
Coming to Berkeley, Neu had the unenviable task of filling the shoes of the well-respected Dan Hubbs, who left Cal after 12 years to serve as the associate head coach and pitching coach at his alma mater, USC.
But Cal pitchers note that Neu brought something, well, new to the table: his experience in the majors — and winning the College World Series.
“You can tell he really has a lot of pride about that,” Jones says. “He won’t talk about it himself, you kinda have to open him up to it, and just hearing him talk about it is inspiring.”
Sometimes, Evans Diamond is silent — no balls, no bats, no gloves. Just the pitchers lying on their backs with their eyes closed in the cool grass.
Neu asks them to imagine themselves on the mound in the College World Series with everything on the line. He walks them through various sequences, telling them to be calm, to not care too much. If they care too much, their grip on the ball will tighten. If they grip the ball too hard, they’ll lose control.
“Being able to visualize yourself having success in those games, that’s one of the things I want our guys to do: expect to be there and expect to have success when we’re there,” Neu says.
When Neu closes his eyes, he remembers standing tall on the mound with a one-run lead in the final inning of the College World Series.
He fires it just where he wants it, dazing the Florida State batter for the season’s final strike. Suddenly, the man whom all eyes were on just moments before is nowhere to be found.
Neu is on the ground, mobbed by his ecstatic teammates.
Come this June in Omaha, Neu hopes to be one of the guys scaling the dugout railing to join the melee on the field.
He might be a grown man, but he’ll probably be found somewhere in the dog pile.