Nieuwenhuis gets chance with Mets
Drafted out of Azusa Pacific, outfielder finds success in NY
Coming out of Denver Christian High in 2005, Kirk Nieuwenhuis, the Crusaders' right-hander and first baseman, was recruited by Dallas Baptist, Bradley and a few other mid-level Division I universities who saw him as a pitcher.
"I wanted to go to a college that would let me bat," he said.
Nieuwenhuis and the Mets are fortunate he found one. The full-ride scholarship offer came from Azusa Pacific, an evangelical Christian private school in suburban Los Angeles.
When center fielder Andres Torres left the Mets' season opener this year with a strained left calf, the consensus seemed to be that Nieuwenhuis, called up from Triple-A Buffalo, would be a temporary fill-in.
But when Torres returned at the end of April, Nieuwenhuis remained on the roster, platooning with him as part of manager Terry Collins' plan to keep the Mets' four principal outfielders fresh.
Azusa Pacific is in the NAIA, an association of smaller colleges and universities. Nieuwenhuis called it "a good fit, a Christian school with a pretty good baseball program in a competitive conference. And they were willing to let me play every day.
"I got the chance to start my freshman year, play first base and pitch in relief a little bit. My other offers were for pitching so I wasn't surprised to pitch, but I was glad to get the opportunity to hit, too."
And after his freshman year, when Cougars' star center fielder Coba Canales graduated, coach Paul Svagdis replaced him with Nieuwenhuis, who had never played the position, and cut back his pitching duties.
Or, as Svagdis told the Star-Ledger: "After you evaluate that season, we were like, 'Dude, what are we doing keeping him at first? He needs to be a center fielder.'"
If Nieuwenhuis had any dreams of a Major League career when he first arrived at Azusa Pacific, he was realistic about his chances.
"Coming from a small Christian college, there's a tendency to be overlooked," he said. "I just tried to have fun with it. If it was meant to be, it was meant to be."
It was. The Mets selected Nieuwenhuis in the third round of the 2008 MLB First-Year Player Draft.
"I was thinking more like the eighth or ninth," he said. "It was really a nice surprise. I just took it and ran."
He rose quickly through the Mets' system, playing the outfield exclusively -- except for one game at first base with Class-A St. Lucie in 2009 -- before having his own injury problems, missing much of the 2011 season at Triple-A following shoulder surgery.
Nieuwenhuis started 2012 at Triple-A, but joined the Mets after one game when Torres went on the disabled list. In his third Major League game, he hit a two-run homer in a 4-3 win over the Nationals. He homered twice on June 14 against the Rays and is among the Mets' leaders in batting and on-base percentage.
If he hadn't followed his dream of a baseball career he might have given football a chance. He also was a star running back at Denver Christian. Perhaps that's why Collins said he has "a football mentality. He's tough, durable. He has no fear. He's not intimidated by anything. Y'know, football players don't care who's on the other side of the line. They man up to them. Kirk's the same way. He doesn't care who's on the mound. He's going to grind out an at-bat."
Neiuwenhuis is 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds now, just the right size for a college running back, but he weighed considerably less coming out of high school.
"I would have had to redshirt, probably would have had to change positions," he said. "I was too thin to cut it as a running back. I'd probably have been a wide receiver.
"After high school, I felt like God was leading me toward Azusa and to play baseball. In my heart I felt it's was the right decision. I still love watching football and miss it a little bit. Hopefully, I'll have a longer career in baseball than I might have had in football."
Bruce Lowitt is a freelance writer based in Tampa, Fla.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.