Phil Anastasia: New life for Neal with Phils
Millions of long-suffering fans watched in wonder as the Phillies finally won the World Series. Only one of them celebrated by signing with the team.
Millions of long-suffering fans watched in wonder as the Phillies finally won the World Series.
Only one of them celebrated by signing with the team.
That would be Blaine Neal, the former Bishop Eustace Prep star who recently agreed to contract terms with his old (and new) favorite team.
A South Jersey native who came of age as a sports fan during Philadelphia's long wait for a major championship, Neal said he was "like a 5-year-old again" when the Phillies won their first title since 1980 by beating the Tampa Bay Rays.
Less than two months later, the 12-year veteran of professional baseball - including six stints in the majors and enough minor-league stops to fill a road atlas - was joining the Phillies as a non-roster relief pitcher who will report to spring training in February with hopes of winning a spot with the club's triple-A team in the Lehigh Valley.
"It's a good situation for me in a lot of ways," Neal said.
Neal, a hard-throwing righthander who won a World Series ring as a member of the Florida Marlins in 2003, said he was a "huge" Phillies' fan as a kid. He followed the Eagles, Flyers and 76ers, too.
"I waited 25 years just like everybody else," Neal said of the wait for a Philadelphia team to win a championship in a major sport. "I was like 4 or 5 when the Sixers won it [in 1983] and I don't really remember that.
"I was like every other fan when the Phillies finally won it. I couldn't believe it."
That young-at-heart attitude is typical of Neal, who has endured three surgeries on his right elbow and several discouraging developments to keep alive his baseball career.
Neal might not have a 96 m.p.h. fastball anymore. But the athlete who will be 31 in April still has some moxie on the mound - and a love for the sport that hasn't faded from years of bus rides, rejection slips, and cutthroat competition.
"This is who I am," the 6-foot-5, 205-pound Neal said. "I'll be a baseball player until they take the uniform off my back. Until the day comes when I can't play anymore, I'm going to out there and compete."
Neal is nothing if not persistent. Just since 2005, Neal has been released or not-resigned by the Boston Red Sox, Colorado Rockies, St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates, Toronto Blue Jays and Detroit Tigers organizations. As recently as February, Neal was considering the Camden Riversharks, an independent team not affiliated with major-league baseball.
But in March, Neal attended an open tryout for the Detroit Tigers in Lakeland, Fla. He was signed - the only athlete out of the 150 in attendance - and ended up going 1-0 with 26 saves and a 1.21 ERA for the Tigers' triple-A team, the Toledo Mud Hens.
His big season in Toledo led to perhaps the highlight of his career - well, other than those parts of five major-league seasons with four major-league teams - and that was a berth on the United States Olympic team.
Neal spent three-plus weeks this past summer in China playing for Team USA. He pitched 32/3 innings of relief and took home a bronze medal and a trunkload of memories.
"It really was a once-in-a-lifetime experience," Neal said. "Being there for three weeks, I really got a chance to experience the culture."
Neal has been in professional baseball since graduating from Bishop Eustace in 1996. He was selected by the Florida Marlins in the fourth round of the 1996 draft and spent the better part of eight years with the organization. He pitched in the majors for the Marlins in 2001, 2002 and 2003. He was injured and missed the playoffs when the Marlins won the World Series in 2003, but traveled with the team and attended all the games.
"Bittersweet," Neal said of 2003, since he had projected in midseason to be a key relief pitcher for that championship team.
Neal also pitched briefly in the majors for the San Diego Padres in 2004, and for the Boston Red Sox and Colorado Rockies in 2005. He's been kicking around the minors for the last three seasons, and in all has pitched for 11 different minor-league teams.
He hopes the Phillies' triple-A affiliate will be his 12th. Neal is realistic about his chances of making the Phillies' major-league team out of spring training but hopes to win a spot at Lehigh Valley.
That would be ideal in two ways. For one, it would be a double homecoming as Neal's wife, Keri, is from Allentown, and the couple would love to settle back in this area with their two children.
For another, it's the Phillies. Growing up, Neal was just like many South Jersey youth baseball stars: He fervently followed the big team across the river.
That fan, that kid, was back watching that World Series in October.
And being a big kid is a good thing in baseball. Blaine Neal still has that youthful optimism as he prepares for his 13th professional season.
"I've stopped trying to handicap what would be the best situation because it never works out the way you think it will," Neal said. "I'm realistic but I still love to play and I love to compete and I'm going to go down there and do the best I can. You never know what can happen."