by Phil Dorian
Most Major League Baseball teams require their players to wear neckties when they’re traveling to and from the ballparks, both home and away. So when Colorado Rockies manager Jim Tracy told Chris Nelson to “keep a tie in your luggage” while he’s playing for the AAA Sky Sox in Colorado Springs, it was more than just fashion advice.
Nelson, 25, was the Rockies No. 1 draft pick in 2004 (ninth overall) out of Redan High School, where he had been named a first-team High School All American by both Baseball America and USA Today, and was Louisville Slugger’s High School Player of the Year for Georgia.
He’s well remembered by Redan’s principal Greg Goodwin, who was the Raiders baseball coach from 1989-2000, and why not—as a senior, Nelson batted .582 and had eight homers, 36 RBIs and 25 stolen bases.
Drafted as a shortstop, Nelson has been groomed to play second base – and some third – beside Troy Tulowitzki, the Rockies’ all-star shortstop who is signed through 2020. At Colorado Springs, Nelson will likely play all three positions for the Sky Sox, and judging from his stint with the Rockies last year, he’s a short hop from the major league club.
Last season, he was called up on June 19 and again in September. He has appeared in 17 games at the major league level, batting .280. But it was one play that earned Nelson a spot in the Rockies record book. On Sept. 9 he stole his first base in the majors, a straight steal of home in the eighth inning against Cincinnati to give the Rockies a 6-5 lead.
It was the first straight steal in the Rockies’ 18-year history, though there had been 14 other steals of home. The difference is significant: the other 14 involved another player attempting or threatening to steal second base from first on the same play. Nelson’s steal occurred with no back-up steal attempt.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Nelson became the first major leaguer with a go-ahead steal of home in the eighth inning or later since a Cleveland player did it in 2003.
After 18 years in Tucson, Ariz., the Rockies moved their spring training site to Salt River Fields on Talking Stick, a Native-American reservation in Scottsdale, Ariz. The state-of-the-art facility, which the Rockies share with the Arizona Diamondbacks, is a draw in itself. Bus loads of fans come to tour the ballpark and catch a game.
Nelson said that during spring-training more than 100 fans told him that his steal was the most exciting event of the 2010 season at Coors Field (Denver home of the Rockies).
It is the lot of backup players to bide their time in AAA, but call-ups of the best of them are frequent and common. Nelson has all the tools to earn a stint on the big-league club. He can play three infield positions, and he hits with more power than any other of the Rockies’ backup options.
In the final spring training game, he broke up a no-hitter with a double leading off the ninth inning.
As for the move from shortstop to second base, while he acknowledges that there’s “a little bit more footwork at second,” he handles the position confidently. “The infield is the infield to me,” he said.
Nelson sees the distance between Colorado Springs and Denver as just another short step in a career path that began when he was very young.
“Baseball has been my whole life since I’ve been growing up,” he said. He’s pleased that the Rockies have faith in him and he’s looking forward to unpacking that major league necktie very soon.