05/28/2004 12:39 PM ET
Confident Nelson ready to turn pro
By Jon Cooper / Special to MLB.com
DECATUR, Ga. -- Chris Nelson knew about Tommy John surgery before he ever heard of Tommy John.
|Chris Nelson wasn't fazed by Tommy John surgery. (courtesy Redan HS)
The 18-year-old Redan High shortstop-pitcher, who could be a top-five pick in the June 7 First-Year Player Draft, received his lesson about the medical procedure last August, when he heard a pop in his right elbow after throwing a pitch.
"In the beginning it was [a little scary]," admitted Nelson, who led his summer league team, the East Cobb Yankees, to the 2003 Connie Mack World Series championship. "But after doing a little research on Tommy John and seeing how guys come back stronger, it was just a climb up the ladder after that."
The injury evidently scared away some pro scouts, who figured Nelson would no longer take the mound and deliver the high 90s heat -- his fastball has been timed at 100 mph. But the operation also encouraged colleges, which attempted to recruit the one-time blue-chipper, who was named the Most Valuable Player in last year's inaugural AFLAC All-American High School Baseball Classic at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers, Fla. He had two hits and scored two runs, including a home run, in leading his East team to a 5-3 victory.
What those of lesser faith didn't consider was Nelson's resilience and determination. Now a full-time shortstop who calls Derek Jeter his baseball idol and who reminds scouts of Gary Sheffield with the way he cocks the bat and the resulting power in his swing, he never doubted he'd make it back. After all, playing the game of baseball was at stake.
"I just wanted to get back on the baseball field," he said. "It's been a lot of hard work with rehabbing and waking up in the morning and trying to get my body back to where it was before I had the surgery."
"He was up at five in the morning doing his exercises with the rubber bands -- he still does that," said his father, Daryl. "I was up there with him, but don't give me any of the credit. He did all the work."
That ability to work hard to make it all the way back should have surprised no one, as by all accounts, the 5-foot-11, 185-pound Nelson is a special person.
"He can do everything," said University of Georgia head baseball coach David Perno. "He can run, he can hit, he can throw, he can field and just has tremendous charisma. He just knows how to play baseball. He has a lot of fun playing the game and is extremely gifted. We've always thought he was one of the best players we have ever seen play."
Perno got Nelson to sign a letter of intent, which Nelson says he signed out of loyalty, as UGA had been recruiting him from day one and didn't waver after his injury. But Perno knows that letter isn't really worth the paper it's printed on. And that's OK with him.
"I think slim are the possibilities about him being at the University of Georgia," Perno said with a laugh about the one he's sure will get away. "I think he's going to be a high pick. We stuck with him because he's from our state and he was just too good of a person and too good of a player."
Jim Beavers, his coach with the East Cobb Yankees the past two summers, shares the same high regard for Nelson.
"His athleticism is just very special," said Beavers. "His work ethic, the way he's overcome his injuries, is obviously a testament to that. He has a special quality. He has all five tools, and he's just blessed with a lot of God-given talent and he's not afraid to work at it and try to make himself better."
Beavers was impressed with Nelson's positive approach in the face of adversity.
"Like all of us in life, we don't appreciate some of the things we have until it's almost taken away from us," he said. "I'm not saying he didn't appreciate it, but I think he appreciates the game of baseball a little more. Maybe he realized, 'Hey, this is what I really want to do and to get it done I'm going to really have to work hard through this injury and show people that I can come back from it.'"
Beavers said Nelson even had the ability to joke about his comeback.
"He told me right after the surgery, 'I've got a bionic arm now. I might throw harder than I did before,'" Beavers recalled.
Beavers believes that now that pitching has been taken out of the equation, Nelson can focus on what he does best. He hit .582 with eight home runs, 36 RBIs and 25 stolen bases in 67 at-bats. He also scored 42 runs in leading the Raiders to a 23-8 record and the state playoffs, where they were eliminated in the Class AAAAA quarterfinals.
"I think he's always been a shortstop who also pitched," he said. "He just had that warrior mentality when you put him on the mound, and of course he had that tremendous arm. But his true value for every team he's ever played on is that he's a great shortstop, and there are just so few of those in the country."
Come June 7, Nelson will see just how much faith the professional baseball community has in him and who believes in his power and passion.
But where he goes makes little difference to him.
"It doesn't matter to me. I just want to play," he said. "It looks so fun to be playing Major League Baseball. It's one of my dreams and goals."
After all the long hours and hard work, the realization of those dreams and goals are now only days away.
Jon Cooper is a contributing writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.