RHP Matthew Neil. Photo credit: York Revolution
Even the diehard York Revolution fans might have trouble remembering Matthew Neil. He’s the pitcher who joined York about a month or so into the 2014 season, making his Atlantic League debut shortly after being released by the Tampa Bay Rays. In only his fourth year as a pro, Neil came to the Revs and went on to toss a complete game gem in early June. He felt pain in his arm the next day and wound up never returning to the mound, eventually undergoing season-ending surgery.
A few short days after he threw the complete game, before I knew anything about his health status, I grabbed Neil at the conclusion of a pre-game batting practice and asked if he had a moment or so to chat. Well, actually the truth is that I waited a good half-hour for Neil and pitcher Chris Cody to wrap up an intense Aerobie session before finally asking Neil if he had some time to talk. Anyway, it was starting to rain, so we headed to the Revs dugout. In a mostly empty stadium hours before the game was to even start, Neil and I hung out in the dugout as rain poured on the field in front of us. We ended up talking for more than an hour. We touched on everything. The psychology of pitching. The last time he had ever thrown a complete game before coming to York. The tough work environment he felt with the Rays’ double-A Montgomery affiliate. His release by the Marlins earlier in the year out of big league spring training. His relatively solid debut a the triple-A level the season before. The difficulties a late-round draft pick faces. How the NCAA took away his senior year of eligibility for a bogus reason. And then we hit on the tough parts. The off-the-field parts. At least I thought they were going to be tough, only for Neil to be open and willing to chat about anything.
Here is the story that resulted. Today the Deseret News in Utah published this story I have been working on since that day in June, as a few more follow-up interviews with Neil ensued over the next couple weeks in addition to interviews with his mother, his coach at Brigham Young University and a Black Hawk helicopter pilot. One of the initial reasons I talked to Neil is because I didn’t think he’d be around in York much longer. Give his complete game he had just thrown, his relatively young age being only a fourth-year pro and only a few months removed from big league spring training, I figured he was bound to get picked up by a major league organization shortly. Plus, doing some background research on Neil before we first talked, I saw in previous interviews he had briefly mentioned something about his sister dying years ago, but no one ever followed up on that topic with him. Surely something like that will have an impact on someone’s life, and yet nobody had bothered to ask Neil what role it played in his. (The moving tribute video for Rachael on Matthew Neil’s Youtube page is below). It wasn’t until after all those interviews, however, when I went back to Neil a third (or fourth?) time for some follow-up questions when he finally revealed his secret (he talks about this in the story, which you should just go read if you haven’t yet). The one about him asking God for a challenge in order to strengthen his faith, an aspect that really tied his last 12 months together considering all he had been through.
You might be wondering why this story was published in the Deseret News and not The York Dispatch. Well, I’ve begun a quest to also dabble into the freelance world in addition to working hard for the Dispatch. As you might recall, there was the story about Revs’ starting pitcher Jorge Martinez back in June. The one where a York College student fluent in Spanish assisted me on the interview with Spanish-speaking Martinez, who had defected from Cuba less than a year before. Granted I only had a couple weeks to shop the story around, which may have contributed to the fact I was unsuccessful in finding a taker to publish it, so I instead put it as a Fan Post on mlbdailydish.com, and the folks over there actually did a fine job promoting it as part of their draft coverage. Anyway, there were a few reasons I decided to try to get this story published outside of the Dispatch. But that’s all beside the point being that Neil is somebody who folks can be inspired by. So please, just go read his story. These are the stories I most enjoy doing. It’s truly when I feel I can take the skills I’ve been blessed with and put them to use as a way of making a difference in this world. But it should be noted this isn’t about me. This is about Neil and his story, I’m just a messenger.
Anyway, below is a collection of quotes gathered over the course of putting this story together. It’s information that was unable to fit in the published story, but is still very interesting nonetheless – I tried my best picking out the good parts to include down below. There’s still a lot here, but it’s worth taking the time to read as there’s really intriguing insight from Neil and his mother on the initial moments of how they handled the news of Neil’s sister, plus thoughts from his college coach on how Neil was first discovered, how “soft” he was and nearly cut from the team, and finally thoughts from a Black Hawk helicopter pilot and how he played a part in saving Neil’s career. I would’ve thrown everything on here but there would be so much information and quotes it’d be like reading a short book, so I tried picking out the best parts.
Thanks again to the folks at the Deseret News on publishing Neil’s story and thanks to Neil for being so genuine, humble, helpful, warm, open, friendly and patient with me.
RHP Matthew Neil
RHP Matthew Neil (quotes from interviews done in June, 2014):
Q: ONCE THESE GUYS START HAVING KIDS THEY START THINKING ‘HOW LONG AM I GOING TO DO THIS FOR?’ HAS THAT POPPED INTO YOUR MIND AT ALL?: “Yeah. It’s one of those things, though, where I’ve got the rest of my life to work a 9 to 5 and be settled down somewhere. My body right now will do it (play baseball). And I can travel. It works OK because we only have one OK and we fit everything we need in one car. Everything we need is in there, plus some room.”
Q: HOW DO YOU APPROACH YOUR RELIGION AND ROLE IN BASEBALL?: “If somebody asks a question I’ll answer it and I’ll explain what I believe. If somebody asks why I do something or why I don’t, I’ll explain. But I don’t actively try to necessarily convert my teammates. I’m gonna the live gospel. I’m gonna live my life how I know I should. Without fail there’s normally one or two teammates who will ask questions about it. In that case, I’ll invite them to church if they want to see what it’s all about. But I’m not out to try to convert my team.”
Q: BYU RECRUITED YOU FOR SWIMMING: “BYU actually recruited me for swimming. They said my times were good enough I could be on the team. It was one of those ‘Yeah, you’re fast enough you can join the team.’ But I preferred to play baseball. My sister did BYU swim team and she said the practices just killed her.” Michelle. “She just did it for a year and it wore her out. My other sister was on the dive team.”
Q: WAS THAT A DREAM OF YOURS AT ANY POINT? GO TO THE OLYMPICS IN SWIMMING?: “The thought probably entered my head at one point. That senior year in high school when I was basically the best in the city. I won city and I won regionals. I got to state and there were some really fast people. I got ninth in the state (in the 100 backstroke) but the people who got first, second and third were way ahead of me.”
Photo submitted by the York Revolution
Q: IF YOU’RE A HIGHER-ROUND DRAFT PICK THEY WOULD’VE KEPT YOU THERE AND LET YOU GO THROUGH THOSE TRIALS?: “So this year at spring training it was a big numbers game. I was fairly confident I would be starting at triple-A. The last two outings of spring training were horrendous. Here’s what happened in one inning. In the second to last game I gave up two runs. Chopper over my head hits second base: base hit. Chopper down the third base line hits third base: base hit. Next guy hits a ball over the first baseman, didn’t hit the base this time, but it was down the line: two runs score. I didn’t give up any other runs and I think I pitched four innings that day.”
Q: ANY CHANCE YOU’RE DONE WITH BASEBALL SOON?: “I’d have to go for two year thing depending on what I end up doing. All through spring training I was going and shadowing a physical therapist and learning from him. That thought of ‘When do I hang it up?’ does enter my mind. I took two or three years off and a lot of people say ‘Oh, you’re almost 28. You’re getting old.’ I say ‘I got a 24-year-old arm.’”
Q: WHEN DID YOU FIND OUT YOUR SISTER HAD DROWN?: “I was hanging out with a friend and my mom called me. My mom had come up to Utah for some classes. Education week. She just said to come home and when I get home they said ‘Rachael went over a waterfall and they can’t find her.’ I said ‘How long ago?’ And they said ‘It’s been about an hour.’ Because where they were they had no cell service. It took a half hour before anyone got down the mountain to even tell a ranger. We were in Utah that night. I threw some clothes in a duffel bag and a backpack. We got in a car and within a half-hour…just me and my mom. My younger sister stayed home and watched the four little boys while my dad drove from Arizona and my mom and I drove came from Utah. My oldest sister (Michelle) was on the trip.”
Q: YOU TALK ABOUT RIGHT NOW HAVING FAITH YOU’LL SEE YOUR SISTER AGAIN. BUT AT THE MOMENT THIS ALL WENT DOWN, DID YOU FEEL THAT WAY THEN?: “Yeah. And it came quick. It came quick. And that realization came quick as well. Yeah, there’s that grief and sadness. I laid into the rangers and all the rescue guys up there at the end of the second day when they said they had to call it off until the water went down I laid into them. I was mad. I said ‘I’ll call a few of my friends and we’ll be down here in four hours and we’ll have results.’ I went off on them and I was disrespectful. And they understood. They were very polite back. They understood it was grief driven.”
Q: HAVE YOU EVER APOLOGIZED TO THOSE GUYS?: “I never got an opportunity to do that.” “They understood it was one of those I was just mad. I was mad at the situation. I wasn’t mad at them. There was nothing they could do. They broke ropes. They had two or three ropes just snap on them. They tried to build a dam to divert the water. The boards broke and washed out.”
Q: IT SOUNDS LIKE YOU STAYED STRONG THROUGH IT ALL?: “Between that and just all sorts of things that happened in my life now with baseball and all the moves, I’ve had a lot of people tell me that I adjust to situations really well. Like this year being on three different teams already, a lot of people would…’I wanna take some time off and get my mind right.’ To me, it’s like my mind is right now. I made mistakes and games didn’t go well. I said some things that I shouldn’t have said and whatever. Learn from it and go on. Taking some time to get your mind right is just saying you don’t have control of your emotions. You don’t have control of yourself. That’s one of the things working with Tannahill is to control your emotions. When a guy hits a bomb and you get mad and frustrated trying to throw harder you get in more trouble. But when a guy hits a bomb and you say ‘Whatever. This next guy I’m going to focus so much right now right here it’s going to impossible for this guy to get a hit.’ That’s where you have to react and change and adapt to a situation on the fly. Baseball is a perfect example of how in an instant everything can change. Every time you throw a ball, the count changes. The approach changes. Every inning there’s different runners. Different hitters. Every team is a different lineup.”
Q: I ALMOST WISH YOU GUYS WITH THESE INTERVIEWS, YOU COULD SIT DOWN WITH A TEAM OR A COACH AND HAVE THESE CONVERSATIONS, IT WOULD CHANGE THEIR WHOLE PERSPECTIVE: “They don’t want to listen. I had a coach that told me ‘If somebody cuts you off and asks a question not related to what you were talking about, they’re not interested in hearing what you have to say, they just want you to hear what they have to say.’ That’s how a lot of it works in organizations. They get set on what’s good in their minds. They’re not open to any ideas.”
Photo submitted by the York Revolution
Q: YOUR MOM SAID YOU BARELY MADE THE FRESHMAN OR JV TEAM IN HIGH SCHOOL?: “Freshman team I didn’t really make it. They had a spot. They had two spots available. Four of us in the running for it. Coach said you guys can come and practice with us and we’ll see what happens after a week or two. After a week two of the kids quit so I made the team out of default. It turned out well for them because I ended up being one of the main pitchers that year. I got an award for hardest working player or something like that.”
Q: CHATTING WITH JEREMY TANNAHILL AND FORMER BYU COACH LAW, IT REALLY SOUNDS LIKE YOU WERE SOFT YOUR FIRST FEW YEARS IN COLLEGE?: “I was soft. I was a pansy. I had just come off a service mission with the church where you show compassion with everyone you encounter. It’s hard to transition into competitve mindset of beating this person into the ground. I’m gonna throw the ball there and if you hit it, oh well.” “I was soft on the field and in the clubhouse. The team saw me as someone they could play jokes on.” “I was on thin ice because even though all year I had the most innings and strikeouts on the team, they were bringing in other recruits, they told me unless we see dramatic change we’re not gonna need you next year.”
Janelle Neil, Matthew’s mom:
Q: WHAT WAS THAT DRIVE LIKE WITH MATTHEW ON THE WAY TO YOSEMITE?: “The day Rachael died he and I were together. It was really hard that drive to Yosemite. But as you process all that as a young person and you realize your faith in eternity and what our religion teaches about forever families and resurrection and all that kind of stuff. He misses her but he knows where she is and he will see her again. We all go through a grieving process but his faith in God can help with that. His mission he learned to be a leader there. He helped other people a lot. He helped other missionaries when they were having problems. Rachael’s death was a growing process but it solidified his faith.”
Q: MATTHEW HAD MENTIONED WHEN YOU GOT TO YOSEMITE AND TALKED TO THE RANGERS, THEY JUST SAID THEY HAVEN’T LOCATED HER BODY. THEY DIDN’T SAY SHE HAD DIED. BUT MATTHEW SAID ‘MY PARENTS KIND OF KNEW AT THAT POINT’ BUT DIDN’T SAY ANYTHING?: “Yeah your feelings go back and forth and your brain tells you different things. Matthew came over to the house in Provo. I told him and he was really angry. We were sitting there at night. I got this feeling I thought ‘She’s OK.’ I don’t know how you explain it the feeling, knowledge, pure intelligence that just came to me as a comfort. Maybe Rachael was talkinG. I didn’t see an angel. I didn’t hear a voice. I’m OK. That was the word. I’m OK. The whole drive, we packed up and drove that night, you keep double-guessing. I know she’s OK but I hope she’s OK on the side of the river. Hopefully she’s ok on the side of the river.”
Q: THAT DRIVE FROM UTAH TO YOSEMITE, I CAN IMAGINE EIGHT MILLION THOUGHTS ARE GOING THROUGH YOUR HEAD. IS RACHAEL ALIVE? WHAT DO I TELL MY KIDS? SHOULD I BE STRONG FOR OUR FAMILY? WHAT’S GOING THROUGH YOUR MIND?: “Every scenario possible was going through my mind. She could be here. She could be there. No idea. I didn’t know what the river was like. I had been to Yosemite a long time before but I had forgot about it. We got there and it was so far. I kept thinking ‘How come we’re not there yet She’s my little girl I need to take care of her.’ And yet I already knew she was OK. I didn’t want to raise hope in Matthew’s mind as we drove. But I didn’t want to be depressing.”
Former BYU baseball coach Vance Law, now the Chicago White Sox minor league hitting coordinator:
Q: WHAT DO YOU RECALL OF THE FIRST TIME YOU SAW MATTHEW NEIL PITCH?: “The first I actually saw him, I saw him pitch in a city league game. I was down watching one of my sons, Rex, and I saw a kid that looked pretty interesting. I didn’t know anything about him. I put it out of my mind. The same kid shows up at a tryout. When you see somebody throwing 90 miles-per-hour, those are guys who could be on your team. I kept him around for a couple more days and wanted to see how he was going to progress. He was throwing as hard as one of my scholarship guys. He was a very inexperienced guy at the time. I found out later he was home-schooled so he was not used to being around competitive guys quite as much. There was one time where he knew he wasn’t going to be pitching. He asked to sit with his family in the stands. I asked him ‘Are you a part of this team or do you want to be with the fans?’ That was a learning process because he didn’t have a feel of what baseball was. Over the next two years I coached him at the university he is probably the most improved pitcher we ever had in our program. He came in with such a lack of experience, with no knowledge of how to play the game let alone pitch. I think our pitching coach did a wodnerful job with him. To Matthew’s credit he was open. He became the ace of our staff.”
Q: TOO BAD YOU COULDN’T HAVE HAD NEIL FOR ONE MORE YEAR?: “Losing that year of eligibility not only hurt him but our baseball team. We no longer had the ace of our team that could’ve came back. When he was drafted he lost any leverage (with major league organizations) he might’ve had coming back for another year. He has defied so many people’s expectations by being a regular pitcher on a double-A club and getting to triple-A. That’s saying something for a kid who came in (to BYU) and was not a tough guy. I remember a scout asked him ‘Are you gonna be a BYU kid who signs and after a year or two give it up?’ He said ‘No. You’re gonna have the tear this jersey off my back.’ I would’ve never heard that his first year. The love he developed for the game, the work he has put in has made him very successful for baseball. If he doesn’t reach the majors, he’s still had an amazing ride.”
Jeremy Tannahill (the Black Hawk helicopter pilot who trained Neil in mental toughness before Neil’s last year pitching at BYU):
Q: FIRST OFF, HOW DID YOU FIRST COME ACROSS WORKING WITH THE BYU BASEBALL PROGRAM?: “My full-time job I fly a Black Hawk for the Army National Guard in Utah. One of his (Law’s) assistants was out on an orientation flight. I was telling him (the assistant coach) about a small business I had. Leadership and mental toughenss training business. So I took the coaching staff on the training and then did a team training event. We were sitting in Vance’s office and we were talking about some of the players. Then I asked if there was a player you wanted me to take a look at? He (Law) said Matt Neil. We started taking about Matt. Law said ‘He’s very soft. He’s talented but he’s really weak.’ They were gonna cut him. They weren’t sure if they were gonna cut him or give him a scholarship. I asked them ‘Did you try anything on his mental attitude?’ I said ‘What did you try?’ He (Law) said ‘I tried being nice to him, yelling at him, going out to the mound to talk to him.’ I said ‘No, no, no. Have you ever trained him to be mentally tough?’ I got blank stares. I said lets try this: give me six weeks with him. If at the end of that six weeks if he’s the same guy, by all means cut him. But you can’t give up on this athlete that has all this talent because you can’t get him to be who he should be.” “I like to say I change the way my athletes look at the street lights. The first couple training sessions he (Neil) was soft. There’s not one athlete I’ve worked with that has been more receptive and has wokred harder at becoming mentally tough than Matt Neil. At the end of six weeks I called Vance up and said ‘This kid is gonna win you games next year. He’s gonna be your best.’ He said ‘We’ll see.’ Sure enough, he (Neil) ended up being his ace. They (BYU) didn’t have bats (offense). Without his (Neil’s) efforts they wouldn’t have done as well as they did.”
Q: OUTSIDE OF THE ARMY NATIONAL GUARD, IS THIS SOMETHING YOU’RE TRYING TO DO FOR A LIVING?: “Through all the training I’ve done with Matt I haven’t made a dime with him. Not one cent. And I’ll never ask a penny off the kid. Part of it is I love him like a brother. He’s family to me. Other part he’s so relentless in his pursuit that how could I possibly let him flounder? As long as he’s wanting help I’m always there with him. That’s the thing the training that I provide isn’t to make money. It’s to help people realize their dreams, as long as they’re willing to work and believe in themselves and listen.” Tannahill also works with Blue Jays’ pitching prospect Taylor Cole (former teammate of Neil’s at BYU, was drafted six spots after Neil in 29th round of 2011 draft, currently in the Jays’ minor league system as of June 2014)and Diamondbacks’ pitching prospect Adam Miller (out of BYU in 2013, currently in the D’Backs’ minor league system as of June 2014). He’s most recently been working with former Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke and his prep football team at the private IMG Academy in Florida.
“I’ll just tell you he’s just one in a million. The guy wants it so bad. He wants it as bad as anyone else. He’s willing to do whatever he has to work at it. Any kid that goes out there and plays baseball wants to put the work in a little bit. But Matt eats, breathes, sleeps his profession and it shows. It’s just who he is and what he does. From my perspective, the wilingness he had to go through my training and stay with it and still try to improve himself mentally is just paramount. So many atheltes at his level they say ‘I’ve got everything I need, I just need to put it together. I don’t need any self-assessment. I just need to keep throwing or lift more weights or turn to performance-enhancing drugs.’ But not Matt. When Matt struggles he knows where he needs to go and that’s self-assessment. Not come to me, but look inward and say ‘What do I have to adjust to get back on track?’ That’s pretty awesome.”