Murphy: Phillies' Neris shows devotion to his son by being devoted to his career

Murphy: Phillies' Neris shows devotion to his son by being devoted to his career

Murphy: Phillies' Neris shows devotion to his son by being devoted to his career

CLEARWATER, Fla. – How much weight can one arm bear? Ask Hector Neris. He’ll smile. Throw 80 1/3 innings in 79 games? Let’s talk about a stretch in which he threw none.

A Sunday in 2015, a call that’d come twice before: Neris at Triple A, the Phillies in need of an arm. Grab your bags, kid. Welcome to the team. Three days later: Oh, did we say bags? Well, here’s a ticket back east.

His first two stints had at least earned him some looks: a couple of mopup ninth innings, a scoreless 15th, nine total days spent in the major leagues. This time, though, he sat and he watched. May 20, it ended. He remembers the date.

Twenty-four hours later, another call came. Behind the wheel of a car in a place he did not want to be, the voice of his mother broke through his malaise. His girlfriend, Juliana, had given birth to a boy.

You’re a dad now, she said.

“That cheered my face,” he said.

Neris recounts the story with a smile befitting a man whose lightness of being earned him the nickname “Happy Hector” as he worked his way through the minor leagues. But the ease of his voice is cut with a maturity he says did not exist before that day.

“You become a new man,” Neris said.

Perhaps that maturity has always existed in an incubated state. Neris’ backstory is one of the many remarkable ones that his tiny island has produced. One of seven children raised by his mother, he did not have much of a relationship with his biological father growing up. Like every boy growing up in the Dominican Republic, he spent his youth chasing the dream of playing in the States, but as a teenager he saw a potential bonus offer from the Royals disappear because of concerns about his ability to prove his age, according to a story last year by (a recurring issue that plagued major league teams at the time). It wasn’t until he was 20 years old that he got his break: A scout referred him to Phillies international chief Sal Agostinelli, and assistant general manager Benny Looper offered him a $17,000 bonus on the spot. This was 2010.

The paltry dollar figure is indicative of a huge scouting success, particularly after a season in which Neris established himself as one of the better setup men in the National League. But it is also a testament to the tenuous fate in Neris’ impoverished homeland, as well as a fascinating context with which to consider the psyche of a pitcher whom the Phillies will again lean on to play a critical role in their bullpen. Apart from his initial bonus money, Neris would spend the next four seasons being paid on a minor league scale that tops out at less then $2,500 per month. At the time of his first call-up in August 2014, he would have accrued less than $50,000 in career earnings. That initial three-day stint in the majors was worth nearly $9,000 alone.

Such were the stakes that awaited Neris at the dawn of 2015. A couple of thousand miles from the house where his pregnant girlfriend, his mother, his sister and her two daughters all lived under the same roof, Neris pressed on toward his goal He got a shot in April, followed by the one in May.

Neris and Juliana named their son Derek, in part because of Neris’ longtime admiration for the professionalism and resolve of Yankees legend Derek Jeter. They are qualities that you can’t help but see in Neris himself as you consider his trajectory in the wake of his son’s birth. With his mother helping to care for Juliana and the baby back home in Villa Altagracia, 40 minutes outside Santo Domingo, Neris spent the next month in the Lehigh Valley working for another chance at sticking in the major leagues. Another opportunity arose in June, this one lasting two days.

“It’s the sacrifice; you have to do it,” Neris said. “I have to work for the future for him, you know? Every time you are here, you want to watch your kid, and the only thing you have is the camera. It’s not the same. But if you want to be here, you have to make the sacrifice.”

In July, he finally stuck. He spent the rest of the season in the majors, then returned to the Dominican to be with his new family. When 2016 arrived, so did the Neris the Phillies hoped they’d see. With a devastating splitter now offsetting his fastball, he overpowered the National League, averaging 11.4 strikeouts per nine innings and finishing with a 2.58 ERA. By the end of the season, only three relievers in the majors had made more appearances.

“I call it Derek’s season,” Neris said. “It’s for him.”

Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said Tuesday he isn’t concerned about any lasting effects from Neris’ 2016 workload. The pitcher echoed that confidence.

“If you prepare your body, it’s all good,” he said.

Neris was sitting at his locker, flipping through pictures of a 27-year-old big-leaguer and his 18-month-old son. In his eyes, you saw an answer.

How much weight can one arm bear?

However much it takes.


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Published at Wed, 15 Feb 2017 03:09:06 +0000

Categories: Phillies

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