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A Year-Round Conversation About the Game We Love

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Meet Barney Nugent — A Major League Master of Pain


As promised, I’m bringing in some behind-the-scenes folks from the world of professional baseball to share their insights with us. You'll also be able to ask questions that we pass on to our distinguished guests by posting a comment below.

Meet Barney Nugent. From 1993 through 2003, he was a trainer for the San Francisco Giants. Barrel-chested with a hybrid Boston-Philly accent, he is refreshingly direct. Now retired, he said he had nothing better to do and agreed to be interviewed by Infinite Baseball via telephone from his home in Cave Creek, Arizona.

“I strongly agree with the baseball saying that the worst day in the majors, is better than the
best day in the minors” Nugent proclaimed. He would know. Prior to working 11 years as a Major League trainer, he spent 16 seasons working his way up through the minor leagues.

After graduating with a Masters Degree in Physical Education with an Athletic Training
Specialization from Indiana State University, he got his first job in professional baseball in 1977 as a trainer for Winston-Salem, a class-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox in the Carolina League. For you baseball movie buffs, that's one of the cities in the league featured in the classic film Bull Durham.

“It wasn’t exactly a big payday, around five hundred dollars a month, only during the season, plus seven dollars a day for meal money on the road. The owner asked if I would also be willing to drive the team bus but I nixed that idea.” Nugent said.

He spent six seasons at Winston-Salem where he also met Denise, his vivacious wife. Their first date  should be in the Romance Hall of Fame. After a rainout, the team went out to eat where Nugent was involved in what he described as “a quiet food fight”.

On the bus ride back to the hotel, wearing the spoils of his battle, he decided this was the right
time to ask Denise, who also worked for the club, for a date. She agreed but only on the condition
that he shower first. He kept piling on the charm taking her to “a sort of hardware store/bait
shop where they also had a few tables. ” Who could resist after that dreamy evening? The couple married in 1980.

Nugent explained that sports medicine was considerably less sophisticated when he got into the game than it is today. “There were no MRI’s, no Tommy John or arthroscopic surgeries. In fact, most training methods at the time were geared towards football. You kind of had to figure out how to handle baseball stuff yourself.”

He added that “he learned a lot in the minors about the game, its players, and the clubhouse.” In 1983, he switched organizations and progressed through the Phillies farm system, climbing the ladder from the Single-A Peninsula Pilots in Hampton Virginia to the AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons.

After the 1992 season, he received a fateful call from Scranton General Manager Bill Terlicky who said that Giants GM Bob Quinn had inquired about Nugent’s availability and would be calling him soon.

“I only had one phone line with no call waiting or answering machine. I kept getting calls from
everyone I knew asking whether I had heard from Quinn yet. I quickly said no to each one and hung up not wanting to miss his call. He finally called and offered me the job, which I immediately accepted. I then asked what the pay was and learned it was less than I was making at AAA. I couldn’t have cared less; I was going to the big leagues.”

His 1993 signing with the Giants was somewhat obscured by the hullabaloo over the club signing
somebody named Bonds as well as the joy over the fact that the team was still playing in San Francisco, having nearly moved to Tampa Bay in the off-season.

Nugent said his first regular-season game in St. Louis on April 6, 1993 was “truly special”. He
still has the official lineup card from that game. His first appearance rushing onto a Major League field to tend to an injured player was also memorable. I remember watching it on TV. Maybe you do too.

Giants rookie pitcher Greg Brummett had a ball lined off his foot and head trainer Mark Letendre ran
out towards the mound to attend him. After realizing Giants star Will Clark had also been injured on the play, Letendre suddenly veered towards first shouting to Brummett: "Barney will be right here." The quick course change was noted by Giants television announcer Mike Krukow and replayed several times.

With the possible exception of clubbies, short for clubhouse attendants, no one in the major leagues works longer hours than trainers do. Nugent describes the job as "sort of an endless process of setting things up and then packing them up" as the team moves from city to city. Spring Training is extra busy for trainers because of the larger number of players on the roster.

As the assistant trainer, he spent the early part of games in the clubhouse mostly getting relievers ready. When I asked if he had any unusual training methods, he said "Not really," then went on to describe a routine he had with Giants pitcher Russ Ortiz that some might consider out of the ordinary.

"After I helped stretch out his legs, Russ and I would trade punches in the stomach or ribs." Apparently, these were not love pats. After seeing one of their exchanges during the 2002 World Series, teammate Kenny Lofton shouted: "You can't do that." But it was one of those routines baseball people get into and it continued even when the two were no longer teammates. At the 2003 All-Star Game after Ortiz had been traded to the Braves, Nugent said he waited for just the right moment, and then "I really gave him one."

Ironically, he said the best and worst memories of his time in the Major Leagues took place during the 2002 World Series. "I was so excited about being there, it was awesome." But he added: "it was really brutal losing the series after being so close." He noted that he and Denise exchanged "feels familiar" comments after watching the sixth and seventh games of this year's series.

His major league career came to an end after the 2003 season when he was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, an autoimmune, neuromuscular disease. Though treatable, the extreme fatigue brought on by this condition made it impossible for him to continue working the demanding hours and handling the physical strain of being a Major League trainer.

He and Denise now live quietly in their Arizona home. He follows the Giants on television and keeps in touch with some of his old teammates. When asked to name a favorite player, he said: "It's impossible. There were just so many good guys. It kind of went in eras. In the early 90's, there was Robby Thompson, Matt Williams, Kirt Manwaring, Willie McGee and Rob Beck. Later it was Robb Nen, J.T. Snow, Rich Aurillia and Marvin Benard." He mentioned not only players but all the coaches, front-office personnel Brian Sabean and Ned Coletti." He described longtime Giants Clubhouse Manager Mike Murphy as "the nicest guy I have ever met."

Summing up his baseball career, Nugent said he was really glad he did what he did. "I never took being one of only sixty Major League trainers for granted." He added: "I'm very happy to have worked in the Major Leagues for eleven seasons. The minors were fun too.'

If there are any questions you would like to ask Barney Nugent, drop em in the comments box and I'll pass them along. Let's talk baseball!

3 comments:

  1. My sister Joanne is married to Barney's brother Mike. I remember Barney playing football at Chelsea HS. He was a tough SOB then, too. Tough times. I don't think his teams won a single game. But everyone lined up opposite Barney knew they were in one. Tell him Brian, Jessie & Diana are in his corner with a spit bucket.

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  2. If you talk to him again, ask about his trade-marked post rubdown backslap and performing it on Mike Schmidt.

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  3. If you could pass along to Barney that his friends in Scranton, from his days with the Red Barons, are thinking of him and wishing him well.

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