“Stay by your phone.” When Ruben Niebla ’95, pitching coach for the Cleveland Indians’ Triple-A affiliate in Columbus, Ohio, heard these words, he couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride and excitement about what could be in store for one of his players. To a Triple-A coach, a message like this means someone you’ve coached and developed is being called up to “the Show,” the big leagues. It means you’ve done your job well and prepared players for the next and ultimate level. So when the call came, he answered the phone, anticipating the great news that would change a man’s life.
General Manager Chris Antonetti did call someone to the show that day, but not a player. He promoted Niebla to major league interim pitching coach. A lifetime of playing and coaching prepared Niebla for the job, but not for the moment. Temporarily stunned, a flurry of thoughts and emotions ran through him, but barely surfaced for others to see. Then, with his signature poise and composure, he calmly accepted his dream job.
Even as a player, Niebla showed a penchant for coaching. As an APU junior transfer student in 1994, he earned NAIA District Player of the Year, All-GSAC first team, NAIA All-American honorable mention, and the unofficial title of mentor for his natural ability to help teammates excel. Following his two-year collegiate career with the Cougars, the Montreal Expos signed him just before the 1995 draft, and he quickly rose through the minor-league ranks, playing all three levels in one year. After a successful five-year run, he traded in his cleats for turfs, transitioned into coaching, and hit his stride. During his two seasons in Columbus, the pitching staff posted its lowest team ERA (3.94) since 1992, and this year’s staff had an ERA of 3.91 at the time of his promotion. “Ruben has worked very closely with a lot of these guys already and has been instrumental in some of their development,” said Antonetti in a pregame conference on August 9, just after the announcement. “Guys have gotten better under his tutelage. We’re hopeful that he can transition some of that expertise and knowledge to the group of guys who are up here.”
“I’m focusing on the day-to-day work in the bullpen, not the end result. These men play 160 games in 180 days, which can be very draining on the body and mind. I am here to support them and help them make adjustments,” said Niebla, whose 12-year tenure with the Cleveland organization and rapport with the current pitching staff afforded him a measure of clout and respect from day one. “Each pitcher is unique, and has a different background, a different story. I have to care for the person more than the profession or I won’t be very effective. As a coach, knowledge is a given. The good ones are those who are connected and earn the players’ trust.”
He leaned on that trust during his first game in his new position. On August 15, when the Indians faced the Angels in Anaheim, he walked to the mound to talk to the pitcher. “He had a humble, instructional presence,” said his former APU head baseball coach, Tony Barbone, who attended the game along with Niebla’s former Cougar teammates Paul Coppes ’96, Pedro Carranza ’93, and Tim Kapadia ’97, MBA ’01. “There are a lot of successful athletes, but only a few who can effectively relate their experiences to others and make a difference. Ruben is one of those few.”
Niebla gives some of the credit for that to Barbone, with whom he served as an assistant coach in 1997, calling him one of the most influential people in his life. “He not only helped me become a better player, but to understand myself and what I wanted out of life. I still pick up the phone to ask his advice,” said Niebla, who hopes to forge the same type of lasting relationships with the athletes in his charge.
Meanwhile, he takes one day at a time, recognizing the magnitude of the opportunity, and thanking God every time he walks on the field. Trying not to think about the word “interim” in his new title, Niebla does what he does best: focuses on the job he was called—and called up—to do.
Cynndie Hoff is a freelance writer living in Walnut, California. firstname.lastname@example.org