Major League Character

by Joe Reinsch

Kirk Nieuwenhuis’ climb as one of baseball’s top prospects comes as no surprise to those who have coached him, played with him, or simply watched him rapidly ascend the ladder of professional baseball. Just three years ago, Baseball America named the APU ’09 graduate the NAIA Preseason Player of the Year after leading Azusa Pacific to its first NAIA World Series appearance in 23 years. With professional baseball scouts tracking every swing, throw, and pitch of his 2008 junior campaign, the 6′ 3″ outfielder lived up to his billing, leading the Cougars to another World Series trip while earning NAIA All-America First Team honors. Despite the intense attention and pressure, Nieuwenhuis consistently displayed the poise and humility of a man and athlete beyond his years.

“His ability to block out distractions always impressed me,” said Azusa Pacific Head Coach Paul Svagdis. “There were times when 25 scouts lined the fence just to watch him take batting practice, and I was amazed by his ability to block that out and focus.” That composure, coupled with his God-given talent, also captured the New York Mets’ attention, who made him their third-round selection in the 2008 Major League Baseball draft. His performance at each of the Mets’ minor league affiliates earned him promotions to the next level, pushing him to Triple A Buffalo (just one step away from a big league call up) by the end of his second full year.

On the field, his approach to the game reflects his Christian walk—purposeful, humble, and dedicated. In 2009, he became a Florida State League All Star, leading the league in doubles, extra-base hits, slugging percentage, and runs scored. A year later, he earned a promotion to Triple A for the final month of the 2010 campaign, but not before he left his mark with Binghamton, ranking in the Double A Eastern League’s top 10 in doubles, slugging percentage, and runs while earning another All-Star nod. With 8 more doubles in the final month at the highest level of minor league ball, he finished with 43 doubles, the fourth-highest season total in all of minor league baseball. After Nieuwenhuis held his own in the Arizona Fall League, which annually features the brightest prospects in baseball, the Mets invited him to their spring training camp. But his meteoric rise comes with increasing challenges.

“Out here, you’re playing every day, and it’s a lot more demanding than college,” Nieuwenhuis said. “You have to be more focused, and it’s tougher mentally to prepare and perform every day because your job depends on it. You find out pretty quickly if you’re going in the right or wrong direction. Whether you can make the adjustment determines how your career goes.”

Nieuwenhuis balances the pressures of professional baseball by leaning on his faith and encouraging others to do the same. He quickly developed a reputation within the Mets organization as an unapologetic Christian with a mature, well-rounded approach to life. “There aren’t many Christians in this arena, so you learn to lean on one another,” Nieuwenhuis said. “You learn to become a leader, especially when there aren’t many who are willing to step up to the plate. It’s a blessing being able to do that.”

Nieuwenhuis leads Bible studies with teammates and regularly attends Baseball Chapel, an organization that provides a team chaplain and weekly meetings for every minor league baseball team throughout the country. “Baseball Chapel serves as a stepping stone for these guys since there’s no church they can get to on Sundays,” said Tom O’Connor, the team chaplain who also serves as athletic director at Davis College. “Kirk understands that a fruit-bearing Christian continually matures, and he’s committed to becoming stronger in his walk. He’s not afraid to let others know what he believes.” When the Mets invited him to major league spring training camp in 2011, he stood as an established veteran who helped introduce the new minor league players to their chaplains and the Baseball Chapel program. “The guys respect Kirk because he isn’t the type of Christian who hammers you over the head. He models a spiritual life, and others see that there’s something different about him,” O’Connor said.

He started the 2011 campaign in Triple A Buffalo, just a phone call away from his Major League Baseball debut. Considered the Mets’ fourth top prospect, when Nieuwenhuis finally gets called up to “The Show,” the bright lights of Major League Baseball will magnify a man of character and illuminate one of the sport’s finest.

Joe Reinsch ’03 is APU’s sports information director.

Photos courtesy of the Buffalo Bisons

Originally published in the Summer '11 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.