Baseball Coach Kirk Nieuwenhuis Comes Full Circle
Kirk Nieuwenhuis ’12 returned to his old stomping grounds in 2020 with a plethora of professional baseball experience, eager to help the Cougars program excel to new heights. At first, he served as an assistant coach, but after 18-year head coach Paul Svagdis left APU to return to his alma mater, Tufts University, in 2021, Nieuwenhuis was chosen to be his successor, serving at the helm of Cougar baseball.
Nieuwenhuis was a star outfielder for the Cougars from 2006-08, batting .373 over three seasons alongside eventual MLB All-Star Stephen Vogt ’07. Together, they helped APU reach the NAIA World Series in back-to-back years. Reflecting on his time as a player at APU, Nieuwenhuis said he wouldn’t trade it for anything. “I have so many good memories [of] hanging out with teammates on and off the field,” he said. “Those bonds and relationships were so strong. Many of my teammates came to my wedding, and I’ve gone to theirs. Those lifelong friendships are what made it special.”
In 2008, the New York Mets made Nieuwenhuis the highest MLB draft pick in APU history, selecting him in the third round with the 100th overall pick. “I always had a desire to play in the big leagues, but I was certainly surprised when I got drafted in the third round,” he said. Nieuwenhuis said that the first year in the minor leagues was the hardest transition as he adapted to the demanding pro schedule. “I realized quickly that I needed to rely on and draw near to God,” he said. “I remember missing a family reunion that my parents and relatives attended and feeling lonely and homesick.”
In that moment, and many more that followed throughout his professional career, Nieuwenhuis turned to a favorite Scripture, Proverbs 3:5: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” Nieuwenhuis knew that God had a plan for his life and he could only take things day by day. “In all the uncertainty, that verse provided comfort for me, knowing that God’s in control and I could trust Him.”
This trust in God proved pivotal to Nieuwenhuis’ career. It took a few years before he matriculated from the minor leagues to MLB, but when he debuted in 2012, Nieuwenhuis made a splash, batting .252 with 7 home runs, 12 doubles, and 28 RBIs over 91 games. He appeared in 226 games for the Mets over the next three years, but was traded to the Los Angeles Angels in 2015, before being cut and re-signing with the Mets in a matter of weeks. “I relied on God a lot during that time,” he said. Later that year, Nieuwenhuis became the first player to hit three home runs in a single game at Citi Field and the first Cougar to play in a World Series. “That was the highlight of my professional career. It just emphasized how special baseball is and the excitement you have in playing with your teammates at the highest level. I was just so grateful for the opportunity to play in a World Series. It’s something that every ballplayer dreams of but there’s not many people that get to do it.”
Nieuwenhuis went on to play a few more seasons in the majors with the Milwaukee Brewers before deciding to end his professional playing career. Soon after, he received a call from his former head coach at APU. “I didn’t know if coaching was ultimately the career for me, but coming back to APU felt right. I wouldn’t have done it anywhere else,” he said.
Nieuwenhuis said Coach Svagdis was a great mentor during his time playing for APU and an even better teacher in the two years Nieuwenhuis was able to coach under him. “I was a pretty fiery player and he helped me keep my emotions in check on the field and channel them into higher levels of performance, especially in high-stakes games,” Nieuwenhuis said. “In terms of coaching, the biggest thing I learned from him is that players respond to different styles of coaching. What works for one of my guys may not work for another, so I have to get to know my players and how to coach each of them best.”
Nieuwenhuis teaches his players to focus on each pitch. “Being present during a game and in life takes an incredible amount of mental energy; that’s why it helps to focus on just one day or one pitch at a time,” he said. “My players are learning, just like I did, to trust the process, not the results. You don’t always get the results you want, but you can control the process and learn from it.”
Coaching at APU provides Nieuwenhuis with an avenue for sharing his faith with his players. “That’s not something you get to do everywhere,” he said. “It’s important for me to help them learn the perspective that baseball is important, but whether you win or lose, at the end of the day, it’s just a game. The bonds these guys form with each other, how they treat people, and ultimately their relationship with the Lord is far more important than anything they do on the field.”
After working with the team each day, Nieuwenhuis returns home to his wife, Bethany, and their two children. His professional career taught him a lot about how to prioritize his time. “When I leave the field, I leave work behind. My time at home is for my family and I’m grateful that coaching at APU allows me to be present and focused with them,” he said.
For Nieuwenhuis, it truly feels like he has come full circle—after an amazing collegiate baseball career at APU, he spent years cutting his teeth in the minor leagues, then made a lasting impact at the MLB level, and now is back at his alma mater coaching the next generation of Cougars. “It’s definitely been an honor and I’m grateful for the opportunity to be back on the campus where I learned so much and made many lifelong memories and friends.”
Posted: September 5, 2022