Interview Date: June 7, 2014
What happens to a catcher that gets traded to a team that is headed by a HOF catcher? The answer is obvious. They pray for a little bit of playing time. Carl Nichols platooned for the Astros behind Craig Biggio and his little playing time would never materialize. But his career did not start out with such little hope for starting. He was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles and said this about making it to the majors: “It was exciting. It was a dream come true. A culmination of a lot of work. Everything every player says about it, but it is exactly how we all feel. A bit relieving too.”
Nichols had never been to Houston before he was traded in 1989 but he was excited to come to Texas. “It was a National League team! I was stuck in the American League and it limits your playtime. In the National League, you have so much more strategy than allowed guys like me to get experience at the plate. But I also just loved the city. I caught my first alligator down there. It was just a fun place to be.” However, all of those opportunities did not materialize for him because of Craig Biggio. “I was comfortable in the role of a pinch hitter, but I did not perform consistently enough to hold onto my spot. I played hard and tried to do my best. I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. If I had held out two more years, Biggio would have been at second base and I would have had a shot at an everyday role, but you cannot play behind a future HOFer and expect to take their spot.”
By the end of 1991, Nichols was out of the majors for good. He would end up taking jobs like delivering newspapers and driving limos. “I was just trying to put food on the table. I was done with baseball. I wanted nothing to do with the sport, but I got over it.” He got over it in a big and important way. He joined an organization called Urban Youth Academy in his hometown for six years. “After about six years, they made some management changes and let me go, so I started up my own organization. I wanted to get more black kids into a college-level ball. I coached Jon Singleton since he was 11 years old. He was always a playful kid but he had no focus. I talked to his dad and worked with him about being more serious. Look at what has happened to him. His first hit in the majors was a homerun. I was very proud.”
One of the more endearing qualities of Carl Nichols is how little he wanted to talk about himself. He just wanted to talk about all of those kids he coached that are now looking at major league careers. “I worked with Anthony Gose of the Blue Jays for years. Everyone told him that he had to be a pitcher because his swing was terrible. He came to me and asked if I agreed with them. I told him to do what he had a passion for and we worked on his swing for hours every day. When he was drafted, a team told him that he would go in the first round if he would pitch. He turned them down. That is a lot of money, but he has the right moral character to know that he should do what he is passionate about.” The stories flowed out of Nichols like that of a father watching his children grow up. He talked about coaching Aaron Hicks, Ethan Navarro, Dominic Smith, and many other players.
While reflecting upon all of the players that have crossed his path, he mentioned how his career helped him guide so many to successful careers. “If I had been a HOFer, I would be self-centered and living in the Bahamas. It is what we all want, but I feel like I went through my path so that I could help guide others. I teach these kids about the politics of baseball. They have to play the right game with the right attitude. This is especially true of black players because we are perceived in a certain way. The effect I have on black kids and how they have to be no matter how smart they are helps as much as my coaching. There are some players that I have had to teach how to sit at a table and eat dinner.”
There are a lot of ways to support Carl Nichols and his organization, Carl Nichols Baseball Academy. “The most important way to support us is to just tell people about us. I feel like we do great things for these kids, even the ones that do not make it to a professional level. But if you wanted to support us financially, you can donate to us through the website www.carlnicholsbaseballacademy.org. It is a non-profit organization, so all donations can be written off on your taxes. I run this at no cost to the kids and even offer online hitting lessons for people that can’t make it to California for a camp.”
The interview ended with a conversation that struck him as important. Sports personalities have a love/hate relationship with fans and the demands they make of their favorite players. Carl Nichols definitely falls on the love side of that relationship. “Two things happened to me that changed my perspective on this. I used to not understand asking someone for their autograph unless you wanted it on a check. In Baltimore, at Memorial Stadium, players parked in the same parking lot as the fans. There were people always looking for autographs and I came out last one night. There were still quite a few stragglers hoping for someone to still be there and I started talking to a man in his late 40s, which I found a little strange at the time. He told me he was a lifelong Orioles fan and that when he was a child his mom took him to see Brooks Robinson. He was standing in this long line waiting and Robinson took the time to sign for every single fan. That stuck with me. Brooks Robinson did not have to do that, but he did.”
“The second time happened in Houston. We had a rough game. It was a day game and we had to immediately get on the bus after. I was sitting on the bus alone because I needed to be alone and fans kept sneaking onto the bus and asking for autographs. I got tired of them coming on the bus, so I walked off the bus and just started signing for everyone. It makes you feel a little better after a bad game to see that you still have fans. So we go on the road trip and when I get back there is a letter in my locker. A woman from Louisiana sent this letter to me and Art Howe. It said that she had driven her son to Houston and all he wanted was an autograph and he was so disappointed that I was on the bus and not coming out. Then I came out of the bus and immediately signed something for him and that he would forever be an Astros fan.” Nichols paused at this point to contemplate the effect this might have had on that one child’s life. “One little act of kindness can make a difference in a person’s life.” But do not think that he only cares about young collectors. He answers his fan mail but he tries to be smart about it. “If I see that you really mean it, I will sign for you. But mail has always creeped me out a little bit. There is one guy in Pennsylvania that writes to me constantly. He will try to modify his name and just trick his way into it. Then I find the things I sign for him on eBay. If he would just be honest and say he was going to sell the autograph, I would probably sign a lot more stuff for him.”
Carl Nichols has impacted the game of baseball more than the average fan knows. While his career may not be memorable to the average baseball fan, the players that he has guided since his retirement are doing great things for professional baseball right now. If you are able, please go support his organization at www.carlnicholsbaseballacademy.org.