A professional career that endured numerous challenges, Nieuwenhuis stepped away from baseball only to return as a hitting coach for his alma mater a few months later.
July 12, 2015. That Thursday morning for New York Mets’ outfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis was as mundane as any before — and during this time of his life, the 28-year-old had grown accustomed to monotonous days.
The 2015 season was proving to be the most difficult campaign of his professional career. After a 3-for-38 start from the plate to begin the year, Nieuwenhuis was designated for assignment and eventually traded to the Los Angeles Angels for cash considerations. It was supposed to be a restart to his career, where he would play alongside arguably the best player in baseball: Mike Trout. That dream amounted to just 22 at-bats in which he held a batting average of .136. Fourteen days after making it on the Angels roster, he was released again.
“That 2015 Spring Training was the first time I knew I had a legitimate shot to make the major league roster, and I had a great run during that stretch. But once the season started, I started having big struggles at the plate. Like struggles I had never experienced before,” Nieuwenhuis said.
Three days after, he was picked up by the Mets again. Being immediately sent to Triple-A, Nieuwenhuis was promoted to the major league club on July 7, listed as the fifth outfielder on the team’s depth chart. However, when Mets manager Terry Collins released his lineup on July 12 against the Arizona Diamondbacks, Nieuwenhuis was hitting fifth.
Injury played a role in the decision, as the usual starting left fielder Michael Cuddyer was dealing with an injured left knee. The biggest reason for the lineup change was left-handed batters — which Nieuwenhuis was — having incredible success against the Arizona starter Rubby De La Rosa. Kirk would go on to prove the decision right.
In a 5-3 win, Nieuwenhuis, who entered the game with a .091 batting average, would hit three home runs in his first three at-bats. He was the first Met in history to ever accomplish that feat in the team’s home park. Citi Field, which was filled with 28,259 viewers, roared with applause during his final plate appearance despite it resulting in a strikeout. It didn’t matter to Mets fans — they had seen history.
But, when the press asked about his feat and answering critics during the postgame conference, Kirk responded by saying, “There’s more to life than baseball.” In quite possibly the height of his baseball career, he had already learned that life outside of the game was more important than life in it.
“At that moment, God was basically telling me ‘Look, this life in baseball is not all that it is cracked up to be,'” Nieuwenhuis said. “That game was such an incredible moment for me and my career, but I knew from my brief time as a professional player that that moment of fulfillment won’t always last.”
. . .
While Nieuwenhuis was born in California, he was first recognized as a star multi-sport athlete in Highlands Ranch, Colo. Attending a small private school known as Denver Christian High School, Nieuwenhuis was actually scouted for his play as a football running back where he led his school’s program to a state championship. He was impressive enough to where his high school coach Mark Swallow compared him to Gale Sayers for his vision and elusiveness. At the time, football was his first love due to the relationship between him and his father.
“My dad never played high school baseball. He was obsessed with high school football, and he played collegiate football for Weber State before he was injured, which ended his football career,” Nieuwenhuis recalled. “And he built our bond through that. We would spend countless hours in the basement practicing linebacker drills and whatnot. It was definitely my number one sport at the time.”
Scouting during these times was incredibly difficult because it was a process that generally remained local. For Nieuwenhuis, being in a small school environment in Colorado meant that most of his opportunities for collegiate football would remain in the state. The opportunities that he was given were impressive, as he received scholarship offers for some of the state’s biggest collegiate programs like the University of Colorado (CU) and the Air Force Academy.
When he traveled to CU to watch a football game as a prospect, he experienced a revelation. Mason Crosby, who is currently a kicker for the Green Bay Packers, was playing for the Buffaloes at the time. The less-than-six-foot Nieuwenhuis looked on in worry, realizing that if the kicker was above six feet, there’s no way he could maintain a career in football as a running back.
“CU basically told me that if I wanted to see the field I would have to gain twenty pounds in my freshman year alone. And they also planned to turn me into a wide receiver,” he said. “That was sort of a reality check. Yes, I loved football, but I realized that the likelihood of me playing for a long period of time and seeing the field as a freshman was slim.”
He did play baseball in high school, and he learned to appreciate the sport from playing in humble neighborhood games with his elementary school friends and competing with travel ball teams as a child. However, he did not predict baseball to be a part of his college experience. One of the biggest reasons for this was because CU did not have a baseball team, and only a handful of universities in the area scouted him for baseball. After long consideration, he decided that baseball was the sport he did want to pursue, but in order to do so, he would have to leave his home.
Several of his friends from high school attended Azusa Pacific, and he had heard nothing but positive things about the campus and community. When he went to Southern California to watch the Cougars play, it was the surrounding universities that caught his eye. He approached Pepperdine University, and they told him that they only scouted within the area. Next was Biola, where they were impressed by his CD tape but didn’t have the finances to offer him a scholarship.
From there, that exact tape reached APU head coach Paul Svagdis, who remains the Cougars head coach to this day. Svagdis invited Nieuwenhuis to a workout, but it rained that day and practice ended up being canceled. Although Svagdis had never seen Kirk play in person, he offered him a scholarship anyways.
“It was pretty surreal for coach Svagdis and the program to trust me and my skillset so quickly. It made me feel wanted. But more than anything I felt an immediate bond with the staff here. Growing up in a football background, Paul (Svagids) and I connected on that level. It just felt natural here from the start,” Nieuwenhuis mentioned.
What followed was one of the most decorated careers in program history. Over the span of his three years as a Cougar, Nieuwenhuis batted a career .373 average and scored 190 runs, which is a program record. His best season was seen in his junior year when he was named an NAIA All-American first-team selection after batting .400 with 20 doubles, 15 home runs and 68 RBI’s.
Although the team was 24-25 during his freshman year, APU carried a 97-22 record during his sophomore and junior seasons. In that two-year span, not only did the team win two Golden State Athletic Conference titles, but they also experienced back-to-back NAIA World Series appearances.
When the team reached the playoffs, APU students were not on campus since the school year was no longer occurring, and rarely did Kirk notice students in the stands throughout their postseason pushes. The excitement that Nieuwenhuis remembers from that time was provided by the players themselves — which was embodied through a bond that still remains today.
“Just last Christmas break, the ’07 and ’08 guys connected over Zoom, and we all got to catch up with each other,” Nieuwenhuis said. “Those runs we made are definitely my fondest moments as a college player. But what I remember the most was the camaraderie between all the guys. We just had a blast.”
. . .
In the 2008 MLB Draft, Nieuwenhuis was selected as the 100th player by the Mets in the third round, making him the fourth-highest draft selection for a Cougar. Playing in the New York-Penn League and Triple-A Buffalo for two full seasons, Nieuwenhuis was added to the Mets’ 40-man roster in November of 2011. However, a torn labrum cut his season in half, and it wasn’t until April of 2012 when he was called up to the major league squad.
In his first game as a Met, which occurred on the same exact day he was called up, he went 2-4. Twenty days later he hit a walk-off single in a game against the Miami Marlins. Suddenly, Nieuwenhuis was beginning to see a case to win the National League Rookie of the Year early in the season after starting his rookie campaign with a .297 average in the first two months. His quick start initiated the nickname “Captain Kirk” among the Mets fanbase.
“The moment when I realized that the fans were acknowledging me was when I looked into the stands and saw a few t-shirts that made fun of my last name,” Nieuwenhuis laughed about. “It would say ‘Kirk’ and then it was an attempt at writing my last name, but with all the letters it has it would be misspelled and they scratched it out. I remember thinking that was the coolest thing.”
Suddenly, the business of the game hit him. After pitchers began to watch film of his swing and determined the best defensive gameplan once he was at the plate, he struggled to find a rhythm. Throughout the remainder of the year, he hit .123 and struck out on 44 percent of his at-bats until he was eventually optioned to Triple-A. Another injury — a partial tear of the plantar fascia in the right foot — sidelined him yet again.
He was no longer a bright, young player on an MLB roster, as he failed to play up to club standards, along with personal expectations. Even after the three home run game in 2015 and a World Series appearance that same year, Nieuwenhuis was placed on waivers ahead of the 2016 season and never truly stuck on another professional team.
Deciding he still wanted to play baseball, he signed with the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League of Professional Baseball. However, his wife, Bethany, was expecting their second child during that time, and he quickly realized that being an independent player was not providing a stable income. Under those circumstances, he was forced to retire from the game. Yet from his own personal conviction, he knew it was also the best decision for himself and his health.
“When you play this game professionally, a lot of players don’t get to pick when they’re done playing the game. Usually, injury or a lack of opportunity makes the decision for them,” Nieuwenhuis said. “I was in a place where if I retired I was in good health and could pursue other things. And under those circumstances, I felt very convicted that it was the right choice for me.”
His future was uncertain following that difficult decision. Although he did go back to school and received his BA in Business Management at APU, he didn’t have a plan for his future endeavors until a familiar voice called.
“Paul called me with the offer at a time when I truly did not see myself as a coach at all. I would have guessed that I would step away from the game entirely, at least for the time being. But I know how good of a man coach is, and realistically I wouldn’t have taken a job like this for anyone else besides him. It was just a good fit for me,” Nieuwenhuis said.
While coaching was not something he pictured doing following his retirement from the game, coming back to APU was an opportunity he could not refuse. However, his first season as the hitting coordinator was brought to a halt after only 20 games thanks to COVID-19 bringing an end to the 2020 campaign.
“It seemed like when things got cut short last year, it was a time when we were fully getting into the swing of things. It was shocking for everything to shut down as quickly as it did,” Nieuwenhuis mentioned.
Suddenly, the game was taken away from the entire program, and with 2021 providing somewhat of a sense of normalcy back to APU baseball, Nieuwenhuis sees that the team is quickly learning a lesson of gratitude — something he appreciated learning during his time in the majors.
“The time where we couldn’t play really gave us a good perspective towards understanding how quickly things get taken away,” Nieuwenhuis said. “Now more than ever these guys realize that each time you step on the field, it’s a gift. And in baseball, keeping that mindset is so important to a player’s confidence and motivation.”
He is getting to work with an offense that has impressed so far this season. The Cougars, who are entering Friday on a nine-game winning streak, have 11 players on their roster who are hitting .310 or better with at least 10 plate appearances. A lot of that has to do with Nieuwenhuis’ guidance, as he is providing a wealth of knowledge towards key processes in a batter’s approach. And as the season continues, Nieuwenhuis and the Cougars are hopeful to see even more progression from their players.
Yet, when Kirk looks at the field he now coaches on, he continues to reflect on memories from his time as a player. To him, the grass and dirt look and feel exactly how he remembers, and it brings him back to the excitement he felt as a young player. Now, Nieuwenhuis feels that excitement in a much different way, but witnessing the passion and jubilation from the players in the dugout is what brings him so much pride as a new coach. It’s what baseball is all about to him.
“If I’m being honest, being back here makes me feel old, man,” Nieuwenhuis said. “But it also just brings up really great memories of those weekend doubleheaders and the road trips and the team dinners I had as a player. That’s the experience I want all of these guys to have. Sure competing is a blast, but being a part of a team is what makes this game so enjoyable.”