In a storage unit in Pasadena, California, you can find notes from the day a future star began his rise.
Mark Kertenian, who penned them, knew Jeff McNeil possessed exceptional talent. His notes on a Saturday doubleheader in October 2009 were not long because, at a point, he trusted what he saw and opted not to waste any more ink.
Kertenian has observed a shameful amount of herd mentality in the player development industry, but McNeil has served as a reminder that a player’s determination is the driving force. Norms can be shattered and those willing to think creatively may be rewarded.
In following and keeping in touch with the one now called “Squirrel,” Kertenian has drawn a simple truth.
“You can remind them of what they’re capable of, but he did not need a vision created for him,” said Kertenian, who coached at Cal State Northridge when he recruited McNeil but now is an assistant coach with the Triple-A Oklahoma City Dodgers. “He was willing to do whatever it took and he never stopped.”
Those close to McNeil focus on his journey more than his current success as an All-Star utility man with the New York Mets. Kertenian and others use the story as an example of what can happen with grit and will, work ethic and confidence. McNeil received a small break many years ago, took advantage of it and never looked back.
The most important lesson might be this: Stay true to yourself.
McNeil, his supporters say, knew who he was and never changed — for anyone. He’s beloved because his road makes you believe in yourself and convince yourself that you, too, can do anything.
“He’s the hero of the common man,” said Vince Sagisi, a former Cleveland Indians scout who not only led Kertenian to McNeil, but was the first baseball man to believe in a skinny kid who had not played the sport in years.
Discovering a gem
From the stands of a scout league game, Kertenian tried to put himself in McNeil’s shoes.
I just started playing baseball after having not played in over four years. There’s a college coach here to watch me. I’m facing stiff competition.
“Like, that’s a ton of pressure, man,” Kertenian said. “I don’t care if you’re a big leaguer or a guy in his shoes or a regular youth ball player. That’s just going to pressure anybody on the face of this earth.”
Backstory: Sagisi and Kertenian are friends who met in the early 2000s. Sagisi coached the Indians’ scout ball team, sponsored by the organization, while Kertenian coached at Cal State Northridge. One day, Sagisi — who made it a mission to help players from the central coast of California receive exposure — called Kertenian and told him he might have a player for him. But it was going to take someone thinking creatively, Sagisi said, “for what I believe is going to be a special player.”
The kid had played golf and basketball, but no high school baseball.
He was raw.
Still, Kertenian made the trip to Rio Hondo College in Whittier, California.
Kertenian watched McNeil warm up and play catch before the games. “It was obvious that it was not a regular part of his routine,” he said. While McNeil’s teammates were nonchalant, flipping the ball around and making aggressive throws, McNeil seemed concerned about making sure he stood in the right place.
The recruiter, who had a heart, commended McNeil for simply giving it a go. He wondered how the high school senior would fare. He soon received the answer he least expected.
“In two games, facing multiple 90-mph arms, all college-bound signees and guys who were slated to be potential draft picks, Jeff McNeil did not swing and miss one time,” said Kertenian, recalling it took until the middle of the second game for him to notice a streak.
Kertenian began to think.
McNeil does not have any real power. He hasn't played in “God knows how long.” But Vince must have summoned me for a reason, right? What makes this kid special?
He peeked at his notes and realized that, in 14 swings, McNeil had not whiffed once.
“He is the only recruit that I can ever remember that I observed swing that many times without failing to hit the ball,” said Kertenian, who was a recruiting coordinator at three schools.
Just like the scholarship Kertenian eventually extended, McNeil earned his spot on that scout league team. Sagisi knew the McNeils because Ryan, Jeff’s younger brother, pitched for the team.
It is Sagisi’s understanding that, in the fall of 2009, Jeff participated in a golf tournament and did not do too well. He hoped to earn a golf scholarship, but his prospects were not promising, so he eventually approached Sagisi and asked if he could try out for the team.
Sagisi said yes. During the session, he threw McNeil batting practice and learned he had the best hand-eye coordination he had ever seen in a hitter.
“I was trying to make him swing and miss,” said Sagisi, who later remembered he cut McNeil in a tryout for this same team when the kid was a freshman. “It’s like, ‘OK, this guy hasn’t played baseball in his high school career, I’m going to make him look bad.’ I couldn’t. So I said, ‘Well, this guy’s good enough to play.’”
By not whiffing during the tryout, McNeil earned a spot on the squad. By not whiffing in his first game, he earned entry into the baseball world.
“The way I got recruited was kind of out there,” McNeil said. “Nobody knew about me. I got lucky because I had a few good people in my corner like Vince, calling people for me like, ‘Hey, come take a look at this kid. He doesn’t play baseball but you’ll want him on your team.’”
'He still treats everyone the same'
Nipomo is a small town on the central coast of California. Less than 20,000 people live there. It’s a one-freeway exit town with one high school. You’ll see 15 people you know when you go to the grocery store.
“I would call it a hidden gem,” said Ryan McNeil.
Jeff is like Nipomo in that way. Nipomo is beautiful, but it’s not flashy like Los Angeles or San Francisco. Ryan said the town’s personality has shaped the person Jeff is to this day.
Jeff played college baseball before the Mets drafted him. He fought through the minors — despite a couple bad injuries — and made the bigs. Last season, he was an All-Star who led the league in batting at the break.
But what Nipomo likes most about Jeff these days, Ryan said, is that he’s remained the normal, approachable guy he’s been since the McNeils moved there from Santa Barbara Jeff's freshman year in high school. He is unchanged by fame and success.
Nipomo is happy Jeff put it on the map. It is even happier that he still acts like one of its own. He still goes back every offseason, still uses the local gym and grocery store, still stays in touch with friends there.
“He’ll still treat everybody the same,” Ryan said. “Nothing about his success has changed who he is as a person.”
Throughout his career, Jeff has been like that. He needed confidence to reach his goals but his humility never suffered because of it.
When the Mets played the Dodgers in Los Angeles, McNeil sat with Kertenian and talked during Dodgers batting practice. They’ve also remained in touch and seen one another at various points throughout McNeil’s career, and the Met is grateful for the man who first came to watch him play.
When McNeil was in college, he spent a summer in the Cape Cod League. Many players, Kertenian said, will shrug off coaches there. Instead, McNeil looked at coach John Altobelli like: “You’re one of the best coaches in the world. Can you help me?” Altobelli died in January in the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant but, to this day, McNeil credits Altobelli for helping motivate him to reach his goals.
McNeil also played for Bill Pintard, a Yankees scout who coaches the Santa Barbara Foresters of the California Collegiate League (another summer baseball league). The team often did hospital visits and McNeil always offered his time. Nowadays, he sends Pintard signed jerseys and still calls him “coach.”
Over the offseason, McNeil went to Nipomo High’s alumni basketball game. He couldn’t play because he was recovering from wrist surgery, but he signed every autograph and took every photo asked of him in the gym.
“You’d never hear Jeff McNeil say, ‘Well don’t you know who I am?’” Pintard said. “You’d never hear him say that.”
Hero of the common man
Professional athletes are treated like heroes and gods. They are big, strong, and seemingly superhuman. They perform acts we could never.
Jeff McNeil stands out because of this perception. He is unbelievably talented, but has a way of seeming like a regular guy on the field.
“I’m not a 6-foot-6 giant who hits bombs,” he said. “People kind of relate to the kind of the player I am.”
McNeil’s story is about never giving up on dreams — even if an original plan does not work out. Life is not linear and there are challenges along the way, but McNeil remained true to himself. He believed in himself, then capitalized when given opportunities.
He offers an opportunity to root for a player that has not had a smooth journey. He had to possess thick skin.
“Hey, if he can do it, maybe I can do it, and I’m not the best player,” Sagisi said, describing one lesson McNeil’s story teaches. “Sometimes you don’t have to be the best player — you just have to outwork everybody. But he has ability (too).”
Added Pintard: “It’s just very refreshing in this world of entitled, privileged athletes. He’s earned everything he’s got.”
McNeil is the average person — just with baseball talent. Outside of the sport, his brother said, he’s the regular dude you would see on the street, or your buddy.
“If you didn’t know any better and you were talking to him, you’d have no clue you were talking to a MLB All-Star,” Ryan McNeil said. “That’s not the kind of vibe he gives off.”
Jeff’s rise, Sagisi said, “has been pretty magical.” The accomplishments should continue to pile up as his career progresses. He’ll keep drawing roars and cheers at Citi Field, which will continue to sell more and more No. 6 jerseys.
But his greatest strength might be this: He represents you, the common person. He perhaps helps you believe that you, too, can do anything.