Sept. 19, 2011
By Jon Cooper
Kids could learn a lot by following the career of Mike Nickeas.
A Vancouver, B.C., native, Nickeas played three seasons at Georgia Tech (2002-04), before being selected by the Texas Rangers in the fifth round of the 2004 June Draft. The New York Mets acquired him at the 2006 Trade Deadline for outfielder Victor Diaz.
At Tech, he was renowned as a superb defensive catcher, a reputation that followed him in the pros, as in 2005, Baseball America named Nickeas the top defensive catcher in the Rangers minor league system, and last April 11th, David Waldstein of the New York Times, called him “one of the best defensive catchers and pitch receivers the [Mets] ever had.”
At the plate, Nickeas was a big-time clutch hitter, batting .321 in eight NCAA Tournament games, including being part of Georgia Tech’s 2002 College World Series team. The following year he hit .364 in the ACC Tournament, including a huge, go-ahead two-run double in the ninth inning of Tech’s 10-7 win over Florida State as part of the team’s miraculous run to the 2003 ACC Tournament Championship.
Pro ball has proved a battle for Nickeas, who, bounced between Double- A and Triple-A, playing 100 games at Triple-A Buffalo between 2008 and 2010. He battled offensive inconsistency and a series of injuries, including a wrist injury that nearly led to his retiring from baseball after the 2009 season.
But Nickeas reconsidered and came back for 2010. On Sept. 2, his persistence paid off, as the Mets called him up to the Majors. He’d make his Major League debut two days later against the Chicago Cubs and get his first Major League hit on Sept. 29th, a single off Milwaukee’s Yovani Gallardo. It would also turn out to be his first multi-hit game.
Nickeas made the 2011 Mets out of Spring Training, as catcher Ronny Paulino served his league-imposed suspension, and spent the season’s first month in the Majors before being sent back to Buffalo. In that time, he played eight games and blasted his first home run off Houston’s J.A. Happ. He was called back up again in September and this past weekend played for the second time at Turner Field — he entered in the eighth inning of the 12-2 win and was 0-for-1.
Nickeas took time to talk with Sting Daily prior to Sunday afternoon’s series finale with the Atlanta Braves about getting to the bigs, coming up big for the Yellow Jackets (note his modesty below when talking about the ’03 ACC Tournament game against Florida State) and enjoying Tech football’s big win Saturday afternoon.
STING DAILY: How are you enjoying life in the bigs and playing at Turner Field?
Mike Nickeas: It’s fantastic. This is obviously the level we strive to get to and to be here, especially when you come to my hometown now, it’s a great feeling.
STING: You took the long way to the Majors. Was there ever a point you thought that maybe it wasn’t worth it?
NICKEAS: Yeah and I think that happens to a lot of guys because the minor leagues can be quite a grind. There are times where through injuries and other stuff I was like, ‘I don’t know if this is in the cards anymore. My window is kind of closing on when I can make a push for this thing.’ Fortunately I stayed healthy and put together a good year last year. Now it seems like some good things are happening and it is what it is.
STING: What are your best memories of playing at Turner Field against Georgia?
NICKEAS: We played one game here where we beat Georgia really badly. It was like 18-4. That was a great feeling, especially in front of a crowd that was wearing mostly red. So to do that here was awesome. (NOTE: Nickeas was referring to 2004, when Georgia Tech beat Georgia 12-5, but we can forgive him. after all, doesn’t 18-4 sound nicer?).
STING: Have you had a lot of friends and family at the games this weekend?
NICKEAS: Yeah. I had a lot of buddies, a lot of old teammates come in. Jeff Kindel was down here, Jason Neighborgall, Cameron Lane, Jeff Watchko came down. It was great to see those guys. We still keep in touch. It’s great that they come down and support me. Those guys are like my brothers. I grew up with those guys.
STING: What is your best memory of Georgia Tech days?
NICKEAS: I think the favorite for me was when we were in the loser’s bracket in the ACC Tournament in 2003. We got rained out and then we had to play three games in one day if we wanted to win the whole thing. We won all three games, all against top-25 competition, UNC (10-6), Florida State (10-7) and then N.C. State (6-5) and we beat all three. I caught two of those games that day and DH’ed the middle one. We won it, we got a great ring for it and it was an awesome experience.
STING: Was it one of those magical days when you know something good was going to happen?
NICKEAS: That was kind of the feeling. We scored a lot of runs in the first game. We were like, ‘Okay, we’re going to win this one.’ We move on. Florida State we had trouble with the year before (0-4, including an elimination loss in the ACC Tournament). We beat them late in the game. I think we took the lead in the ninth inning. Then, N.C. State went extra innings but we always felt good against them. Once we won the second game we were like, ‘Okay, we HAVE TO win this thing now. We’re not going two out of three.’ You don’t play three games and lose the last one.
STING: How closely do you keep in touch with Coach Hall?
NICKEAS: A lot, actually. I talked with him the other day. I work out at the facilities every off-season. I live in Dunwoody now so it’s really close for me to come down and see the boys and how they’re doing, see ‘Princey’ (Assistant Coach Bryan Prince) out there and talk shop. It’s great. I love hanging around campus. They’ve been great about allowing me, and a lot of the other professional guys, to come back.
[Strength and Conditioning Coach] Steve Tamborra does an awesome job of allowing us to come in and work out in the weight room. It really is a family environment down there. The coaching staff and Steve have a lot to do with that.
STING: How much fun was watching the Tech-Kansas football game [Saturday]?
NICKEAS: It was a great game. I saw some of it but the satellite was down, so it was on and off. Every time they scored I was getting updates on my phone and I was like, ‘Okay, we’ve got it.’ 3-0 is a great way to start the year. It was awesome. I hope they keep it up.
STING: It’s a shame you’re headed out of town, with Fall Practice starting tomorrow.
NICKEAS: I know. I would have loved to have come by and checked it out but I’ll be there in a couple of weeks. I’ll be watching and working out with the guys.