As Angels try desperately to contend, Phil Nevin may be the throwback they need

NEW YORK — The Angels‘ leather-skinned skipper erupted up the dugout steps in a fit of rage; red hat, red face, red-ass

Just seconds before, Mike Trout had been called out on strikes by first base umpire Will Little on a borderline check-swing call. With two runners on and two down in a tie game in the top of the ninth inning at Yankee Stadium, it was the type of intense situation that has eluded Trout so far in his otherwise stellar career. Predictably, the future Hall of Famer did not lose his cool, his expression remaining unchanged as he unhooked his arm guard and trotted towards the outfield.

But if Trout’s reaction was a serene Maui beach resort, his manager Phil Nevin’s response was Mauna Loa, an explosion of hot lava in every direction. Nevin charged onto the field like an uncaged hyena with a deep repertoire of four-letter words. He was promptly ejected.

Nevin’s outburst highlighted both sides of the 52-year-old manager’s polarizing persona: The passionate, unequivocal support the former 12-year big leaguer shows for his own players and the abrasive, unhinged fire-breathing that has, at times, rubbed some around the game the wrong way, especially during his tenure on the Yankees‘ big-league staff.

Angels manager Phil Nevin ejected after Mike Trout strikeout dispute

“You can see [Nevin’s intensity] from the opposing dugout,” Angels outfielder Hunter Renfroe, a former Tampa Bay Ray who played against Nevin often, told FOX Sports. “You don’t like it, but you respect the s— out of it. He brings his own personality. He’s been great.”

Starting pitcher Patrick Sandoval added: “He’s not gonna take any crap.”

Twenty years ago, every MLB team had a Nevin type at the helm. A stern, firm, well-worn, bourbon-blooded baseball man, who will chew you out without hesitation or flip over a clubhouse table of snacks in the blink of an eye. A man of both the carrot and the stick.

“There are certain guys that I can be firmer with,” Nevin said told FOX Sports when asked about his fierce approach to managing. “Certain people you can get on, they’ll respond. Other guys you gotta hug all the time. Being a good manager is understanding their personalities.”

And now, in his first full season as Angels manager after taking over from the ousted Joe Maddon just under a year ago, Nevin finds himself at the helm of a particularly urgent operation. 

Since their last postseason appearance in 2014, the Angels have spent nearly a decade fumbling the chili onto the floor. With the two greatest baseball players alive on their roster, Anaheim hasn’t finished a season with a record over .500. And with Shohei Ohtani likely to leave in free agency after the season, this club needs to win this year, if it (1) wants any chance of convincing Ohtani to stay and (2) wants to be competitive at all in the near future. 

It is as crucial a season as this franchise has ever experienced. Now or never, do or die. The players know and so does the front office. So then why, with the stakes so high, did Anaheim’s leadership group opt to re-sign a skipper with fewer than 110 career games as an MLB manager? When Nevin’s interim contract ran out after the last game of last season, they could have thanked him for his service and made a run at Bruce Bochy or any number of fresh-out-of-the-game candidates in their early forties.

Instead, general manager Perry Minasian ran it back, keeping aboard the new-to-managing manager who shepherded the Angles to an underwhelming 46-60 mark under his watch. Why Nevin? Why now?

There are those around the game who have a cynical reading of the situation. Last August, longtime club owner Arte Moreno announced that he was exploring the possibility of selling the Angels. When Minasian and Co. brought Nevin back for another year in early October, they did so under a haze of uncertainty swirling throughout the entire organization. 

Why conduct a thorough managerial search when a new ownership group might clean house and insert new people within the year? The simplest, most prudent option was to retain Nevin, well-liked and respected within the Angels’ clubhouse. And when Moreno changed his mind in mid-January and announced he wouldn’t sell, opting instead to push the chips in for what looks to be Ohtani’s final year, well, Nevin was already under contract.

But speaking to Angels players paints a slightly different story. Nevin’s approval rating is high and he has garnered legitimate respect from his star-studded clubhouse. 

“He doesn’t need to be doing this,” Sandoval said of Nevin, a former No. 1 overall pick who grinded as a coach in the minor leagues for seven years. “He’s here because he’s dreamed about being a big-league manager. The guys in this clubhouse can sense how badly he wants us to win and wants us to do good.”

Multiple players spoke quite highly of Nevin’s approachability, communication skills, outrageous love for baseball and general availability; qualities that contrast starkly to his predecessor, Joe Maddon, who by the end of his time in Anaheim, was spending more time on the golf course than the ballyard. Nevin seems to have made a point of changing that culture.

“Consistency is key,” Nevin explained when asked about his own qualities as a manager. “I pride myself on being available. I’m gonna be myself, I’m gonna be present, and I’m gonna try to be as consistent as I can.”

The club’s recent managerial decisions — clinging onto Mike Scioscia for too long, the bizarre year of Brad Ausmus, the disastrous Maddon era — have all failed miserably. Whether Nevin’s passionate and relatable voice can actually help steady this tumultuous franchise remains to be seen, but he is undoubtedly a fresh act for a club that needed some rejuvenation. 

“We’re not losing 12 in a row under Phil, I’ll tell you that,” one Angel joked, referencing the club’s brutal losing streak from a year ago. “He wouldn’t let that happen.”

Jake Mintz, the louder half of @CespedesBBQ is a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He played college baseball, poorly at first, then very well, very briefly. Jake lives in New York City where he coaches Little League and rides his bike, sometimes at the same time. Follow him on Twitter at @Jake_Mintz.

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