Neal is spending Spring Training watching games in the minor league camp from the bench, recovering from shoulder surgery. But he stays positive. "Things happen for a reason, and I really can't complain," he says, of the injury. "I'm glad, hopefully, that I can get this out of the way while I'm still young, and not while I'm in Triple-A or Double-A, and then get set back."
Neal had surgery in January to repair a torn labrum, after trying to rehab the injury. The Injury stemmed from jamming his shoulder while diving back into first base on a pickoff attempt against the Boise Hawks in the Northwest League Championship series.
Neal isn't spending the spring on easy street, however. He misses the game. "I come in here, I rehab every day, and you have to stay for games. I tell them everyday, ‘you guys are just torturing me. You might as well just throw me under a bus.'" But Neal is finding ways to continue to improve himself. "I actually do pay attention to the pitchers to see if I can pick up tendencies," he says of his activities during the spring training games. "I try to remember their names as much as possible, because I know that probably, more than likely, sometime during this year I might face those guys. And the more I can remember and the more things I can pick up, I think it'll be real helpful in the future."
That makes sense for Neal, a player who has always played hard and looked ahead, even when starting out young. "My mom, she said that when I was 5, I begged her to play ball," he says of his youth. "I guess I was too young for little league, but they let me play anyway, and I was able to do really well and move up the ranks pretty quickly. Baseball's just always been my passion."
His ability to look ahead helped him adjust to where he would play in the pros. Neal had played a lot of middle infield and third base until his senior year at Poway High School. "A lot of scouts were telling me that I was probably going to end up playing outfield if I were to play pro ball, so I just made the transition."
The transition worked, and the Giants picked up Neal in the 36th round of the draft in 2005. Neal couldn't have been happier. "Obviously I was a Padres fan, a little bit," says the San Diego native, "But I was a Giants fan as well. So I was pretty excited when I got drafted by them." From the start, Neal recognized the appeal of the Giants. "It's probably the greatest organization to be in. You look at the history about it, and you have all these rivalries with the Dodgers and the Padres."
But still, something wasn't right. Neal was looking ahead, and made a very intelligent decision about his career.
"I kind of juggled between signing out of high school and going to junior college. I felt that just by going to junior college that I would mature a little bit…and also be able to stand on my own. And that helped a lot so that I wasn't homesick or anything when I left to go play pro ball."
The move did allow Neal to mature. And it also allowed him to show off his skills at Riverside Community College, as he combined a Top 10 ranking in On-Base Percentage for California's Junior Colleges with a Top 20 ranking in Slugging Percentage. But before the 2006 came around, the Giants came back to him.
Neal, who said he was considering going to two of college baseball's powerhouses, Florida State and Cal State Fullerton, had a tough decision to make. But everything was coming together for him. "I really liked the organization. I understood that they were coming up to the point where they were going to start rebuilding. I just wanted to play pro ball. The money was right. Everything was the right thing; it was just the right time to go. Me and my family discussed it, and we decided it was time for me to go to the next level."
It also helped that the Giants as an organization regularly mine the talented diamonds of Southern California for players. "Me and [Jeremiah] Luster played on a travel team for a couple of tournaments together, so I knew him already when I came into the organization," Neal said of his then-future teammates. "I knew about Jesse English and Paul Oseguera, I knew about all those guys when I was coming up. Just coming here, it was nice to see some faces I knew, or people that I knew about that I could talk and get along with right off the bat, so it wouldn't be so awkward."
The money didn't hurt either. Neal turned the $7,000 signing bonus the Giants reportedly offered him as a 36th round pick, and got $220,000 instead after his showing with Riverside.
The Giants also ended up with him wearing the same uniform as one of his favorite managers growing up, and an old family friend.
"Me and [Giants Manager Bruce Bochy's] son, we were friends," Neal laughs about. "We played on the same team since we were 9 years old. We were pretty, pretty close. I know Bochy a little bit… He actually taught me how to tie a tie."
For now, Neal's promising career is on hold, but it won't be forever. Neal expects to start hitting very soon, and could start throwing in June. The rehab road from there could take even longer, but Neal's up for the challenge."If I have to run through a brick wall, that's what I have to do," he says of his determination. "When I go out there, I give 100%. I just want to win, by whatever means necessary."
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