Practice Paying Off for Jon Nelson

SAN ANTONIO, Texas - I'm walking through the clubhouse on day two of the San Antonio Missions' season, two-and-a-half hours before game time. It's a day after Jon Nelson's walk-off home run brought 7,447 fans to their feet, just as much for its unworldly distance as for its game-ending implications. I pass the indoor cage and what is the late-night hero doing? Taking batting practice.

That is, taking more batting practice.

"It's something that I've always done to get not just physically prepared, but mentally prepared as well," Nelson said. "I'm kind of a guy who likes a routine and sticks with it."

After taking his share of cuts at the plate with the rest of his team, Nelson retires to the clubhouse for extra swings. It pays off in the end, as for the second night in a row he drives in the winning run, this time on a single in the bottom of the 11th.

"You come in expecting a lot of yourself; I think everybody does," Nelson said. "It's always good to start out with a bang like that, not just for me but for the team too. There was a lot of excitement in the clubhouse and that's always awesome. We all feed off that. It's great to start out like that, and hopefully it carries over."

And carry over it did, as the Missions went on to sweep the Corpus Christi Hooks in the four-game opening series. Although he went hitless in the final game, Nelson managed to record a hit and drive home a run in each of the first three games, finishing 4-of-16 at the plate with a double, home run, steal and four RBI. He also notched an outfield assist in the first game.

What doesn't this guy do? Did I mention he also acts as an interpreter for some of the Latin American players on the roster?

"You set goals for yourself on a mission, to get out there and meet people or learn a different language or two, whatever it takes to get the job done," Nelson said. "And that's helped me here, with how to be goal-oriented and to reach those goals."

As a Mormon hailing from Orem, Utah, Nelson left school and baseball at Dixie College in 1998 to go on a two-year mission to Miami, Florida, learning multiple languages in that time and growing as a person.

"It's something that I always wanted to do, and then baseball came up, and it was a really tough decision for me," Nelson said. "But with my beliefs, I felt good about going on a mission and felt like I could have that opportunity to play when I got back. Hopefully I'm handling it alright and making the most of my opportunity. That's what I told myself I wanted to do.

"And you grow a lot on a mission, going through tough times and good times, learning to converse with people. You've got all that, and you've especially got that in baseball. There are a lot of parallels, and it's helped me to deal with them."

Since the Mariners selected him in the 26th round of the 2000 amateur draft , Nelson has played three years at various Single-A-level ballclubs, last year hitting .303 with 30 doubles, 19 homers, 95 RBI and 26 steals at Inland Empire. The 25-year old has quickly made up for lost time, being up to five years older than some of his teammates.

"I think I'm on the right track," Nelson said. "Obviously everybody wants to move up as quickly as possible, but I feel pretty comfortable where I am right now."

In just one series this year, the Greek statue of a man (yet still very approachable) has made quite a splash, impressing all at hand at Nelson Wolff Municipal Stadium over the weekend, including his manager.

"He's a big strong kid," said Missions manager Dave Brundage. "He had a great spring training, and he's a well rounder player. (Nelson's) got one thing that a lot of people don't have, and that's talent. That's something you can't teach."

To get ready for his Double-A debut, Nelson trained over the off-season in Arizona with strength and conditioning coordinator James Clifford, also working on hitting drills and individual defense with other staff members. Still, all the training in the world does not fully prepare one for the introduction to higher competition, whether it be from high school-to-college baseball or within the minor league ranks.

"It's only been two games so it's kind of hard to give a detailed description, but you can just tell it's a higher level," Nelson said last Saturday. "Guys are more confident, a lot smoother. The pitchers have better command and they keep the ball around the dish. Those are just some of few differences you see right off the bat."

In addition, this season marks his second in left field, a relatively new position for the former first baseman. Brundage said the player has adjusted well to the outfield, having switched to the position after going through instructional league before starting at Inland last year.

Nelson said he will play wherever the opportunity lies, but for now is perfectly comfortable with his spot in the outfield.

"I love it. It's a lot of fun getting out there and running around a little bit," he said. "It's opened up my game, even on the base paths; I started to run a little more last year.

"But as far as left goes, I'd like to stay out there as long as I can, as long as there's an opportunity there."

As with all who have watched the Missions' first four games, Nelson sees quite a bit of talent on the team and envisions good things happening.

"We have a great team. A lot of us guys have moved up together," Nelson said. "I'm glad to be here in Double-A with the chance to progress and just do what I've been doing the past couple of years."

So if you're ever in the Missions' clubhouse, don't be surprised to see a number 39 swinging away a day after a monster game at the plate.

"He's got a great work ethic, and he understands what it takes to succeed," Brundage said. "He's a great teammate and person, and that's something I want to instill in the whole team. When you're a good teammate, good things will happen."

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