BELOIT—It was Friday, July 15th, 1983 and 3,086 pairs of eyes were on Juan Nieves, the Milwaukee Brewers’ 18-year-old bonus baby pitcher making his first professional start as a Beloit Brewer at Telfer Park.
The native of Puerto Rico was exempt from the American amateur draft and the Brewers had outbid heavy hitters like the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers for his services. His signing bonus was $115,000—paltry by today’s standards, but impressive at that time—after he went 19-1 with a 1.05 ERA during his senior season at the Avon Old Farms School in Connecticut.
Those who came to Telfer Park to see what all the fuss was about weren’t disappointed. The left-handed Nieves handled the Madison Muskies as easily as he handled an army of reporters and cameramen scrutinizing his every move. He pitched six stellar innings of no-hit ball in a 5-0 Midwest League victory by the Brewers.
“He’s put Beloit on the map,” Brewer manager Tim Nordbrook said. “You can’t say enough about the way he conducted himself on the field and off. I’m really proud of him and I’m proud that the fans from Beloit can go home and share in this. This kid is going to have an exceptional career and he’s going to remember this day as long as he lives.”
Nieves did go on to pitch in the big leagues, but for just three seasons (1986-88) due to a career-ending arm injury. On April 15, 1987, he tossed the only no-hitter in Brewers history with a diving catch in center by Hall of Famer Robin Young robbing Eddie Murray to cap off a 7-0 victory over the Baltimore Orioles. That was No. 9 in a 13-game winning streak that opened that season.
In 1983, he was simply the most heralded pitching prospect ever signed by Milwaukee. He had pitched a few times in relief before his first start and he was clearly ready for the starting assignment. He retired the first 11 Muskies in order, finally issuing a walk to Brian Dorsett with two outs in the fourth inning. Dorsett was caught stealing by catcher John Antonelli.
The 6-foot-3, 178-pound Nieves struck out eight and walked three before Nordbrook brought in reliever Bruce Williams to start the seventh. Dorsett greeted him with a single, the Muskies’ lone hit of the night.
Williams also struck out eight in three innings to give Beloit 16 K’s on the night.
Nordbrook said it was predetermined that Nieves would throw no more than 85 pitches.
“(Nieves) was getting close there in the sixth inning,” Nordbrook said. “He had 80 pitches with one out and we didn’t want him to go one pitch over 85. He only threw 84, so I still have a job.”
Nieves handled the hoopla surrounding the game like a veteran.
“I wasn’t playing against the media or the crowd,” he said. “I was playing against the Muskies. I felt I had nothing to lose. I just gave it my best shot. My fastball was moving (clocking at 88 mph) and I was able to keep it low. I had pretty good control of my curveball and change so I could hit the corners.”
Nieves, who would go 7-1 in Beloit with a 1.30 ERA over 69 1-3 innings, said he was fine with leaving the no-hitter.
“I’d rather take it easy now and take it step by step than hurt my arm,” he said.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened in 1988 and Nieves joined a long list of Brewer pitchers who had their careers waylaid by injuries, including Cal Eldred, Jimmy Nelson, Nick Neugebauer and Ben Sheets. Nieves had a 32-25 career record for the Brewers and a 4.71 ERA.
Nieves went on to become a minor league pitching instructor with the Yankees (1992-96) and Chicago White Sox (1999-2007). He was named the pitching coach of the Boston Red Sox in 2013 and his pitchers posted the second-lowest ERA in the American League that season as Boston went on to win the World Series.
Two years later, he was let go.
Today, at 55, he is the pitching coach of the Detroit Tigers’ Triple-A team, the Toledo Mudhens.