Miners catcher Arturo Nieto talks with pitcher Patrick Duester

Southern Illinois Miners catcher Arturo Nieto (left) talks with pitcher Patrick Duester (35) during a preseason exhibition game at Rent One Park. The Miners released Duester Monday after signing right-hander Tyler Luneke.

MARION — Last year the San Diego Padres bullpen catcher Arturo Nieto was flying charters into Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis and other major league venues.

This year, Nieto is taking bumpy bus rides to Evansville, Florence, Kentucky and Washington, Pennsylvania. No offense to those cities, but the Frontier League and MLB are on two different planes.

If Nieto is bothered by that, it doesn’t show.

“I like Marion,” he said. “It’s a really good city. I like the stadium. I like the team. It’s my big leagues too. I try my best wherever I go. I act like a professional. It’s my job, I do the best I can.”

A native of Venezuela, Nieto is in his eighth season of professional baseball. The 26-year-old catcher was playing with San Diego’s Class 1A team last season when the bullpen catcher opportunity presented itself.

“After the second month of the season they had problems with the other bullpen catcher and they told me about the job,” Nieto said. “So, two weeks before the all-star break they asked me how I felt, if I liked it. If I didn’t I would keep on playing. After the all-star game I said I liked it and I would stay.”

As bullpen catcher, Nieto warmed up starting pitchers prior to games and relievers as the game progressed. The bullpen catcher also works with pitchers on their pickoff moves and works bullpen sessions with pitchers between games.

“It’s amazing,” Nieto said. “That’s good experience for me. It was new for me. I tried to help the team and the pitching staff. It’s easy because I’m a catcher all my life. I knew a lot of guys too. It was a good experience.”

And, while not an active player, nor technically a coach, Nieto lived the big-league experience. He traveled with the team, stayed at the team hotel.

“Nice hotels … really good food, flying charters …,” Nieto said, unable to hide a smile.

The major adjustment was realizing he was no longer a player.

“It’s different,” Nieto said. “You need to see the other side, not like a player. I was playing like a month ago. They told me you I would be a coach.

“The first thing the manager told me, ‘Nieto, now you’re a coach, the players respect you. It’s different. Whatever we talk about in the office, it stays in the office.’ So, you need to learn about that. It was tough. I felt like a player sometimes, but no, I was a coach.”

Yet, Nieto missed being on the field.

“It’s tough, but I took the job,” he said. “I love baseball. I love what I do. You take a job in the big leagues, it’s really good experience. It’s the top.”

When the Padres informed him late in the season they intended to hire a bullpen catcher with more experience, Nieto decided to go back to the field. A member of the Padres organization knew Miners manager Mike Pinto, who reached out to the veteran catcher.

Now, Nieto wears the Miners’ uniform, although last year at this time he had never heard of Marion.

“No, no, never,” he said with a laugh. “They told me it was in Marion, I started looking at the map. I looked at Chicago and St. Louis. I was close to here last year in Chicago and St. Louis.”

Nieto is sharing catching duties with Andy Cosgrove. But, one of his primary roles on the team is sharing his experience.

“I bring my experience to help the pitching staff and the other catcher,” he said. “I try to teach them because when they’re this young they’re not mentally tough. With our experience, we’ll be in the playoffs I think.”

And, when his playing days finally end, Nieto said he would jump at the chance to join the coaching ranks again.

The Miners are currently in the middle of a three-game series with the River City Rascals. The Schaumburg Boomers will be in town this weekend.

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On Twitter: @LesWinkeler​


Sports editor

Les Winkeler is sports editor and outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan.

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