Jeff McNeely (TRADING CARD DB)

Jeff McNeely

This article was written by Bill Nowlin

Jeff McNeely (TRADING CARD DB)When he got his shot at major-league baseball, speedy outfielder Jeff McNeely did very well indeed, batting .297 in 21 games. His on-base percentage was .409 and he stole six bases.

That call-up came late in the 1993 season; the 23-year-old was then in his fifth year as a pro. Yet he never made it back, hampered by injuries and turnover among his instructors. After 1996, he went on to a career in education.

Jeffrey Lavern McNeely was born in Monroe, North Carolina, on October 18, 1969. He was the youngest of four children born to Joyce McNeely, a home health provider, and Jesse James McNeely, a machinist. Jeff had a sister, Michelle, and brothers James and Greg.

Sports appealed to Jeff. As a young teenager he took part in Golden Gloves competition and became a Junior Olympic boxing champion. Yet he gave up that sport because of the worry he said it caused his mother and because the travel involved was taking away from his studies.1 His life was more geared around football, though. He was a running back and linebacker, reportedly wooed by the University of Michigan. McNeely had good size – the right-hander stood 6-feet-2 and was listed at 190 pounds – but he said a couple of baseball scouts who had been following him advised him that he had a better chance of making it in baseball.2

One man was particularly influential: coach Lon Joyce from Spartanburg Methodist College in Spartanburg, South Carolina.3 “Lon Joyce saw me at an American Legion game,” McNeely recalled in 2022. “He saw me throw the ball from the outfield, saw me swing the bat, saw me run. They liked Bo Jackson-type players at the time – big, athletic outfielders. I was one of those guys who could not only run but could throw. He felt like my skill set would match up. I should go to the junior college and see how I would do.”4 McNeely did so after graduating from high school.

He said, “I think that if baseball hadn’t worked out in my first year or two, I would have went on and pursued football. But it worked out that I got drafted in the second round in my first year.” A few months before he turned 20, the Boston Red Sox selected him in the June 1989 amateur draft. He signed the very next day; the signing scout was Howard McCullough.5

McNeely was assigned to rookie ball with the Gulf Coast League Red Sox. After hitting .406 with four RBIs in nine games, he moved to the Class-A Elmira Pioneers in the New York/Penn League. In 61 games, he hit an even .250 with 21 RBIs and 16 stolen bases. He had said he really loved to steal bases, building on the philosophy, “That’s half the battle. You’ve got to want to do it.”6

In 1990, after 16 games with Winter Haven in extended spring training, McNeely spent most of his time (73 games) with Elmira again, batting .313 with 37 RBIs, hitting a career-high six home runs. Near the end of August, the Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo wrote, “He’s a few years away, but considered the best raw talent in the farm system.” One scout compared his speed to Rickey Henderson’s.7 A number of people compared him to Ellis Burks, who’d become an All-Star outfielder for Boston that summer.

McNeely credited two minor-league hitting instructors as very influential in his development as a batter: Steve Braun and Terry Crowley. Both had been known as first-rate pinch-hitters in the majors. “They taught me more of a line-drive approach – to hit the ball hard on the ground and run – utilize my speed.”

McNeely’s 1991 season was spent entirely with the Lynchburg Red Sox of the Advanced-A Carolina League, playing under Buddy Bailey. He suffered a separated right shoulder in early May and hurt his leg in August (both while stealing bases). Still, he got into 106 games and put up his best offensive stats, batting a league-leading .322 with an on-base percentage of .436. Mostly a singles hitter, he homered four times with 16 doubles and five triples among his 123 base hits. Despite missing close to a month with the two injuries, he still stole 38 bases. He had been named Player of the Month in July. At the end of the season, McNeely was added to Boston’s 40-man roster. Upper Deck/Baseball America rated him the “American League prospect with the best tools.”8

Having earned a promotion to Double-A New Britain in the Eastern League, McNeely struggled in 1992. He hurt his right shoulder again in spring training and tried to battle through it. He also pulled a hamstring at the end of May and was “hampered by a groin injury most of the season.”9 He ultimately underwent arthroscopic surgery on the shoulder after the season. He appeared in only 85 games and hit just .218. He drove in 11 runs but scored 30. Manager Jim Pankovits said, “There’s no telling what kind of year we could have had if we could have had him in the starting lineup leading off every game…There were very high expectations for him this season, but he just didn’t have a chance.”10

McNeely was a true athlete, with speed and no lack of self-confidence. “I have unlimited potential,” he said during spring training in 1993. “I don’t know how good I’m going to be, but the tools are there and this is a pivotal year for me. This is the year I’ve got to show everyone that I am the solution, that I can be the answer to center field or leadoff and the speed problem.”11 The opportunity was there – Ellis Burks had suffered a subpar, injury-plagued 1992 season and left Boston as a free agent. Bob Zupcic was more of a fill-in across the outfield. Veteran Billy Hatcher had played mostly left field in 1992.

The Red Sox had left McNeely off the protected list when the expansion draft had taken place. Every year for four years the team had had a different instructor work with him on hitting, and the lack of consistency may have had a negative effect. Though he looked like a power hitter, given his stature, another school of thought was that he should “slap the ball to take advantage of his speed.”12

Talent evaluators in the Red Sox system knew that McNeely had more potential than he’d shown with New Britain. For the 1993 season, he was placed in Triple A, with the Pawtucket Red Sox. McNeely appeared in 129 games for the PawSox – the most of his career – and hit .261. He came on strong in his final 36 games, hitting over .300. He stole 40 bases, scored 65 runs, anddrove in 35. All in all, he proved the evaluators right.

Thus, in September, McNeely made it to the majors. His big-league debut was on September 5 at Fenway Park. He came into the game as a pinch-runner in the bottom of the ninth inning. Kansas City was beating Boston, 5-1. Leadoff batter Andre Dawson was hit by a Stan Belinda pitch. Manager Butch Hobson brought in McNeely to run for the achy-kneed Dawson, and with Mo Vaughn at the plate, McNeely stole second. He then took third on a wild pitch and scored when Vaughn grounded out to first base unassisted. Belinda retired the next two batters, however, and the game was over.

When he’d been called up, McNeely hardly had time to adjust. “Everything happened so fast. It was like boom – you’re on a plane to Boston. I didn’t even have a chance to break my cleats in; I had a new batting glove and everything I owned was back in Rhode Island.”13

After another pinch-running insertion on September 7, he got his first at-bat the following night. Boston was at Comiskey Park playing the White Sox and after 5 1/2 innings, Chicago was ahead, 5-0. McNeely took over in center field for Billy Hatcher (who’d become Boston’s regular in center that season). He led off the top of the ninth with the Red Sox losing, 8-0. Facing Roberto Hernandez, he lined a single to right field. Thanks to a single and a groundout, he advanced to third base, and scored easily – the only run of the game for the Red Sox – when Carlos Quintana singled to right field. McNeely was batting 1.000.

Two days later, he got his first start and was 0-for-2. He also started on the 19th and 23rd but saw more action as a pinch-runner. Through September 25, he was hitting .143 and the Red Sox were in fifth place, going nowhere. McNeely was given the opportunity to start seven of the next eight games and he came through, going 2-for-3 and 3-for-3 in the next two games. On September 28, his single to center off Detroit’s Bill Krueger drove in Tim Naehring. It was the second run of a game Boston won, 11-6. He scored two runs. Over those seven games, he was 9-for-23, which brought his year-end batting average up to .297. For the season, he had one double and one triple, walked seven times, and stole six bases. He had just the one RBI but had scored 10 runs.

The 21 September and October games proved to be the only ones McNeely played in major-league ball, so those remained his final statistics.

He went on to play in the Arizona Fall League. When he stopped in Monroe to visit family, he said, “Here I am 23 years old, and I’ve already accomplished my goal – to play in the major leagues. Now, I want to stay there and make a new goal – to be a superstar in the majors.” He paused, and then laughed, “If I never, ever play another day in the big leagues, I will know I accomplished my goal. There aren’t many people who can say that, and not many at all at my age.”14

In 1994, however, it was back to Pawtucket. McNeely had gotten off to a strong start in the first half of spring training but then struggled badly. Apparently, some team officials had largely given up on him. He wasn’t getting as much instruction as he had before.15 Rather than keep him in the majors as a reserve, they wanted him to play every day, but when he did, the results were disappointing. As it had been previously, part of the problem may have been an inconsistency in instruction. For each of four years running, McNeely had a different hitting instructor – John Doherty, Steve Braun, Jim Rice, and Mike Easler.16 Needless to say, different approaches to hitting work differently for different hitters. Because McNeely gave the appearance of a potential slugger, it’s not surprising that Jim Rice – particularly given his own success as a slugger at Fenway – took a different tack. “He was more of a guy who wanted me to try and hit more home runs, to pull the ball, but my swing was an inside-out swing, hit to the opposite field. When I started looking to try to hit home runs, my game changed.” And not for the better.

McNeely put in another full season, playing in 117 games. His batting average dropped 30 points, from .261 to .231, though he had more or less the same number of RBIs (34 vs. 35). He had five more extra-base hits, but his number of stolen bases plummeted from 40 to 13. He was caught 17 times, 10 more than in 1993. On the other hand, he only committed two errors, rather than the 11 he had been charged with the year before.

In early December, the St. Louis Cardinals acquired both McNeely and pitcher Nate Minchey from Boston in exchange for infielder Luis Alicea. The Cards knew they weren’t going to be able to re-sign Alicea, so they sought to get the most they could for him while they still controlled his rights.

St. Louis assigned McNeely to play for the Louisville Redbirds of the Triple-A American Association in 1995. He played in a similar number of games, but with many fewer plate appearances (down from 524 to 295). He hit .236, stole just five bases, and drove in just 19 runs.

The drop in the number of steals reflected an increased number of hamstring problems. He was also beginning to experience significant arm and shoulder problems. “My arm started bothering me more and more and more. Every time I threw, it was almost like I needed a cortisone shot. I was using cortisone shots to deaden the pain, but it was doing more damage. I played hurt, through a bad arm, and then when the doctors looked at me, it was arthritic, kind of like what Jeff Bagwell had in his career where it just got harder and harder to throw.”

McNeely spent most of his 1996 season in Double A, apart from three early games in Louisville. He signed a minor-league deal with the California Angels in mid-May and batted .240 with two stolen bases in 36 games for the Midland Angels in the Texas League. The arm problems continued. “It kept happening and I had the choice of either having another surgery or just living a normal life. I wanted the normal life.” It was time to retire.

After baseball, McNeely soon went into education, though he said, “Once I retired, I was depressed for a year, so I took a year off to kind of figure out what I wanted to do.” He got some speaking engagements, addressing middle school students, and caught the attention of Jackie Menser, the principal of Sedgefield Middle School, part of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School system. “She said there was not a lot of African American males working in the middle schools, so she encouraged me to try and pursue work in education. I got into the school system in the summer of 1998. In 1999 I also took a job as a youth baseball coach and coached a youth travel team. The following year – 2000 – I started my own organization, which is called the Charlotte Megastars. They’re still in existence.

“I started out as what was called an E.C. [early childhood] assistant. Then I moved to become a security associate at the Randolph I.B. Middle School. From that I moved into a role called a behavior modification tech – or B.M.T. That led me to staying in the school system to try to help young kids, to have the opportunity of changing their lives at the middle school level.” He was given the title Dean of Students at Randolph at one point, but that was more oriented toward overall discipline and the BMT behavior coach works with teachers as well as the sixth- through eighth-grade students. Essentially, he says, the work could best be called behavior support. “What I like the most about what I do is being able to mentor kids. I love helping children walk down the right path in life.”17

Baseball delayed McNeely’s pursuit of higher education – but as of early 2022, he was not far away from getting his associate’s degree in Business Administration. He has never left baseball, though, working with Lon Joyce as an associate scout for the Dodgers, referring players who he thought might have a chance to make it.

In the meantime, McNeely has been helping raise two children with his fiancée, Kimberly Carelock, who has worked in the health care field. “She had two children when I met her – Willis and Jazmyn Barrino. Not my biological kids, but I’ve raised them since they were 8 and 12. Now they’re 22 and 26.” Both graduated from North Carolina Central University, Willis with a degree in nursing and Jazmyn with a degree in criminal justice.

The Charlotte Megastars are three-time champions – the National Championship of the United States Specialty Sports Association (USSSA) in 2009, the Elite 24 in USSSA in 2010, and the 2010 Triple Crown National Championship.18 McNeely’s program has given him the opportunity to work with a vast number of younger players and help them develop. It encourages the youngsters and tries to help them get commitments from various colleges.

Over the course of its first 21 years, he has had a significant impact on a considerable number of talented youths. The Charlotte Observer noted in a 2015 article that over 100 Megastars had gone on to play baseball in college and three had gone on to become professionals.19 That number has grown. “We’ve got more than that now. I think each year we have added 13 or 14 kids into college programs. I think I’ve helped over 250 kids now into the collegiate and professional ranks. I’ve had two first-rounders. One was Will Wilson. He was a first-round pick for the Los Angeles Angels. The other one was Seth Johnson. He was a supplementary pick for the Tampa Bay Rays.20 Richie Shaffer was a first-round pick for Tampa Bay.21 A kid named Tyler White played in the big leagues for the Houston Astros. He was a Megastar.”22 Other Megastars who have played professionally include Joe Church, Trey Jacobs, Eric Jones, and Josh Roeder.23

McNeely’s approach is for the long term. “It’s ongoing. It’s an ongoing process.”

Last revised: June 2, 2022

 

Acknowledgments

This biography was reviewed by Rory Costello and Norman Macht and fact-checked by Jeff Findley.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com, Retrosheet.org, and SABR.org.

 

Notes

1 Nick Cafardo, “Will he keep promise?” Boston Globe, March 5, 1992: 65, 70. It was written that he was 28-0 in Gold Gloves bouts. Sean Horgan, “Red Sox’s McNeely has the right style,” Hartford Courant, March 9, 1994: F6.

2 Cafardo, “Will he keep promise?”

3 After 14 years at Spartanburg, Lon Joyce became a scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1992. He was named MLB national scout of the year in 2007 and inducted into the Professional Baseball Scouts Hall of Fame the next year.

4 Author interview with Jeff McNeely on February 26, 2022. Unless otherwise indicated, any unattributed quotations come from this interview.

5 Thanks to Rod Nelson of SABR’s Scouts and Scouting Research Committee. See also 1991 Red Sox Media Guide.

6 Cafardo, “Will he keep promise?”

7 Nick Cafardo, “Mostly good reviews for farm system’s 1990 talent show,” Boston Globe, August 26, 1990: 53.

8 Peter Gammons, “Braves’ success shows arms race is essential,” Boston Globe, October 27, 1991: 55. Gammons quoted Baseball America as having dubbed McNeely “the most exciting prospect” in the American League. See “Sox have never been in a hurry to find speed,” Boston Globe, January 24, 1992: 88.

9 Paul Doyle, “For many of the BritSox, not their level best,” Hartford Courant, September 3, 1992: b1.

10 Doyle.

11 Nick Cafardo, “Speedy ascent for McNeely?” Boston Globe, March 1, 1993: 42.

12 Nick Cafardo, “Speed,” Boston Globe, March 7, 1994: 39-40.

13 Charlotte Observer, October 21, 1993.

14 Charlotte Observer, October 21, 1993.

15 Nick Cafardo, “The strange case of Jeff McNeely,” Boston Globe, August 28, 1994: 83.

16 Cafardo, “Speed.”

17 “Former slugger goes back to school,” Charlotte Observer, March 18, 2015: Q2.

18 Email from Jeff McNeely, March 13, 2022.

19 “Former slugger goes back to school.”

20 Wilson is a shortstop, drafted in June 2019. Johnson was also selected in the June 2019 draft.

21 Shaffer played in 51 games for Tampa Bay in 2015 and 2016.

22 White was a first baseman, a 33rd round pick in June 2013. He played in the majors in the years 2016-2019 and was with Triple-A Buffalo in 2021.

23 Visit the Charlette Megastars website at: https://www.charlottemegastars.com/teams/?u=CHARLOTTEMEGASTARS&s=baseball

Full Name

Jeffrey Lavern McNeely

Born

October 18, 1969 at Monroe, NC (USA)

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