Neil Fiala all about the fun in baseball
Neil Fiala is a St. Louis guy.
He grew up in St. Louis, was a high school All-American, played junior college baseball for the hometown school, Meramec (now St. Louis Community College), and then went to nearby Southern Illinois University.
The dream of every St. Louis ballplayer came true when he was drafted not once, but twice, by the St. Louis Cardinals, first after high school, which he turned down to play for Meramec, which was the defending NJCAA national champion.
After wrapping up his career at Southern Illinois and playing in the NCAA College World Series, the Cardinals again drafted the local product in the 32nd round.
“At the time I was playing, it was kind of ‘whatever,’ ” he said of playing for his hometown pro team. “It’s nice the more you get past (your playing career). It’s pretty great to be able to play for the Cardinals when you’re from here. They’ve always been very big in St. Louis and now even more (across the country). We have the alumni Cardinals baseball teams here; the Cardinals are good to the alumni.”
Six years and one month in the big leagues later, Fiala left professional baseball and started selling real estate. He was still playing amateur baseball, though, and the itch never left.
“I was coaching summer collegiate teams, and the baseball bug got back into me,” he said. “I make a lot less money coaching versus maybe being in real estate, but I’m having a lot more fun.”
After being an assistant at his former high school and junior college, he moved to the pro ranks as an assistant in the New York Yankees organization, then as an assistant at the University of Illinois.
In 1993, he was hired as the head coach at Southwestern Illinois, keeping him close to home in Belleville, Illinois.
He’s been there ever since.
At Southwestern Illinois, he’s had 60 all-conference players, six conference MVP or pitchers of the year, and 43 all-region players. He’s coached 11 NJCAA All-Americans, and 188 Blue Storm players have played at four-year schools, with 44 signing pro contracts and 14 making the big leagues. He’s a five-time conference and region coach of the year. Getting players ready for the next level suits him.
“The big thing we tell our kids is, all our guys first come in here really want to play, but you have to want to take care of the academic situation,” he said. “If you don’t do well in the classroom, you won’t go anywhere after here. Both have to be combined. If you work hard and are a good person on and off the field, as I always tell them, four-year schools don’t want knuckleheads. I don’t, either.
“The bad thing about two-year schools are you only get guys you really like for a couple of years. The good thing about it is, if you have knuckleheads, you don’t have them very long.”
Fiala makes sure his players moving on to four-year schools take their time to find the right school for them.
“We’re part of the process. You play high school and summer ball and are here for a couple of years and we have a chance to move them on to the four-year level,” he said.
“We tell them if you want to play after this, there’ll be a spot for you, some bigger, better programs, but you have to find the right fit. Lots of our guys turn down Division I offers to go to other levels that are a better fit for them with baseball and academically.”
Fiala is no stranger to Grand Junction, and he’s eager to see the changes since he was last here in 2007 as part of JUCO’s Golden Anniversary team. The summer after playing in JUCO, Fiala returned to the Western Slope to play for the Grand Junction Eagles.
“I enjoy Grand Junction. It was a great place to play in the World Series,” he said. “It was just a great summer in the valley playing ball (for the Eagles) and working. My summer job was working at the radio and TV station there, so I got to see a lot of Grand Junction doing different stories. That (communications) was my major at the time, so it was an enjoyable summer.”
Making the Golden Anniversary team as one of the best players in the first 50 years of the JUCO World Series was an incredible honor, he said.
“That’s a playing award, an accomplishment right there,” he said. “The accumulation of 50 years, thousands of people played there. To be one of the top 20, 22 players on that team was very exciting, for sure.”
Fiala is the first former JUCO World Series player-turned-coach to be inducted into the NJCAA Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
His one trip to GJ as a player was a memorable one. Meramec reached the championship game, losing to Yavapai College (Arizona), but Fiala was the premier player in the 1975 tournament. He hit .524 to lead the tournament and won the Big Stick Award, was on the all-tournament team and voted the Preston Walker Most Valuable Player.
“We went out there and everything … it was just one of those weeks where I got really hot and was making good defensive plays and swinging the bat well,” Fiala said. “It was definitely something I’ve always remembered.”
Like many longtime junior college coaches, Fiala understands the challenges of a constantly changing roster, but enjoys coaching at a two-year school.
“The one thing I found, the most difficult thing about pro (baseball) is one year to another, you never know if you have a job. With family and stuff like that, it worked out (being a junior college coach),” he said.
Being the first former JUCO player to become a Hall of Fame coach isn’t lost on Fiala.
“This caps it off,” he said. “To do things here as a player and be on the Golden Anniversary team and as a coach, that brings it full circle as a player and a coach. That’s pretty neat.”