To celebrate the forthcoming release of my novel The Greatest Show on Dirt, which is set in Durham Athletic Park in 1991, I’ll be highlighting players from the real ’91 Bulls here on the site. A talent-laden club in a prospect-rich Braves organization, that edition of the Bulls finished 79-58, third best in the Class A Carolina League. The roster included future big leaguers Javy Lopez, Melvin Nieves, Eddie Perez, Mike Kelly, Tony Tarasco, Mike Mordecai, and Greg McMichael. The fastest rising Bull that summer, however, may have been righthander David Nied, who put it all together in his fourth season in the system. He leads off the series.
David Nied’s transition from 14th-round draft pick to legitimate major league prospect accelerated in Durham in 1991. The 22-year-old righthander, who had shown flashes at low Class A Burlington in 1990 with a 5-3 record and 2.25 ERA in 10 outings, returned for his third stint in the Bull City, having already made 22 starts there between 1989-90.
Nied absorbed his share of lumps in ’89, when the Carolina League torched him for a 6.63 ERA. Grady Little, then in his first year as Durham skipper, said of the young hurler that spring, “He’s going to be a good pitcher, but at this point, he’s a little laid back. But with each game, he continues to get better about staying on the attack.”
By ’91 he’d found his focus, posting an 8-3 record and 1.56 ERA in 13 Durham appearances to finally earn a promotion to Double-A Greenville. Nied stayed hot the rest of the year, going 7-3 in the Southern League, with a 2.41 ERA, giving him 15 wins on the year. His overall WHIP of 0.986 was the best of his career and established him as a pitcher on the rise in the Braves system.
Unfortunately for Nied, he was trapped in one of the deepest organizations in the game when it came to pitching. After a stellar spring training he was one of the club’s final cuts and spent the 1992 campaign at Triple-A Richmond, where he fashioned a 14-9 record and 2.84 ERA in 26 starts, striking out 159 in 168 innings of work. The Braves rewarded him with a late-season promotion and he continued to tantalize, going 3-0 with a 1.17 ERA in 23 September innings, allowing just 10 hits and a 0.652 WHIP.
Even that wasn’t enough to earn a spot on the Braves’ 15-man protected list that winter when the expansion Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins picked through the existing 26 clubs to stock their rosters. Nied was the first player chosen, giving the Rockies a rising star on which to pin their hopes. He took the ball in Colorado’s first-ever game, absorbing a 3-0 loss at the hands of Dwight Gooden and the Mets. He logged several organizational firsts, including first strikeout, complete game, and shutout.
It’s easy to look back now and say the Braves had it right, leaving Nied exposed while protecting others like veteran outfielder Otis Nixon, who left the organization as a free agent a year later. But Nied’s career likely would have unfolded differently had he stayed in Atlanta. For starters, he’d have been afforded the anonymity to ease into his career behind a Cy Young-laden rotation that included Greg Maddux (signed for ’93), Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Steve Avery. He would also have avoided pitching in mile-high air, which did him no favors, particularly in 1994, when he went 3-5 with a 6.75 ERA and a 1.723 WHIP in 10 home starts.
Most significantly, he might have had someone there to hold him back when he let loose early in spring training in ’95. Eager to return from the long layoff of the previous season’s strike, Nied aired it out without properly building his arm up and injured his elbow. He was never the same, amassing just 9.2 big league innings the next two years. The Rockies let him leave as a free agent in the fall of 1996. He signed a minor league deal with the Reds but elected to retire when he couldn’t make the big club the following spring.
Several years before he became known to baseball fans across America as the face of the nascent Rockies, he was dubbed David “Bury My Heart at Wounded” Nied in the pages of Baseball America magazine by teammate Chris Czarnik. That was during Nied’s second tour of Durham in 1990, when he posted a 3.83 ERA in 10 starts for the Bulls, a clear step forward from his rough Carolina League debut and a sign better things were on the way in ‘91.