COLUMBIA — Twice a week, Rock Bridge second baseman Mike Nemec escapes from his life as a high school senior and spends a few hours in his future.
When he’s there, interning with Dr. B. Bus Tarbox at the Columbia Orthopedic Group, he feeds his fascination for the human body, how it works and how to fix it when it doesn’t. With that pesky rest-of-his-life thing rapidly approaching, he turns himself from a kid into a kid with a plan. Oklahoma State in the fall. Business management major. Pre-Med. Med-school after that. Maybe the next "Dr. Tarbox" after that.
But for that plan to take shape, soon he needs to let go of baseball, one of the things that has defined him for 13 of his 18 years and one of the things that defines him now.
“He’s going to be a doctor,” coach Justin Towe said. “He’s gotta get on with that.”
He has shunned the opportunity to play college baseball, although he is capable, in favor of focusing on what his life will be after college. For him, going to a school just to play isn't worth it.
Nemec has spent the majority of his springs going to school in the morning and gobbling up ground balls in the afternoons. And he’s been good at it, posting a 4.0 GPA and developing into one of the Bruins’ best all-around players on the diamond. He’s hitting over .400, and earlier this year coach Justin Towe called him his best defensive player, a high honor considering the gazelles that Rock Bridge features in the outfield. Nemec is, in terms of performance and level of competition, the best baseball player he’s ever been. Yet while he loves being out on the field, every time he steps on it he knows it will soon stop calling his name.
“I’m going to miss it so much when it’s gone,” Nemec said. “But at the same time I know it’s not something that’s going to drive my life.”
The first time Nemec saw surgery was in the 9th grade. He was job-shadowing Dr. Tarbox, a young kid in the real world, when suddenly the real world got too rough.
“I was as white as a sheet,” Nemec said. “They made me go into the other room because I was going to pass out.”
Over the years he’s gotten so used to the blood that it doesn’t bother him anymore. Now he’s in the clinic Mondays and Wednesdays, and watching surgery on Tuesdays and Thursdays, alternating the shifts weekly. And when he’s done, he heads back to school and back to practice.
“He’s very, very good,” Towe said. “He’s a great second baseman. We would have found somewhere for him to play pretty easily.”
Towe knows a thing about college baseball. A letter winner at Missouri from 1993-1996, Towe has sent a graduating Bruins player to his alma matter in each of the last two years.
But Division I college recruitment is a funny thing. Often a player’s stats don’t matter as much as his size, build and potential do. As strange as it sounds, being a really good second baseman in high school and being a really good second baseman in big-time college ball are two very different things.
Which could explain why this year’s Bruins don’t feature any rising Division 1 prospects despite a 19-4 record entering Saturday. Their senior class is just six players deep. Nemec and slugger Jansen Smith are undersized. Catcher Tanner Cooper’s recruitment was probably hurt by his arm strength. Outfielder Matt Priest didn’t see regular playing time until this season.
Even so, Smith has signed with a junior college, whose name he is not ready to announce. Cooper will play at Division III Westminster College in Fulton. Towe didn’t make any calls for Nemec, at his second baseman’s request.
“I knew early on for Mikey, he knew where he was at academically,” Towe said. “Was he just gonna prolong what he is really gonna do?"
Nemec knows he could have followed their paths of Smith and Cooper. But he came to grips with the logic of the end-game reality a long time ago.
“As a little kid everyone says, ‘I want to play in college, I want to play in the Major Leagues,’” he said. “But I’ve known all along I’d never be able to go to some major D-1 or make it all the way. It’s not like I’m crushed because it’s something I’ve known all along.”
Eventually the game passes all of us by. Every athlete from Brett Favre to your brother has their time.
That fact begs the question: When is it time to hang ‘em up?
Some leave begrudgingly, some leave unwanted, some leave injured.
Nemec is going out on his own terms.
“I’ve learned a lot of life lessons from it, and I’ve had a blast playing it,” Nemec said. “But it’s one of those things where I’m ready to move on.”