(Editors’ note: Without baseball being played, we’re going to take a look at fictional characters from many baseball movies – interweaving facts we know about these players from the movies, and expanding with their stories with some things we could perhaps infer about them from what we know).
The story of Steve Nebraska is one of legend. Seemingly out of nowhere came the greatest baseball player that ever lived. Undrafted, mostly unseen, he arrived onto the Major League Baseball landscape in the World Series of all places. And it was a landing that would make Nadia Comaneci proud.
Little is known about Steve Nebraska’s upbringing. He’s been reluctant to talk about it in a public manner. We do know, though, that he didn’t play high school sports – at least for his high school. But in recreational leagues and around the neighborhood, he was a legend for his athletic abilities.
Once he was an adult, Nebraska moved to Mexico. His love of baseball was still with him and he went to a tryout for the town’s semi-professional team. After hitting tape measure home runs in batting practice, he took the mound and absolutely blew away the team’s manager throwing fastballs at speeds he’d never seen before.
Despite being at an entirely different level of play than everyone else in the league, outside of the league and the town – setting records on both the mound and at the plate for the Campesinos – very few knew of him. The story goes that Chicago had a scout come see him once, but he died before the report could be turned in. Some time would pass before veteran scout Al Percolo would accidentally stumble upon, what he would later call “King Kong”, the greatest baseball player that ever lived.
New York Yankees General Manager Ron Wilson believed that Percolo was disillusioned with his tales of Nebraska’s greatness – and held a grudge against him after a previously signed player simply couldn’t handle the pressure of the Major Leagues – fired him over the phone and didn’t believe a word he was telling him. A week later Percolo and Nebraska were in New York at Yankee Stadium holding a workout for teams around the league. During the showcase, Nebraska hit 109 MPH with his fastball while striking out Keith Hernandez. Then he hit multiple home runs off of Bret Saberhagen – who for some reason was allowed to pitch in this workout during the regular season – and Nebraska did so from each side of the plate. Percolo must have really had some pull somewhere to make that one happen.
After that there was shock among the scouts and general managers in attendance. There was a bidding war, so-to-speak, with each team submitting their highest bid in a sealed envelope with the winner to be announced later that day. The New York Yankees gave Steve Nebraska a record shattering 4-year contract worth $55,000,000. But there was a stipulation that he wouldn’t begin pitching until the following season – 1995, unless of course the Yankees were to reach the World Series in 1994.
Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened. And the Yankees made a spectacle from the debut, too. Steve Nebraska was lowered to the mound from the top of the stadium via a helicopter right before first pitch of game 1 against the St. Louis Cardinals. The first pitch of the game set the tone, as Nebraska fired a 105 MPH fastball for a called strike. The next pitch came in at 106 and was looked at once again for a strike. It was the third offering that finally got a swing, but it didn’t matter as Mills swung right over top of it. It was the same story for the next two hitters in the Cardinals lineup. Nine pitches and nine strikes – an immaculate inning in the World Series, in his professional debut.
But Steve Nebraska wasn’t finished showing off in that first inning. Hitting for himself, an unbelievable thing for the last 20+ years in the American League, he took a breaking ball from Bob Tewksbury and crushed a solo home run deep into center field to give the Yankees an early 1-0 lead.
We were just seeing the beginning of what felt like a fever dream at the time. Everyone was witnessing what was the greatest feat in athletic history all at the same time on national television. Steve Nebraska had thrown 78 pitches, with 78 strikes over the first 8.2 innings of game 1 of the World Series. He had picked up 26 strikeouts, easily breaking the Major League record. There was only one man between Nebraska and true sports immortality, and that player was Ozzie Smith. His manager, Joe Torre, must have had a headache that afternoon as he filled out the lineup card, placing Smith in the 9th spot despite his hitting five home runs in the National League playoffs after hitting just three of them in 98 games during the regular season.
On the first pitch of the at-bat it was a swinging strike to Smith. The next one was a “let’s just try to make contact and slap at the ball” swing from Smith, but it too failed. With the adrenaline truly pumping, Nebraska reached back for all that he had and fired strike three past Ozzie Smith at 112 MPH – knocking over both his catcher and the umpire in the process – to complete the most incredible game that has ever been pitched, an 81 strike, 27 strikeout performance to seal a 2-0 victory. That was the moment we all learned, together, about Steve “King Kong” Nebraska.
The Yankees would go on to sweep the hapless Cardinals, who seemed to be absolutely shell shocked after what had happened to them in game one. Steve Nebraska wouldn’t pitch again in the series, but he did hit four more home runs, and picked up six intentional walks over the next three games as the Yankees designated hitter.
Heading into the 1995 season, the expectations were through the roof for Steve Nebraska and the New York Yankees. While he, and no one else, would ever come close to matching his game 1 performance of the 1994 World Series, Nebraska broke the record for most strikeouts in a single season, fanning an incredible 527 batters in his rookie year. The right-handed pitcher made 37 starts for the Yankees on the season and only failed to reach the 8th inning one time – and that was due to rain interrupting his start in Texas. In total he threw 308.0 innings that season – the most in a year since Phil Niekro threw 342.0 in 1979. His ERA was also best in the league at 1.46.
Of course, that was only half of the story. Five days a week would also see Steve Nebraska play as the Yankees designated hitter. He played in 135 games his rookie season and hit .332/.423/.676 with 49 home runs and 134 RBI. He swept the Rookie of the Year, MVP, and Cy Young Award balloting.
In spring training of 1996, while pitching against the Mets, Nebraska felt a pop in his elbow. The dreaded Tommy John surgery was on the table, but he would attempt to avoid it – seeking out second and third opinions. Each doctor agreed that he would need to go under the knife, and in early April that’s exactly what happened. The entire season would be wiped out for the Yankees pitcher and designated hitter.
When 1997 began, Steve Nebraska was ready to begin the season on time as a designated hitter, but he was still a few months away from being ready to pitch. His pitching rehab, though, limited him to being used as a designated hitter just three times a week during the first three months of the season. While limited in his usage, he continued to crush the ball. When July rolled around, it was time to get back on the mound. Rather than rehab in the minor leagues, Nebraska pitched live batting practice to the Yankee hitters all of June, building up his workload there so he didn’t need to miss time as the teams designated hitter.
The plan worked. Right before the All-Star game he took the mound against the juggernaut Cleveland offense that featured a lineup of mashers the likes of Sandy Alomar, Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, and David Justice – all of whom slugged at least .538 that season. In his season debut on the mound, Nebraska tossed 6.0 shutout innings, allowing just three singles and walking two batters while picking up 11 strikeouts. His velocity didn’t reach a peak 112 MPH like he had earlier in his career – topping out at just 104 MPH in this game. Still, he was overmatching hitters left and right.
By seasons end he had made 17 starts and thrown 114.0 innings while striking out 195 batters, walking just 40, and posting an ERA of 2.13. At the plate he racked up 490 plate appearances where he hit .320 with 35 home runs. In his return he picked up a second Most Valuable Player Award.
In 1998 it was the final season on his 4-year contract with the New York Yankees, and while there were rumors of contract negotiations during the spring between the Yankees and Nebraska, a deal was not struck. New York, however, got what would go down as the best season in the history of baseball.
Fully recovered from Tommy John surgery, Steve Nebraska had found most of his fastball velocity once again – averaging 107 MPH on the pitch throughout the year. He made 35 starts for the Yankees, going 33-2 on the season – getting a decision in every single game. He would throw 275.0 innings on the year with a 1.31 ERA with 492 strikeouts and another sweep in the Cy Young voting. At the plate he was nearly as good. In his 139 games he hit 57 home runs while driving in 166 runs and hitting .377, picking up the Triple Crown and another Most Valuable Player Award. He would then lead the Yankees to a second World Series title, picking up five wins in the playoffs and hitting nine home runs.
Looking to make a splash in free agency, the Colorado Rockies robbed Richie Rich and offered the soon to be 29-year-old a 10-year contract for an unheard of $325,000,000. Not even the New York Yankees offer matched that, and it led to Steve Nebraska jumping from the east coast to the cool Rocky Mountains and the hitters paradise known as Coors Field.
To make room for Nebraska at first base when he wasn’t pitching, the Rockies moved stud second-year player Todd Helton to left field and traded Dante Bichette to Milwaukee for catcher Dave Nilsson and closer Bob Wickman. In Coors Field the duo of Helton and Nebraska would terrorize pitchers for most of the next decade. But there were only a few years left on the mound for the pitcher. After picking up his seventh and final Cy Young Award in 2002, going 25-5 with a 1.64 ERA Nebraska decided to give up pitching after his elbow began to feel pain once again. Instead of attempting to have a second Tommy John surgery, he opted to simply play first base full time.
While he was a tad past his prime, he was still the best hitter in the league for most years of his career moving forward, being rivaled only by Barry Bonds. He would hit his offensive peak with the Rockies in 2003-2005, where he would hit .350, .344, and .355 in those three seasons while hitting 66, 62, and 55 home runs. In 2005 he picked up another Most Valuable Player Award after hitting .355/.450/.813 despite missing most of August with a hamstring injury.
At age 36 the power remained high, but the rest of his game began to decline a bit. His average dropped from .355 to .328 to .305 to .279 over the final three years of his contract. Following the 2008 season and having played out his record breaking contract with the Rockies, Steve Nebraska decided to hang up his cleats and retire. On the mound he picked up 152 wins and threw just under 1400 innings. At the plate his career lasted much longer and he would go down as one of the best hitters ever – posting a .330/.409/.705 career line with 578 home runs over his 13 active seasons (a 14th was spent on the disabled list in 1996).
Steve Nebraska Pitching Career
Steve Nebraska Hitting Career
Post Playing Career
In 2014 Steve Nebraska became the first player to be unanimously elected to the Hall of Fame. In his speech he would thank his manager, agent, and best friend Al Percolo for being there for him over the years. He would thank Rockies General Manager Bob Gebhard and ownership for bringing him to Denver, where he would make his home both during the season and the offseason, and where he remained following his playing career.
His charity, King Kong’s Kids, has continued to do outstanding work to help children around the country in need. Each year of his career since founding it in 1995, he put 20% of his salary directly into the foundation and has expanded it to 35 cities around the country. Beginning in 2018, Nebraska, with the help of his former manager Al Percolo, expanded into Mexico with King Kong’s Kids with 10 centers around the country that help provide for underprivileged kids and help with future educational opportunities and scholarships.
The two men have made it their passion, and remaining life’s goal to help as many children as they can improve their lives. Much of the earnings from Nebraska’s career have gone towards the expansion of the charity.
This was the second story in a series of looking at fictional movie characters. In the first story we covered Morris Buttermaker of Bad News Bears fame.