Obituary: Ricky Nelson (1959-2021)

RIP to outfielder Ricky Nelson, who spent parts of four seasons with the Seattle Mariners in the 1980s. He died on November 19 from complications of COVID-19. He was 62 years old. His death was announced by former ball player and fellow Arizona resident Jimmy Driscoll and has been confirmed by his daughter, Ashley Guller. Nelson played for the Seattle Mariners from 1983-86.

Ashley has posted a very sweet remembrance video of her father, available on YouTube.

Ricky Lee Nelson was born in Eloy, Arizona, on May 8, 1959. He shares a birthday with that other Ricky Nelson, the singer who was born in 1940. He played almost every sport available to him at his first couple of years at Santa Cruz High School, wrestling in his freshman and sophomore years as well as playing football, baseball and track. He was also in the varsity marching band and wrote a song for their concerts! In his junior and senior years, he focused on baseball, and Santa Cruz was the state champion in 1976 and runner-up in 1977. Nelson was named to the Class-A All-State team in both seasons; he hit .380 in his senior year in 1977.

Nelson as a member of the Arizona State University Sun Devils. Source: The Arizona Republic, March 27, 1981

Nelson attended Arizona State University and was part of teams that had plenty of talent, including Marty Barrett, Alvin Davis, Ed Vande Berg and Kevin Romine. And John Elway, though baseball wasn’t his strong suit.. As a left-handed hitter, he was initially part of an outfield platoon, but he felt he could do a little more than hit against righties only. So he went 7-for-15 with 3 home runs, a triple and 6 RBIs to help sweep USC in 1977 at their home park. One of the homers was against a left-handed pitcher.

“Ricky came into my office last week and said he felt he should be playing more,” said ASU coach Jim Brock. “He said he knew he could hit left-handed pitching. Apparently he knew what he was talking about.”

The muscular outfielder who was among the Pac-10 leaders in batting average, home runs, RBIs and stolen bases was a far cry from the skinny high school freshman who wrestled in the 98-pound class. “I guess it was just time to grow,” said Nelson, who admitted he did very little weight training. “I [also] started eating on my own — cooking for myself. And I discovered beer,” he added.

Nelson was drafted by the California Angels in the 24th Round of the 1980 Amateur Draft. He elected to return to ASU and was part of a Sun Devils team what won the College World Series in 1981. He moved all the way up to the Fourth Round of the 1981 Draft, where he was picked by the Seattle Mariners. After the World Series, he reported to the Bellingham Mariners of the Low-A Northwest League. In 56 games, he batted .284 with 6 home runs.

Nelson moved up to the Bakersfield Mariners of the Class-A California League and had a stellar 1982 season. He slashed .307/.345/.433 with 11 home runs, and he also stole 43 bases. He led the league with 101 RBIs and 36 doubles, and he was second in hits (174) behind Ozzie Guillen. Based on that success, the Mariners promoted him directly to Triple-A Salt Lake City in 1983. After 29 games there and a .333 batting average, he was called to the majors on May 17, 1983, to spell a struggling Al Cowens in the outfield.

Nine days after celebrating his 24th birthday, Nelson debuted against the California Angels on May 17. He was 0-for-4 in that game and hitless in 11 at-bats against Angels pitching. However, when he faced the Milwaukee Brewers on May 20, Nelson picked up his first major-league hits — a single off Moose Haas and a home run against reliever Tom Tellmann. He got at least one hit in each of his next 12 starts (with a couple of late-inning appearances in between) to set a hitting streak record for a Mariners rookie and was a part of Seattle’s outfield mix for the rest of the season. Manager Rene Lachemann primarily used him against right-handed pitchers, and Nelson hit under .200 against lefties. But he made the most of his opportunities, and he wasn’t intimidated by being in the majors. On his first trip to Yankee Stadium, he slammed a 3-run homer off Jay Howell to pace the Mariners to a 5-0 win.

“After he got two strikes, I was just looking for a ball to get my bat on,” Nelson said. “But then he got a fastball up and I got it. I wasn’t sure it was out, though, until I was rounding second base… I took a long look at this Stadium as soon as we got here today, and the first thing that came to my mind was ‘Wow! This is a ballpark!’ I have to say it’s a great feeling just to play here.”

For the year, Nelson played in 98 games and had a slash line of .254/.294/.371. He had 13 doubles and 5 home runs, driving in 36 runs and scoring 32 times. He also had 7 stolen bases in 11 attempts. He played pretty equally in left and right field and had a combined .971 fielding percentage, with 10 assists. Because he caught a Billy Sample line drive and threw out Bucky Dent trying to score in a game against the Texas Rangers on June 8, 1983, he is in fourth place for most double plays turned by a right fielder in 1983 — with 1.

Nelson had a productive spring training with the Mariners in 1984. He had 7 RBIs and 2 home runs — including a grand slam — against his alma mater ASU in an exhibition game. However, the ’84 Mariners had a logjam in the outfield and designated hitter, with productive seasons from Barry Bonnell, Cowens, Dave Henderson, Ken Phelps, Phil Bradley and Steve Henderson. With all those players vying for four positions, Nelson found himself the odd man out. He made the Opening Day roster but only appeared in 9 games, with a .200 batting average and 1 home run. He was optioned to the minors in late April to make room for third baseman Darnell Coles and spent the rest of the year in Salt Lake City. He hit .294 there, with 11 home runs. The next two seasons were essentially a repeat performance. Aside from brief call-ups to the Mariners, he spent most of 1985 and 1986 with Triple-A Calgary. In 1985, he had 6 games with the Mariners, mostly as a pinch-runner, and was hitless in 2 at-bats. In 1986, he had 2 hits in 12 at-bats. The short stays with the Mariners left him frustrated. The team had reneged on a planned September promotion in 1984 and brought him back in 1985 just to sit on the bench for most of September. The Mariners traded him to the New York Mets in December of 1986 for catcher Doug Gwosdz, and the Mets shipped him to Cleveland in May of 1987 for pitcher Don Schulze. He struggled in Triple-A for both of his teams and retired after the season.

With the Calgary Cannons. Source: Calgary Herald, September 5, 1985.

In 4 seasons with the Mariners, Nelson appeared in a total of 123 games. He had a .247/.288/.363 slash line, with 79 hits that included 13 doubles, 3 triples and 6 home runs. He stole 8 bases, knocked in 39 runs and scored 38 times. He had a .965 fielding percentage, playing primarily in the corner outfield spots.

After retiring from baseball, Nelson returned to Arizona State University and completed a degree in Exercise Science/Physical Education. He worked for the Maricopa County Juvenile Probation Department and served as vice president of the Arizona Probation Officers Association for 12 years. He also remained active in baseball, managing the Oakland Athletics Arizona Rookie League team in 2001. The team, which featured a 20-year-old Nelson Cruz, went 35-21 and finished in first place. Nelson also was active in coaching youth sports, was a part of the Arizona Professional Baseball Commission and helped start the Arizona Diamondbacks Training Centers in 1998. Nelson was inducted into the Santa Cruz Valley Union High School Hall of Fame in 2013.

He also was, if his daughter’s YouTube video is any indication, a devoted and loving husband to Carrie, father to his six children (Alexis, Ashley, Austin, Maria, Caroline and Zachary) and grandfather.

For more information: YouTube

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