About 15 minutes had passed since the last out in a game between two independent league pro baseball teams on a warm July night.
The lights were still lit against the black sky, providing sight to the few thousand fans spilling out of the ballpark and strolling back to their cars.
The only players remaining on the field were a pitcher and catcher, down the right-field line. The catcher had shed his gear, down to a mitt, cleats and his white game uniform. He crouched on the foul-line, his body facing out to center-field, where the pitcher stood far enough away to mimic the distance from mound to home plate.
“I feel good,” the pitcher exclaimed.
“Good,” the catcher responded. “Now don’t overdo it.”
A month before, the pitcher, Matthew Neil, had thrown a nine-inning gem for the York Revolution, an independent league pro baseball team in south-central Pennsylvania. The next day, the former Brigham Young University pitcher felt pain in his right throwing elbow. Neil hasn’t appeared in a game since then, instead going through oral medications and local injections. To test his arm, the 6-foot-6 right-hander occasionally threw on flat ground to a catcher like he was doing on this night in a small, empty stadium.
Neil asked for all of this, though he may not have predicted this is how it would play out.
“At the beginning of the season I asked for a trial. I prayed and literally asked Heavenly Father for a challenge,” Neil said. “I read a talk by one of the leaders of (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) who with everything on his plate he asked for a mountain to climb. Those were the words. He asked for a mountain to climb because he knew that we only get stronger by overcoming things. And that struck me pretty deep.”
A brief glance at the last 12 months of his career would certainly suggest that Neil has been facing a mountain. Triple-A pitcher in September to big league spring training invite in February to independent ball in May, Neil underwent season-ending surgery in July to remove a bone spur in his right elbow. He promises to return to the mound, though.
Trouble itself can be a way to strengthen and finally gain unshakable faith, according to the message Neil came across about climbing mountains.
Neil, 27, is married, to Laura, and has a 1-year-old daughter. He has concerns about providing for his family but believes everything will work out in the end. It has for him in the past. Nine years ago to be exact. It’s another reason why he asked for his current trial, because his previous one, although unexpected and tragic, made him so much stronger.
'The hope that I have to see Rachael again'
Around noon on Aug. 20, 2005, at the end of a three-hour hike under a warm sun, Neil had finally arrived at the place where his older sister, Rachael, had gone missing a day before on the Merced River in California’s Yosemite National Park.
From the edge of a river bank, Neil looked down into the raging water beneath him.
“It wasn’t until I got up there and I saw her hand sticking out of the water that I realized she’s gone,” Neil said.
On the small, fast-flowing river, a team of rangers and a fire and rescue crew were trying to pull Rachael’s body out of the water. Some rescuers were latched tight to taut ropes stretched across both sides of the river.
“We did finally get up there, they had located her already and they had guys rappelling on harnesses,” Neil said. “They were hanging on, rappelling off, trying to fish her out, basically.”
The day before, Rachael had gone hiking on the John Muir Trail with her younger sister, Michelle, and some friends. It was just another experience on a two-week trip the group was taking before the fall semester began at BYU.
“Her and a bunch of friends went to California, Six Flags, Arizona and Vegas,” Neil said. “They were just doing this big loop.”
Anyone who knew Rachael wouldn’t have been surprised by this. The oldest of eight children in the Neil gang, Rachael was always searching for adventure. A 16-minute tribute video assembled for Rachael’s funeral, and now on Matthew Neil’s YouTube page, shows Rachael as a youngster tossed to scary heights at gymnastics shows, flying fearlessly through the air.
“She was very creative. A very coordinated gymnast. She could do all the back handsprings, tumbling, backflips, dive team flips, everything,” Neil said of his sister. “She was just fun.”
On the day she died, Rachael was crossing the Merced River by jumping from rock to rock when she slipped and plunged into the water, getting swallowed up by the swift current and never resurfacing.
“Her legs got caught on the rocks and with the water pushing her down she just couldn’t get out,” Neil said. “There were friends around but one other guy went down and so he was downstream and couldn’t get out. The other people that were further upstream didn’t notice.”
Rescuers had to wait 21 days for the water current to slow enough, to a point where they didn’t endanger themselves, to recover Rachael’s body.
Matthew and Rachael had a relationship like any normal brother and sister growing up in Mesa, Arizona. But they had become even closer in the summer of 2005 when Matthew, then 18 years old, lived in a dorm while taking summer courses at BYU. Rachael, about to enter her final year at BYU, and Michelle, also a BYU student at the time, were living together at an off-campus home.
“I would go over there a lot to do homework and just hang out on the weekends,” Neil said. “So I got a whole lot closer to her those last few months.”
Four Neil children have already attended BYU, two are there currently and one of them is in between classes while on an LDS mission. The youngest will go to BYU next year following high school graduation. Matthew’s mom, Janelle, is a BYU graduate, as well. Janelle and her husband, Steve, have been married for 32 years and raised all eight of their children in the LDS faith. This especially helped Matthew in coping with his sister’s death nine years ago.
“It was very comforting to know what I know about God and about our families,” Neil said. “We came from Heavenly Father’s presence and we’re going to return there. The hope that I have to see Rachel again, to share time and experiences with her and laughs again, that will happen.”
'I need to be that much more prepared'
Neil returned to his parents’ home in Mesa after his sister died, undecided on if he wanted to return to school or go on a full-time LDS mission.
“There was a period where I would consider myself depressed,” Neil said. “But once I left on my mission and started focusing on other people and stopped focusing on my issues and my own sadness, I was able to heal from it and get better.”
Neil departed for his two-year mission in April 2006, his church choosing to send him to New York, where he would spread the gospel in Queens and Long Island.
Plenty has happened to Neil since returning from his mission. He made the BYU baseball team as a walk-on in the fall of 2008, barely played the spring of 2009 and finally earned an everyday starting pitching role in 2010. However, his 5.94 ERA led coaches to consider cutting him following that season, until a Black Hawk helicopter pilot for the Utah Army National Guard named Jeremy Tannahill stepped in, offering to work with BYU athletes who needed schooling on mental toughness.
“They were gonna cut him,” Tannahill said. “I said, ‘Lets try this. Give me six weeks with him. If at the end of that six weeks he’s the same guy, by all means cut him. But you can’t give up on this athlete that has all this talent because you can’t get him to be who he should be.’ ”
Neil returned to the field in 2011 a changed player, posting a 2.42 ERA with 73 strikeouts to 10 walks over 85.2 innings to earn second-team all-conference honors. The Miami Marlins drafted him in the 29th round and in two years Neil had worked his way up to their triple-A affiliate.
To put this in better perspective, only five players, or 3 percent, of the 150 players drafted in rounds 25 to 29 in 2011 have reached triple-A thus far. And Neil was one of them. As a matter of fact, Neil is the only player of the 30 taken in the 29th round to have reached the triple-A level to this point.
“Baseball had never been a really hard trial for me,” Neil said. “I’ve always had pretty decent success and adapted well.”
One step away from the majors, Neil felt he needed to be stronger as a person.
“It’s one of those things where I grew a lot when Rachael passed away," he said. "That’s helped me with all the changes that go on in baseball. I said, ‘Well, if I’m going to make the big leagues, I need to be that much more prepared. Whether it’s a challenge or whatever it may be.' So I asked for my own mountain."
'I know I can pitch against the best'
Had Neil been a higher draft pick in 2011, there’s a good chance he’d likely still be in the Marlins’organization. But late-round draft picks have a smaller window of opportunity to prove themselves. So despite Neil’s 4.47 ERA in 10 games in his first year at the triple-A level in 2013, the Marlins cut Neil out of big league spring training in February. The Tampa Bay Rays soon picked him up and Neil went on to pitch for their double-A Montgomery affiliate. Bounced back-and-forth from the Montgomery bullpen to the starting rotation, Neil was released after putting up a 7.40 ERA in only seven games. This led to him landing in the independent league.
There’s proof of players becoming stronger for having bottomed out and turning to independent ball. Oakland Athletics’ starting pitcher Scott Kazmir is the latest example. Two years ago, the left-hander was pitching in the Atlantic League for the Sugar Land (Texas) Skeeters. Just last summer, he was pitching in Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game.
On his third start for York on June 3, Neil fired his first complete game since his college days. He needed only 94 pitches over the nine innings, tossing 74 of them for strikes and allowing only a run on seven hits with seven strikeouts and no walks against a lineup of three former big leaguers and six with triple-A experience. He used a mix of just about everything. A curveball. A cutter. A slider. A change-up. On occasion, his four-seam fastball flashed at 92 or 93 miles-per-hour.
The performance likely pushed him to the front line of candidates to get picked up by a major league organization off the York roster. Neil had received the trial he had asked for and was on the path to overcoming it. Or so he thought.
Roughly a week later, Neil sat in the Revolution dugout hours before a game, then unsure about his health status, talking mostly about his past but very much looking forward to the future.
“I know I can pitch against the best,” Neil said. “There was a point this year where I looked at the big league roster for the Marlins and eight of the nine guys on the field I’ve played with or I’ve competed with. Granted there's a lot of intangibles at that level, but in my mind I consider myself a big league pitcher that can pitch at that level.”
A month later, Neil stood out back behind the Revolution clubhouse on a sidewalk overlooking a small parking lot, this time knowing surgery loomed in the near future. He’s at the bottom of his mountain. And he’s ready to climb. What’s at the top?
“I want to win a Cy Young in the major leagues,” he said. “That’s been my goal. When I was 11-years-old, I wrote a book report about Cy Young. I decided that was a worthy goal, now I just need to get over this mountain.”
John Walk is a writer living in York, Pennsylvania.