Jeff McNeil | Credit: Courtesy New York Mets

On his way from the Goleta Valley South Little League diamond to becoming the National League batting champion in 2022, Jeff McNeil had a couple of cups of coffee with the Santa Barbara Foresters. It was a strong brew that contributed to McNeil’s approach to baseball that has been described as “old school” and “throwback.”

McNeil’s story is unique in many ways. He grew up near the Hidden Oaks par-three golf course and became quite good at striking the little ball. His Little League days behind him, golf was all he played for three years at Nipomo High School (his family moved out of Goleta when he was 13). He went out for baseball in his senior year and was invited to play for the Foresters in 2010.

“He didn’t act like a high school guy,” Foresters Coach Bill Pintard said. “He was never intimidated. He played full throttle. If you’re playing against him, you’d better pay attention, or he’s going to show you up.”

Pintard recalled a series against Santa Barbara’s Central Coast rivals, the San Luis Obispo Blues. “[McNeil] got to first on a single, stole second, stole third, and stole home,” he said. “The next game there, when Jeff came up, the first pitch hit him in the ribs. I went out there, over Jeff’s body, and pointed at their pitcher. I didn’t order it, but in the bottom of the inning, our pitcher drilled their catcher. He pushes [Foresters catcher Jared] Womack, and Womack lands a right cross. Both benches emptied. Punches were flying. It was not a little donnybrook. We backed up our high school guy.”

This kind of experience fed McNeil’s innate competitiveness. He has become known as one of the most fiery players in major league baseball. “I loved playing for Bill Pintard,” the New York Mets infielder/outfielder said before a recent game at Dodger Stadium. “I talk to him quite a bit. He’s an all-around great guy.”

After his freshman season at Long Beach State, McNeil returned to the Foresters in the summer of 2011. His skills at putting the ball in play and running the bases were a perfect fit with “small ball” tactics advocated by Pintard and his staff. At that year’s National Baseball Congress World Series, the Foresters eked out a 7-6 win over the Hutchinson Monarchs when McNeil laid down a squeeze bunt, and they defeated the Kenai Oilers 1-0 in the championship game, the run scoring on a sacrifice fly after McNeil’s bunt single advanced the runner to third.

The Mets drafted McNeil in the 12th round in 2013. He made his major league debut in 2018 and hit .329 in 63 games. The following January, he was inducted into the Foresters Hall of Fame. He told of riding a stand-up scooter to the Mets’ home games at Citi Field and introduced his wife, Tatiana. “I ate her chicken parmesan for a year,” he said, explaining how he’d bulked up from the 145-pounder who played for the Foresters.

Jeff McNeil with Coach Bill Pintard | Credit: Courtesy

McNeil has made two All-Star appearances in six seasons, hitting over .300 every year but 2021, when he slumped to .251. “I didn’t feel good all year,” he said. “I learned from it and played a whole lot better last season.” He won the batting title with a .326 average, edging out the Dodgers’ Freddie Freeman (.325). The Mets rewarded him with a four-year, $50-million contract extension. “It feels nice to sign the contract I did,” he said. “I go out and play every day, not stressing about that.” Tatiana gave birth to their son, Lucas, last July, and Jeff no longer rides a scooter to the stadium.

McNeil’s hitting was torrid down the stretch last year — .369 in the last two months — he’s hoping for a repeat performance. “I’ve been seeing the ball all year, putting good swings on it,” he said in April, but he was stuck around .290 going into last weekend.

As a player who hits for average rather than the fences, McNeil brings up comparisons to batsmen like George Brett, Tony Gwynn, and Ichiro Suzuki. “I’ve heard about that,” he said. “Try to put the ball in play, don’t strike out much. There’s not many of them in the game right now.”

Aaron Bates, another Foresters Hall of Famer, is the hitting coach for the Dodgers. He said McNeil “sets the table for everybody else.” How do you keep him off the bases? “You hope he hits it at somebody.”

McNeil was called “Flying Squirrel” in college and the name stuck. He flew into a rage at an umpire over a called third-strike last month, prompting derogatory “crybaby” comments on social media.

But Frankie Taddeo of Sports Illustrated, noting that the Mets were playing below their potential, wrote: “Fans of the team from Flushing can only hope that more players show the fire McNeil displayed before the team falls further behind the first-place Braves in the NL East.”


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