It would be easy to say that Chris Nichols' life has always revolved around baseball.
The son of former major league pitcher and current Philadelphia Phillies bullpen coach Rod Nichols, Nichols grew up in the dugout and learned firsthand the daily mental and physical grind of professional baseball.
He would also follow his dad's footsteps to the mound.
The tall (6-2), lanky right-hander's life story on the hill has been written with the nastiness of his change-up, coupled with a ground-ball inducing cutter, which tugged him through three years of college baseball at the University of Sioux Falls and led to two summer stints with the Lehigh Valley Catz of the ACBL, a prestigious collegiate summer baseball league.
Last May, Nichols was in Lehigh Valley and working at his summer job at a cable company when his father called to inform him that the Phillies were drafting him in the 31st round (968th overall) of the 2012 MLB Draft.
It was a dream come true for Nichols, 21, who signed with the Phillies on June 15 and pointed his car south for Clearwater (Fla.), which has served as the Phillies' spring training site since 1948.
After making seven appearances in rookie ball with the GCL Phillies, Nichols finished the summer by getting his first taste of minor league baseball at the Short-Season A level and low A level. He pitched for the Williamsport Crosscutters, posting a 3-0 record and 3.54 earned run average in 20.1 innings pitched.
In late July, Nichols was promoted to the Lakewood BlueClaws, the Phillies' low Class-A affiliate. He posted an ERA of 3.00 with a nifty 4.00 GO/AO in three appearances with the BlueClaws.
"I had the opportunity to be moved around to three different teams during the summer, which was a good way to experience first-hand how much travel actually goes on in the minor leagues," Nichols said. "It seemed like I was constantly on the move, but that's just the nature of the beast, and you learn to adapt as you go."
A starting pitcher for most of his collegiate career, Nichols also had to adjust to becoming a reliever.
"I'm happy to finally have gotten that first summer under my belt," Nichols said. "Growing up and traveling around with my dad, I had a good idea of what to expect, but it's different when you actually start playing."
"I got to go on through-the-night bus rides and to play with a bunch of really good guys," said Nichols. "I definitely got a good minor league experience, and I'm excited to have the opportunity to experience it again."
Added Nichols, "Once you get the taste of it, you want to keep heading back."
You could say that Chris Nichols' life still revolves around baseball.
You would be wrong.
What makes Nichols different is that his ambitions are not confined to the 60-feet, 6-inches between the edge of the pitching rubber and the tip of home plate.
This is why he has spent the offseason behind a desk, perfecting rhetorical skills in advanced composition and discussing linear regression models with classmates.
He's now back at the University of Sioux Falls to finish his college degree.
"I decided to come back to USF because it made the most sense," said Nichols, a business administration major and English/management science double minor who boasted a 3.75 GPA after his junior year. "I have always taken my academics seriously and being so close to graduating, finishing my degree is something that I really wanted."
It also made sense because USF provides Nichols with the shortest track to his college degree.
"If I would have gone home to Montana, for example, I would have had to worry about transferring credits and all that paperwork that goes with it," he explained. "At USF I knew what I needed, and I would be able to get my degree quicker."
"Aside from that, I just really want to graduate from USF," Nichols added. "This is where I have invested my education and built relationships with friends and professors."
Nichols experienced a unique twinbill on September 5, 2012-the last game of the Crosscutters' season along with the first day of classes at USF.
After the final out of the Crosscutters' 8-4 victory over the Auburn Doubledays, Nichols hit the road for what would be a 1,200-mile trek from Williamsport to Sioux Falls.
"I was on the baseball field one night finishing the season and saying goodbye to my teammates and coaches and in my managerial economics class the next afternoon," Nichols said.
He arrived on campus in time to begin his senior year.
Nichols put together a solid pitching resume in three seasons with the University of Sioux Falls, notching a career mark of 15-7 with 90 total strikeouts. He was an honorable mention All-GPAC selection as a freshman and owns the school record for most pitching wins in a season (9).
Nichols is also known as a Vikings slayer. In 2010, the freshman was on the mound for both of USF's victories against crosstown rival Augustana College-the first time USF posted consecutive wins against Augustana in a series history that dates back to 1915. Nichols posted an ERA of 1.93 and WHIP of 1.19 in the two wins.
As a junior, Nichols was shuttled back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen and posted a lights-out performance against No. 15 Minnesota State, Mankato. Nichols took the mound in relief where he scattered one hit in the final 1.2 innings to pick up the save in the Cougars' 4-2 victory against a Maverick squad that went on to finish third at the 2012 NCAA Division II College Baseball World Series.
Nichols' second tenure at USF has been markedly different for obvious reasons. It's the first time he has not had to balance academics with athletics.
"It's been weird not actually being a baseball player on campus anymore," Nichols admitted. "Especially in the afternoons when I would see some of the guys packing up to go to fall ball practice, and I'm going to the library to get my homework done in the afternoon and ahead of time for once."
A fall without fall ball doesn't mean that Nichols has been bored this semester. In fact, it's possible that he has never been bored as a college student.
"Between classes, working out, and just enjoying my time as a college student, I have been staying pretty busy," he added. "I've been taking this time to really just to relax, focus on classes and start preparing for spring training."
Since his freshman year (2009), Nichols has found a way to be involved in just about everything USF has to offer to its student body. He has been active in theater productions, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, chapel and is a staple on the USF intramural scene. He was even crowned the 2012 USF Monster Golf (yes, giant golf clubs are involved) Invitational champion.
As a junior, he served as the president of the Student Athlete Advisory Committee, a committee made up of USF student-athletes assembled to provide insight into the student-athlete experience. He was even hired as a residence hall assistant this school year-a position Nichols had to turn down after being drafted.
Nichols is also a member of the Cougar Crazies, the USF student section that provides spirit and noise for home athletic contests. He, along with a group of fellow Crazies, drove to Laramie, Wyo., last December to cheer on the USF men's basketball team against NCAA D-I University of Wyoming.
Nichols was also in attendance this October for the first-ever Key to the City game (the USF/Augustana College football rivalry was renewed after a 26-year absence).
"Having the opportunity to be a college student for one last semester has been fun, especially with the school now being a fully fledged member of NCAA DII," Nichols said. "Getting to see the Augie football game was great-who would want to pass up on that rivalry?"
Only a small number of men can say they have both a professional baseball contract and a four-year sheepskin.
A 2010 survey showed that only 26 players in the MLB had a college degree. That's less that 5 percent of the entire league. In May, the Yahoo! Sports ThePostGame blog reported that 4.3 percent (39 of 917) of MLB players this appeared in a game through the first month of the 2012 season were college graduates.
The tiny fraction highlights the challenges of pursuing a college education while pursuing big-league dreams. With so many opportunities to focus solely on baseball - and earn money - it's not surprising that 19-, 20- and 21-year-olds give up their college eligibility to turn pro. And once they sign a professional contract, baseball's year-round schedule makes it difficult for them to return to the classroom to make up the missed credits.
In that context, Nichols' decision to return to USF as a traditional student is impressive. But what's perhaps more remarkable is that you'd be hard pressed to find someone that expected anything less.
Including his former college coach.
"I wasn't surprised at all," said sixth-year head baseball coach Matt Guiliano. "Chris is a guy with goals, and I know that one of the main ones is to finish up his degree."
"Besides that, I know that Chris loves it here and wants to have USF as his graduating college," he added.
Despite being a business major, Nichols believes that he's taken more classes with Dr. Kevin Cole, an associate professor of English at USF, than any other instructor.
"Dr. Cole has the ability to make me think harder than I thought I would like to, but I've always enjoyed it," Nichols said. "The relationship I've built with Dr. Cole and other professors is one of the reasons I wanted to come back and finish my degree here."
Dr. Cole also did not raise an eyebrow when he saw Nichols roaming the English department this fall.
"Chris is indeed an exceptional student, one of the best that I've had in my 13 years, which is saying quite a bit because I've had some truly outstanding students," he said in an email.
"I could go on for pages about what makes Chris an excellent student, so I'll try to condense things here, as tough as that is:
First, although he is terribly bright, he is humble, which makes him a delight to have in a literature class. He always shows up having read and thought about the work in a careful, deliberate manner and always has intelligent contributions to make. At the same time, he understands the give-and-take of civilized discussion, so that even when someone disagrees with him, he can be both humble and comic about the disagreement.
Second, his uncommon discipline makes him a notable student. I expect this goes hand-in-hand with developing one's athletic skills. But his discipline is also evident in, as you say, how many activities he's involved in. I myself never could have done this in college-I did well just to get to class and study for exams.
Third, he understands the meaning, purpose, and rewards of a liberal arts education, pure and simple. He embodies the ancient Greek ideal: he pays equal attention to his intellectual and physical well-being and is deeply invested in the arts."
Nichols won't be graduating this December, but the only thing that stands between him and his college degree is one online class and one traditional class.
"Hopefully, I will be able to take some time next offseason," Nichols said. "I'm close. Officially I'll be receiving my Bachelor's of Arts degree in business administration and two minors - one in management science and one in English."
When asked what he'll take away from his college experience, Nichols couldn't narrow it down to one or two memories.
"There's been a lot of good ones," Nichols said. "From a baseball standpoint, I would probably say beating Augie twice my freshman year definitely stands out."
"As for everything else, I've been involved in so many different fun activities that I can't single one out," he added. "My time here as a whole has been a great memory-cheesy I know, but true."
After final exams and the holidays, Nichols will head to Florida for Phillies' spring training in February.
"I still haven't experienced one of those at all, but from everything I hear, spring training is a completely different machine," Nichols said. "It's my job right now to start getting ready to put myself in a good position from the get-go."
There are several people who will be rooting for him next spring and for many years to follow.
"He was one of our better pitchers to throw for our program and we are extremely happy for Chris as he continues his journey through the minor league system," Coach Guiliano said.
While the path to Majors is uncertain for any minor league player (only five percent of drafted players make it to the major leagues), there is no doubt that Nichols will find success in all facets of life and continue to make a positive impact on those around him.
"The only thing holding Chris back is his age," Dr. Cole said. "I myself would love to see him write about baseball sometime in the future, something along the lines of a Roger Angel."
"But I can assure you that whatever endeavors he pursues, he will do so with purpose, enthusiasm and grace," he added.
"I think the best compliment I can give Chris is that I hope my own two boys, now four and one, become the kind of young man Chris is."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.