For about three years, Jacob Nix had mulled over constructing his own pitching mound. But with access to countless fields, training facilities and bullpens in just about every area of the country, there was never a dearth of places to throw from and the Padres right-hander never felt the need
For about three years, Jacob Nix had mulled over constructing his own pitching mound. But with access to countless fields, training facilities and bullpens in just about every area of the country, there was never a dearth of places to throw from and the Padres right-hander never felt the need to go through with the project.
When COVID-19 burst into a full-fledged pandemic and shut down Spring Training along with just about every other facet of life, Nix came back home to Los Alamitos, California, and had all intentions of throwing bullpens at Golden West College.
But when that was out of the question, the hurler knew it was time to find some blueprints and finally dig into his toolshed.
The subject came up during a group chat with Southern California-area players, including Rays catcher Chris Betts, who had just returned from spring camp in Florida and was doing some renovation work with his fiancée, Hannah Naiman, on their house in Long Beach. Both men have been have professional ballplayers for at least four years, were named midseason All-Stars at different points and wanted to keep their training up as much as possible. The need to keep in shape for baseball and their craftiness coalesced into something both useful and creative that seemed perfectly fitting for unprecedented times.
"We were like, 'Oh man, like what are we gonna do?'" Nix said. "[Our organizations] told us to stay in shape. The place I normally train at is closed. There's nowhere else to throw bullpens anywhere. I just kind of started looking on the web and found some blueprints on how to build a mound. And I sent it to [Betts] and I was like, 'Yo, are we doing this?'"
Indeed they were, and on March 24, Betts and Nix set out to make a 2020 version of backyard baseball. With Betts, a 2015 second-round pick, having a new set of Craftsman tools to get the work on his house done and just slightly north of 60 feet in his yard, the tandem got cracking on the setup. Gathering near other people in a park or a public setting were not viable options, so Betts said this was their best option mutually beneficial to both safety and training.
"Just trying to be conscious of everything going on and really like wanting to do my part in like just in general, social distancing," Betts said. "I knew it was a way where Jake and I could get work done and do it the right way."
All they needed was the approval from Naiman before getting to work. Luckily for them, the answer was an unequivocal yes.
"When I actually told my fiancée what we were planning on doing, she was stoked," Betts said. "She didn't even care that we were throwing [near] the house. She was just like, really glad that Jake and I could get our work in. ... So it was cool to see her openness to the whole thing and really, we just want to help as many people with it as we can. And the best part too is the mound is pretty movable. So we can always take it somewhere else and throw."
Before setting out to do the project, the duo didn't expect to be hosting any episodes of "Tool Time" or teaching woodshop classes anytime soon. But they had enough ability to build things and felt the mound project was doable.
What that meant was an initial trip to a local Lowe's, and when materials were broken or forgotten, venturing back to the hardware store three other times. By their last trek to the store, Betts and Nix recognized just about every worker there, and even then, they felt like an anomaly as compared to what one might expect from "regular" Lowe's customers.
"We were definitely getting looks like, 'Oh, you guys again?'" Betts said. "Like, 'What in the World could you two be doing?' And then you go into the lumber section of Lowe's at 9 in the morning and it's all professionals who belong there. And then you got two just young dudes in board shorts and Vans just walking through totally out of place just grabbing 2x4s left and right, not really knowing what we're doing. It was a sight to see for those people."
The weird looks at the store (and from neighbors) didn't stop the two from getting to work, even if it took some "freestyle" from Nix to get the mound completed. They had a solid number of tools to work with, but they had to make some changes on the fly to make it come to fruition.
"We didn't have sawhorses or anything at Chris' house," Nix said, "so I have these big like vise grips, these big clamps and we're clamping the wood in different spots on the trash cans to try to hold the wood still.
"So yeah, we definitely improvise, adapt, overcome."
That meant overcoming some of their own mistakes, like accidentally putting Flex Seal adhesive material on the makeshift pitching rubber (made out of extra wood) and leaving it on the ground before placing it on the actual mound.
"We knew nothing about Flex Seal, we just knew that the commercials were hilarious. And we wanted some," Betts said. "So we literally just sprayed white Flex Seal over this 2x4, kind of forgetting that it's a semi-adhesive and it's built to cover things and make them durable. So I actually had to take a hammer to get the Flex Seal-stained pitcher's rubber off the ground because it was stuck to the ground. So lots of things we didn't think through."
While they split the work at about 50-50 throughout, putting 2x4s and 2x8s in the right places to set a proper foundation, Betts was live Tweeting the event to his followers. Nix's phone doesn't get much, if any, service when he's at Betts' place, so the catcher was in charge of social media duties.
"It was fun and, I mean, I like putting stuff out there that people enjoy," Betts said. "And I think Jake would say the same if his phone had service at that time. But no, it was cool. We were getting a lot of fun like responses back and texts from other players during the whole thing.The response was cool and the Periscope was fun. And it turned out well. I don't think we were embarrassed too bad at all."
As one can glean from Betts' Twitter account, the two used a black material to cover the mound and make sure Nix could plant properly without losing his balance or falling off. Naiman is a professional equestrian, so Betts had an idea to use the same material the horses stand on in their stalls. Nix luckily found a similar material to that at a local baseball facility, and so far, it's holding up.
On March 27, Nix and Betts got to test out their craftsmanship during the first bullpen session. Only then the backstop realized how surreal the situation was. Normally, he would be gearing up for the regular season ahead. Instead, he was back home -- somewhere he hadn't been at this time of the year in five years -- and working out with a pitcher from a different organization next to his new house.
"I just purchased this home before Spring Training. It's getting remodeled on the inside, and here I am sitting in my rose bushes catching a bullpen," Betts said. "And like I couldn't stop thinking about how crazy that way. So that made it pretty cool. And my neighbors next door are a 10-year-old and I think like a 6-year-old and they're both just stud baseball players, so they loved peeking their head over and watching."
The people watching was nothing new; the two are used to putting on a show for thousands of observers at a time. Nix has reached the big leagues with the Padres. Midwest League All-Star Betts went viral with his Home Run Derby-clinching bat flip in 2019. They have never played on the same team, but did face each other a lot on the California high-school circuit, where Betts one time took Nix deep and added, "I keep that one in the back pocket, though, if [Nix] ever wants to get frisky."
The two of them have grown closer over the years, but joining forces to use their own handiwork to finish a project useful to both of them felt more than gratifying.
"It's rewarding knowing like I didn't go out and buy this mound," Nix said. "I built this. It's more rewarding. Anybody could go out and buy a mound."
Meanwhile, Betts has been grateful for training sessions with Nix on a five- to six-day basis that will keep him fresh until he's back on a real diamond. For now, the movable mound will do just fine.
"I always enjoy those types of friendships, the ones that you are just with someone so often that you just inevitably get close," Betts said. "And here we are in pro ball building backyard baseball fields."
Andrew Battifarano is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter, @AndrewAtBatt.