When you sit down and speak with Nick Ahmed, the thirty year-old starting shortstop of MLB’s Arizona Diamondbacks, three things become apparent real quick:
1. This is a genuinely good person, and it’s the real deal.
2. Family is the centerpiece of his life. (Baseball is a definite close second!)
3. Leadership and mentorship are his jams.
I was grateful to have the opportunity to speak to Nick by phone during this pause in the MLB season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nick is playing the waiting game from his home in Phoenix, Arizona, chomping at the bit for a return to work and a return to baseball.
Along with him are his wife and two boys, Jackson and Cole, his mother-in-law, as well as his younger brother, Mike, who recently signed a minor league contract with the Diamondbacks, and Mike’s wife and daughter.
Like many of us, he’s focusing on the silver linings, while pining for a return to normalcy:
“We’re in Arizona. The weather’s been beautiful, so we’ve taken advantage of that, getting outside with the family. But [like most of us] not leaving the house much except to go to the grocery store…They’re all with us, so we’ve got a packed house. There are lots of pros to having everybody here during this time. But you know we’re in each other’s space a little bit here and there.”
Spending time together during Spring Training in Arizona had become an annual rite for the Ahmeds. Mike was previously with the Los Angeles Dodgers, who also train in Arizona. Now Nick and Mike Ahmed are in the same organization, and – speak of silver linings – are taking it one step further by living together. That has been pretty special. Though I venture that both Nick and Mike would gladly trade it to be able to get back on the field:
— Nick Ahmed (@NickAhmed13) March 8, 2020
Ahmed, born and raised in East LongMeadow, Massachusetts, has East Coast roots. He also has strong family roots, and a tradition of brothers, which he is carrying forward with his own two sons, Jack, who is three and a half, and Cole, who is 15 months:
“I grew up with two brothers. We all loved sports…Like I mentioned, my younger brother is playing professionally right now. My older brother, I got to play in high school with, basketball and baseball for two years each. We played Legion baseball together in high school as well. We played all kinds of sports together growing up. Having those brothers and being able to compete and do things together was a lot of fun.”
These days, he is balancing getting his work in with being a father, husband, and brother. With no gyms open and spring training facilities closed, Ahmed’s adjusted daily routine for quarantine includes a six-day-a-week regimen of working out in his makeshift backyard gym, hitting in a neighbors batting cage, and running and throwing with his brother in the park across the street:
“We’re being creative in some ways to get our work in in a smaller space and with non-optimal equipment. But I’m taking a few hours every day to take care of my body and take care of my craft.
The rest of the day it’s spending time with the family. It’s being a husband and being a dad. Take my older son fishing and practicing baseball with him and going in the pool and all that kind of stuff. So, yeah, it’s fun. It’s an opportunity to spend time with them that I wouldn’t usually be having right now.
As much as this situation is difficult and there are people who sick or losing their jobs, I’m just trying to be present and take care of the things that I can. You know, there’s no point for me to sit around and and sulk or dwell on something I can’t change. So I’m just going to continue to try to be present and be with my family and be the best husband and Dad I can be every day.”
After being a guy who was overlooked and told he wasn’t good enough at just about every step of his career, Nick Ahmed has found a long-term home in Arizona, where he has been rewarded for his conviction, his hard work, and his belief in himself:
“I’ve been overlooked and doubted and told I wasn’t good enough my whole career, basically, all the way going back to high school.”
When Ahmed made his high school varsity team as a freshman in high school, his high school coach told him that he wasn’t good enough to hit. While he let him play shortstop most games, he used a DH for him, so Ahmed never had the opportunity to bat: “I’d never even heard of that. And I still haven’t heard of that happening to anybody else to this day.”
After a solid high school career, Ahmed looked to continue to play the shortstop position, a position he loved and was good at, in college. But most coaches who were recruiting him wanted to recruit him as a pitcher. Jim Penders of U Conn, however, gave him an opening, in sort of a back-handed way. It ended up working out:
“I was being told basically, ‘Hey, you’re not good enough to play shortstop in college.
At one point, the coach at U Conn who is still there to his day, Jim Penders, told me that I could come to U Conn as a sort of preferred walk on. He told me I could play shortstop, but only in the Fall. I didn’t think he really had any intention of me playing shortstop. I think it was just his way of getting me in the door to be a pitcher.
But it turned into me working hard and getting better and learning and earning that role. After ten games my freshman year, I played shortstop every game the rest of my college career.”
Ahmed attributes a lot of his success to his persistence, his belief in himself, and his mental toughness:
“Being quite honest, I probably wasn’t good enough to hit any of the next levels I was going up too. But I never believed that. I always believed in myself and in my ability to perform and compete and get better. And I had a mental toughness that allowed me to overcome all those people telling me that I couldn’t do it.”
This off-season, Ahmed was dubbed “one of MLB’s most underrated players” by ESPN baseball writer, David Schoenfield. Long known for his acrobatic and consistent defense, Ahmed’s offense has caught up these past few years. He has been delivering consistent extra-base power and production for a competitive Diamondbacks team that has a number of nice pieces:
“We’re all really excited about this season. Last year, we had traded away two of our best players. So we had a young team that didn’t have a lot of expectations outside our club-house. But we played pretty well. We were in the Wild Card hunt pretty much the whole year up until the last week or so of the season. We returned all those guys and then we added some veteran pieces like Madison Bumgarner and Kole Calhoun and Starling Marte, guys that have really good track records and track records of winning. So everyone was really excited about this season to get started.
We get to play this season this year, and we will get to play as many games as possible. But the core of our team is going to be back for multiple years. So we have a good group of guys to get along, guys that are very like-minded, guys that work hard and are hungry and want to get better. So it’s fun to play with a group of guys that doesn’t have an ego and wants the same thing on a daily basis.”
Now, at the ripe old age of thirty, Ahmed is one of the young veteran leaders on the club:
“I’ve been together with guys like David Peralta for six years now. Some of the younger guys that have come up the last couple of years, like [fist baseman] Christian Walker and [speedster] Tim LoCastro, are some East Coast guys that I’ve kind of taken under my wing a little bit. I’ve tried to share things I’ve learned over the years, things that I’ve been taught to me. So it’s been fun to transition to a little bit of that role and kind of start giving back to the younger guys.”
Ascending to “veteran” status is relatablely “weird” for Ahmed. Weirdness aside, he has embraced the role:
“It happens fast! I feel like I’m still a 21 year old kid to some degree. But, it keeps me young. Truth is, I do have a lot of experience. I’ve been playing for a while now. And, I have been around a lot of really good players and people and coaches. And I’ve learned a lot of things through my own journey. So I’m embracing that role and just trying to get back to trying to help out, where in can. There is no way I’d be where I am without the help of so many people. So, you know, that’s the mindset I’m taking. Just trying to pour it into the guys around me.
It’s unfortunate but its just the way the game has gone. Right now, there’s not as many guys who are in their mid to upper 30s anymore.The veterans that are around now are starting to be younger veterans. So guys like me who are thirty years old or so are veteran players.”
With so many younger players entering the Major Leagues and being relied on to be key contributors on MLB teams, connecting with and mentoring rookies and young players has become an even more important piece of clubhouse leadership.
That type of leadership is a key ingredient to winning teams that’s not measured by new-age statistics and analytics:
“There’s not a way to [algorithmically track and value] clubhouse presence and leadership and giving back. So unfortunately, there’s a lot of guys that get overlooked. They are starting to get later in their careers and they have so much to give back to to the younger generation. But their value on the field or their WAR or whatever statistic the team really looks at isn’t as high as as maybe a young guy.
But many executives, especially the ones that didn’t play the game, don’t really understand that that value that a veteran player can bring and just helping the other 25 guys on the roster.”
Nick Ahmed can play him some shortstop pic.twitter.com/kqWTjBv2PS
— Baseball Scoops (@BaseballScoops) April 1, 2019
The defensive side of the game came naturally to Ahmed from a young age:
“I think most guys especially youth baseball players, they love to hit. And they don’t necessarily love to steal and they don’t necessarily love to play or practice defense. I think I was a little different in that regard. I always remember loving playing defense.”
He fondly recalls his Dad coming home from work in the evenings and begging him to come out in the yard for ground balls. His Dad always did it for him, and later in high school, it was his high school coach who’d be staying late after practice hitting him those extra ground balls:
“I think I had built up a level of expertise over the years of just pounding the stone and, you know, and having those 10,000 plus hours that it takes to master or something, you know, not that I’m ask anything yet, but I feel like I got to a place where I’m doing my craft really well and continuing to get better at it.”
He has gotten better at it, to the tune of back-to-back National League Gold Glove awards at the shortstop position. He is constantly watching and learning and counts among his strengths a “willingness to learn from anybody at any time but still stand convicted in knowing the things that you do well.”
Among his defensive role models is another slick-fielding shortstop, Andrelton Simmons of the Los Angeles Angels:
“When I got drafted by Atlanta, was always a level ahead of me in the minor leagues. I just watched him, and he was just so consistent with his arm slot. His release on his throws. And he seemed to never make a throwing error. So I watched him and got coached by one of my managers in double Double-A to just really kind of fine tune, my throwing position. That helped a ton.”
But the learning and growth doesn’t come only from All-Star Major Leaguers. It can also come from unusual places, as long as you’re open to it:
“Through another guy, I never even actually met him in person. But he’s a college catching coach, and I was able to learn from one of his drills that he does with his catchers in college. It completely transformed my defense and it took me to a whole new level.”
When asked to name hitters that he looks up to, Ahmed rattles off a list of late bloomers at the plate, “guys who have had these big swing transformations, guys who early in their career weren’t very good and then turned into really, really good players later on.”
Among them are Red Sox slugger, J.D. Martinez, who played with Ahmed in Arizona for a short time in Arizona, Twins third baseman Josh Donaldson, and the Dodgers Justin Turner. Each of them turned their careers around and emerged as offensive run-producers later in their careers:
“I take notes and try to understand the things that they do well now and try to maybe adopt a few of those things into my game. It’s a fine, fine balance of being yourself and being convicted and who you are and what you do well, but also being open to learn and grow get better.”
When asked to explain his recent success at the plate, he focuses on his mental approach and on his ability to learn from his failures and adjust his approach:
“The last couple of years, it’s been more of a fine tuning, basically understanding myself and what pitchers are trying to do to me and how I’m going to construct a consistent season and not letting the slumps or the bad games turn into two, three or four games. Making adjustments a lot quicker.
It’s just come with experience, from learning myself, and from a lot of failures. A lot of failures.”
When asked about what he likes to do outside of baseball, Ahmed smiles and brings it back to family:
“To be quite honest, I just really like to hang out with my kids, my family. I’ve talked to a couple of my teammates and former teammates that have kids, especially young kids. We don’t have other hobbies, man. I enjoy doing what my kids enjoy.
And that’s not something that I’m bitter or upset about. It’s something I chose to put on the back-burner until either my career is over or my kids are a lot older. And then either I can enjoy those hobbies with them or I’ll just have more time when I’m done playing.”
(He does enjoy fishing and the occasional game of golf.)
While everyone wishes these times were more “normal,” that we could go to work, that there was baseball being played, and that we could go about our lives, the time off the field and away from work has provided some extra family time.
The Ahmeds are doing their best to take advantage of that right now:
“We just taught our older son how to swim. This month, being home, we had all kinds of time, and we did it together as a family. That was a huge moment for him and for us as a family.”
When we’re all through this and baseball games are being played, whenever that may be, you can be sure that #13 will be there patrolling the middle of the diamond for the Diamondbacks.
Photo Credit: Nick Ahmed (with permission)