Nettles Giving Back Through Baseball

by David Villavicencio

CORAL GABLES, Fla. – Marcus Nettles was a difference-maker in his three years patrolling the outfield for the Miami Hurricanes.

A member of two national championship teams, Nettles used his blazing speed as a weapon on the base paths. But the Chicago native is making an even bigger impact in his community as a member of the Illinois State Police.

“Being a police officer nowadays, it’s tough,” Nettles said. “When I say it’s tough, it’s just tough because of the perception that the people have of the police, especially here. I’m in Chicago. I’m on a special unit with the state police and I work in the inner cities. So, I’m around an atmosphere that’s not police friendly because I work around criminals.”

Nettles grew up on the south side of Chicago and baseball helped him travel all over the world. Now he is using the sport to give back to that community and trying to make a difference in its future.

“One thing I did to try to help bridge the gap, I started a youth police baseball league,” Nettles said. “I did that for about three years until I had my son and then I started doing an annual camp every year in different areas just to show those kids like, ‘I was in the same situation as you.’ Just to show a different side of the police.’

“With the way everything is now, I know the only time they see the police in the neighborhood is to lock people up,” Nettles continued. “I think what I did is I want them to see a different side of the police because the way policing is set up now, there’s not really any type of positive interaction with the community. Everything is, ‘Go find the criminals and lock them up,’ which I get, but at the same time, I think that there are other things that I had to offer because I wasn’t always the police.”

Before Nettles went into law enforcement, he was a baseball player.

He starred at the Jackie Robinson West Little League, where he was coached by his father, Robert. Nettles went on to play for Team USA at the Junior Pan Am Games and developed into a star player at Chicago’s Whitney Young High School. As he got older, he began to make a name for himself on a national level.

“At that time, there were two big showcases: Team One and Area Code. When I was playing Jackie Robinson, I transitioned to travel ball and that’s when travel was really getting big in the early 90s,” Nettles said. “When I played AAU tournaments, I was seen by some college coaches or maybe by a representative from Team One or Area Code and I remember getting that invite in the mail. I remember getting a letter from Team One and the letter from Area Code. I think when I went there, my speed is what put me on a map and that was my ticket to going pretty much anywhere.”

Nettles recalls being one of the fastest players at every national showcase he attended, along with future UM teammate Mike Rodriguez and future MLB outfielder Corey Patterson.

Miami head coach Gino DiMare was an assistant coach at UM when Nettles played for the Canes from 1999-2001. DiMare, who was Miami’s recruiting coordinator before taking over the top position in 2019, has never seen anyone run like Nettles.

“He’s without a doubt the fastest human being I’ve ever seen in my life and that includes football players,” DiMare said. “I’ve never seen a human being in person run as fast as Marcus. It just astonished me. He was blessed with such unbelievable speed and he was always such a great kid and he worked hard and was part of two national championship teams; there’s not a lot of guys that can say that.”

But Nettles almost never became a Hurricane.

Despite growing up a fan of The U thanks to watching the Canes on television during their seemingly automatic annual run to the College World Series, Nettles always thought he would go to Arizona State and play for a coach he had an established relationship with.

“I was definitely a Hurricane fan, but there was this guy at Notre Dame by the name of Pat Murphy. He followed me and followed Chicago players and he had a really good rapport with me and my family,” Nettles said. “He left Notre Dame and went to Arizona State. So, as much as I was a Hurricane fan, I had that rapport with Pat Murphy and I remember I thought for sure I was going to Arizona State.”

As a gifted outfielder with elite, game-changing speed, Nettles had his pick of where to play college baseball and the Hurricanes worked hard to get his attention.

“In the beginning, I was telling Miami’s recruiter that it was something I would think about and keep it open, but I remember Arizona State was tops on my list,” Nettles said. “Miami was so persistent and I had one trip left to take so I decided to go visit Miami. I already know how they recruit. I already know the competitiveness of it. I would love to go there, but I had this rapport with coach Murphy and it’s a prestigious program, as well. And I remember calling Murph after my visit and I was like, ‘Hey, I went to Miami and I loved it. I’m from the city. That’s more of a city atmosphere. I love the energy compared to the desert.’ And he was like, ‘Hey, dude, I don’t blame you. Good luck with your career. Don’t be a stranger. I’m sure I’ll see you again.’”

Nettles arrived in Miami ahead of the 1999 season and he had a chip on his shoulder. Despite being a highly-regarded recruit, Nettles wanted to prove he could play with the best in the country.

“There’s a lot of guys that can go compete and play in Miami. It’s just a matter of opportunity, the timing is right where you’re just that guy at that moment,” Nettles said. “I know when I went in that I was prepared for that. I wanted the big stage. I wanted the attention. I wanted people to know that there are people in Chicago that can play, too. … I wanted to go down there and represent Chicago and let people know that there are some players out there and that we can come down here and compete. So I think I had that confidence about me.”

When he joined the Hurricanes, Nettles felt like he represented so much more than just himself.

“Being in Miami from Chicago – the fact that out of all the people in the nation that they recruited, I was in Miami – this was my opportunity to make my city proud, to make Jackie Robinson proud, to make my parents proud,” Nettles said. “I remember my first game. I went in to pinch hit my freshman year. We were playing Stetson and I remember getting on base. Coach [Jim] Morris called me off the bench and I wasn’t even expecting it. I want to say it was the 10th inning and I went in and got a base hit. I think I stole second and Mark Walker ended up in hitting me in and we won the game in extra innings. I definitely remember getting that call and getting that first at-bat.”

Nettles helped Miami beat the Hatters that day and went on to hit .349 with 20 stolen bases and 29 runs scored over 44 games as a true freshman. At the end of the season, he was a national champion.

“I was prepared and I expected us to go win a national championship and that’s all you heard,” Nettles said. “Bobby Hill, Manny Crespo, Kevin Brown, Lale Esquivel, Alex Santos, you didn’t hear those guys talk about anything less. That was the expectation. It was ‘We’re going to win the College World Series.’ Those guys thought it and they seemed to believe it. So as a young guy coming in, I had those expectations and I saw it and I was influenced by it.”

Marcus Nettles was all smiles at the 20-year reunion of the 1999 national championship team on April 6 2019.

As a sophomore, Nettles hit .293 and stole 24 bases while scoring 25 runs. The Canes did not repeat as national champions, losing to rival Florida State in the NCAA Regional and that fueled Miami ahead of Nettles’ junior season.

“In that moment, we didn’t know what was going on, but we looked back at it and evaluated ourselves said, ‘We’re not going to let this happen again,’” Nettles said. “We weren’t as hungry as we were our first year. We won the World Series and we went through the motions to a certain extent, the same hunger wasn’t there. We had certain guys leave, but we still had the same process, the same program. It was just a different atmosphere, the same process, but just a different atmosphere.

“I think when we had everybody come back that next year after the loss, especially losing to Florida State, we just felt that was unacceptable,” Nettles added. “And we came back our junior year and it was that same hunger as is our first year. We had a good group of guys coming in. I remember guys like Kevin Howard and other guys that came in that were just hungry and the competitiveness was back in the practices. We were back at it and on a mission again. We were on a mission to do whatever we had to do to win.”

Nettles helped Miami accomplish that mission in 2001, turning in a career year as a key member of the Hurricanes’ championship squad. As a junior, he hit .310 and posted a career-best in hits (45), runs scored (49) and stolen bases (44) over 54 games played. Nettles was selected by the San Diego Padres in the 11th round of the 2001 MLB Draft and signed, beginning a 10-year professional career.

“When I first got drafted, my athleticism was getting me by, but there were some skills that I needed to enhance,” Nettles said. “San Diego was high on me. My first year, I did decent. They knew I was going to be the slap hitter, bunt, steal bases, that was my thing. But as I moved up, I was struggling. I had a hole in my swing, coming around the ball and doing all that stuff. As you move up, your athleticism can only take you so far before you start finding those guys that were skilled.”

He reached Double-A in 2004, but was released by the Padres following the season. Determined to continue playing, Nettles spent the 2005 season with four teams, including the Harrisburg Senators of the Washington Nationals organization. Nettles went on to play five more years after that, making stops in Canada and Mexico, in addition to his time in the United States.

“It was just something I was determined to conquer, regardless of what level I did it,” Nettles said. “I knew I had a window of opportunity to do well, but it’s something I’ve been playing my entire life and I still enjoyed it. I still enjoyed the game. I was going to give myself to 30 years old before I transitioned into something else, but I knew for those 10 years, I was going to be selfish with my life to do what I wanted to do. That’s pretty much what kept me motivated. Every opportunity to play, wherever it was, I decided to do it.

While his playing career was winding down, Nettles went back to Miami to finish his studies. In December 2007, Nettles earned his degree in business administration. Two years later, he began to officially transition to life after baseball, but his time at Miami helped prepare him to be successful on and off the diamond.

“I think people understand in any profession you transition into, you always run across someone that either played somewhere or they’re an avid sports person and I think they can appreciate the discipline that I had to be an athlete,” Nettles said. “I hear that all the time like, ‘Wow, you can just tell how regimented, how professional you are, how you go about your business, you’re so organized. You can just tell that you were an athlete at a prestigious school at a higher level.’

“A lot of that is obviously from my upbringing, but a lot of that is from when I was in college,” Nettles continued. “I was by myself; I didn’t have my parents. It was me being by myself and transitioning to get ready for the world by myself. A lot of the speeches that I heard, a lot of the hard work, the way I go about my business — especially the job that I have now where it’s about reading people and just watching people’s behavior, because as athletes you’re are always watching, you’re always thinking a step ahead. You have to stay focused, if not, you can get burned and look at the profession I’m in now, that goes a long way with what I do now.”

When trying to choose what he would do after retiring from baseball, Nettles chose to follow in the footsteps of the man who taught him to love baseball and the University of Miami – his father.

“My dad worked for the sheriff’s department. My dad got into it in the 70s when affirmative action first passed and they were hiring minority cops,” Nettles said. “My dad got into law enforcement and he liked it. He influenced my cousins to take the same route and I always thought it was cool growing up because I always looked up to my father. It was always something I thought about, like, ‘If I ever had to work, I would transition into law enforcement.’ I thought it was super cool that he was doing something and that he was able to patrol the community I grew up in and really know what’s going on. And I kind of took that same approach when I thought about what I wanted to do next after baseball and it’s something I’ve transitioned into, and now look where I am.”

As a member of a special unit in the Illinois State Police, Nettles is working in the same community he grew up in, the south side of Chicago. As a local product of that area, Nettles believes he can make a difference with the youth on the south side.

“I think it helps since I’m in predominantly minority neighborhoods, especially majority black being in Chicago,” Nettles said. “I think initially it helps because first they see the police and they’re like, ‘This guy’s the police and I don’t want to be around police.’ But then they might say to themselves, ‘Okay, let’s see where he’s coming from because he is black.’ Then once they find out my background, it’s surprising to them. I always thought that was pretty interesting because they’re like, ‘Wait, there are people that are from the hood that want to be the police? We didn’t even know there were police officers like that.’ So I think that kind of opened up some kids’ eyes.”

“It motivates me big-time, just knowing that I can be a good example for the community and show them that there are good cops and fair cops. I stand for integrity.”

Marcus Nettles, Former UM outfielder and current Illinois State Police Officer

Nettles, who has been connecting with inner city youth through baseball for years, recently experienced a small example of the big impact his program is making.

“There were two kids that I saw when I went to our St. Jude’s annual parade that the city has — the state police is involved with it and they honor all of the fallen police officers within the city — and I saw two of the kids that were in the explorers program for the city,” Nettles said. “I thought it was really interesting because they were two kids that were in the baseball program. Their parents brought them out and they weren’t as receptive. They knew they wanted to do something, and they knew they had to be here because their parents were there. But they ended up liking baseball, liking the program and liked hanging out. We took them bowling and went on a couple of field trips to baseball games. So, for me to see them be like, ‘Hey, coach Nettles, you didn’t coach this year.’ And I told him I had a son and I didn’t have time, but he was so proud to tell me, ‘Well, I’m an explorer now.’ And I was like how about this? This dude went from being against the police to wanting to be the police now. I thought that was that was really interesting.”

His next goal is to grow the program even more.

“A lot of these kids that I’ve interacted with, I will pull them into the program that I was running, especially to juvenile kids that were you know getting into like the minor trouble, the guys out here that I feel like had a second chance,” Nettles said. “Before I had my son last year, I wanted to go to my department and make it like a mandatory program for them to come to the youth police baseball league as an alternative when they’re on probation. I wanted it to get to that. That’s not something I’ve given up on, but I had my son last year so that was my focus and then the whole COVID thing came about.”

Nettles’ youth baseball program started small, but always made an impact.

“My first year when I started this thing, some of the dudes I would arrest that had warrants out, a couple of them showed up to my camp with their kids and after I told them about it. I thought that was awesome,” Nettles said. “They had their court dates and were still in the process of going back and forth to court and I would tell them like, ‘Hey, you got kids?’ And they thought I was trying to set them up and I’m like, ‘Look, man, I played baseball. I know basketball is big up here, but this is what I’m doing at Columbus Park.’ I’d let them know my background and they’d be like, ‘What?’ So, I’d tell them, ‘Google me, man. Go ahead and Google me. I’m serious.’ And they brought their son out and then said a couple of words to some of the kids at the end. That was pretty cool and that’s when I kind of knew I was onto something.”

The program grew thanks to support from fellow officers willing to donate their time and fellow Hurricanes like Jose Armario, who helped connect Nettles with a way to help feed the kids that participated in the program.

“I had food sponsors and I had police officers coming out to help me from the department and from the city and the other surrounding areas,” Nettles said. “One of the big boosters from the University of Miami was the McDonald’s guy at the time, Jose Armario, and he got me in contact with some McDonald’s people to get food for the kids. We made it as healthy as possible with water, chicken nuggets, apples and all that stuff, so it was it was pretty cool. He’s with Bojangles now, but the McDonald’s sponsors still helped out with everything. We had a good thing going on.”

In addition to providing a great opportunity for the youth in the south side of Chicago, Nettles has built some goodwill with the community and that has helped him as he works to keep that community safe.

“The more times people would come over to the park and be like, ‘What’s the state police or CPD doing over here?’ And they’d realize we were running a program and we weren’t locking anybody up and that right there helps a lot,” Nettles said. “It helps out when you go into the community and you really have to ask questions about stuff, like when it’s a murder or when somebody’s hijacking or robbing people, committing armed robberies, you’ll get people that are more willing to talk to you because they know you’re invested in the community.”

Nettles takes great pride in giving back to the south side of Chicago and he knows he can make a huge difference in the future of those young people who are growing up there.

“It motivates me big-time, just knowing that I can be a good example for the community and show them that there are good cops and fair cops,” Nettles said. “I stand for integrity.

“I know I can’t do everything, but I know this is going to help,” Nettles said. “I’m in a leadership position with law enforcement and I’m in a leadership position with my baseball background. If I’ve got a couple of people that are listening, it will help my profession because the media up here, they’re not really promoting that type of stuff that’s going on. I’m not saying they’re not reporting facts, but they’re not reporting the positive type of stuff that’s going on with the police in the community.”

While Nettles is making a major impact in Chicago, he has a lot of people back in Coral Gables who are proud of what he’s done.

“As someone that is both a former coach of his and now the head coach, any time you see the guys like him and they’re wearing the colors and there’s still supporting the program in whatever ways they can and they’re showing their love and affection for the program, it makes you feel good and it tells you that there were things that were done right while they were here because they appreciated their time here,” DiMare said.

“He’s in Chicago and you see him in all these different things he’s doing, and he’s always got his Miami stuff on. With Marcus, he’s always in orange and green and always speaking highly of the school that he played at and that goes a long way,” DiMare added. “I don’t even know how to measure that value, but I know it’s huge when your former players truly love your program and speak highly of it. When you can have guys like Marcus and they’re out there in the community and he’s going to inner cities and he’s talking to these kids and he’s doing clinics and he’s doing all these different things, I’m sure he’s talking about his time here in Miami and how proud he is of that and what it meant for him to be able to play here and how coming to Miami had a lot to do with where he is in his life right now. I think those things are invaluable. It’s amazing and I wish that we had more guys like him doing those things.”

Nettles, who can routinely be seen at Miami’s annual alumni weekend, is always touching base to see how he can help his old team get better.

“He’s always checking in on how things are going. He’s like many other former players; They’re proud alumni and they want success for the program,” pitching coach J.D. Arteaga said. “He’s a guy that is so proud of the program and proud to have been a part of it. He’s also been another set of eyes and ears out there. Every time he comes across a player that has a chance, he calls right away and lets us know to put some eyes on this guy, make some phone calls and do some homework. He’s always trying to help and he’s very proud of being a Miami Hurricane. The saying goes, ‘Once a Cane, always a Cane’ and he really lives up to that.”