Goleta native Jeff McNeil acknowledges a standing ovation at Citi Field on Wednesday after clinching Major League Baseball’s batting championship with a season average of .326. (New York Mets photo)
Mark Patton

Major League Baseball’s newly crowned batting champion once thought his last hurrah in baseball had come 16 years ago.

Jeff McNeil led the Goleta Valley South Little League Junior All-Stars to the District 63 Championship and then moved on … to another town and even another sport.

The family had already relocated to Nipomo. But Steve McNeil, who had been hired by the Diablo Canyon Fire Department, and wife Rebecca let their two boys finish that summer of 2006 playing with their childhood friends. Jeff and Ryan, after all, had been born and bred on the ballfields of the Goleta Valley.

“Yeah, I loved those teams,” said Jeff, who’s now completing his fifth season with the New York Mets. “I played with all four of the Moore brothers. It was a fun way to spend the day. Cory Micheel was my really good friend on that junior team. I stay in touch with all of them.

“I had some great baseball years in my childhood.”

One of McNeil’s fondest memories is from when he was 12, playing on the same league team with Micheel, the Moores and brother Ryan. His dad served as one of the coaches, along with Mitch Moore and Bruce Micheel.

“It was a pretty special team,” said McNeil, who turned 30 in April. “We went undefeated until the playoffs.”

But his new friends in Nipomo preferred to play golf. McNeil quickly switched from driving stitched balls to dimpled ones. Within just three years, he was good enough to earn an invitation to play in the U.S. Junior Amateur Golf Championship.

Jeff McNeil, a two-time All-Star for the New York Mets, grew up on the baseball fields of the Goleta Valley South Little League.

Jeff McNeil, a two-time All-Star for the New York Mets, grew up on the baseball fields of the Goleta Valley South Little League. (McNeil Family photo)

“It was tough, leaving the Santa Barbara area,” he said. “All my friends were there. But I met some cool people in Nipomo. Some of my best friends are up there, all golfers.

“That’s why I ended up playing high school golf.”

A rough day at the 2009 U.S. Junior Amateur, however, made McNeil reconsider his decision to forsake baseball for golf.

Jordan Spieth won the tournament, just six years before becoming the Masters champion.

McNeil had stayed in contention by shooting an opening round of 74 at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey. His putter betrayed him in the second round, however. He blew up to an 89 and missed the cut for medal play.

If he had played better, he once mused, “Who knows where I’d be?”

McNeil Met the Challenge

McNeil was at Citi Field in New York this weekend, playing second base for the Mets in their National League Wild-Card Playoff Series against the San Diego Padres.

His two-run double in the seventh inning broke open Saturday’s 7-3 victory that squared the best-of-three series at one game apiece, before San Diego ended the Mets’ season with a 6-0 victory Sunday night.

It was just another amazing moment for the unlikeliest Met — a batting champion who only played one season of high school baseball. McNeil’s batting average of .326 this season edged the .325 posted by Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman for the best in all of baseball.

“It’s a dream come true,” he said after clinching the title Wednesday.

Jeff McNeil’s .326 batting average was one point better than that of Los Angeles Dodgers star Freddie Freeman in the race for the 2022 Major League Baseball batting championship.

Jeff McNeil’s .326 batting average was one point better than that of Los Angeles Dodgers star Freddie Freeman in the race for the 2022 Major League Baseball batting championship. (New York Mets photo)

He began working to make it a reality soon after his failure at Trump National, joining a club baseball team in Santa Maria called the California Wahoos. His exceptional hand-eye coordination, cat-quick hands and feet, and a burning desire to succeed made a believer out of team manager Vince Sagisi.

“The thing that separated him is that he’s a real competitor with a tremendous work ethic,” Sagisi said several years later. “For a guy who only played fall ball for us, he was pretty good.”

Sagisi told Mark Kertenian, an assistant coach at Cal State Northridge, to check out McNeil during a fall game at Rio Hondo College in Whittier. The Wahoo shortstop wowed Kertenian at first sight.

“I went on a visit to the campus two weeks after he saw me play,” McNeil said.

“The way I got recruited was kind of out there,” he continued. “Nobody knew about me.

“I got lucky because I had a few good people in my corner like Vince, calling people for me like, ‘Hey, come take a look at this kid. He doesn’t play baseball but you’ll want him on your team.’”

McNeil batted .446 for Nipomo High the following spring. He even showed some surprising power by slugging seven home runs. He had labored for so long to win a college golf scholarship, but wound up getting an offer from Cal State Northridge to play baseball instead.

“My parents told me that baseball is a one-time deal,” McNeil said. “You either get seen out of college or you don’t, whereas with golf, you can always go back and play and try to go pro later.”

Handling Another Curveball

Jeff McNeil, who was given the nickname “Flying Squirrel” during his baseball playing days at Long Beach State, leaps over the catcher’s tag while scoring a run for the Santa Barbara Foresters during their National Baseball Congress championship season in 2011.

Jeff McNeil, who was given the nickname “Flying Squirrel” during his baseball playing days at Long Beach State, leaps over the catcher’s tag while scoring a run for the Santa Barbara Foresters during their National Baseball Congress championship season in 2011. (Vince Agapito photo)

But his athletic career took another surprising turn after he signed with Northridge when the Matadors’ coaching staff got fired. Those coaches recommended him to Long Beach State, however, where coach Troy Buckley had him play nearly every position for his Big West Conference program.

“I’d ask him to play third, and he would say yes before ever taking a grounder there,” Buckley said.

Bill Pintard, longtime manager of the Santa Barbara Foresters, helped prepare McNeil for that first season in Long Beach by adding his former bat boy to the roster of his summer collegiate program.

“He was going to our camps when he was a skinny 6-year-old,” Pintard pointed out.

McNeil, the youngest player on Pintard’s 2010 team, was used primarily as a backup utility player. But it proved to be a valuable session of summer school.

“Pinner taught me a lot,” he said. “He was definitely one of the best coaches I’ve ever played for.

“Just being out there, playing against college-level players, helped a lot. It really prepared me to go into my freshman year at Long Beach State.”

He returned to Santa Barbara in the summer of 2011 to lead the Foresters to the National Baseball Congress World Series championship. He batted .345 at the Wichita tournament, scoring eight runs and driving in another four to make the series’ All-America team.

“He has amazing hand-eye coordination,” Pintard said. “He also has tremendous quickness … Everything he does is quick.”

A Force For the Foresters

McNeil was inducted into the Foresters’ Hall of Fame in 2019. The NBC honored him with its Graduate of the Year Award in 2021, putting him in an exclusive club that includes such previous winners as Aaron Judge, Albert Pujols and Paul Goldschmidt.

Ryan McNeil, left, came to Citi Field in New York to root on brother Jeff when he made his Major League Baseball debut for the Mets in 2018.

Ryan McNeil, left, came to Citi Field in New York to root on brother Jeff when he made his Major League Baseball debut for the Mets in 2018. (McNeil Family photo)

“Those were awesome summers,” McNeil said. “Playing with the Foresters was great. All the guys on my team were top D-1 college players. That was pretty special.

“Every single game we’d go in there, knowing we were going to win.”

He batted .348 during his junior year at Long Beach to earn All-Big West First Team honors, but he was still a longshot to make it to Major League Baseball. His younger brother seemed to have a better chance.

Ryan McNeil was bigger and stronger at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds. He was also more experienced, having played four years of varsity baseball at Nipomo as a pitcher and shortstop.

He fashioned an earned-run average of 1.10 and struck out 94 batters in just 57⅓ innings during his 2012 senior season. He held opponents to a batting average of just .175 and hit .392 himself.

Buckley offered him a full scholarship to join his brother at Long Beach State. But he was also coveted by the Chicago Cubs. They picked him in the third round of the 2012 MLB Amateur Draft and signed him with a slot bonus of $471,000.

The Mets picked brother Jeff in the 12th round the following year.

Both McNeils had to deal with major injuries in the minors. Ryan tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow during spring training of 2013. Tommy John surgery kept him off the diamond until 2014.

Jeff’s six seasons in the minors were bogged down several injuries, which included a double sports hernia, a torn hip labrum and a torn quadriceps muscle.

Ryan got back on track in 2016 to make the Cubs’ All-Organization All-Star Team as a relief pitcher. He earned 22 saves with an ERA of 2.33 at high-A Myrtle Beach of the Carolina League.

But he relapsed onto the disabled list four times during an eighth-month span before the Cubs released him on July 5, 2018.

Big Brother’s Big Debut

Jeff McNeil, who was hitting .368 that summer at Triple-A Las Vegas, was summoned to New York just 19 days later.

“When I got the call, I called my wife (Tatiana) and my family and they all flew out the next morning,” he said. “My brother got to be there, too. It was special having the whole family there.”

He made it extra special by hitting the first pitch for a single off San Diego pitcher Phil Hughes. He batted .329 for the rest of the season. He made the National League All-Star team the following year and hit .318 for the season.

McNeil, who has a career average of .307, became only the second Met to win a National League batting title this season. He also played in his second All-Star Game this summer, starting for the National League at second base.

Jeff McNeil, a former Goleta Valley South Little League All-Star, started for the National League during the 2022 Major League Baseball All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.

Jeff McNeil, a former Goleta Valley South Little League All-Star, started for the National League during the 2022 Major League Baseball All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. (New York Mets photo)

Six days earlier, he became a father for the first time when Tatiana gave birth to their son, Lucas.

“I couldn’t ask for a better few days,” McNeil said.

It follows a difficult 2021 when he batted only .251 in a losing season for the Mets.

“I’m hard on myself,” he told reporters after clinching the hitting crown. “I think everyone knows that. But I expect to be a .300 hitter every single year, so this is where I want to be.

“This is the player I want to be for the rest of my career.”

And then?

A golf redux appears to be in the stars for McNeil.

He recorded a 59 at the Canyon Lakes Golf Course during MLB’s COVID-19 pause of 2020. He ended the round by shooting 27 on the back nine with a pair of eagles and five birdies.

McNeil shrugged off his stellar round, noting in an Instagram post that “it definitely isn’t legit because of pool noodles in the hole but it was still fun.” He ended his note with the hashtag #bangitoffthenoodle.

But he also wouldn’t mind taking a trip back to the future some day.

“Once I’m done playing, I might go and try to do the whole golf thing,” McNeil said. “But it ended up working out, and hopefully I can do this baseball thing for a long time.”

Noozhawk sports columnist Mark Patton is a longtime local sports writer. Contact him at sports@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk Sports on Twitter: @NoozhawkSports. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook. The opinions expressed are his own.

Mark Patton

Mark Patton, Noozhawk Sports Columnist

Noozhawk sports columnist Mark Patton is a longtime local sports writer. Contact him at sports@noozhawk.com. The opinions expressed are his own.