Newell — who was born in Los Angeles before moving to Nevada and attending Douglas High School — currently owns Tommy’s Grand Stand in Sparks. He had the same dream growing up as many other children. Unlike many though, Newell’s dream came true for a brief moment.
“I always wanted to be a baseball player, just like any other kid,” Newell said. “Even through high school, that’s what I wanted to do. I graduated in ’81, so back then Northern Nevada didn’t have a lot of resources or people looking at us. For most of us, the opportunity to play baseball after high school was very limited coming from a smaller school like Douglas. We just wanted to play baseball.
“I was fortunate enough that when I graduated, my first year after high school I grew a little more and got a little weight and got a little more mature and got to play at Lassen College where a few of my older teammates had went. At that time, our college coach was good friends with the head of the Philadelphia Phillies West coast scouting system. He had a good connection with a lot of people on the West coast and with that, I got an opportunity.”
Those opportunities included either attending the University of Cal State Northridge or signing on with the Phillies as their 24th round draft pick. Not really interested in school and wanting to play baseball, Newell signed with Philadelphia. He spent two years in the system as an outfielder before a numbers crunch left his future up in the air.
“I was kind of on the block of maybe going home and career ended,” Newell said. “I basically got a tryout as a pitcher because the team knew I had a good arm. Fortunately they liked what they saw and I was the opening Day starter in Single-A.”
Working his way up, Newell impressed and became one of the Phillies’ top prospects. Two years after making the transition to the mound, the moment Newell had been dreaming of since he was a kid became a reality at the tail end of the 1987 season.
“I remember getting called into the office not even expecting it, and they said ‘You’re going to join the big league fellows. You’re getting the call-up.’ I was so excited,” Newell said as a smile beamed across his face. I felt like I was 8-years-old on Christmas morning. It was incredible. When you have your children or get married, those are special moments in your life. When you’ve done something that you’ve always wanted to and you’ve dreamed about, it’s hard to describe because most of us dream about things but we never get a chance.”
While Newell got his chance in the big leagues that many do not, a mere chance would be the most of his stint in a major league uniform. After coming out of the bullpen to pitching two games for the Phillies, Newell was shut down for the season with a torn rotator cuff, never to make it back to toe a major league rubber again.
“It was a September call-up. I was the No. 1 or No. 2 starter in Triple A, but because the rotation was set, I was thrown into the bullpen scenario. My first game was against the Mets the season after they won the World Series.
“My first game was out of the bullpen and in that game I’d warmed up thinking I was going into the game and then they said ‘Tom, change your sleeves, you’re not going in tonight.’ As I was walking down the tunnel the phone rang again and they said, ‘Hey, you’re going in the game.’ I got the first batter to ground out and the next guy up was Darryl Strawberry. I left a fastball over the plate and he hit it over the left-field fence for his second home run of the game. It must have taken him 20 minutes to circle those bases and the crowd was going crazy. I remember that night going back to the hotel room and watching the replay and Harry Kalas, the Phillies announcer, saying ‘Welcome to the big leagues Tom Newell.’
“My second game was out of the bullpen and I was going to get a start against Pittsburgh and I was really excited. In my second game though, I just could not get loose and that was the start of my shoulder problems so I had to get shut down for the rest of the season. The next year I went to spring training feeling like I was healthy. I was 6-2 and player of the month in Double-A and I was getting ready to get called up. In my last game I struck out 12 and pitched a complete game, but the last inning I lost about 8-miles-an-hour off my fastball. That was pretty much the last good game I ever pitched. I never really recovered.”
Newell tried to make a comeback, rehabbing his shoulder and signing on with the New York Yankees, but his arm was never the same. His first two appearances with the Phillies would also prove to be his last in the MLB ranks.
“Being an outfielder built up my arm strength, but coming back from surgery like that you want to take your time and build up your arm strength. I went from being primarily an outfielder my whole career and then my first year pitching and then the next year I threw 170 or 180 innings, my arm just wasn’t ready to jump into a full time starting position,” Newell said. “When they went in to look at the shoulder, there was a lot of scar tissue and stuff that was built. Scar tissue isn’t as strong as the actual cartilage or muscle and it just finally broke.
“The actual day that I got out of the game, it was a relief. I think the hardest part was when I was with the Phillies and had the arm surgery and not thinking it was over because I was so close. The day when you come into the ballpark and they make you take a left turn instead of going to your locker and you get called in and you’re released, that was the hardest part. It felt like I was a little kid and my mom and dad left me. I tried rehabbing it, but I wasn’t able to compete again. For about a five or six-year period, being a top prospect in an organization, living the dream of wanting to play in the big leagues, but getting up there for just a month, it was hard. It’s taken for granted until the day they tell you, you can’t play anymore and that’s why it is sad when you’re told that because you’re still so young. But then you get on with your life.”
Only knowing baseball his whole life, Newell had a lot to figure out. After bouncing around from job to job trying to find what suited him, Newell found his niche. With some experience in the restaurant industry and his background with baseball, Newell worked part-time at a batting cage facility before taking over and opening Tommy’s Grandstand, where it’s been serving customers at its current location for the past 10 years.
“Hopefully we’re helping create another generation of ball players year after year,” Newell said. “Honestly, it’s the little things that I enjoy here. It’s the interactions and helping people. Going over to a kid in the cages and saying, ‘Hey, try this.’ Just trying to give kids the game and make sure they have fun because that’s where their potential comes out.”
Looking back, Newell said he has no regrets, but sometimes he does wonder.
“I’m happy the way everything turned out. I’d love to be saying I had 10 years or more in the big leagues, but it was fun. When I look back and look at some of the guys I played against in the minors like Bernie Williams or Tom Glavine or John Smoltz and those kind of guys, and seeing where they went, I think ‘Man, I used to beat Bernie pitching to him, I used to beat Glavine and Smoltz going up against them.’ Those were guys that were in the big leagues 15-20 years and I felt as good, if not better than them. So I always wonder, what if my arm would had held up, what would have I been?
“I guess though when I go back to look at my high school paper asking ‘What do you want to be?’ and I said ‘A pro ball player. I want to play in the big leagues,’ I never stated how long it would be. I got up there for a couple of games and I got to meet a lot of great people in baseball and out of baseball. There’s a reason for everything. I wouldn’t have my wife and my two daughters if I had stayed in that area. To my daughters, I’m just dad to them. I think they kind of look at it like I played varsity baseball. I’m just dad. I’m the one that tells them no all the time. It’d be neat if they and my wife could have been a part of that. There are a lot of reasons for why things happen.”
Tom Newell's Favorites
Food: Cheeseburger and Fries
Movie: The Natural
Pro Team: Los Angeles Dodgers
Hobbies: Spending time with family, working in his yard, watching movies