Nolan hangs up his cleats in pro baseball

It’s always an agonizing decision.

Professional athletes at the top levels are certainly paid a ton. It’s tough to walk away from that money.

But at any level of sports, it’s always tough to walk away from playing a game you love. The life, even at the minor league level, can be intoxicating.

That’s why it was a super tough decision for Nashua’s Kevin Nolan to walk away from professional baseball. The former Nashua High School standout is best remembered for two things: Helping South win its only baseball title thus far, and for his three summers spent mainly at Manchester’s Northeast Delta Dental Stadium as the regular shortstop for the New Hampshire Fisher Cats.

It couldn’t have worked out any better for Nolan. He got to turn a game he loved into a professional playing career, and do the majority of it right in his own backyard, more or less.

But Nolan had become a six-year minor league free agent at the end of last season, spent mostly with the Fisher Cats but with a couple of brief stints at the Toronto Blue Jays Triple-A affiliate in Buffalo.

He was excited to enter free agency, perhaps to pick and choose. But it’s not that glamorous at the minor league level. The offers over the winter, including one from the Jays, weren’t what Nolan was looking for. So after talking it over with his family, including his parents in Nashua and his wife, Paige, with whom he lives just outside Columbia, S.C., Nolan said it was time to move on.

It couldn’t have been easy.

"It was a very hard decision," he said. "A lot of sleepless nights. … It was sad, of course. Something you’ve done your whole life, strived for your whole life."

See, the thing is, a big part of Nolan knows he can still play, and do so at a high level. Heck, he held his own, hitting .269 with 32 homers and 276 RBIs in 666 minor league games and was a reliable shortstop.

"Oh, definitely," he said. "I was preparing to play this year. … I think I can play at Double-A or Triple and be successful at it," he said. "And maybe even get to the big leagues. But the process, and the business of baseball, didn’t give me any good options to do that."

And so it ends. Nolan had to make the same decision that another Nashua native, Brad Zapenas, did a couple of years ago. Zapenas had been in the Cubs system but saw that there just weren’t any options moving forward.

Both are smart, well-mannered, professional young men who knew when to say when. Zapenas turned his experiences into a career in Boston sports radio advertising. Nolan is bound and determined to be a college baseball head coach, and will flood the market this summer in the hopes of getting a job for next season.

How long will Nolan’s reflection on what was and perhaps could have been? Tough to say.

"For me, I enjoyed it but I needed to get something a little more stable," Zapenas said. "But it took a while. It hits you at first like a big shock."

Nolan appears to have done a great job of looking ahead with zest.

"It’s bittersweet, but at the same time, I’m excited for the next step of being a college baseball coach, for the next challenge," he said. "I’ve had a lot of great years and can use my experience, especially playing for all the great coaches. I’ve learned so much, and in this game there’s always something to learn."

Nolan would make a great college coach. He’s a great communicator with youth, and he can take that to the next level. People around the Fisher Cats would rave about his willingness to make community appearances, etc. He’s set a great example, and would have a lot to offer a college player. He’s lived it all.

He’d be a great role model. How many other ballplayers do you know, when they retire, give credit to their parents for driving him to youth baseball practices, games, etc.? "They’ve been with me the whole way," he said of his family, adding that his favorite time in the game actually was the title won in 2005 with South.

Meanwhile, he feels he’s lucky to more or less go out on his own terms. Zapenas, ironically, had just talked to a former Cub teammate who got released. "It almost seems like everything’s pre-determined," he said. "There’s a guy who’s a high draft pick, he’s going to get the time over you. Sometimes it’s tough to get an opportunity."

Nolan will never complain about his opportunity.

"I’ve had a good run," said the 29-year-old Nolan, who was drafted in the 20th round by the Jays out of Winthrop University in 2009. "I wouldn’t change anything that’s happened over the years. … In the back of my mind, I had Plan B. I just wasn’t sure it would be today."

Plan B is in full implementation. Nolan says he’ll go anywhere, but he might be better served coaching in the warm weather. Fellow Nashuan Nate Goulet was a coaching success down south, especially at Old Dominion, but he struggled his couple of years at Daniel Webster with trying to adjust and roll with the schedule bumps and snowed-out games in the colder weather.

Either way, colleges athletic directors, take note: A good coaching candidate has just hit the market.

Tom King can be reached at 594-6468, tking@nashuatelegraph.com., or @Telegraph_TomK.