JUPITER, Fla. — As Russ Steinhorn was looking to hire a hitting coach for the Cardinals’ Johnson City farm team before the 2020 season, he came across a young candidate who was having success at the collegiate level.
The more he looked into Daniel Nicolaisen’s background, Steinhorn – the organization’s minor-league hitting coordinator – found more that was intriguing.
It didn’t matter to Steinhorn that Nicolaisen’s success at Seton Hall University was coming with the women’s softball team.
“We’re always trying to keep a pulse on potential coaches out there and Daniel really stood out with the success that they had and some of the things he was doing at Seton Hall,” Steinhorn said. “The games are completely different, softball and baseball, with the fundamental part of it, but the swing and the hitting aspect of it are the same.
He was able to capture information and he had a good knowledge of the technology that was out there, but he also was able to apply it at the highest level he was working at. He had the knowledge of baseball; he was just coaching in softball.
“We knew he would be a special kind of coach … He’s innovative and he’s very smart. He’s got a unique set of skills. We’re just looking for the best coaches. We can find them anywhere. We just want people who can come in and make an impact.”
To illustrate what the Cardinals now think of Nicolaisen, it took him only two years of working in the farm system after the 2020 season was wiped out because of the pandemic for him to be promoted to the major-league staff as an assistant hitting coach at the age of 29.
Where he is now, however, is only part of Nicolaisen’s story – a remarkable journey that began when he was a 10-year-old boy growing up in Denmark and happened to watch a movie when it came on television. The movie was “Major League.”
Becoming a softball player, by default
Up to that point in his life, Nicolaisen’s knowledge of baseball was limited to occasional highlights he saw on television. His mother was a handball player, so he took up that sport, which is big in Europe, and also naturally found himself on a soccer field.
“I didn’t particularly like soccer and when I saw ‘Major League’ it was super interesting to me,” Nicolaisen said. “My dad and I looked up to see if there were any local clubs and one said baseball and softball. But when we showed up it was all men’s fast pitch softball, so that was what I played growing up kind of by default.”
The more Nicolaisen played that game, the more he began to think, and dream, about making the move to the United States with the goal of playing baseball. When he met the woman who later would become his wife, Wendi, on a softball field, he had added motivation to make the move. She was from New Jersey, so that became the next stop on his journey.
Two years of playing baseball at a junior college led to a chance to move on to Neumann University, a Division III school in Pennsylvania.
“He was an outfielder but he struggled with us hitting wise,” said John Fleming, then the head coach at Neumann and now the pitching coach at West Chester University. “But work ethic wise, he was a phenomenal kid. That was the biggest thing to me.
“It didn’t seem like anything ever bothered him. He was very upbeat all the time.”
It was at some point during that season when Nicolaisen realized that playing baseball at the professional level probably was not going to be part of his future.
Nicolaisen started to change his focus to coaching – something he had also done as a teenager in Denmark, when he said he basically lived at the field, packing as big of a lunch as possible before leaving home for school, then after school staying at the field until it got dark. He was coaching a team of kids under 12 when he was 15.
“Coaching was always intriguing to me,” he said. “I loved hanging around the field.”
Remembering those days led Nicolaisen to take the next steps on his journey.
“I recognized that in order for me to stay (in the U.S.) I had to find a viable way of living,” he said. “I could not see another option but coaching softball at the time. It was really the only thing I spent time on. It was the only thing I wanted to spend time on.
“I took a chance and called every Division I university in the area and Paige Smith at Seton Hall picked up the phone.”
A few days later, Nicolaisen was working as a volunteer assistant coach for the Pirates.
A three-hour commute, on two buses and a train
It didn’t take long for Smith to realize what Nicolaisen brought to her team, even before she found out what he had to go through to get to practice every day.
Nicolaisen had to take two buses and a train – a three-hour commute each way – to get to and from the school.
“I left home at 6 in the morning,” said Nicolaisen, who had a 1 ½ hour daily commute during his final year of college. “It was tough, but it allowed me to listen and learn from podcasts and audio books.
“It was tough to have the discipline to do that every day but it made me grow and helped the way I think about the game, building those foundations.”
Smith’s respect for Nicolaisen grew when she heard about his commute, and it reached an even higher level one day in her office.
“I was a little frustrated and we sat down and I gave him a dry erase marker and asked him what he thought,” said Smith, now the hitting coach for Columbia University’s softball team. “My mind was just blown. An hour and a half later I was inspired to learn more about the game.
“He had the guts to tell me I was wrong in a way that made me want to learn. I don’t know what better to have in an assistant … I had been in this game a long time and I couldn’t wait to see how excited the athletes were going to be.”
Smith made Nicolaisen a full-time coach the next year, in 2019. He told her what technology he would like to get. Through camps and clinics, the school scraped up enough money to get some of the equipment.
“The next thing I knew we were leading the conference in doubles and were second in home runs,” Smith said.
It was money well spent.
“We didn’t have very many resources and we found ways to be creative and maximize what we had,” Nicolaisen said.
Smith was impressed. Steinhorn and the Cardinals were taking notice as well.
“He’s the best hire I ever made in my life. That’s what I think about him,” Smith said of Nicolaisen. “He was the smartest guy in the room with the littlest ego. That’s what sets him apart for sure.
“He’s just brilliant. He is the best grinder in the room and he is beyond humble. I made the biggest mistake of my career in not having him take over the offense in that first year … He’s not just a great coach, he’s a great human. He coaches the person, not just the skill … You can’t tell him he can’t do anything. He will figure out a way. I can’t tell you enough about how great he is.”
Steinhorn and the Cardinals were seeing the same thing. When they first offered Nicolaisen a job, he walked into Smith’s office to tell her about it, then added that he was turning it down.
Steinhorn and the Cardinals understood his hesitancy – but they were persistent.
“He was in a good spot at the time,” Steinhorn said. “His wife was working at another school. I know that had to be a joint decision.”
A few days later, Nicolaisen was back in Smith’s office.
“He said, ‘I can’t turn it down,’” Smith recalled. “I made my second greatest mistake at that point. Instead of celebrating him I felt sorry for myself for a second. Then I came back and told him how excited I was for him.
“I had to wear two hats. I was mourning the loss for our program, knowing there was no way to replace a guy like that. I was just hoping I had soaked up enough. It was a tough conversation with the team. You can find people that know the game, but he knows people.”
Smith is not surprised that Nicolaisen has been able to make the conversion from coaching softball to coaching baseball.
“I’m biased, but I think baseball can learn a lot from softball,” she said. “Our game is faster. Everything that has to be done at the top level in softball happens in three seconds or less. You don’t have time to have mechanics go awry or to not know your body.
“I was a little surprised he went that way because he loves softball. But I get it. He gets to be a hitting coach, and that’s all he wants to do. He doesn’t want all the drama of parents and stuff like that in college. He wants to coach hitters and that’s what he gets to do.”
A unique set of skills
Before Nicolaisen could actually begin his job of coaching hitters in rookie ball, COVID wiped out the 2020 minor-league season.
His wife was pregnant with their first daughter, and Nicolaisen spent a lot of time that year on a computer trying to improve his programming and math skills.
The couple moved to Jupiter, where Nicolaisen was able to spend a lot of time working with hitters at the organization’s complex throughout the offseason, especially players like Paul Goldschmidt, who spent the winter in the area.
He came up with the idea of taking Goldschmidt’s bats to a batting tee and testing them to try to determine which ones had the best wood. This is now the third year Nicolaisen has done that.
“It started in conversations with Jeff Albert,” Goldschmidt said. “I’m always open to trying new things and looking for ways to get better. We experiment with it and evaluate it and see if it’s working or if it’s nothing. There are lots of things I’ve tried and don’t think are very helpful so I stop doing it. Other things that I’ve tried and think are helpful I keep doing it.”
Nicolaisen’s official job in 2021 was as the hitting coach for Palm Beach and in 2022 he became an assistant hitting coordinator in the farm system, which led him to take on special projects – such as his work with Goldschmidt’s bats.
Even before he was promoted to the major-league staff in January, Nicolaisen spent this winter putting in a lot of time working with Paul DeJong at the complex.
“There’s a lot of great qualities about him,” DeJong said. “It’s one thing to understand the swing, but it’s another thing to understand where the person is today and what we need to do to be better tomorrow. He’s got a great skill set of problem solving and coming up with ways and ideas to get the most out of us.
“He spends a lot of time researching but also kind of feeling things. He will be in the cage just swinging around doing certain movements trying to feel it; then he will look at you and kind of show you what you are doing and what the adjustment is. I think he’s great at problem fixing and solutions.”
What Steinhorn saw in Nicolaisen dating back to his work at Seton Hall is what the major-league hitters, and manager Oli Marmol, are seeing now.
“It’s not surprising he’s moved quickly,” Steinhorn said. “He’s got a unique set of skills. I’m just glad he’s doing it with us.
“He’s very personable. He knows how to interpret the information and simplify it to the player, which is ultimately most important; apply it to the player so it can be actionable, with whatever they are working on, and then transfer it into the game.
“That’s part of his unique skill set. Not only can he capture everything and blend all of the information and technology but actually take that and make it applicable to the player.”
Marmol said he believes the role of a hitting coach has changed over the years, with somebody like Nicolaisen offering a perfect blend of what he can see with his eyes combined with being able to understand what the data and metrics are telling him.
“You want somebody who can truly integrate all the tools and resources that are out there and create meaningful, actionable advice,” Marmol said. “We’ve got a good one.”
Nicolaisen said he tries to use all the data that is available as a tool to help him coach.
“It helps you find ways for a player to hear what you are saying,” Nicolaisen said. “That’s what it’s all about. The use of advanced metrics and analytics really just helps you coach. You can more precisely define a problem or use it to make adjustments within a session or day to day, rather than just using opinion. It’s a second set of eyes almost.
“Ultimately, it’s their careers. If you can help them have ownership and show them things where we found value and help them, that’s kind of the ultimate goal.”
Looking out the window at Busch Stadium
Shortly after Nicolaisen found out about his new role on the major-league staff, the Cardinals flew him and his wife to St. Louis so they could begin looking for a house.
He was staying at the Live by Loews hotel, across the street from his new office.
“I opened up the curtains and Busch Stadium was right there,” he said. “That was when it sunk in that it was real.”
Nicolaisen doesn’t know how he will react when he experiences his first opening day at Busch, but he knows how he feels now every time he stands on the foul line for the National Anthem.
He could easily reflect on his journey – starting with the day he watched “Major League” as a 10-year-old, thousands of miles and another world from where he is now.
He could think back to the hours and hours he spent every day on a bus or train commuting so he could be a volunteer coach. That was only five years ago.
“At that point in my life I wasn’t envisioning myself as part of professional baseball,” Nicolaisen said. “In hindsight it all feels like it happened really quickly, but there definitely were some long stretches of putting my head down and working hard. It never felt like a job or a chore.
“I never really had an end goal. I felt like I was always kind of surprised about what could happen, so I tried not to put any boundaries on it.”
Does Nicolaisen have an end goal now?
“To be happy,” he said. “I know that’s kind of vague, but I really like our staff and how everybody works together. Those things are fulfilling. It makes it easier to put in the hours that are required when you enjoy it.”
One of the reasons Steinhorn become even more attracted to Nicolaisen at Seton Hall was when Steinhorn learned about what he had to do each day just to be a volunteer coach.
Steinhorn spent five years as a college coach, three of them as a volunteer assistant.
“Those guys like Daniel who very early on in their career put in their time and display those types of sacrifices, they stand out to me too,” Steinhorn said. “Those guys appreciate the opportunity even more.
“Daniel is a very present, in the moment kind of guy but when he takes a step back and thinks about his story, I know to me it’s remarkable and I’m sure he feels the same way. He will never take it for granted, that’s for sure.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains.
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