Lakeland, Fla. — As for Joe Nathan, a fellow so good at closing baseball games the Tigers paid him $20 million to guard ninth innings the next two seasons, it’s amusing to know that even after he turned pro he wanted no part of pitching.
Not until he told the team he was then working for, the Giants, that rather than pitch he would take a break from baseball at the grizzled age of 21, then and only then did the Giants realize Nathan wasn’t kidding.
He would not abandon shortstop. Not to work in some bullpen. Not to pitch every five days in a rotation.
It happened like this:
Nathan had just wrapped up a nifty spring camp in Scottsdale, Ariz., hitting .300 a year after the Giants drafted him in the sixth round straight from Stony Brook (N.Y.) University. He would soon get cracking at one of the Single A outposts in San Francisco’s minor league chain, probably Salem-Keizer, where a man 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds with a decent bat and Cape Canaveral for an arm would march toward the big leagues.
And that would be as a shortstop, Nathan emphasized. Short. Stop.
The Giants had another thought, long held, and spawned by that right arm that merged so beautifully with a young man’s frame and fluid ways.
“We think you’ll be better on the mound,” said Jack Hiatt, director of player development for the Giants.
Maintaining poise at a moment when anger, indignation and resentment threaten to create human nuclear fission is not easy. This is especially true when you are a tough kid from New York whose high school weekends were often spiced by 2 a.m. wake-up calls and a summons from his stepfather to help pick up the scattered cargo (in one memorable instance, cowhides that weighed nearly 100 pounds) of a semi-truck that had overturned on a nearby thoroughfare, which was one of the pleasant tasks associated with his stepdad’s heavy-wrecker business.
“You could have said this at the beginning of camp,” Nathan told Hiatt that day in Scottsdale, his blood not yet boiling but simmering as the Giants unloaded their job relocation news.
He needed time to think about plans that had blasted him like an NFL backside blitz. One night’s reflection brought an answer: No.
He would tell the Giants he was taking a break from you’ll-pitch-and-like-it decrees. It would probably be brief, but Nathan wasn’t making permanent vows after the Giants had blindsided him with their job transfer. He would sort it all out as he finished his degree in business management at Stony Brook.
“It was the best thing I ever did,” Nathan said last week, sitting outside the Tigers clubhouse at Marchant Stadium on a sultry February afternoon in Lakeland.
“I went back, got my degree, got my mind set on pitching, and when I came back (in 1996) I was 110 percent ready to pitch.
“If I’d have tried to do it the way they wanted, everything would have been miserable.”
This is Nathan. The man — and the pitcher. Resolute. Confident. Comfortable that he knows what is best for him, and for his team, which is why it required about 30 seconds for him and the Tigers to seal their deal in December when Nathan, at age 39 and coming off a seriously good season for the Rangers, signed his two-year pact to join a club he for so long had tormented.
Tigers followers were hardly surprised Nathan had been 36-for-36 in save opportunities against Detroit. The torture had been steady, and never more infuriating for Motown’s base than during those years when the Twins, with Nathan’s and the Metrodome’s complicity, treated the Tigers to one cruel defeat after another.
Between his seven seasons at Minnesota and the past two with the Rangers, the Tigers barely touched Nathan when he and his goatee would arrive for the ninth, accompanied by a 96-mph fastball and a slider that tore hitters to pieces.
One more immaculate outing against the Tigers and Nathan would have set a big league record for the most saves minus mishap against a single team. The irony is that Nathan had no idea he was being so cruel.
“I didn’t know about the stretch I had against ’em until I was at Texas,” he said. “Someone says, ‘You’re approaching a record against one team.
“I said: ‘Detroit? No. They’ve gotten me before. They had to.’ I had no idea. I wish they hadn’t said anything. Unfortunately, I gave up my chance for getting that one (record).”
He grins, having fun at his new team’s expense, and all because he’s genuinely thrilled to be part of a town he once besieged.
The truth is, he always liked Detroit. The fans, anyway. And the organization, for sure. When he saw the Tigers he could see himself pitching for this bunch. He liked the way they played. The way they handled themselves. They blended personal decency with baseball expertise.
Even those snipers at Comerica Park who would stand over the bullpen and spray Nathan with barbs and zingers had a certain sophistication, he thought.
“Fans are always tough in the bullpen, anywhere,” Nathan said, with a pained smile. “But in Detroit, they’re more knowledgeable.
“In Detroit, they do their homework. Other places they might get on you and your family. In Detroit they’ll say, ‘How’s Cole (son), how’s Riley (daughter)?’ They’re sharp. And they come up with some pretty witty stuff.”
For the very reason Nathan and his past sadism made Comerica Park’s crowd despise him, fans are keen on a closer who, they believe, will remove from the ninth inning all the anxiety they came to know when Jose Valverde was fading, or even before, when Todd Jones and his nickname (Roller Coaster) could make late-game leads fright fests.
Nathan operates differently. He strikes out batters. Or, if hitters do manage to get a piece of that mid-90s fastball, or a smidgen of his slider, they tend to perish anyway.
Last season, Nathan pitched in 67 games for the Rangers. He threw 642⁄3 innings. He allowed a ridiculously low 36 hits. He struck out 73. He walked 22. His ERA was 1.39. His WHIP (walks plus hits per inning) was a microscopic 0.897. He had 43 saves.
“It’s a heavy fastball,” said Austin Jackson, one of many Tigers who would have personally donated to the Sign Nathan Fund had any recruiting efforts been necessary. “It gets in there and he knows where to put it.
“His slider looks like a fastball coming at you. I haven’t gotten a hit off him — ever.”
Arm just too strong
None of this was in Nathan’s forecast during those years growing up in Circleville, N.Y., about 70 miles north of New York City. He played sports, but was not exceptional, and was not recruited, in part because his size (now 6-4, 230 pounds) arrived late. He was a B student in high school and had a thing for math that would help him become an even better student at Stony Brook, where the coach was a friend of Nathan’s high school assistant.
He was drafted as a sixth-round shortstop in 1995, even if the Giants thought he would be a better pitcher than infielder.
“You could see his arm strength,” Bert Bradley, minor league pitching coordinator for the Giants, said during a phone conversation. “From his backhand he was throwing 95 across the infield, and he spun a curveball real well, even when he was messing around.
“As a pitching coach, when you see arm strength like that and the way an arm moves, you know that would work on the mound. Joe didn’t want to do it at first. But when he came back, he was all in. His makeup is off the charts, which is what you need to be a closer.”
The power slider, which as much as his fastball makes Nathan extraordinary, began developing in 2001, the season after he had arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder.
“I was topping out at 84, with a spinning curve,” Nathan remembers. “No arm power. I was getting my brains beat out. Got sent from Triple A to Double A. I needed a smaller breaking ball to get off bats.
“Pretty soon, 84 turned into 88, then 88 turned into 92, then 92 turned into 94. And the smaller breaking ball turned into a power slider.”
He was with the Giants in 2003, throwing splendidly in 78 games, when manager Felipe Alou (“I’ll just say I don’t think Felipe and I saw things eye-to-eye.”) pulled him from a playoff game against the Marlins after he walked the leadoff batter.
Nathan stomped to his dugout seat, smoldering. Soon, a water bottle was heaved, disgustedly but fairly innocently, at some concrete steps.
“It hit perfectly and bee-lined down the stairs like a torpedo,” Nathan recalls, his trademark grin widening. “It rolled through his (Alou’s) legs and exploded. Water spraying everywhere.
“Did that get me traded? I don’t know about that.”
But he was dealt to the Twins along with Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser, all so the Giants could land a catcher named A.J. Pierzynski.
From his perch in Minnesota, Nathan began his Tigers oppression. Today, he pitches in Detroit.
He will live in Bloomfield Hills, he says, having happily discovered during his visiting team days bunking at The Townsend Hotel in Birmingham that there really is more to Detroit than that drive from Metro Airport to Comerica Park.
He otherwise resides in Knoxville, Tenn., with his two children, and no longer with his wife, Lisa, after they were divorced last year. A different life with even more serious responsibilities has gripped him.
“I’m definitely more sensitive,” he said, speaking of his post-divorce life and of a new romantic relationship he is introducing, gently, to his children, who are 9 and 6. “I want to make sure that I’m not just saying things will be done right with the kids. I’m making sure things are done right.”
And so he is rediscovering old lessons in science and history as he helps Cole and Riley with their homework. He says he wishes “there were 30 hours in a day” as he raises the kids, works even harder to keep a body from fraying ahead of November’s 40th birthday, or takes time for a movie, with “The Wolf of Wall Street” having been particularly appealing to a business guy who once worked long enough as a stockbroker to decide that would not be his future calling.
He is a “10 or 11” handicap in golf but is not particularly focused on any sport except the one that has now delivered him to Detroit.
It’s a parcel the Tigers desperately needed. It’s a package brimming with power, and with past fury once unleashed on the team that now employs him. The Tigers agree that move from shortstop to the mound was nice strategy, after all, at least now that their old tormentor is on Motown’s side.