What to make of Joe Nathan and his Tigers tenure
A month ago, the debate was what Joe Nathan exactly said about the fans in Detroit. It now appears he won’t throw another pitch in front of them, or if he throws another pitch at all.
Though Nathan talked about trying a comeback from his torn UCL and flexor pronator, it would appear likely he threw his final pitch on the mound at Triple-A Toledo on a chilly April afternoon before thousands of schoolkids. It would be an odd ending for one of the greatest closers of his generation. But then, Nathan’s Tiger tenure in general never quite went to script.
In the end, it will probably be regarded nationally a footnote on a great career, and locally as one of those Tigers closer acquisitions that didn’t work out (Troy Percival and Ugueth Urbina were others, but Nathan did more in his season than Percival and Urbina did in theirs).
As Nathan grew emotional talking with reporters this morning, you could sense that the gravity of the career was hitting him, whether it’s over or not.
“I want people to understand,” Nathan said. “I think people sometimes don’t realize how much work and effort goes into playing this game, to just the last couple of years but over the course of a career. Playing this game and going out there, preparing yourself every day, the things sometimes we have to do, take anti-inflammatories on a daily basis, get numerous cortisone shots. Trainers are in there hours on end, trying to make sure we’re physically ready to go. It’s tough, and we wouldn’t have it any other way, but unfortunately these things do happen. I busted my butt just like I always have to get myself ready for [Wednesday]. So I prepared myself for that, and it was going well. That was the frustrating thing, the outing was going well, the bullpen session beforehand was great, didn’t feel anything, then first pitch to the third batter felt something I never felt before. Felt a pop, knew something wasn’t good, give myself a minute to settle in and try and throw another pitch. Obviously that didn’t go so well.
“The emotional thing, the frustrating thing is what we do to prepare ourselves, and what we do to prepare every year to get ourselves ready. Coming in this year, shoot, I had a cortisone shot Saturday night when I landed and then pitched on Opening Day on Monday to make sure I was ready for that. It just shows what these trainers do for us, what we do to get ourselves ready. It does become very emotional and yesterday was a very tough day.”
Nathan spent the bulk of his offseason trying to get himself in shape for a rebound, trying to give himself a chance to pitch better than he did for longer than he did last year. With one pop in the arm, that work is now done, and it’s questionable at best whether any amount of work will get him back on the mound.
“My motto in this game has always been throw ’til you blow. Unfortunately, yesterday I did blow,” Nathan said. “One of those things that I’ve been proud of my career, I’ve been proud of the things I’ve done. It’s always been about hard work and getting myself ready, so this will be no different. I will prepare myself to get ready and bust my butt to see whatever’s in store for me in the future.”
In the end, he might end up being remembered in Detroit more for what he did against the Tigers than for him. He was not only beloved in Minnesota, he was dominant, especially against the Tigers. Still, he credited as many people as he could Thursday.
On his time in Detroit, Nathan said, “It’s baseball. It’s not easy. My time here has not been easy, but it’s also been pleasurable. I’ve gotten a chance to meet great fans. I’ve gotten a chance to hang out with great people in this organization, meet great people in this organization from the front office, on down to the guys who work outside, security, people that work on the field for us, take care of us out there, to great individuals in this clubhouse.
“There’s tough times with everything. No matter what you do, you’re going to have tough times. It’s about picking yourself up, and getting back up, and creating good relationships, even from things that start off bad.”
During the winter caravan (he volunteered to wait tables at a Buffalo Wild Wings in a teammate’s place), then TigerFest, then Spring Training, there was a sense he wanted to mend that relationship. His quotes after being booed in Lakeland thwarted that, even if they didn’t come out the way he had hoped. Still, he got a better reception than expected on Opening Day, and a strong start might well have won some fans back. It didn’t go right; not much here really did for him.
Maybe he does make it back, but it almost surely won’t be here. His legacy in Detroit is pretty much what it is. He’ll have to handle that as an end point on a much better career.
“I do know what’s in front of me,” Nathan said. “I’m also smart enough to realize that if things don’t work out, I have nothing to be upset about. I played baseball until I was 40 years old. If you would have told me when I started this I’d be playing baseball when I was 40, I’d have been ecstatic. I’m very happy with the way my career has gone, but like I said, I’m not done yet.”
Where Nathan ranks all-time:
Saves: 377, 7th
Games finished: 586, 17th
Games pitched: 777, tied for 52nd