Nathan is 42 years old and two years removed from his second Tommy John surgery. And yet, he’s at spring training with the Washington Nationals chasing the ever elusive World Series title.
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Cole Nathan is 12 years old now, so he has a better understanding of why dad might want to go to work again.
His father, Joe, is eighth on the all-time saves list and second among active relievers. They talked about why Joe would go back for another spring training, this one filled with a question he last wondered 17 years ago: Will he make the team?
Cole loves the clubhouse. He grew up in there and now that he is 12 and coordination is catching up to spirit, his ability to shag major-league fly balls has increased. He also knows there may not be many more chances for dad, who is a 42 year old with salt-and-pepper hair, has a locker without a nameplate in the back of the clubhouse, and had Tommy John surgery for the second time in 2015. Cole’s sister, Riley, 10, sat in on the discussion, too.
“We had conversations and now that they’re older, they definitely have more knowledge and more input,” Joe Nathan said Wednesday. “My conversation with them is first and foremost, is it OK? Is it more important for dad to be here or is it more important for dad to try and go put a period or exclamation point on his career? I think they understand.”
In between bites of a breakfast sandwich, Nathan explained why he is trying to make the Washington Nationals roster despite the emotions of being away from his kids. His situation is that of the traditional spring training dice roll. Former star comes to camp for a final shot at rediscovery.
In Nathan’s case, he’s a six-time All-Star closer who is entering his 17th season. The Nationals do not have a closer, but Nathan has not been one since 2014 in Detroit. That did not go well. His season ended with 4.81 ERA. In 2015, he was 40 years old and having his ulnar collateral ligament repaired for the second time. Yet, he pushed back into the game then and this winter. No matter how it ends, he expects it to hang as a lesson in hard work for his kids.
Nathan’s path to Washington’s new spring training complex began at the winter meetings in Knoxville, Tennessee in 2015. Nathan lives and trains there in the offseason. He was still in the recovery process following his second surgery when he bumped into his former manager, Dusty Baker, who had been hired by the Nationals a month prior. They talked about Nathan potentially joining the Nationals. Baker said he would take the idea back to the organization. He had managed Nathan with the San Francisco Giants from 1999-2002, back when Nathan was a starting pitcher. Nathan became an All-Star closer after the Giants botched a trade by sending him, Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser to the Minnesota Twins for A.J. Pierzynski and cash. Pierzynski played one solid season in San Francisco. Nathan went to the All-Star Game four times for Minnesota.
Preparation to co-host a radio show last offseason led to the next step. The appearance forced Nathan to read through team needs and depth charts. He used that information to try and determine a dual fit.
Nathan was in search of a contending team that needed bullpen help. His history with Baker was boosted by a prior working relationship with pitching coach Mike Maddux. They were in Texas together for two seasons. Nathan was an All-Star during both, using his four-pitch mix of fastball, slider, curveball and, rarely, a changeup. The Nationals’ annual contender status and closer-less bullpen rounded out the equation.
Nathan used offseason resolve as the test for a return. He theorizes most athletes retire when they can’t do their offseason preparation properly. The mind is elsewhere or the body aches in the wrong places. He said Wednesday that was not the case for him in Knoxville when working out at D1 Sports Training and Therapy or being tended to by University of Tennessee physical therapists. Nathan had done much of the rehab work following his second Tommy John surgery under the care of the Chicago Cubs organization. He was able to pitch 6 ⅓ innings for the Cubs and Giants late last season and did not allow a run.
This winter in Knoxville accentuated the prior rehabilitation. Nathan set personal bests when doing front squats and upper body weightlifting. He was motivated. The workouts were hard, but not demoralizing. When he pitched last season, the ball appeared to come out of his hand well both according to radar guns and onlookers. Coupled with his offseason progress, and Cole’s understanding, Nathan figured he would try again even as a non-roster invitee on a minor-league contract.
“I wanted to get back last year just to log some innings and show teams I still do have [something],” Nathan said. “Now, it’s not a complete surprise with where I’m at. I was 92-94 [mph] last year. I think if I can pitch around there, that’s great. If I could add a tick or two to that, being second year from surgery, that would be even better.
“Until we get out there and do it you never know. But, right now, coming into spring, all I know is how my body feels, how my arm feels, how the ball is coming out and according to what I’ve seen and people have told me, it’s coming out of my hand good. I’m not holding anything back. Getting good extension. Getting the soreness in the right spots. That’s telling me at least I’m doing the right things mechanically.”
No amount of muscle growth can protect a pitcher’s elbow ligament. And time is an eternal champion when pitted against the body. So, Baker wonders how much “Joe is Joe.” So does Nathan. He’s too old to be naive. The question is if he’s too old to pitch effectively. At Thursday’s first workout, everyone begins to find out.
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