Still Firing, Just Not Every Day San Francisco's Joe Nathan took his rifle arm from short to the pitcher's mound

December 04, 2000

It's hard to fault Joe Nathan, because, really, who among us
wouldn't have done the same thing? Imagine: You can either...

a) live the dull, uneventful life of a professional baseball
player, or

b) revel in the thrill-a-minute, hotter-than-Baywatch,
ass-kicking, babe-hounding, made-for-Hollywood existence that is
the lot of--Are you rrready to rrrummmbuuulll?--the beginner
stockbroker.

Duh. As if there's even an option. Four years ago, Nathan, a
confused 21-year-old at a college on Long Island, looked said
dilemma in the eye and, with the confidence of a mailman at a pit
bull breeder's, picked neither. And both. "I had no clue, none
whatsoever," he says. "I loved baseball. But I thought my life
should follow a different course. Who knew?"

Answer: Nobody. Nobody knew that Nathan, onetime standout
shortstop for the State University of New York (SUNY) at Stony
Brook, a Division III school, would be selected by the San
Francisco Giants in the sixth round of the June 1995 amateur
draft, then quit the sport eight months later in search of a
nine-to-five business career. Certainly nobody knew he would
return to baseball, switch positions and not only make the
Giants roster but also become one of the game's up-and-coming
righthanded starting pitchers. "His story is pretty improbable,"
says San Francisco pitching coach Dave Righetti, "and it shows
that the guy's got character."

Character? Hell, if you were Joe Nathan, you'd have character
too. How many major leaguers spent half their lives as scrawny
wannabe jocks? How many were recruited by no Division I college?
How many have their names confused with that of a former New York
Jets Hall of Fame quarterback? (Says Nathan: "On the Giants, my
nickname's become Broadway.") Mostly, how many times can a man
hear, "Where in the world is sunny Stony Brook?"

"I say, 'It's soo-nee--State University of New York,'" says
Nathan, who last season went 5-2 with a 5.21 ERA despite two
stints on the DL, once with tendinitis and once for
inflammation, both in his right shoulder. "It's where I played
baseball."

For most of his life, Nathan was an everytown Joe, the
hard-nosed, patches-on-the-knees grinder whom any right-minded
high school coach would love to have--and any major-college coach
would ignore. He starred as a 6'1", 150-pound shortstop at Pine
Bush High in Circleville, N.Y., but outside the local newspaper
and a couple of family members, nobody cared. Thus Nathan had to
serve as his own PR firm, writing Division I baseball programs to
fill them in on a very good player you've probably never heard
of.

"I was sort of interested in Oklahoma State," says Nathan. "They
said I could try out as a walk-on, but they definitely weren't
waiting for me to show up. Nobody wanted me." Except Stony Brook.
Matt Senk, the Seawolves' coach, knew of Nathan via Jeff
Maisonet, an assistant coach at Pine Bush and Senk's college
roommate.

"Jeff told me about this shortstop who had no place to play,"
says Senk, whose program moved to Division I last season. "He
said that he was a little small and a little underdeveloped, but
that in three years, once he matured physically, Joe would be
outstanding."

On one of the first days of practice at Stony Brook, Senk, who
was dazzled by Nathan's thunderbolt throws from shortstop to
first, auditioned the freshman as a pitcher too. To Nathan's
delight, the coach made the following decision: Joe Nathan every
day was better than Joe Nathan once or twice per week. That's
why, over his three-year career at Stony Brook, Nathan made only
three pitching appearances, all as a reliever. Further, as
Maisonet had earlier promised, the once-puny nobody became a
stud, growing to 6'4" and 195 pounds, batting .394 with eight
homers and 39 RBIs as a junior and, also leading the Seawolves to
the Division III playoffs in 1995. Nathan was also a two-time
Academic All-America. "It's safe to say he's the best player I've
ever had here," says Senk. "Every game, we probably had the most
talented guy on the field."

That, unfortunately for Nathan, meant little to the scouts
employed by major league baseball teams. After Stony Brook games
and practices, scouts would pull Nathan aside and ask the same
questions: How do you feel about pitching? How much pitching have
you done? How's your arm strength? Yadda yadda yadda. "I would
tell them my plan was to be a position player," Nathan says, "and
they'd lose interest."

Nathan says that only two clubs, the Giants and the Philadelphia
Phillies, showed interest in him as a position player. "That's
why I was happy the Giants picked me," he says. "They knew me as
a shortstop."

As soon as he signed, Nathan reported to Bellingham, Wash., San
Francisco's Rookie League club. Surrounded by players from such
Division I schools as UCLA, USC, Fresno State and LSU, Nathan
collapsed. He batted .232 with three home runs. The straight
85-mph fastballs he saw at Stony Brook were replaced by snapping
heaters and rope-tugged sliders. "I went from being a No. 3 or 4
hitter with some power to a No. 9 hitter with nothing to offer,"
he recalls. "I was overmatched."

In February '96 Nathan, ready for a fresh start, reported to
minor league spring training in Phoenix. He played shortstop and
third base, connected ball with wood a little more frequently,
stole some bases and then--smack. Jack Hiatt, the Giants' director
of player development, called Nathan in for a meeting. "He said,
'We want you to pitch full time,'" says Nathan. "I told him I
wasn't ready, that I'd never pitched regularly and that,
mentally, I was exhausted."

Nathan retired and reenrolled at Stony Brook, where he earned his
bachelor's degree in business management. For the first time
since high school, he held regular jobs. He worked behind a bar.
He did cleaning and maintenance at a golf course. He spent a week
following his roommate to his job at a stock brokerage. "That
really did it," Nathan says. "Getting up at five in the morning,
working on the phone for nine, 10 hours, that made baseball look
pretty good." In December 1996 Nathan called the Giants, asking
for a second chance. They took him back--as a pitcher.

Nathan spent 1997 with Class A Salem-Keizer (Ore.), going 2-1
with a 2.47 ERA in 18 games. The next season, with Single A San
Jose, he struck out 118 batters in 122 innings. In 1999, boasting
a 95-mph fastball, a hunchback curve and a workable changeup, he
debuted with San Francisco. Nathan went 7-4 with a 4.18 ERA.
"He's raw, but he has a chance to become one of the league's best
starters," says Righetti. "Joe has all the tools: a strong arm, a
dedication to learning, a desire. He just needs to stay healthy."

Nathan, who in October underwent arthroscopic surgery on his
right shoulder to clean up the cartilage, says he will report to
spring training fully recovered. "It's not a big deal," he says
of the surgery. "It just hurt a little."

Who's to argue? If anyone knows the art of the comeback, it's Joe
Nathan.

COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN/MLB PHOTOS COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO

Now Pitching

Joe Nathan isn't the only minor league position player to have
become a major league pitcher. During the 2000 season these
onetime every-day players, including Tim Wakefield (below),
pitched at least 50 innings in the bigs.

MINOR LEAGUE INNINGS PITCHED
POSITION IN 2000

Robert Person, Phillies Outfielder 173 1/3
Tim Wakefield, Red Sox Infielder 159 1/3
Joe Nathan, Giants Shortstop 93 1/3
Felix Rodriguez, Giants Catcher 81 2/3
Manny Aybar, Marlins Infielder 79 1/3
Trevor Hoffman, Padres Infielder 72 1/3
Julio Santana, Expos Shortstop 66 2/3
Troy Percival, Angels Catcher 50

"Joe's raw, but he has a chance to be one of the league's best
starters," says Righetti.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)